"I had no problems being gay in Russia. None at all. I never had any problem. I had a boyfriend, living together five years. All our neighbors knew. All our friends knew. In Sochi, they have a gay beach. They have gay clubs . . . I did everything I wanted to do. I didn't hide. I wasn't scared . . . I was really open. I had fun. I went out to gay places, gay bars."
-- a 20-something gay male Russian who has moved to the United States
SOCHI, Russia -- Sochi's mayor channeled his inner Ahmadinejad last month and said Sochi's 343,000 citizens include zero gay people, which means the big gay nightclub thrives behind a magical sidewalk.
Enter the club where the man at the door advises, "This is a gay club," and you're probably homosexual.
Exit to the sidewalk, and you rejoin the heterosexual majority.
It's miraculous even if, in one case at least, it doesn't seem to work.
Absurdity does have a starring role even in something so potentially grim as Russia's globally controversial, nationally popular, eight-month-old anti-gay-"propaganda" law. Just as the young man quoted above dislikes the law, he and his friends also find it farcical. They see it as a fleeting remnant of the Soviet era that ended in 1991 and as popular among those who lived under a regime that drilled thoughts into brains.
They see it as -- familiar tune here -- generational.
He uses the word "zombie."
"The U.S.S.R. was a really hard period and people went to jail (for homosexuality)," he said. "If people grew up around then, then it was wrong. It's not how they feel. It's the government."
By 2014, he said, young Russians tend to want to travel and see -- and join -- the world, and as for most, he said, "It's not because they really think (homosexuality) is bad, but because it was in their head for many, many years. You know, it's just like a zombie. They told them it was bad, for many, many years. They have a lot of fear, you know, in Russia. I understand. I understand there's people, they can be angry, they can be mean. It's not because they have a good life. It's difficult and hard to live in Russia. I mean, not gay (issues). I mean, finding a job, living. It's just very hard."
Certainly the law trades in scapegoating and flunks human-rights tests as it plies unscientific worries about children to curb free expression about homosexuality. It might encourage violence against gay people while absolutely failing to impede it, and that would be the top concern. Human Rights Watch greeted these Olympics by releasing videos of attacks on gay people in Russia. Sixteen percent have faced physical assault and seven percent rape, according to a recent Harvard study. Even as the United States and others have suffered similar cases such as the murder of 32-year-old Mark Carson last May in Greenwich Village, Russia's problem seems bigger. Routine scaremongering comes from high places such as -- another familiar old tune -- a religious leader with a luxurious Swiss watch. "What is going on now in Russia contradicts its place in the world," Anton Krasovsky, the TV anchor who lost his job after coming out last year, told the New York Times last summer.
Loud laws and quiet reality do differ in many a land, though. The world abounds with very gay countries with anti-gay laws. At the edge of the Black Sea, the Mayak club tilts toward upscale with its tasteful décor of table lamps, chandeliers and hanging lanterns, its chef and its good bar wine. A sign at the door boasts ambitious opening hours: 6 p.m.-5:30 a.m. It's a mainstay in a resort town. It has held major drag-show contests. It's connected to the world in that its patrons can sing English pop songs even if they can't speak English language. As with the United States, location matters much: Its presence on the seaside of a resort city makes it more sustainable than were it laboring in the shadows of some stifling inland post.
The Russian man quoted above, having grown up not all that far from Sochi, has joined friends many times on the clothing-optional sliver of beach as well as at various clubs including Mayak. He stresses the club's longevity through two locations.
On a Monday night, it picks up after midnight. It has its deathless gay-club sameness to gay clubs everywhere. Lady Gaga plays. Macklemore plays. "I Will Survive" plays. Six-pack abs confer near-royal status, as with the waiter wearing a vest but no shirt. Little rainbow flags flank the cash register. "Everybody says it's so horrible in Russia, gay life. No, it's not," the Russian man in the U.S. said, even if he did advise against public flamboyance. "My friends, they don't have any problem. I talk to them. They live in Moscow. They travel. They're having fun. I really mean this."
He has come out to his accepting sister but not to his parents, the primary reason for his anonymity here. He lives outside Russia mostly because returning means "it's like you're gonna go back in time. And that's not only about gay life. It's behind in anything, anything you can compare." For one thing, American eyes in Mayak might revisit a plight they might have presumed bygone: that of perfectly legal second-hand smoke.
"It just needs some time," the young man said of Russia, before both fear and absurdity die off in the forever-complex cultural terrain.
"And they're going to cancel this law for sure," he said. "Because the young, in 20 years all these young people are going to be in their 40s, they're going to work for the government and they're going to change it. For sure. They will."