The day that Arkady Gyngazov’s plane landed at Kennedy International Airport in New York, thugs and hooligans hired by the owner of the building in Moscow where the gay nightclub he helped managed is located, ripped an entire portion of the roof off the building, heating and air conditioning units, exposing the club to the harsh Russian winter.
Gyngazov said that it was at that moment – learning that bit of news upon his arrival in the U.S. – that he decided to turn his preplanned vacation into a quest to obtain his freedom from the increasingly hostile attitude towards LGBT Russians in his native land.
Gyngazov sat down with LGBTQ Nation recently to speak about being gay in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the negatively charged atmosphere that Russian LGBT people are encountering, particularly after passage last summer of an anti-gay propaganda law.
His decision to seek political asylum in the United States was a difficult choice, but made somewhat easier by the fact that he has traveled to the U.S. on numerous occasions, including participating in an internship at the LGBT Resource Center Dallas in Dallas, working on HIV-AIDS prevention and awareness issues while still attending university.
He said that his ability to speak English and his understanding of American culture and society is helping his transition.
Gyngazov, 32, was part of a management team that ran “Central Station,” a popular Moscow gay nightclub that was the target of several acts of violence last year, including a shooting incident in November, and later the release of a noxious gas inside the club, causing its evacuation.
Adding to the difficulties, the building’s owners installed a pair of oversize red neon signs with the legend “gay club here” and large arrows pointing to its entrance-way.
With rising tensions and incidents of violence directed at gay Russians nationally, Gyngazov said the signs placed huge targets on the club for homophobic ultra-nationalists or Orthodox extremists intent on harassing, assaulting or harming gay Russians.
Now on U.S. soil, Gyngazov said he feels safer as a gay man, but at the same time misses his homeland and its culture.
The McLean, Va.-based Spectrum Human Rights advocacy group is assisting Gyngazov in his bid to win political asylum based on the ongoing persecution and prosecution of LGBT Russians under a spate of anti-gay laws enacted last year. Gyngazov said he has lived in fear in Russia due to more radical anti-gay groups emboldened by those laws.
Gyngazov is originally from the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he had studied psychology at the Tomsk Teacher’s Training University. He moved to Moscow about eight years ago, hoping to be able to live more openly as a gay man. He left behind a sister and a brother, as well as grandparents, all of whom are unaware of his sexual orientation. Both his parents are deceased.
Looking back, he admitted that early on he liked boys, but it simply wasn’t possible to even contemplate being gay. But, he said, there were times of friction growing up in his family and with some friends. Gyngazov said he gravitated towards having more female friends than boys, and that his interests were looked at as ‘softer’ and less masculine in Russian culture.
But, he admitted that as a gay youth living in Siberia, he really didn’t pay too close attention to what was happening politically, as there was barely any openness by gay Russians in everyday life.
He said that in the five years before he moved to Moscow, he had started to live more openly, working at an organization for HIV-AIDS prevention and awareness.
He originally found work in Moscow at a Russian “banya.” a type of sauna and bathhouse combination that was run by a pair of gay Russians. They later hired him to be part of the management team at the nightclub they also owned.
Gyngazov said that his IT abilities were of great use to the owners in running both businesses, especially the nightclub, which he said was a more lucrative venture. His responsibilities included managing the inventory data, logistical support, running the front desk and its security teams/bouncers, and IT support.
He recalled that he never saw November’s shooting incident take place, but experienced the aftermath and its resulting publicity.
“I wasn’t really scared living in Moscow, people mostly don’t ask about such things,” he said. “But I worried as incidents get worse.”
“Unlike the U.S. and other western nations, there aren’t ‘gay neighborhoods’ and many gay clubs and bars are still operating unmarked and there are no adverts for them.” he said. “Word of mouth is still the principal means of advertising for gay Russians.”
As such, life under Putin has changed things for the worse for gay Russians, he said.
Gyngazov came of age in President Boris Yeltsin’s Russia after former Soviet Union laws that criminalized homosexuality had been repealed. Now, he says, it is though Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country’s federal Duma [Parliament] are forcing back the clock to that harsher era.
He was shocked that the anti-gay propaganda law passed in the Duma (Russian Parliament) – it was not expected to pass, he said. In fact, he and many of his peers thought it was just political talk to keep the powerful Russian Orthodox Church happy with the government.
The law bans the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” among minors, and is open to diverse “interpretations” as it is too broad and vaguely written, he said.
Gyngazov says he worries for the friends he’s left behind, and thinks that after the world is no longer watching Russia after the Olympics, life for gay Russians will be even worse.
But for now, he’ll work at finding a job, getting his political asylum granted, and starting his life over away from his homeland.