With just over 100 days left before the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, the city was buzzing with activity. And so was Sochi’s only gay club, Mayak (or “The Beacon”). Last Saturday, the club pulsed with a couple hundred visitors, both gay and straight—love birds danced the night away, spinning on the shining floor. Some lip-synched to the chorus of a Russian song: “Pei, Pei, Pei Menia,” or “Drink, Drink, Drink Me.” Earlier that day, Russian police had arrested 67 gay activists protesting against the country’s new anti-gay propaganda law in St. Petersburg, and in Moscow, legislators had discussed the idea of banning gay couples from having a child with a surrogate mother. But here in Sochi, gays and lesbians said they felt safe, at least behind closed doors.
The key to safety and peace, the club’s managers explained, was apparently keeping a low profile. Neither Mayak’s managers nor the club’s visitors belonged to outspoken LGBT groups fighting for their rights in the streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg, who have called for the Sochi Olympics to become a venue for protest. “The closet life is safer,” said a stout girl in a short dress, who was dancing with her girlfriend in the club. “We are safe for as long as we do not express our feelings in the streets. But if we kiss outside of a school or kindergarten, we get arrested.”
No random pedestrian would ever notice the club’s anonymous entrance on Sochi’s seaside embankment. Music cannot be heard from outside. The club’s door has no sign on it. But there are a few hidden security cameras constantly watching the newcomers. A friendly girl at the reception buzzes new visitors in, after a short interview on a speakerphone. “We have the toughest face control in Sochi, our staff security guards do a great job,” one of security guards said, welcoming reporters into an outer lounge room, whose walls were covered in large photographs of semi-nude men.
Even after 13 years of living together, Andrei Tanichev and Roman Kochagov, the club’s managers, could not imagine kissing in public on Sochi streets. The couple live a happy life together with their parents, working hard to create warm atmosphere for homosexuals and lesbians coming to their club seven days a week, from 6 p.m. until 7 a.m. “Only 20 years ago, when we still lived in the USSR, they sent homosexuals to prison as criminals,” Kochagov, said. “The less we protest on the streets, the less we blow up the scandal, the safer our lives will be.” Like many Russian gay couples concerned about the deteriorating atmosphere in their home country, Tanichev and Kochagov thought about moving abroad, but they were denied asylum in Europe.
Meanwhile, more people arrived at the club for the well-staged midnight show by transvestite cabaret music singers, famous in town. Backstage, a few male transvestites were skillfully putting on makeup, strapping on bras with large fake boobs and shimmying into brightly colorful long dresses. Armen, a former body builder-turned-transvestite performer, smiled mysteriously as he spoke of new laws the government was inventing against freedom for the gay minority. “I am neither feeling repressed, nor hurt or humiliated, as I am recognized as an artist at this club—I entertain my audience with my new shows,” said Armen, who did not want to give his last name.
Mayak’s popularity has grown along with the city. During the construction of Olympic venues in the last five or six years, the population of Russia’s only tropical resort has expanded from 320,000 to nearly half a million people. Although working conditions for migrant workers often stayed miserable people kept coming—construction workers from Turkey, Central Asia and neighboring North Caucasus republics built dozens of skyscrapers along the sea coast. Girls from Siberia found jobs at new restaurants, boutiques and beauty salons. And Mayak welcomed more and more guests from all over Russia, sometime up to 400 a night. The Olympics, protested by gay groups abroad, was the best thing to happen to Mayak.
Sochi’s population is largely multicultural, even though the city is located in the heart of the North Caucuses, Russia’s southern region and surrounded with Muslim republics. “I prefer to avoid comments on gay issues, as here in the North Caucuses this is a very sensitive topic, more than anywhere else in the country,” said one of the leaders for the Kremlin’s United Russia party in Sochi, Victor Teplyakov. But he offered assurance that gay athletes coming to Sochi for the Games should not be concerned about their safety—“as long,” he added, “as they do not demonstrate their relations in front of children.”