Miss Tequila sashays across the stage, enjoying some naughty banter with the regulars. It is 10pm and the drag show at St Petersburg’s largest gay club, Central Station, is about to begin. Despite the country’s notoriously homophobic agenda, the vibe in the crowded room is warm and relaxed.
“Nightclubs in St Petersburg and in Moscow are like a ghetto with its own laws,” says Maxim Poddyachii, former creative director of Central Station. “They do not pay attention to what is going on outside.”
Before receiving political asylum in the United States this winter, Poddyachii spent three years working at Central Station. He says the recent anti-gay laws have not had a large impact on the city’s clubs. “After the anti-propaganda law was passed, we took the word ‘gay’ off of our website, increased face control and became more diligent about checking passports,” he explains.
According to Alexei Makarov, manager of Central Station, business has not suffered. “We do not make a scene. We just do what we do within the walls of our club,” he says. “As a result, people feel safe coming here. They know that there is freedom here, that there is protection here.”
At first glance, Makarov’s statement rings true. Dancefloors at Central Station, The Blue Oyster and Malevich, three of St Petersburg’s gay clubs, are packed on weekends. The crowd is mixed, and some of the attendees are not members of the LGBT community.
“It seemed interesting, and I wanted to learn something new,” says Irina Mochalkina, a student in St Petersburg. “I think that spaces like this should exist because they allow people to express themselves. I am not gay, but I think that prohibiting same-sex relations when they are accepted almost everywhere in the world is wrong.”
While clubs are still safe, and even vibrant, the Russian government’s anti-gay campaign has put a damper on the party. “After the anti-propaganda law came out, people became more closed, and it became more difficult for them to go to a club,” says Jonathan, a bartender at The Blue Oyster who does not feel comfortable revealing his last name.
According to Jonathan, who is also a gay activist, levels of internal homophobia have increased significantly. “These laws program people to react negatively,” he says. “A lot of people with serious psychological issues come in. These are people who have faced discrimination at school and at home. With these new laws, it all adds up, and it causes a lot of self-hate and other issues.”
Many clubs attempt to mitigate the negative effects of homophobia by organizing special events and, in some cases, supporting local activists. Central Station holds an after-party on weekends, where entry is free for all after 5am and there is a closing drag show.
“We invite people from outside of the LGBT community so they can see that the LGBT community is not as bad as it is portrayed,” Makarov says. “The drag show helps develop their understanding of gay culture.”
The Blue Oyster and Malevich both support the community by providing a space for local activist groups to meet outside working hours. Last year, Malevich offered Side by Side, an LGBT film festival, the opportunity to screen a film in its space. The club also hosts its own film screenings, politically themed drag shows and other events.
“We react to political events through art,” explains Ivan Konkir, who runs Malevich with his partner. “We always try to express our views and to support the community.”
According to Konkir, offering this type of support is safe. As the club is a legitimate business and holds all necessary permits, it cannot be shut down. Plus, Malevich is located in an alleyway, off the beaten path, so the club’s activities are unlikely to attract much outside attention.
“Only those who know about us can find us and bring their friends. No one comes in by accident, and that makes us happy,” Konkir says.
Not all the city’s clubs are as confident. According to Poddyachii, the owners of Central Station are afraid of being shut down and maintain an apolitical stance. “You never know. Today is an information war, but tomorrow even the clubs could be closed,” he says.
Still, Poddyachii believes the club owners have a duty to support LGBT activism. “Gay clubs must be like a church for gay people,” he says. “They must not only provide a space to have fun; they must also provide moral support.”
Poddyachii resigned from his role at Central Station last fall after, he says, the owners refused to support local activism. “I think that saying everything is okay is a crime,” he says. “Gay culture is not just about drinking, kissing and dancing. It is a constant fight for rights. And some of St Petersburg’s gay clubs are just trying to turn us into zombies.”