SOCHI, Russia — Andrei Tanichev has a request for well-meaning foreigners who intend to protest Russia’s homophobic politics at the Winter Games: Please don’t bother.
As a prominent member of Sochi’s gay community, Tanichev would seem to be the likeliest person to appreciate the tidal wave of support from athletes, politicians, and delegations who have gathered in Sochi from around the world. But Tanichev, who has run a popular gay nightclub here for 10 years, says that angry foreigners demanding that President Vladimir Putin change Russia’s laws on sexual relations cannot help, and might only make things worse.
“If you go out to protest, you have to protest against Russian society. Because in reality, society is not ready to accept gays,” Tanichev said in a lengthy interview at the club, Cabaret Mayak, where a drag queen revue attracted a healthy crowd of Russians and foreigners in the wee hours Thursday. “Russian society will think that it’s not right when you’re a guest and you start to demand some sort of rights.”
Tanichev’s words shed light on a division of opinion among Russia’s lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community over the effect of a Russian law that implicitly targets homosexuals. Many activists warn that its passage last year has given the go-ahead to violent homophobic groups. A video released by Human Rights Watch this week included graphic footage of what it said depicted gays being chased down, bullied, and assaulted. The rights group said it had compiled the video from posts to the Internet by the perpetrators.
“These are fascists who have chosen the easier prey, which are gay people,” Igor Kochetkov, chairman of the Russian LGBT Network, said in the video.
Tanya Cooper of Human Rights Watch described “a total failure on the part of the Russian authorities to take measures, to prosecute hate crimes against LGBT people.”
Human Rights Watch was one of 40 groups that sent a letter to corporate sponsors of the Olympics, urging them to support Russia’s LGBT community.
In the week before the Opening Ceremony, AT&T, a sponsor of the US Olympic Committee, posted a statement on its website titled, “We stand against Russia’s anti-LGBT law.” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke out against attacks on LGBT people.
Though Olympic rules bar athletes from taking political stands while competing, some have taken jabs at the law. Referring to Sochi’s ubiquitous color scheme, American figure skater Ashley Wagner joked that the many-colored theme reminded her of the rainbow flag used to symbolize gay pride.
Asked about this Olympic wave of support, Tanichev instead spoke about how attitudes toward gays have improved in the 10 years since he opened the club. He has more customers, both gay and straight. He has straight employees.
“People are no longer ashamed to come to work here, their parents know they work at a gay club and no one is ashamed of it,” he said, gesturing to the dark interior of the club, which is located on a side street and has a nondescript entrance. He said the law has not changed his life, or made him more afraid.
Changing the law, he said, won’t change attitudes toward gays in a society.
“The people aren’t ready for that,” he said.
Sergey Baklykov, who performs as Isadora Vulkan in the drag show, said the protests over the law were pointless, because the law had not affected life for gays in Sochi.
“We are together, we have a place for meeting, we love each other, like it was before the law,” he said as he prepared for the show in the makeup room. “Don’t worry about us, we’re OK.”
The law, signed by Putin last year, makes “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” a fineable offense. Putin has sought to deflect criticism of the law by pointing out that it never mentions homosexuals — but the replacement of that language with “non-traditional” was a late edit.
The idea behind the law, according to Masha Gessen, a Russian and American writer and LGBT activist, was to create a national ideology for Russia, as the defender of traditional families. A major Russian polling center released a survey that suggested more than 70 percent of Russians are against the justification and public display of homosexual relations, while only 12 percent were in favor.
Gays understood they were the targets, and many left the country. But the Kremlin underestimated international outrage, which began spoiling Putin’s Olympic party back when President Obama sent a delegation that included prominent gay athletes.
At a briefing Friday, two openly gay members of that delegation — Caitlin Cahow, a Boston College law student who won ice hockey medals in two Olympics, and gold medal-winning figure skater Brian Boitano — expressed solidarity with Russia’s LGBT community.
In what may have been a subtle dig of their own at the issue of gay rights, Russia’s Olympic organizers chose the fake-lesbian girl-pop duo t.A.T.u. to perform at the stadium. The two singers played one of their two huge hits from a decade ago with lyrics and videos that depicted desperate lesbian lovers in what was later revealed as a publicity stunt.
In a more sinister reflection of Russian reality, four gay rights activists were arrested in St. Petersburg after they unfurled a banner that quoted the ban against discrimination in the Olympic Charter.
Sochi has long been known as a more tolerant place for gay culture, even under the Communist government of the Soviet Union, which considered homosexuality a federal crime. In the 1970s, Tanichev said, gay men would meet under a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.
Sochi today has two well-known gay clubs and gay beaches, which made it seem odd when the city’s mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, told the BBC recently that he did not believe any gays lived in the city. Tanichev, who said he has a good working relationship with the mayor, believes the quote must have been taken out of context or misunderstood.
Even outside Sochi, some gay Russians say their situation has been misunderstood because of the uproar over the law.
“People abroad mainly consider that there’s absolute genocide against LGBT here in Russia,” said Stanislav Petrov, 27, a public relations manager in Moscow. “Not yet. It’s still possible to be open gay or lesbian and if you have good friends, parents, and employer, you’ll be accepted. Of course it depends on your environment. At least in a big city you can choose.”
The danger embedded in the law, he said, is what it does to young people who are starting to understand their sexuality.
“If a mother will say to a child, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not sick with your homosexuality,’ it’s going to be recognized as a crime,” Petrov said. “This is the main threat of the law: The government has left teenagers alone with their suffering.”
In places like Moscow, where many people have access to the Internet and the ability to travel abroad, attitudes about homosexuality are divided along generational lines.
Anastasia Borisova, 24, a radio reporter in the Russian capital, said her mother is “really shocked when we go on a holiday outside the country and we see gay guys together.”
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with it,” Borisova said. “And neither do my friends.”