Sochi Olympics put spotlight on Moscow's 'gay ghetto

    10:33 AM, Jan 13, 2014   |    comments
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    RUSSIA (CNN) -- Aside from security concerns, the upcoming games will also put a spotlight on Russia's recent anti-gay propaganda law. While foreign activists are gearing up for public gestures of protest during the games, reports the response among some Russian homosexuals is fear.

    Pavel Petel is an extraordinary figure in Russia. He built a career as an openly gay performance artist, often smashing through the limits of this conservative society.

    Big heels, huge wigs, often wearing very little very publicly, Petel is now a changed man. "I'm scared to come to the streets now wearing wigs or heels," he says. "I wear them much more rarely."

    Russia has never been an easy place to be openly gay. This is the traditional, rapid response to gay rights events. Activists say it's now even more difficult after parliament passed what has become known as the anti-gay propaganda law.

    In very broad language it makes it illegal to promote gay relationships to children. Petel fears the law could be enforced against him.

    He says he's started to worry about his safety, he dresses down on the street and he fears arrest.

    He says he's now receiving threats online and the straight night clubs that hired him to perform have stopped offering work.

    Pavel Petel says he knows he will have to change his way of life to exist in Russia. It's a rule most gay people in this country decided to live by long ago.

    It's not illegal to be gay here, that was decriminalized 20 years ago but nor is it accepted.

    Moscow, a city of more than 11 million people, has only a handful of gay night clubs. Not one of those CNN visited with will allow a camera inside.

    On the street, few people are willing to be identified. Viktor Michaelson says most of Moscow's gay population has always lived in secret and they now have even greater reason to embrace anonymity.

    The gay scene here is often referred to as a ghetto. Michaelson said, "They're not imposed to stay in the ghetto but they feel more comfortable because they can.. you know. Yeah. Be themselves. That's right."

    Alexander Gudkov says outside the ghetto there's a clear rule, but he wants more. He said, "It's very bad. I want to live in open life. And I want to live my life. It's not my choice. It's my life."

    Russia is a conservative country, until relatively recently cut off from the social progress of the western world. Gay people say they understand why acceptance here has come slowly.

    But they now fear the gay propaganda law has triggered a tide of intolerance, making their dream of equality and freedom even more distant.

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