Skip to main content

Russia's 'anti-gay' law pushes gay community into shadows

By Peter Wilkinson and Phil Black, CNN
updated 9:25 AM EST, Mon January 13, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pavel Petel had built up a career as a model, performance artist and DJ in Russia
  • He is now losing business and blames it on a Russian law banning gay "propaganda"
  • Most of Moscow's gay population lives in secret and city has few gay clubs
  • "Don't ask, don't tell" is the unspoken rule outside Moscow's gay "ghetto," says one man

Moscow, Russia (CNN) -- Pavel Petel was once an open, flamboyant bisexual man from Ukraine who built up a career as a model, performance artist and DJ in Russia. Photographs of him semi-naked while riding a horse and brandishing a gun are a feast for web surfers.

But after he and his partner Sergey Ostrikov were attacked outside Moscow, and especially since a bill banning gay "propaganda" was passed in June, Petel has feared for his safety. He is losing business -- and blames that on the law and an increasingly less tolerant climate towards homosexuality.

"People in the regions are very aggressive towards gays. Sergey and I were lucky to be alive last year because some people wanted to kill us. My fear has been growing since then."

And recently, "I was working on my video when I turned on the TV and saw video of one anchor of a Russian channel who said that you need to burn the gays' hearts," he told CNN. "I had to continue to smile, perform, say 'hello sexy' but it was difficult. I started to be afraid.

"I'm dressed down now when I go on to the street and I'm afraid police could arrest me. They can implement the law against me. I know that I'm not safe.

Pavel Patel built up a career in Russia as a model, performance artist and DJ. Pavel Patel built up a career in Russia as a model, performance artist and DJ.
Pavel Petel on Russia's 'anti-gay' law
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
Pavel Petel on Russia\'s \'anti-gay\' law Pavel Petel on Russia's 'anti-gay' law
Open Mic: Russia's anti-gay law
Athlete speaks out against anti-gay law

"I'm afraid to do what I used to. I'll probably change. I'm scared to come to the streets now wearing wigs or heels. I've started to wear them much more rarely."

When he was growing up in the Soviet era, "life was easier," he recalled. "There was no pressure to make you chose who you are." Indeed he doesn't even define himself as a gay man at all. "I've never actually thought about myself being a gay or a straight or anything else. I still don't think about it and I didn't think about it in my childhood."

Russia insists the new law, which bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors," is intended to protect children. It bars discussion of gay rights and relationships within earshot of children.

International rights groups have called the legislation highly discriminatory, as anti-gay attacks are on the rise in Russia and are sometimes perpetrated by the police themselves.

There have been widespread calls for boycotts and protests -- including a vodka-dumping demonstration in Los Angeles -- casting a pall over the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The gay rights group, All Out, has delivered a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures denouncing Russia's stance on gay rights.

Petel, who lives in Moscow, said that although he believes the law is "designed against people with non-traditional sexuality" he does not support a boycott.

"I hear a lot now about boycotting the Olympics or vodka. It makes me laugh. Why? First of all, because we all know that no one will ever boycott Olympics for the sake of this because financial interests of the countries are more important than the freedom."

Athletes: Sochi boycott not the answer
Russian journalist comes out on air
A dangerous time to be gay in Russia

Such a move could cause a backlash against homosexuals, he fears. "It may even be designed against the gay community of Russia to turn everyone against them. Because people will say that it's gays who sabotaged and boycotted the Olympics and people will just burn us with our hearts."

OPINION: Make Olympics in Russia "the gayest ever"

Moscow, a city of more than 11 million people, has only a handful of gay night clubs, none of which would allow CNN's cameras inside. And on the street, few people are willing to be identified.

Viktor Michaelson says most of Moscow's gay population has always lived in secret -- and that they now have even greater reason to embrace anonymity.

The gay scene here is often referred to as a ghetto. Michaelson says: "[Gay people] aren't imposed to stay in the ghetto but they feel more comfortable because they can be themselves."

Alexander Gudkov says outside the ghetto there's a clear rule -- don't ask, don't tell -- but that he wants more from life.

"It's very bad. I want to live in open life. And I want to live my life. It's not my choice, it's my life," Gudkov says.

What does the future hold then for gays in Russia? Petel understands why acceptance in the country has come slowly, but says: "Russia would benefit from appreciating gays the same way that Indians appreciate their cows. To me, gays are usually kind, talented, genial, creative and I feel sorry that they're leaving. It's not civilized.

"I think it will be back to normal again in 10 years but the new young generation should come to power and change the laws. Maybe we'll see the first Russian gay president in 10 years. Or maybe it will be a woman."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:01 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
The U.S. has promised to supply and train "acceptable" rebels in Syria to counter ISIS. But who are they and are can the strategy work?
updated 5:16 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Branded an "extremist" by China's state-run media, Joshua Wong isn't even old enough to drive.
updated 2:55 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised political pundits with his rapid rise to power. CNN meets the man behind the enigma.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Liverpool's Italian forward Mario Balotelli reacts during the UEFA Champions League Group B match between Liverpool and Ludogorets Razgrad at the Anfield stadium in Liverpool on September 16, 2014.
British police launched an investigation into abusive tweets sent to Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli.
updated 7:44 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
A woman who was texting her husband before he was killed reflects on the Westgate attack.
updated 6:49 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
British PM David Cameron has had the narrowest of political escapes.
The burial leader. The hospital gatekeeper. The disease detective. All telling powerful, stories from West Africa.
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
The real secret to a faster commute has been with us all along -- the bus.
updated 9:16 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
13 brands retained their Top 20 status from last year, according to an annual survey.
updated 11:49 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Think your new tattoo is cool? Look at how our ancestors did it and think again.
updated 7:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT