Russia has never been a staunch protector of gay rights, but several months ago things took a turn for the worse. Reports had come to light of a purge taking place in the subjugated republic known as Chechnya. Photographs and tales from survivors of concentration camps began to circulate around the western media. These concentration camps are said to have been used as a base of operations to interrogate and torture suspected gay men.
Putin was quick to distance himself from such claims. Only after pressure from Angela Merkel did the Russian President agree to back an investigation. Officials from Chechnya sadly were not so forthcoming. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s thoughts on the situation were that the illegal detention and abuse of gay Chechens was impossible because there were no gay people living in Chechnya.
A spokesperson for Ramzan Kadyrov even went as far as to tell Interfax News Agency ““You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic.” Going on to state that “If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”
With such horrific acts taking place in Chechnya and reports of gay people consistently facing harassment and violence even in Moscow, which is known to be home to several gay bars, I wanted to know what it was really like to live in Russia as a gay person. I used one of the many popular gay dating apps to put myself in direct contact with men living in Moscow to find out if it was really as bad as the media tells us it is to be gay in Russia.
At first glance, I was surprised at how many men were happy to show their faces on the app. I’ve heard tales of corrupt policemen in oppressive countries using such apps as a way to target gay men, but the general consensus in Moscow seemed to be that there was no need to hide their face from anyone lurking on the app.
The first guy I spoke was young, confident and worlds apart from the feminine stereotype that dominates Russian society. I dived right into the conversation with an essay about wanting to understand the struggles of homosexuals living in Russia, but to my surprise he seemed pretty adamant that Moscow was the home of the free and the land of the gays. I asked him if day to day life in Moscow would be hard for a feminine gay man to which he abruptly replied No. Attempting to re-word my question I asked if there was any public homophobia in Moscow, to which I received an excerpt straight out of Kremlin Propaganda 101. “No,” he replied brashly “there are more gay clubs in Moscow than in many European cities, and everybody knows about them. Some straight guys also visit them. If you don’t impose something about being gay you won’t have any problems.”
All in all, this didn’t seem like an awful answer, to some extent I understood it – a large capital city, known to be home to several gay bars. It wouldn’t surprise me if day to day life in Moscow for a gay person wasn’t as volatile as the media reports we see. I asked him if he thought I’d enjoy a trip to the gay bars in Moscow to which he replied “Yes.” I persisted, asking if he was certain I’d be safe – that I wouldn’t be harassed or attacked walking home from such an establishment, to which he replied: “I’m pretty sure.” Reassuring…
What started as a seemingly insightful look into an alternative “Gay Moscow” quickly took a tumble when I asked for his thoughts on the Chechnya reports. “I don’t understand why the media say about these events. Let’s look at the Muslim countries where gays are EXECUTED. I can repeat my question: why are they (the media) so surprised about that? In my opinion it’s all about demonization of Russia and nothing more… I agree with people who say: move to another region and your problems will be solved.”
Shocked, startled and pretty confused that a gay man is advocating a solution, for gay people at risk of abduction, torture and murder, to just move away – rather than the fact it shouldn’t be happening in the first place. To clarify I asked “So do you think it’s not happening? Or you believe it’s happening because Muslims form the majority of the Chechen population?” To which he told me “Second one.”
By this point I realised I was just speaking with someone that had an incredibly warped view on the situation. Saying my goodbyes, he left me with an invitation to let him know if I ever visited the capital.
The next guy I spoke to was a young man named Alex. He told me he didn’t care about having his name redacted and was happy to speak freely. His photograph depicted a young burly man with bright red hair, a small ring adorned his lower lip. I opened by asking what day to day life was like in Russia for a gay person. Alex informed me he was bisexual and that this meant he had been “discriminated by both groups: LGBT and Straight.” Alex told me he feels there are some issues with being Bisexual in Russia, but that he’s mostly “straight-acting” so he doesn’t feel much pressure.
When I asked him if he thought feminine gay guys were persecuted in Russia he told me he was sure they were, but it was also dependent as to where in Russia they lived. I described to him my previous encounter with the gentleman before and his views on the situation in Chechnya. Alex told me, “If one accepts that Chechnya is part of Russia, then one has to feel shame. Muslims are part of our world. Surely most of them are good and tolerant people, and as every society they have aggressive minorities. As for me – what happened in Chechnya is totally unforgivable and must not be tolerated or excused by any reason.”
By this point I began to feel like I understood the plight of homosexual men in Moscow, trapped in a purgatory of ‘You’ll be fine if you keep your head down and your mouth shut.’ I began to scour the rural areas of Russia to see how societal attitudes varied across the country. This led me to meet a nervous, almost paranoid young man. When I first asked him if he would mind answering my questions he declined, I thanked him anyway and continued my search.
Another notification on my phone, it was from the same guy. Scrambling to find his words he began pouring his heart out. He told me that he wished he could live freely without having to hide his orientation, but there was nothing he could do. With no opportunity or money to move to another country. I asked him why he felt he had to hide his orientation, to which he replied “My Parents or society will kill me because I live in the caucasus.”
Taken with sadness I felt a sickness stir in my stomach. For the first time embarking upon these interviews, I felt a helplessness. I was speaking to a young man who appeared to be scared and imprisoned within himself, living life as a lie. All due to the backward and uncaring ideology of the place he was forced to call home.
“If someone came out as gay in the caucasus and their family killed them, would the police arrest the family?” I held my phone with bated breath, unsure if I even wanted to know the answer.
It all began to feel a lot more real, while Moscow may not be a death sentence to any out and proud queers, it’s far from a homoerotic utopia. As for the rural areas of Russia, my heart aches for the many men and women that cannot be true to themselves for fear of reprisal.