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
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”