“Moscow is like a small European city in the mid-90s,” says Anton Krasovsky. “Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows who’s gay, even if nobody’s out.”
Well, not nobody. In 2013, when the Duma was debating a new law outlawing “gay propaganda”, Krasovsky was a beloved Russian TV personality, working for a news channel he’d co-founded called Kontr TV. At the end of a wide-ranging discussion on the proposed legislation, Krasovsky said, on air: “I’m gay. And I’m just as much a human being as President Putin, or Prime Minister Medvedev, or the members of the Duma.” Less than a week later, Krasovsky was no longer working for Kontr TV, the clip was removed from the archives and his face had been scrubbed from the website.
And yet ask him and his friends what it’s like to be gay in Moscow and they shrug. “Moscow attracts gay men from all the villages, so there are more gay people in Moscow than anywhere else in Russia. And they all just want what everyone else wants: somebody to love.”
Moscow is, indeed, gayer than you might think. There might not be many dedicated gay clubs – the five-floor behemoth of Central Station being a notable exception – but many bars and restaurants have gay nights, from Cafe Mart to Mono to the famous Sunday discos at Propaganda. When it comes to clubbing, at least, the biggest concern for gay men in Moscow isn’t prejudice but what Russians call “face control”, which the Daily Beast describes as “knowing the right people – or having the right look”. There’s a gay magazine, Kvir (say it out loud) with listings and frothy lifestyle features: more Out than Advocate. With all the media furore over rising anti-LGBT activity in Russia in recent years, it can be a surprise to see how pink the capital feels in some places.
“As if I’m so old to know about that!” bristles Tim, 22, a model agent having a drink at Sanctions Bar, when asked if gay life has got harder in Moscow over the last five years. “But no, it is getting better here. Of course I am out because I work in fashion – most people in my office are gay – but I have to hide it from other people. But there are more gay nights and I think things are improving.”
Sanctions Bar itself – a semi-ironic anti-western theme bar decorated with oil drums, dollar bill toilet paper and a menu featuring Barack Obama’s face crossed out – has just recently started dabbling in attracting a gay clientele. Tim is wearing a blue ribbon on his wrist. “A white ribbon means single, red means in a relationship and blue means flirting. They made us choose one. I didn’t really want to.”
There might not be much in the way of Russian public media celebrating gay life, but Tim watches the E network and the Kardashians and considers New York his spiritual home. “Still, my dream is to be able to walk down the street holding my partner’s hand. I don’t think that will ever happen in Moscow.”
Andrey, 27, an engineer, is one of those “gay men from the villages”. Born in Grozny and raised in a village near Moscow, he moved to the capital at 21, drawn by the Eurovision song contest that Russia hosted in 2009. “Of course I was immediately very excited in Moscow,” he said over a coffee on a sunny June afternoon in the rear courtyard of Cafe Mart, next to Moscow’s Museum of Modern Art. “In Grozny I had to keep it a secret from my parents and my friends. But of course I needed to meet men, to have boyfriends and to have sex.” Andrey used apps, but on moving to Moscow found he didn’t need to be quite so discreet any more – although he’s still in the closet at work. “It makes me uncomfortable when men talk about women. A colleague asked me which of the girls at the office I’d like to hook up with. I said I don’t date in the workplace.”
Apps have made being gay in Moscow a lot easier. Grindr is ever popular – a hacked location file revealed several users within the walls of the Kremlin itself – but Hornet is increasingly used because of the fact you can have public images as well as private ones, revealed only on request. Reports of anti-LGBT activists setting up fake accounts to lure and then abuse gay men (sometimes recording it on video) have made Andrey and his friends more cautious. “I don’t invite men on apps to my house. We meet up, have a conversation, go for a walk.” He doesn’t reveal his sexuality in public. “With apps, you often find friends on there who you didn’t know were gay. Then you can reveal yourself to them. In public, it’s dangerous if you’re not sure. Some men are gay but deny it.” He starts listing some famous public figures.
There are fewer events catering for lesbians in Moscow, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Among the most popular are women-only parties named after the US television series The L Word, run by 29-year-old Karina Krasavina.
The L Word takes place every two weeks at a club in the city centre, and will be celebrating its sixth birthday this weekend. Krasavina said she has never had any trouble from the authorities. Her business partner, 24-year-old Nastya Laut, laughed off any safety concerns.
“There are so many gay women in Moscow – we’re everywhere these days,” she said. “It’s become normal. Sure, there are people who don’t understand or who are negative, but most are fine with it. My family are fine with it and my friends are fine with it and I never feel that I’m in danger. We just have a good time.”
But LGBT activist and journalist Elena Kostyuchenko said not all homosexual women are able to be so open. She said that even the venues catering for gay women often choose not to advertise their orientation.
“Many of the LGBT clubs look like a normal restaurants during they day - people come to have business lunches or whatever. Then only at night do they become an LGBT club. So even the venues have a double life,” she said.
Indeed, Moscow’s gay people seem more stoic than angry. They’ve even appropriated their own abuse: if something silly or stupid or weird happens in Europe, it’s derided as “Gayropa”. What concerns many homosexual Muscovites most, it seems, is less fear for their safety or inability to meet other gay men and women, than legal legitimacy – the ability to share property with a partner, or pass on inheritances without interference from grasping relatives, or raise kids.
Krasovsky wants kids; his partner, who is younger, does not. Does he worry that Muscovites wouldn’t be supportive if they say two men raising a child?
“Yes, of course. But there are ways. It can be done. It’s just dangerous.”
He understands why more men aren’t out in Moscow, and while he hopes other public figures will join him, he understands the reasons they don’t. “It immediately puts you at the bottom of the food chain. You become like a migrant worker in your own country.” In general, Krasovsky wears his gay activism uncomfortably. “It’s not like in America: rah-rah, I’m so proud. In Moscow, we are more just trying to live our lives.” He self-mockingly shows me his Grindr profile: a string of messages from men, most asking: “Are you really Anton Krasovsky?”, but the occasional one saying: “It’s great to see you here.”
He might be Moscow’s highest-profile openly gay man, but seems embarrassed about his decision to come out on air, and keeps deflecting my questions to his friends. Eventually, however, he almost shyly admits that he knows exactly why he did it. “It’s scary [to come out]. Even in England, sometimes it scary to do. But it is better to be afraid to die in a battle, but go into this fight [anyway], than all your life be stupidly afraid and sit in a bomb shelter.
“It’s like Pink Floyd’s The Wall … ‘new car, caviar.’ You might have that, but you still have to remember the truth. It’s pathetic, but the truth is still important.”