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Drag tsars

Sergei Baklykov, front, with other dancers, has a break in a cabaret show in Mayak, one of the two gay clubs in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. Sochi, a southern Russian town, will host the Winter Olympics amid President Vladimir Putin’s harsh crackdown on gays. The morality campaign, centered on a law banning homosexual “propaganda,” has threatened to overshadow the games as it provokes an international outcry. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

“People always ask how we can operate a gay club in a city with a mayor who says that no gay people live here. But I don’t believe that’s what he said. We’ve met him and he consulted us on how to answer questions relating to gay issues. He says that he was asked by the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ if he was aware of any gay activists in Sochi and he said there weren’t any. It’s a startling headline but it’s not true – there are more gays in Sochi than any other Russian city, and the mayor is well aware of it.

There was a famous gay club here in the nineties with well-known drag performers, which had been going since Soviet times. The club used to share its premises with an ice cream parlour in a park; it was a summer building with no doors so everybody could look inside and see the drag shows. At night a couple of militiamen guarded the building – it was really bizarre. The park was sold for redevelopment and the club owners didn’t reopen it. We’d moved to Sochi to open Russia’s first gay hotel, but there were many drag queens with nowhere to perform so we decided to manage this club instead.

We’ve never had any issues with the authorities. We have the same working relationship with them as any other business. Sochi is very different from many places in Russia as it’s very liberal and tolerant. Historically it has had a large gay community. As a resort it is based around service industries and it’s culturally diverse. Nobody has ever cared much whether you were gay.

Most of our performers are from Moscow because here they can get regular slots, something they can’t get in the capital. The basis of the show is the drag queen cabaret but we’ve got other acts – pop singers, dancers, even a Kazakh women’s choir.”

Dancers change costumes between performances

 Andrey Tanichev in his Sochi gay club, Mayak

 A performer known as Veranda stands by a selection of wigs backstage

“Many artists want to perform in gay clubs as it’s considered a smart move to build up confidence. A lot of acts choose to work for free to get exposure – in gay clubs there are many people connected to record labels, studios, the media and so on.

I am categorically against the law [banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ to children] because it creates a ‘them and us’ division in society. However, you would not believe how many journalists, including Russian-speaking ones, get offended by things that aren’t in its wording.

It does not specify gays or other sexual minorities; it uses ill-defined concepts such as ‘traditional sexual relations’. So if a father is having an affair [with a woman] and reveals it to his young son, is that included? Who decides? It is very difficult to apply this law in real terms. To my knowledge there have only been two cases of fines resulting from this law so far.

The dressing room at Mayak

Andrei Sarkisian, aka Miss Zhusha (right) shares a joke with Zaza Napoli

Over the past year the ‘gay propaganda’ law has been debated I’ve seen more people coming out than ever before, and this includes celebrities and high-profile people. The international community has started questioning Russia about human rights in general. These rights violations are not limited to gays but also include immigrants, national minorities, disabled people and many other categories. This is a societal problem of tolerance in general. You don’t need to look far to see where this position originates from – the former Soviet Bolshevik party, literally the ‘Party of the Majority’, which upheld the interests of the majority for generations whilst the minorities were expected to either keep up or be left behind. The debates made people start thinking about who gays are, and if they really present a danger to children. I’ve never seen so much positive publicity, especially on the internet… It’s not been that long since the USSR. We are behind in diversity education.”

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