In a modest dressing room, Russian men apply their eye shadow with an expert touch, slide on fishnet stockings or thigh-high boots, then take to the stage with an uninhibited freedom that they can only enjoy within the walls of a gay nightclub.
In a country where gay “propaganda” is banned and LGBTQ rights routinely repressed, the Fame Club in Yekaterinburg is a refuge.
While football fans attend a World Cup match in the city’s stadium, singers and dancers who call themselves Bomba, Star Vasha, Africa and others prepare to perform.
Choosing from hundreds of shades of lip tones and eye color, pulling up leotards with tattooed arms, they design a new persona.
Bomba dons an embroidered Slavic-style blouse and headgear topped with a silver star, reminiscent of the stars perched on the towers of the Kremlin. When she performs a Russian traditional dance, the crowd goes wild.
Star Vasha squeezes into a shimmering yellow gown, wrists draped in strings of pearls. Africa slips on a fire-red wig, and smokes quietly.
Waiting to take the stage, one checks a cell phone. Two performers share a pre-show kiss, barely touching so as not to smudge their flawless lipstick.
Outside, the men lead a different life, where they don’t advertise their sexual preferences for fear of professional, personal or even physical backlash.
A rainbow-colored card tucked in a dressing-room mirror is both a political statement and a reminder that, while Pride marches took place this weekend in London, Madrid and other European capitals, displaying rainbow flags in public in Russia can violate the law.
“In the company of friends you can say whatever you want, but in society you don’t,” says Star Vasha, whose real first name is Andrei, and who has a crush on Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo.
Africa, aka Dmitry, describes how he stays safe in the face of a mentality of “pitchforks and torches” toward Russia’s LGBTQ community: “When people talk about homosexuality, you try to change the subject.” And leave your bright-colored sneakers at home.
He fears kissing his boyfriend in public, but dreams of one day being able to marry and pleads for more “human understanding” toward people like him. “I understood from my very birth that I’m not like others,” he said. “You were born heterosexual, and I don’t detest you for that.”
As long as the World Cup is under way and the international spotlight is shining on Russia, authorities are forced to ease their pressure on the LGBTQ community. But some worry about what happens after the tournament ends. Others hope hosting the World Cup will open minds and encourage more tolerance among the conservative populace.
At the Fame Club, in the foothills of the Ural Mountains deep in Russia’s interior, no one judges anyone. Everyone is comfortable, and gay, lesbian and heterosexual couples mingle.
Backstage, performers are sometimes pensive. But sometimes laughter takes over, and broad smiles are all you see.