Opinion
8 min

Russian drag queens reflect on anti-gay law one year later

‘Now, I am less forthcoming,’ says 21-year-old St Petersburg queen

Miss Shamina in her outside clothes. Credit: Julia Lisnyak

With Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law now more than a year old, Xtra caught up with four of St Petersburg’s leading drag queens to ask them how they’re coping, how the law affects them, and how they’re continuing to express themselves in such a climate.

While prepping for a performance in the dressing room of the city’s largest gay club, Central Station, amid a flurry of flying glitter and catty bickering, they spoke about the challenges they have faced, the sources of their inspiration and their retirement plans.

Read the interviews below and click on the photo box above for a slideshow by Russian photographer Julia Lisnyak.

Miss Shamina

The 20-year-old pistol, who is the lead performer at Central Station, hails from a small town in the Tyumenskaya oblast, in the far north of Russia, where she is known as Evgeny. She left home at the age of 12 to study theatre and dance at a school for gifted artists in northern Russia. After school, she moved to St Petersburg and performed in professional theatre and ballet but left after she discovered drag was her true calling. She has been at Central Station for more than three years and travels to perform at gay clubs and restaurants across the country. Her most satisfying gig was officiating a mock gay wedding.

How would you describe your performance style?

For me, drag is not just about putting on women’s clothes and running around. It’s about portraying the ideal of femininity, as I see it. When I come out onstage, I show what a woman should be like: what her makeup should be like, what she should smell like and how she should carry herself. I always dress as a beautiful young woman, who is cold and collected, like crystal — the kind of woman you cannot touch or approach.

Are you open with your friends and family? Have they seen your act?

I came from a small town, where staying in the closet is very difficult. It is a very small circle. Also, when I was studying in the art school, we all lived together, and it was very hard to pretend that I was straight. Many of my classmates suspected that I was gay, although I was never open about it.

Now, both of my parents know that I am gay and that I perform in drag for a living. When I first came out to my father, he did not accept it. At the time, I was dating a straight man, who fell in love with my drag persona, and I was on a waiting list for sex-reassignment surgery so that we could be together. My father did not want me to go through with it and did not speak to me for six months. After, I changed my mind, and my father and I reconnected. Now I send him photos and videos.

My mother accepted me right away, because she is a very warm and accepting person. She is more of a friend for me. Last fall, she came to St Petersburg and saw a show. That night, I opened by explaining that my mother is my favourite person in the world and reciting poetry. She was very touched and cried.

My former teachers and classmates also know about my life. When I first came out, it was online. There were many different responses: some said it was disgusting, others admitted to also being gay, and some just offered support. Many of my classmates now live in St Petersburg and come to see my performances. Even the ones who are straight come and cheer me on.

How has the anti-gay propaganda law affected your life?

The law has not impacted me directly, but I think it is horrible because it is a law against expressing love. I still feel comfortable telling people that I am gay, but this law is an embarrassment for our country and a violation of human rights.

Many people who have done something for Russia are gay people. The government would gain more from learning from gay people, because we are people who are into the arts and who are driving cultural development. Instead of trying to place the blame for all evils on gay people, the government should do something positive, like raise pensions and salaries.

Have you been a victim of discrimination?

I faced a lot of aggression from my fellow students when I was studying. I suffered a lot during that period. They were very homophobic, so I could not be open about who I was, and I felt like a stranger in this world. Now that I am in St Petersburg, I live the open life that I wanted and should have had before.

What are your retirement plans?

I want to retire in Spain or Italy. Before that happens, my dream is to travel around the world and perform. I would like to learn from drag queens from abroad and to show the world that Russia has some great artists.

Diana Ross

When in street clothes, the fabulous Diana Ross is known as Alexander. The 30-year-old comes from Saratov, a port city on the Volga River. Diana Ross has been living in St Petersburg for just over a year and has devoted most of that time to perfecting and performing her act at Central Station. In her spare time, she writes poetry and hangs out with her five-year old son, whom she loves dearly.

How would you describe your performance style?

I consider myself a parody artist. I imitate a lot of Russian singers, like Tatyana Bulanova. I also do a Britney Spears act. Now I am preparing numbers for Toni Braxton and Jennifer Lopez.

Are you open with your friends and family? Have they seen your act?

My father is dead. My mother guesses. As does my former partner. This is not why we divorced. I initiated the divorce because I was stressed at work and unhappy.

