News / Europe

Despite Official Denial, Gay Life Flourishes Underground in Sochi

Despite Government Denial, Gay Life Flourishes Underground in Olympic Sochii
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February 06, 2014
World debate about gay rights in Russia often overlooks the gay life that flourishes underground in that country. James Brooke reports from Sochi.
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James BrookeMike Eckels
— In recent days, videos have gone viral showing Russian skinheads and others attacking gays. The videos fueled protests around the world Wednesday, calling on corporate sponsors of the Winter Olympics in Sochi to condemn restrictions on gay life in Russia.

But, often overlooked, a gay scene does exist in Russia, although invariably behind tightly closed doors. 

Above ground, Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov had told news media last week that he does not believe there are any gays living in his city.

Below ground, at Mayak, one of Sochi's two gay bars, business was booming when VOA visited Wednesday.

Andrei Tenichev owns the "Mayak" which means "Lighthouse."  

"In my opinion there is no gay community in Russia - there are just gays," he said. “Russian gays socialize with each other abroad more than in Russia, because in Russia they don't like to make their orientation known.”

He says he does not know of any skinhead activity in Sochi, a liberal seaside resort sometimes called "Russia's Miami."

Rather than public protests, gays in Sochi want to first come to terms with their families.

"If you were to organize a gay parade here today in Sochi, which is legally possible, there's a special zone where it could take place, a type of Hyde Park, I'm sure that not a single local gay would go,” said Tenichev. “We even took a survey. Zero people wanted to participate. Absolutely no one. Because gays are not ready to be 'out'.

"They have different concerns. They need to come out to their parents, to themselves, to hold mini gay parades in their own families," he continued. "That's what they're thinking about. How their parents and friends will react."

American Hudson Taylor predicts that gay athletes will not raise the issue on the medalist winner's podium. Taylor, who is straight, directs Athlete Ally, a U.S. group that seeks to cut homophobia in sports.

"Many of the athletes that we've worked with have expressed a real fear of being too vocal heading into the games,” he said. “There is a fear that really talking about how they really feel about the issue may in some way negatively impact their ability to come to the games. To represent their country."

A few days before the Olympic opening on Feb. 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin said gay people should feel comfortable at the Sochi games, but urged them to "leave children in peace, please."

And so, once again, Russia's gay scene will remain out of sight and sound of the public.

James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

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