Having a gay old time…in Russia?

If you have read my previous article or are knowledgeable of Russian politics and social life, you know already that Russia has struggled to respect its LGBTQ+ citizens. Given that I had studied Russian for four years prior to my departure for St. Petersburg, I was also aware of this and was nothing if not nervous to be living in the country as a gay man for four months. However, upon returning home this past December, I was surprised by how different my experience was from what I expected. I will tell you about my doubts, realizations and even small adventures I had during my fall in St. Petersburg this academic year.

Before I begin my story, I should clarify that I am a white, cisgender man who identifies as gay who does not often stray from the appearances and mannerisms which are categorized as “straight.” This is to say that my experiences and observations are from a particular and, in this case, privileged point of view, and other LGBTQ+ folx undoubtedly have alternative experiences and thoughts. In telling my tale, I hope only to add to the stories already out there, not invalidate those that others may have. 

Before leaving for the motherland, I had done quite a bit of asking around about what life was like for LGBTQ+ people over there. After all, what better way to get an idea than to ask people who had been there themselves? Thus, over my first two years at Lawrence, I prepared for the possibility of studying abroad by talking to professors, peers and even someone in the university’s higher administration. The answer was more or less the same: it is Russia. Things are not great, but it is not the worst place to be. Plenty of LGBTQ+ people exist over there and as long as you are quiet about it, you will be fine. Although these sentiments didn’t quite relieve me of anxiety for obvious reasons, they did convince me that I would be okay. 

From the time I got to the JFK Airport for my flight to Moscow and then St. Petersburg, I was tight-lipped about anything LGBTQ+. For the first few weeks in Russia, I was back in the closet and trying to focus my energy on getting used to daily life. Even as I started to become closer with fellow Americans, I avoided any sort of conversation about relationships or attraction. Even though it was more or less clear that the group I was with was liberal, as was the college where we were studying, I was not about to take any chances and ruin a term when the word got out. 

After a few weeks, I started to get more comfortable in St. Petersburg and in my academic setting, so I went to talk to my program manager about LGBTQ+ organizations and the opportunity to volunteer for them during my semester. The conversation was initially designed to determine whether or not it was safe, but upon finding that the answer was yes, I found out more. As we talked, he was able to point me in the direction of organizations I didn’t even know existed, and I was soon able to contact someone and schedule a meeting. After that, we talked more generally about LGBTQ+ life in the city and he even mentioned that the gay bars—there are two!—were safe. This was a total eye-opener for me and it all went up from there. I started to talk about being gay with American friends, and though I can’t say the same for my Russian friends, I wasn’t afraid to let out a “yass honey” every now and then. 

Going back to my conversation with my program manager, the first group he recommended me to was Действие ([dyestvie], “Action”), due to a connection with a former student. After working with my contact for what must have been at least two weeks, we finally met and talked about the organization, which is when I got a more nuanced view of Russia’s LGBTQ+ community. When he gave me a rundown of Действие, he told me who they supported and who they did not. For instance, I found that the acronym LGBT was being used more exclusively, as the group was not concerned with more “trendy” topics, like intersectional feminism and non-binary genders. Yikes. Fortunately, he mentioned that another group, Выход ([vyhud], “Coming Out”), did concern itself with “recent trends,” so I knew exactly where to go next.

Unfortunately for me, if Действие took a long time to get back to me, Выход took even longer. By the time I was finally able to go to their orientation, it was the beginning of November and the term was nearing its end. Nevertheless, I went to the orientation, which was an educational experience to say the least. Walking into the space was so nice; even though it was an average-sized room, the walls were lined with LGBTQ+ books, resources and flags. Plus, it was a warm shelter from the frigid November rain. Quickly afterwards, I got to meet a handful of LGBTQ+ Russians. Though I didn’t interact with them for long, learning about their personalities and experiences and how to introduce one’s pronouns in Russian were enlightening moments. Following introductions, the presentation began and I found out what Выход does, which is a wide variety of things. Выход provides support and resources for LGBTQ+-identifying individuals and judicial support for those accused of discriminatory charges. It also has a support group for parents of LGBTQ+ youth and organizes flash mobs, protests and other activist work. However, being an American only moderately proficient in Russian with limited time in the country hindered my ability to help. Nevertheless, what I learned about the forces for good that exist in Russia and the inspiration I gained from contributing was priceless and something I will never forget.

My last notable gay escapade in Russia was in late December, when I attempted to go to  one of the gay bars in town, and it was—again—a learning experience. I had planned to go to said bar much earlier in the term, but given that I was only 20 at the time and had never been to a gay bar—certainly not one in another country—I was quite nervous. Though my anxiety had me pushing this rite of passage past being possible, I forced myself to work up the nerve and go for it right before the end of term. A group of friends and I headed downtown to the bar. When we got to the door, there was no one but a smaller-than-expected bouncer waiting for us who, in English, reminded my friend that this was, in fact, a gay bar, thinking perhaps we were lost. Once we confirmed that it was indeed where we were looking to be, he asked for our IDs. This is par for the course in Russia, but as we all reached for our pockets, the bouncer also added, “And the women have to pay.” The rule on the door stated that, regardless of sexual identity, in a ratio of two or more women to one man, women would have to pay 1,000 roubles each, which is about $15. So ended my story of visiting a Russian gay bar, but better to have company than to contribute to Russia’s misogyny. 

These are the experiences and observations that stand out to me most and without a doubt the ones I learned the most from. If you have any questions or stories you want to share, feel free to reach out! I am always willing to have a good conversation.