As an American learning about Russia, I have noticed there are a few patterns that develop in their media coverage. Obviously, the Crimean crisis ranks first among the most popular stories to reach international audiences. The second would probably the treatment of the queer community – from the protests during the Sochi Olympics after the infamous gay propaganda law, to the violent purges conducted in Chechnya. It appeared that Russia was unwelcoming of queer folk, especially those from another part of the world.
As a bisexual man, that was concerning. Obviously. My friends were legitimately worried for my well-being, some even asking me to reconsider. To even acquire a Russian visa, I had to prove I was not HIV+. In my application to study in Russia, I specifically avoided mentioning that I was queer to make sure it wouldn’t disqualify me from travelling, as it might have made me a high-risk candidate. I fully expected to remain closeted to every person I met in Russia and expected a toxic and dangerous place for queer folk, as I had found in rural and suburban parts of the United States.
Upon arrival, I quickly realized how wrong I was. As I’ve written before, Russia has more in common with the United States than anyone who has not been would expect. This applies doubly so to Moscow, and there I found a vibrant, colorful city ready to accept whoever came its way. I immediately found a place among a small group of queer friends and was constantly introduced to both queer people and queer ideas and topics, even amongst cis-gendered, straight people. You can find gay clubs, bars, spaces, and people every day, out and open in the streets of Moscow. To respect peoples’ privacy, I’ll refrain from singling any one person out, but I found a spectrum of queer people that would rival any American group.
Of course, Russia has its homophobic and transphobic tendencies, and I am no way letting the government and those individuals off the hook. There are societal expectations and institutional problems that maintain a heteronormative, patriarchal system, like the rest of the world. My expectations and realizations about the queerness of Russia made me think about the confrontations I had in the United States – especially in rural and suburban areas which are uncomfortable and often violent for queer Americans. I thought about my hesitancy to make my sexuality known to those in both America and Russia.
The conclusion I have made is this: queer people – do not be afraid to go to Russia. Of course, take the precautions you deem necessary, and do what is comfortable for you, but do not let these news stories stop you from travelling there, especially to the major cities. I know it requires a bravery more than is expected of us every day at home (which is still palpable), but the way to make Russia accept queer folk is not through avoidance, but through pride.