Friday, February 7, 2014

Moscow & St. Petersburg: Queer Pictures

GQ hired a first-rate photojournalist, Yuri Kozyrev, to take photographs to accompany my story in the February 2014 issue, "Inside the Iron Closet." As a form of notes, I took snapshots with my phone. Following are a few of them, along with some of the stories I couldn't fit into the magazine

My translator, Zhenya, and I met Nikolai at a small basement gay club called Ice. Sometime soon I'll publish our whole conversation, but I was able to get this much into the magazine:

I don't think there is homophobia in Russia," he says, "because I always carry a gun."The logic takes me a moment. He means they can't hurt him, because he will hurt them first. His father, a "criminal," he says, found Nikolai on a Grindr-like app once. He said he was coming to kill Nikolai. Nikolai wrote back: "I'm waiting for you." His father never came. Nikolai is waiting. He taps one side of his head and then the other, to show the path of the bullet he'll put through his father's skull.
But I couldn't include as much as I wanted to about the next club we went to that night:

“I’m going to Secrets,” says Nikolai. Another club. He says it’s 20 minutes away. “Will you give me money for a car?” If he’ll take us with him. It’s around 2 am and the street’s empty, but we flag down an old Soviet rustbucket and Nikolai haggles until the driver waves us in. It’s a long ride down small streets and smaller, until Nikolai directs the driver into a deeply rutted dirt alley. At which point Zhenya says maybe we shouldn’t be here. “Da!” says Nikolai. “Da! Da!” I’m looking at his puffy coat. I don’t really see where he could have a gun. Then we come around a bend and Nikolai says, “There.” He points. A small black metal rectangle tied to an iron gate with a piece of wire, “SECRET” written on it in plain English letters.

Beyond it, a beat-up parking lot that’s a study in night colors: a row of fluorescent-lit windows in another building turning the lot green beneath a cloudy city-lit sky bruised purple and yellow, in the corner of the lot one of the branches of a leafless tree incompletely wrapped in Christmas lights, red as a wound. Beneath it, an open door into what looks like a shanty, a corridor glowing redder. The corridor twists and turns, a big man in a black suit pats us down leaving no margin of error—Nikolai checks his coat first so I still don’t know about the gun, I never will—and then we come around another corner into the club.

And it’s kind of wonderful. Three times as crowded as Ice, girls and boys, some of them chiseled and rippling and beautiful, some of them fat and pimply and gorgeous, all of them dancing together or dancing alone if they want to, the music loud but not fully club-loud, we can hear the shouted greetings as Nikolai’s friends gather round and hug him. There’s a big banner across the back wall that says “Secret Lives” in an English font transported from the ’80s, Flashdance sans serif. Only there was a hiccup in translation, so it says “Secret Lifes,” which is even sweeter.
It is a place not so much of secrets as of compromises, hiding and not-hiding at the same time. Zoya Blanche, the 29-year-old halter top cop go-go girl dancing on a platform dressed as a sexy policewoman, lives with her parents, who know what she does for a living—she’s a pro, in every sense of the term—and accept it so long as when she leaves the apartment and when returns she’s a man. “So long as they don’t see me,” she tells me afterwards, relaxing by the dark room.

We meet a boy, Kirill, who says he’s 18 and out to his family and his friends. “Absolutely everybody knows,” he tells us over drinks at a little table on the second floor. Kirill’s built like a giraffe, long spindly legs and an even longer neck, unblinking dark chocolate eyes. “Everybody is talking about homophobia, but when I walk down the street I don’t feel it.” He shrugs. “I haven’t heard of these laws, but I think it’s fine. We don’t need gay pride here. Why do we need to show our orientation?” He’s heard of the torture videos popular online, the gangs that kidnap gays, the police that arrest gays, the babushkas with their eggs and their stones. But he hasn’t seen them. He doesn’t need to. “All of my friends talk about it and everybody wants to emigrate, but not me.” He shrugs again; it’s like a tic. “I love Russia. I love Moscow. This is their experience, not mine.” 

