What It's Really Like to Travel as a Gay Woman in Russia

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The couple share a kiss in Red Square. (Photo: Jenny Block)

When I told people I was going to spend a few days in Moscow, Russia at the Ritz, they all said the same thing. “Russia? Really? Be careful. The Ritz should be nice at least.”

They were scared for me because I am an American. But they were even more scared because I am a lesbian.

They were scared because of the “gay propaganda law,” a law that was enacted in June of 2013 “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.“ It is a Russian law for Russian citizens. But it is also a law that allows the Russian government to jail foreigners up to two weeks and then deport them should they be violation of it. It’s a law that is so ambiguous in its language that two women or two men kissing in the streets could easily be seen as a flagrant violation.

No words exist to describe the fear of being jailed for being who you are and for loving who you do.

The law is against gay anything that normalizes being LGBT, particularly to those underage. It’s a catch-all. And that is what makes it so scary.

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It was because of that law that I questioned my decision to travel to Russia right up until I got on the flight to Moscow. Last chance, I told myself. You can still turn back. Plenty of flights from Frankfurt to New York. But my fearless girlfriend interlaced her fingers with mine and smiled that smile. “It’s going to be great,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Taking a selfie in the historic town of Kizhi. (Photo: Jenny Block)

And we did. And she was right.

My big plan was not to hold hands or kiss in public. My big plan was to be invisible. But my girlfriend had other plans. Whenever my girlfriend took my hand or guided me across the cobblestones as I teetered on impossibly high heels or kissed or nuzzled me, I watched for the police that I imagined would race in and arrest us. But none came. I scanned the faces of passersby for looks of disgust and disdain. But none were there.

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We wandered every corner of Moscow, the Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Bolshoi, the busy streets of downtown where locals and tourists alike filled the sidewalks, restaurants, artist’s enclaves, shops, and museums.

Our friends were right about the Ritz, of course. But for more than the most obvious reasons. It was glamorous and exquisitely appointed. The staff were beyond compare. But more than that, they were welcoming and open and unfazed by our being gay.

The couple in front of the Kremlin. (Photo: Jenny Block)

When we checked in, the handsome man at the front desk confirmed that we wanted a King bed. “As you wish,” he said with a smile, not skipping a beat. When I asked a manager at the hotel about whether it was possible to be out and gay in Moscow, he told me that a number of the employees at the hotel were openly gay and added that Moscow boasts a variety of gay clubs. “There is the law, of course,” he reminded me. The law. Yes. How could I forget?

It was that law that made me catch my breath every time my girlfriend touched me or held my hand in public. It made me feel sad to think that I was in a place where my mere existence in the universe was basically illegal at worst, inappropriate, unseemly, and grotesque at best. And if I let my mind get the best of me, it made me feel anxious and desperate and terribly frightened.

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But my girlfriend is fearless and believes there is good in everyone and refuses to allow anyone to tell her that who she is and who she loves is wrong. And so we were gay in Russia, we were out in Russia, and the world didn’t end.

Dinner at White Rabbit in the historical center of Moscow. (Photo: Jenny Block)

And as my new Russian friends would say, “It is magic, no?”

It is magic. Yes. Not just the city and its history and gastronomy and art. But the people. So many of whom shared with us their distaste for the politics of the place in whispered words – but more importantly, in their loud acceptance of us from the depths of the Metro stations to the terrace bar at the top of the Ritz where we kissed as a full, red moon rose over St. Basil.

I cannot begin to imagine how painful it would be to live in a country where your very life is illegal. I know people have gone to jail as recently as the last few weeks for gathering and protesting this inhumane law. We didn’t wear our HRC t-shirts or march with signs on a busy square. But we were ourselves. And we were just fine.

And, I hope that our presence did at least the tiniest bit of service to the LGBT community there. Visibility is the first step of acceptance.

We were visible in Moscow. And it was magic.

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