I’m gay and I’ve just spent a year living in Russia
People think it’s one of the most homophobic places in the world
Outside of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, Russia’s probably the last place a gay guy would want spend a year abroad in.
Before I arrived in the country, the only things I’d heard about being homosexual in the country were horrendous. I’d read stories about gays being beaten up on the street, pride marches being shut down and homophobic “propaganda” laws being passed in the Russian parliament.
I imagined being homosexual there would downright dangerous, possibly even deadly. Unsurprisingly, I was bricking it about about living there.
My Russian professor had told me that the further east in Russia you are, the friendlier people get so when I was asked if I fancied spending five months in Siberia, I thought this was probably my best bet to avoid getting killed and, let’s be honest, who goes to Siberia? It sounded like an adventure.
I ended up in a western Siberian city called Tomsk, about 1300km north of where Kazakhstan meets Mongolia. Half-expecting a tundra scattered with with prison camps and hungry, roaming bears, Tomsk turned out to have a population of about half a million and every sixth person there was a student.
Everyone had virtually the same advice for me: spend the next five months right back in the closet. I was strongly urged not to reveal my sexuality to anyone and butch up for 4 months. It didn’t go well. After a month of hopelessly pretending to be straight, I decided to come out to my Russian friends. Expecting the worst – aka total rejection by all – I got the polar opposite. For every single one of my Russian friends, being a queen just wasn’t important. As long as they thought that you were a good person then being gay, straight, black, white, whatever was totally irrelevant.
“It depends on different population groups but, in my opinion, most people don’t consider homosexuality positive or negative,” my Russian friend Tanya told me. “People here don’t pay extra attention to homosexuals.”
Speaking to some of my other Russian comrades though, they said it’s more complicated being gay in Russia than you’d think. They said that even though gays are tolerated, they’re still not totally accepted.
“Russian society is very conservative and being gay is a deviation from the norm. Russian society can’t accept anything outside the norm,” my friend Eugenia told me.
Because homosexuality was illegal in Russia until 1993, being gay is still a relatively new idea for many Russians and sometimes hard for them to understand. Russia’s also a very traditional country where historically cultural and social change has been very slow. Even though my personal experience was positive, it will probably take generations for homoxesuality to be tolerated across the whole country.
In Tomsk however, conservative attitudes are shifting with the passage of time. Not only were the locals super chilled towards homosexuality, but there were even a few gay clubs. Granted they were underground and pretty hidden from public sight, but I spent many-a-night knocking back vodka and watching drag shows with gay guys, lesbians and straights.
What’s more, according to the owners of one of the clubs, gays from all over Russia are flocking in their fabulous masses to Tomsk because of its liberal culture and tolerant attitudes. The city’s still a long way off from letting two dudes hold hands in the street without getting harassed but then again, two guys can’t hold hands in Luton without getting abuse.
At least there are places in Tomsk where gays can get together and enjoy themselves with almost zero worries.
Sadly though, you never hear about this kind of thing in the news back home. The West has a tendency to bash Russia at any given opportunity so when there’s any report of anti-LGBT violence in Russia, we immediately think that the entire country’s out to get the gays. Absolute bollocks. Five months in central Siberia and I, the campest of queens, had no troubles whatsoever.
Most occurrences of homophobia come from Moscow or St. Petersburg – you won’t find many stories about it from anywhere else in Russia. Although what’s apparently going on in these cities is absolutely reprehensible and shouldn’t be tolerated, I want people to know that not all Russia’s like that.
As I mentioned earlier, Tomsk is a really studenty city where most people I met were open-minded students for whom the idea of being a gay is a lot easier to understand so it’s likely that in more typical & less-studenty Russian cities, it’s still seriously hard to be accepted if you’re homosexual. Likewise, as of yet I haven’t ventured to many other places in Russia so I can’t comment on how accepting of LGBT culture they may be.
Nevertheless, I feel that people should know that whether or not this open-mindedness is rare for a Russian city, there’s at least one place in this gargantuan country which accepts homosexuality (albeit quietly) and maybe Russia isn’t as ultra-homophobic as many of us believe it to be.