LGBT propaganda

‘It’s a gay club now’, the guard told us as we, four Dutch exchange students, tried to enter a nightclub formerly named Zona, meaning ‘Prison’. That the club didn’t exist anymore was a bummer, but especially the bouncer’s remark took me by surprise, since I assumed that gay clubs in Moscow would be non-existent.

Despite most Russians being hesitant to talk about this issue, I manage to strike up a conversation with a sympathetic guy named Evgeni Gor. He explained that the situation is not as bad as our news portrays it to be, but recently, especially on a governmental level, things have gotten increasingly difficult. In his view, the recent crackdown on gays in Russia is part of the anti-Western values propaganda and is used to strengthen support for the Kremlin. One of the prime examples is the club I encountered, which was badgered into moving away from its former location by the state-owned renting company despite having a multi-year contract. The company’s practices ranged from cutting off the water and electricity supply to slowly removing the rooftop. Unfortunately, filing a complaint with the police in this case had zero effect and, in the end, the nightclub was forced to relocate somewhat outside of the city center.

It is a big difference in values between the European Union and Russia, especially now that the tensions have risen so high. Evgeni explains that people in some eastern European countries are not less anti-gay than people in Russia, but since their governments favor integration with the EU, equal rights and treatment for gay people is the official stance. When it comes to the question of whether he would like to trade Moscow for a different, perhaps more gay-friendly, city, he says that all the career opportunities here currently weigh more.

Arguably, the most controversial anti-gay action by the government is the enactment of the Russian federal law, titled ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, in June 2013. This anti-gay propaganda law, as it is often dubbed, enables the authorities to fine and detain people who publicly promote gay values.

Although Evgeni assures me that this law is used to set an example and does not target the bulk of activists, it does create an atmosphere of repression. One of the people constantly targeted is Elena Klimova, who runs an online help forum and support group for LGBT teenagers called Дети-404 (Children-404). After winning the first two lawsuits, the courts have now fined her for 50,000 rubles (about 600 to 700 euros) and the website has been ordered to be shut down. She is appealing the judgment, however, and at present, the website is still up and running.

Funnily enough, the longest continuously open gay club in Moscow bears the name Propaganda, although it’s officially only exclusively for gays on Sundays. This centrally-located restaurant turns into a techno hub at night and is a small victory for the LGBT society. ‘It has been running for 17 years, which is unusual for any club or restaurant in Moscow’, Evgeni explains to me. Many venues here close after a few years, sometimes even after a season because they change owners or simply want to remodel. Propaganda can thus be seen as the pioneer among the eight gay clubs currently open in Moscow.

As our conversation comes to a close, Evgeni recalls an experience in Amsterdam. When asking someone for the way to an area where many LGBT friendly cafés are situated, the guy he had approached used the word ‘faggot’ to make clear his disapproval. Just as his expectations of us to be all gay-loving had to be tuned down, as did my expectations about the severity of Russian anti-gayness.