My wife did see photos of me in costume on the computer. We did not talk about it. It just passed silently. The photos were very photoshopped, so maybe she did not even realize it was me.

How has the anti-gay-propaganda law affected your life?

It doesn’t affect me at all. It affects those who walk around the street in costume. It’s dangerous to walk around in costume. You have to be completely transitioned to do that. You can be stopped by the police and asked for your documents. If the name on the documents is male but you are walking down the street in a wig, there will be a lot of questions and you will find yourself arrested.

They can even throw you into the psychiatric ward for assessment. They all think that all artists of this genre are mentally unstable.

For me, it’s fine because clubs exist, and I can work in clubs.

Slava Famous

One of Central Station’s most controversial acts, Slava Famous transcends gender labels by selecting costumes and choreography that challenge stereotypes. The dancer and choreographer was born in a small town in the north of Russia but grew up shuttling between Moscow and St Petersburg and studying the arts. When not at work, Slava Famous enjoys reading psychology books, people-watching and drinking tea.

How would you describe your performance style?

Really, I am more of a freak than a drag queen. I strive to combine the masculine and the feminine image. It is something I have been doing since childhood. When I was five or six, I would take off my sandals, put on my mother’s heels and go outside. I loved the clicking that the heels made on the pavement. I really loved that sound. I could probably have listened to that clicking for hours.

Perhaps it is all because I was born as a hermaphrodite. My psychology is different: I do not have an orientation at all. I do not consider myself gay, heterosexual, bisexual or any of that. When I perform, I like to go outside of the borders and to do something that is dirty. For example, for costumes, I do not like to stuff my bra or to wear a long, elegant dress. I like just wearing stockings, lacy underwear and very bright makeup. When it comes to artists, I pick freaky artists like Lady Gaga.

Are you open with your friends and family? Have they seen your act?

My parents ask me to hide my particularities. I do not agree. I think people should know that individuals like me exist so that they can understand and accept us. My friends know who I am and what I do.

My parents and I still have a loving and respectful relationship, but they would not even suspect that I perform in drag. They know me as a completely different person.

How has the anti-gay-propaganda law affected your life?

It had no impact on me at all. I do have a very negative opinion of it because it equates gays with pedophiles.

What are your retirement plans?

I will raise my grandchildren.  I do not care about the gender of my partner, truly. But I want children and grandchildren. I will bake for them and teach them how to hammer in a nail properly.

Claudia Diamond

Claudia Diamond discovered her passion for performing in drag during a college pageant where all students crossdressed and performed. The 21-year-old, also known as Evgeny, hails from a small town just outside St Petersburg and brings the flavour of small-town living to her onstage act.

How would you describe your performance style?

I consider myself an actor. I take a song and, sitting on my couch at night, I try to come up with a corresponding act. My most popular act is to the track “I Will Come Outside,” by Yulya Checherina. The song is about going out carousing in the village and has a folky feel. When I act it out, I dress up as a sexy cow. I see that act as a good way of poking fun at myself.

Are you open with your friends and family? Have they seen your act?

My parents know both that I am gay and about my career choice. Of course, they do not approve of it, but what can they do? My mom has seen me dressed up. My dad only in photos.

When my mom saw me, I was actually surprised by her reaction. It happened by accident: I was leaving the house to perform and was already in full costume, and she was coming home. She did not say, “Oh god, how horrible, how can you do this?” Instead, she told me that I looked gorgeous.

It meant a lot to me, but I did not really get to talk to her about it because I was in a rush to get to work.

How has the anti-gay propaganda law affected your life?

I am more reserved when I am out on the street. It’s not like I would walk around screaming about being gay before, but I led an open life. I lived in a small town and everyone knew about my orientation. Now, I am less forthcoming.

Have you been a victim of discrimination?

Yes. There are three scars on my leg, where I was kicked by someone who was wearing steel-toe boots. That happened in Grade 7. I came out early in life, and a lot of people in my town were homophobic. I was attacked by a group of men in their early 20s in the middle of the day, while I was out playing with my friends.

I did not go to the police because there was no point. The police in Gatchina, the town I am from, would have just said that I was guilty because I had been harassing them.

I spent a month and a half in the hospital and another month and a half with my leg bandaged. Now, I try to forget about that experience.

I still feel victimized fairly frequently. There is a lot less of it in St Petersburg, of course, but there is still enough. It really depends on what I choose to consider an act of discrimination. If it is just a dirty look or an insult, then it happens constantly.