Sochi has one gay club. It is called Mayak, or “light house,” and it is located behind an unmarked door right off one of the city’s lush parks. You have to buzz to be let in.
Once you’re in, though, you’re just as likely to encounter a foreign journalist as a local.
As Olympic preparations have ramped up and now that the Games are in full swing, Mayak has been mobbed by foreign journalists eager to capture how the local gays live now that Russia has passed a law banning gay propaganda among minors and is now internationally known for hating gays. The foreign journalists buzz about the place. “Have you been to Mayak yet?” we ask one another.
“Too many,” Zhanna the butch cashier says rolling her eyes when I ask her how many foreign journalists have come through here. “Questions, cameras. And always with the same questions.” Are gays being persecuted? Beaten? “I always tell them that we observe all the laws. No one bothers us and we don’t bother anyone.”
The only people who bother them, it seemed, were the foreign journalists. Pointing cameras in their faces, asking questions. “People are annoyed because they don’t want to be on screen,” Zhanna explained. Though some people don’t realize they’re being taped—like one gentleman who did a drunken birthday dance recently only to find himself in an American news segment.
“Are we annoying?” I asked the manager.
“Yes,” he said icily. Then he added, “If you want an interview, call our people and schedule one.”
On Saturday night, I decided to check it out, along with friends who work for The Guardian, TIME, and The Independent. A flock of AP reporters was already there, enjoying mojitos. In the hallway, a TV reporter was interviewing two girls in leopardware on camera. Nearby, a Danish TV reporter named Matilda told me she was interested in doing a story “that isn’t victimized.” It was an important story because "gay rights are a big issue in Europe." The bar owner, she said, was busy giving interviews in a private room. “We called last week to schedule an interview and we got 15 minutes between the Finns and the Swiss.” Her local fixer tapped me on the shoulder. “There are three more journalists sitting next to her,” he said. But, he explained, they were Russian correspondents. “They’re confused,” he said. “They don’t know what to do, professionally.”
“We’ve given over 200 interviews in the last month,” says Mayak owner Andrey Tanichev. Every country has sent its correspondents, he says, “except the Spanish, God bless them.” The Americans have sent the most reporters, but the BBC has set a record: they came by four times.
Tanichev says the law hasn’t affected the club in any way. “The law applies to propaganda among minors, but we’ve never let in people under 21” because of a local law that curfews minors. And business was a lot harder when Mayak opened almost a decade ago, Tanichev says. “There just weren’t many gays, people were embarrassed to come.”
“The Soviet Union was a closed country, it had its own customs,” he went on. “Norms change slowly, tolerance grows slowly. It’s much more tolerant now than it was ten years ago.”
Meanwhile, the 1:30 drag cabaret was getting started with the room rowdily singing the Russian national anthem as a rainbow flag waved in a digital wind on a jumbo screen. Cameramen scurried. A dark-haired woman near me whipped out a note pad. A man in front of me hurriedly set up a tripod.
After she came on stage and lip sang “I Will Survive,” Zaza Napoli decided to address the new and very busy guests.
“Don’t be scared of the cameramen, my friends! Relax!” she said to Mayak’s regular guests. “These are our international partners!”
New Republic Senior Editor Julia Ioffe will be writing dispatches from Russia for the duration of the Olympics. For the entire collection of her pieces, click here.