Uncovering the Underground Sochi: Men beyond Visibility

When we walk to the top of the coastal boulevard, we can hardly find the entrance of ‘Mayak’, a legendary spot for the invisible LGBT community. The entrance is hidden and the door is locked. We knock the door, and we can hear the disco music behind the door. And yet, no one comes to the door but someone talks to us in Russian through a speaker: “Do you have the membership card?” Without a membership card, our entrance is rejected.

The other night I manage to get in ‘Mayak’ with two local LGBT contacts. No membership card is required this time. Despite its nearly invisible outlook, the interior decoration looks vivid and colorful. Staff is unusually friendly at Sochi standard, and visitors, both LGBT and non-LGBT, all share a happy face. Before the disco dancing, the bar has arranged a drag queen show, a combination of stand-up comedy, game and performance. The club does not differ much from other clubs I can find in other parts of the city.

The adventure only begins when my company shows me the other side. There is a way to the open air area where is called cruise bar with a small swimming pool. When we walk through the cruise bar, there is an entrance to the ‘dark zone’ which looks like a maze. Some people lie on the couch with their laptop. Some stand in the corner and look around. And some stay in the television room, where they can watch gay porn. The atmosphere in the ‘dark zone’ seems much more mysterious than the main hall.

My friends give me a mini tour of the ‘dark zone’. The corridor is designed in a fairly narrow way which may facilitate unavoidable physical contacts among the visitors. With the dim surrounding and the anonymity that the bar offers, LGBT visitors might find it relatively more comfortable to approach strangers. Frankly speaking, hardly can I identify any faces amidst the darkness; I can only sense the strangers around me by my sixth-sense.

Who will come to the dark zone? The anonymity in the dark indeed offers the visitors a sense of confidentiality that prevents their identity being exposed to the public; and yet the lack of knowledge about the people whom they might have sexual relation could be risky – they could get exposed to different sexually transmitted diseases or even human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). “Only those who are totally in the closet [literally mean no one knows his/her attraction to the same sex] will come to the dark zone for quick sex.” One of my friends says.

Sexual orientation remains a taboo in Russia, partly because of the disapproval of the Orthodox Church, partly because of the political objection and partly because of the social conservatism. In Russia, male homosexual act used to be criminalized until 1993. With less than 20 years history of accepting homosexuality on a legal ground, not many LGBT individuals in Russia can embrace their sexual identity. That could be why a place like ‘Mayak’ needs to be so closed and exclusive.

When we are about to leave, I see some young faces checking in the ‘dark zone’ with curiosity. I find myself asking the question: Will they celebrate their identity under the sun someday?

I pass through the exit and hear noises from the crowd throughout my way. Until the door is closed, everything is quiet again. The questions that remain unanswered and memories of the adventure seem to be left in the dark.

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About Brian Yeung

Growing up in Hong Kong, pearl of the orient, I have been exposed to many cultures throughout my upbringing, from Sushi to British Top Talents and Tetris. And yet, after my stay in Europe, Russia and Southeast Asia for study and work, I realise a lot of cultural perception and presentation are just myths and stereotypes. Exploring the real accent of a particular country and its culture becomes my agenda of traveling. I value travel as a way to discover the diversity of life choices. After all, life is just the consequence of our many life choices; the one who is aware of its diversity is the luckiest person alive.

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