* * *

It is too late for Harry Ben’Ka to hide. He has been out since he was 15, and now he is 17, which means our conversation in a little café near the center of the city is probably illegal: Propaganda to a minor. But Harry would just confuse the police. He is not homosexual, he says, he is asexual, currently biromantic. In short, a sweet, queer kid who loves everybody. He calls the organization he started, a network of about 70 Moscow teenagers like him, Typical Queer. Typical; normal; it’s that very modest ambition again. Very modest, very brave. Harry realized he wasn’t straight when he was 13. He had two fun years, he says, of being a party boy. Then, at 15, he began to take up his responsibilities. He heard about a meeting of an organization called the Rainbow Association. There were maybe a dozen activists there, Harry by far the youngest. They thought that was cute. This was before the law, which makes it illegal.
Harry missed the next meeting, which was just as well. A group of men in masks broke in and attacked the activists. Nothing serious, says Harry. He smiles, a real Chesire Cat grin, this one, and sips his tea. He has bleached blonde hair and four silver studs beneath his lip, tight red jeans and a scarecrow’s frame. He sits most comfortably folded like origami, his long legs twisting and his skinny arms reaching across one another. But there is nothing defensive about his manner as he explains to me his typical queer life: his early fascination with anime, learning how to sneak into clubs, boyfriend trouble; leaving home and finding couches to sleep on, learning how to evade police, discovering that with numbers, sometimes, maybe, he can stand his ground.
He has plans for a café nearby. Its owners don’t know it yet, but soon, says Harry, it will be queered. More typical stuff, a group of teens taking over a diner or a café. Typical anywhere but here. 
Harry is writing a fantasy novel about an imaginary city that sounds a lot like Amsterdam, but he doesn’t want to leave. He still feels like he has just arrived. “As long as they don’t kill me,” he says, “I’m going to keep living here.” He smiles. This, to him, is a happy thought. Standing his ground. “It is not yet ours,” says Harry of the café he plans conquer. “We have not occupied it.”
I want to ask him to take us to his club that is not yet a club, to let us help him occupy this little piece of his dream, but his long answers are growing shorter, his hands rising from his lap to make a point and then collapsing. It’s time to go. I’ve saved the most difficult question for last. It’s about the grey scars and long red scabs figure skating around his left arm. I fumble the question. “I can’t help but notice,” I say, smiling like an idiot, dipping my chin in the direction of the wounded arm, which happens to be lying across his crotch. Harry looks confused. He has already told me has had only one lover, and he has been coy about him; maybe just a boy with whom he fooled around. And he has already told me that there will be no more of that, at least for the time being. He has told me his heart is broken. I can see his brow wrinkle, his mouth begin to twist.
I try to clarify, “I wanted to ask”—and I point at the scars, at his lap. Harry looks at Zhenya. Does the stupid American think the damaged queer youth of Russia are souvenirs?
Zhenya, thank God, understands. He tells Harry in Russian that I’m trying to ask—and then Zhenya also balks. There is an easier way. He pushes up his sleeve and points to the white stripes welted across his wrist like barricades.
Oh! Now Harry understands. He laughs, and waves his hand and his own red stripes. No, he reassures us, his are not a matter of suicide. Just reminders. “As long as they don’t kill me,” he says, “I’m going to keep living here.”
“A little while ago,” he continues, “at an event for Typical Queer. I was not there, but my friends were. And so were some Nazis. And the Nazis were asking for me!” They asked for him by name. Harry Ben’ka! Where is Harry Ben’ka?

Not long after that they caught Harry on the street. He grabs the collar of his own jacket as if to hoist himself up. They pinned him to a tree, shook him, slapped him, shouted at him. Once Harry realized this bunch wouldn’t going to kill him, he began to smile. “I felt like a V.I.P.,” he says. He waves the thought of fear away with his red-slashed arm. “I think these Nazis,” he says, “they have showed their weakness.” They weren’t willing to kill him. So for now, Harry wins.
                                                              * * *

From "“To Slavik,” by Dmitry Kuzmin, one of Russia's very few out writers -- out since the last days of the Soviet Union and the early days of the "New Russia," when he edited a queer literary magazine that doesn't exist anymore.

…and once, when you thought I was asleep,
you whispered: “I don’t want to part with you” –

– midnight in Bryansk,
the Russian border, passport control, and for some reason
there is music at the station, the trackman’s crow-bar clinks
shunting the switch, a lantern from the platform
gives light to the guy on the lower berth who is finishing his Perumov
across the aisle a plain cadet is undressing,
the pattern of his chest-hair repeating yours;
oh now I would —

That’s how it ends: blank spaces.

