Life goes on for Sochi’s gay community, despite 2014 Winter Olympics

Performers prepare to take part in a drag queen show backstage at Mayak, a gay cabaret club in Sochi, south western Russia October 28, 2013. During Soviet times, Sochi gained a reputation for tolerance but the city's once vibrant gay scene has been shrinking since Russia won the right to host the 2014 Winter Games. Last year President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the spread of "gay propaganda" among minors. His increasingly conservative social agenda has boosted the role of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader has suggested homosexuality is one of Russia's biggest threats, and given more air time to anti-homosexual rhetoric on media outlets. The new law has focused attention on Sochi, which will host many foreigners as well as Russians during the Olympics. Some activists have called for a boycott of the Games in protest. Picture taken October 28, 2013.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter

SOCHI, Russia - The mascara-lined eyes of a petite man dressed in a tuxedo greet visitors after they buzz at the armor-plated door of a one-storey building.

Welcome to the Mayak cabaret, the most reputable gay club in Sochi, and one of the few safe places for gays in the Olympic host city to meet.

Most of Mayak's clients shy away from cameras and plead for anonymity. Not so Andrei Ozyorny, a 24-year-old Sochi native. Ozyorny, one of Mayak's regulars, has recently done something that he feels proud of and which makes his partner fear for his business and safety.

When Sochi's mayor said in an interview last month that there were no gays in Sochi, Ozyorny wrote a letter to the mayor that was published in prominent Russian media. "Nice to meet you, I'm one of them," Ozyorny wrote.

Russia adopted a law last year, prohibiting vaguely defined propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations and pedophilia. The legislation makes it illegal to disseminate information to children even if it merely shows that gay people are just like everybody else.

Russian authorities insist that the law is aimed at protecting children from harmful influences. Activists, however, insist that the law is fostering homophobia in Russia. Vigilante homophobes from a movement called Occupy Pedophilia have been using gay dating websites to lure young men and boys into meetings, where they taunt and beat and torture them on camera and then publish the videos online.

Gay pride parades have been de facto banned for many years, but since last year Moscow authorities often cite the propaganda law as a reason to forbid any demonstrations. Across the rest of the country, Russian judges have been implementing the law and handing out fines. Several people have already been convicted under the new law, such as a newspaper editor who ran an interview with a school teacher fired after he came out as gay.

World leaders and journalists have confronted President Vladimir Putin with questions about gay discrimination in Russia. Putin has been stubbornly equating homosexuality with pedophilia even though he has assured gays that they will be welcome in Sochi, but only if they "leave the kids alone."

"(The law) instills in people's minds that these are synonymous terms: if you're gay, you're a pedophile," Ozyorny said.

Ozyorny, who runs a travel agency with his partner, had a hard enough time as a teenager coming to terms with his sexuality. Now he's concerned the law will make life even more difficult for Russian teenagers.

"They need someone to tell them: you're all right, you're not sick, you're not a pervert, this is the way you were born, you have to accept this," he said. "You can't do this anymore. Now this is a crime."

At Mayak, packed on Saturday night, gay men and women steered away from discussing the law, preferring to enjoy life, closeted as it is.  About a hundred people were chatting at the bar, sitting in armchairs or dancing. Couples were sharing kisses.  Everyone was waiting for the club's specialty: a drag show. At 1.30 a.m. on Sunday, the music stopped and the show began.

Backstage, the star of the show, Miss Zhuzha, was adding the final touches to her make-up. The 44-year-old female impersonator, who has been performing for 20 years, served two years in the Soviet army in East Germany as Andrei Sarkisian.

David Pichler, an American diver and former Sydney Games team captain, was in the club. Two days ago he had met with some gay rights activists who were later arrested in Moscow and St. Petersburg for unfurling rainbow flags. He had been shocked by the police reaction.

"It's just scary," he said in Sochi. "For kids not to be able to be who they are or to say that by gay people promoting homosexuality we're going to turn people gay, it's basically saying you're going against the whole class."

The crowd at Mayak mostly avoided politics and hardly anyone was contemplating a public protest.

Ozyorny's partner Georgy, 32, says he doesn't feel affected by the anti-gay law but finds it meaningless. "I don't understand the wording of the law," he said. "Do I go around schools saying: I'm gay, follow me? How can you impose it on anyone?"

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