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Gay Clubs in Russia, the U.S.: Worlds Apart But Similar

Gay Clubs in Russia, the U.S.: Worlds Apart But Similar


Bar-hopping in Moscow's lesbian spaces was thrilling and frightening for Milena Chernyavskaya. Now living in Los Angeles, she finds the experience of going to a gay space is less clandestine but not without risks.

A lesbian never forgets her first time going to a gay club. I was an 18-year-old living in Moscow, and my friend had heard from her friend that there was a lesbian club in the city. One Saturday night we got drunk and showed up next to one of the biggest stadiums in Russia, where the club was supposedly located. We were walking around the stadium trying to find "a secret door with no signs." At some point we gave up and sat down on a curb when a tall man showed up in a door behind us. "Are you lost?" he asked. We answered, "Um, no. We are just chilling before entering the club." "What club?" Two drunk girls sitting in the middle on the night being interrogated by some big guy when there was no one around? We got scared.

"Come on, I think I know where you are going," he said and opened a door widely inviting us in. After a series of security/safety checks, we were finally in. It was a dark, square space with black walls, tables, chairs, and the dance floor in the middle, and was filled with lesbians and their bi-curious friends. I was happy to my toes. Finally, there was a community of people where I wouldn't be considered a pervert.

The happiness didn't last long. I learned that every once in a while, Moscow LGBT clubs and bars would be not just verbally but physically attacked by skinheads, religious homophobes, and, from what we heard, neo-Nazis. We went to a bar or a club knowing that this could be our last night on the planet, and we were, as crazy as it sounds, fine with it. The desire to be surrounded by "your" people was worth the risk.

Later I visited Los Angeles for the first time, and my friend took me to a gay bar. Not just some gay bar, but the Abbey. With its ginormous space outside, a fireplace inside, four bars, and a screen with projected psychedelic art on it, it looked like the Carnegie Hall of gay clubs. We were treated as regular customers in a regular bar, and it was liberating and heartbreaking at the same time. I knew when I came back to Moscow I would be waking up to a stamp on my wrist as the only reminder of the real life I had to hide.

When I finally moved to Los Angeles, I promised that I wouldn't be hiding my true self anymore. I was out at my university and my job, and there was a variety of places where I could go to and feel like a part of our community -- gay bars, gay film screenings, gay support groups. But on June 12, the bubble popped. I was sitting in front of my TV all morning watching the live coverage of the Orlando shooting. In addition to that, the news came about a man with a car full of guns and explosives, possibly preparing to blow up the L.A. Pride Parade. It felt like Moscow all over again.

I had to face the reality: Despite all the progress the LGBT community made around the world in recent years, we were not safe no matter what country we were in. There was this constant fight between LGBT people who wanted to be open and those who couldn't tolerate it or, in some cases, themselves. And while a lot of Americans are asking the government to change the gun laws and the government is not doing much about that, it made me ask what could I do for a community. I'm a member of the executive committee for An Evening With Women, which raises funds for services provided to LBTQ women, and I also donate money to the Los Angeles LGBT Center each month. But that didn't feel like it was enough.

I asked around, and here are suggestions that I've heard the most:

* Donate blood as much as you can, for all the gay boys who can't do it.
* Ask your employer/school to do a mass shooting emergency evacuation training. Ask your local clubs and bars to do the same. Booklets with instructions will also help.
* Support local gay establishments whether you live there or are just visiting. Remember, for some areas in the U.S. and for a lot of other countries they are still the only places for LGBT gatherings.

This weekly column is also a part of the project, so if you have any suggestions about how we all can contribute to the safety and happiness of LGBT people, please send them my way: Talking is not enough. We have to take action. So if you see something, say something. At least to me.

MILENA CHERNYAVSKAYAMILENA CHERNYAVSKAYA cofounded and was editor in chief at Agens magazine, the only lesbian magazine in Russia at the time of publishing. After the magazine was shut down in 2013, she moved to Los Angeles, where she now works with artists like Paul McCartney and Iggy Pop at Concord Music Group. She's involved with local LGBT movement and is a member of the executive committee for An Evening With Women, a charity gala benefiting the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

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Milena Chernyavskaya