* * *

In April 2013, six agents of the Russian Justice ministry, all men, raided the tiny offices of Coming Out St. Petersburg under the pretext of a new law that allows the government to investigate and prosecute any NGO suspected of being a "foreign agent." Anna Anismova was there with a coworker. The agents began tearing the office apart. And they began flirting, Anna says, who by then was alone with them. "Making dirty jokes." We must protect the children, they'd say, rifling through Coming Out's brochures for LGBT parents. Why do you homosexualists need children? They laughed. For this! they said. They might as well have pointed at their crotches. They knew what lesbians really want. 

Anna wanted to scream, but she laughed. "I was trying to behave very like an easy person and making jokes as well with them. Behave as if nothing serious is happening. That I'm not scared." She couldn't stop them from taking Coming Out's records, but of herself, her true self, she would give them nothing. They stayed for seven hours. After they left, "I went home and cried." 

* * *

I wrote a great deal about the astonishingly courageous Elena Kostyuchenko -- one of the steeliest journalists I've ever met, who'd be a human rights hero for life-on-the-line reporting even if she wasn't an LGBT activist, too. I wish I'd had room for this, too:

Elena is not a believer, but when she was nine, in the cancer ward, she tried to make a deal with God. What she wanted was to walk once more on the boulevard. Just the one outside the hospital. When she could still get out of bed, she’d enjoyed sitting by the window, watching the women in their summer dresses. She wanted to go get some yogurt. Also, if possible, she would like to be admitted to heaven. Her friend Yulia in the next bed, with whom she’d played a game of plucking flower petals, loves me, loves me not, had gone before her. Elena wanted to follow. She thought if she if she made her request small God might listen.
“We were scary and we were dying,” Elena would write years later in her journal, sometime in between Lisunov’s beating and the attacks that have followed. “Why write this now?” she mused. She wanted to remember the Christian children who brought her the flowers, not Roman Lisunov, not the babushkas who shriek Sodom and rip her dresses. She prefers the flowers, she holds on to the flowers. She will not hide in her anger. “No fucking way,” she says.
Only it’s Zhenya who says it like that, in English, adding italics. She grins, because what she has said is so much more vulgar. Literally, “no dick,” but that doesn’t get the half of it. There is nothing outside of Russian, Elena and Zhenya agree, that can capture her meaning—the depth of her determination. “It is so beautiful,” says Elena, repeating this vulgar phrase, both of them giggling. “No fucking way!” says Zhena. He slaps the table. Elena applauds. No fucking way. It’s 3, 4 in the morning, we’ve been talking for hours and we’re giddy.
That’s not right; what we’re feeling, Zhenya and I will agree later, is relief. Because Zhenya and I, man, we’re tired, we’ve been doing this for a week already!  Collecting these sad stories. And it’s a real burden for us, listening to other people describe all these beatings. Especially if, like Zhenya, you have beatings of your own. “The badge of the gay,” he said my first night in Moscow, grinning and pointing to his broken nose, and Igor Iasine—remember him? The broken jaw?—sitting next to him, a stoic man, Igor smiled and pointed to own. It’s sort of what brought them together.
No fucking way! It’s fucking joyous.  

I was going to post some of my photographs of the "bad guys" -- oh, hell, they don't need scare quotes, they're very scary people -- but I think I'll leave it there, with this happy picture. Or maybe, actually, with this video Elena pulled up on her phone shortly after it was taken.

It begins with video of a demonstration at which a queer activist who'd had enough of the homophobic goons who'd showed up to attack him decided to throw a punch of his own. The hater on the receiving end is outraged! He is a victim! He says, Zhenya translated for me, "I am a simple Russian guy! Attacked by a homosexualist!" Two queer kids thought that was so funny they turned it into a song. It was around 3 am when we watched it in this cafe -- right around the corner from one of Pussy Riot's old hideouts, as it happens. There were still a few customers left, but we thought it was so funny we played it over and over, and then we began to sing, pounding the table, "I am a simple Russian guy! Attacked by a homosexualist!" Elena -- whose childhood dream had been to be the next Alla Pugacheva, the Madonna of the USSR -- stood up and belted it out, Zhenya and I collapsing in laughter. It really was fucking joyous.

So I'm ending this with the bad guys, after all -- reduced to proper size.