SOCHI, Russia – Nemo from Serbia, here in Sochi to work on one of the cruise ships docked downtown for the Winter Olympics, scans his phone Friday night amid the pulsating lights and loud beats of Club Mayak. This is one of the few gay bars in a city where the mayor was quoted claiming there are no gay people.
Earlier, the opening ceremony was shown on the oversized television behind the stage in the middle of the club. Later, the same area would host an elaborate drag show. Right now, Nemo is swiping his phone and laughing over a message a friend sent him via Facebook.
"He claims Vladimir Putin has banned all gay activity here during the Olympics," Nemo said.
So, here's guessing you're violating that tonight?
"Absolutely," Nemo said laughing. "There is no question."
Russia has come under international attack for passing a series of anti-gay laws and embracing a general anti-gay culture in the run up to its turn on the world stage as host of these Olympics.
Yet on the night of the torch was lit, with Putin himself down the road in Olympic Park, the region's bustling gay community – locals and visitors – drank, danced and, well, promised to engage in "activites" to celebrate the occasion.
Putin was dismissed as everything from a typical politician seeking support from the countries close-minded citizens to an outright ignorant and evil dictator. While some saw him as dangerous, others took he and his rhetoric less seriously.
The club is found down a winding alley in the city's hotel district, just south of the city center. It lacks any signage. There is just a short red carpet in front of a windowless door. You need to buzz a doorbell just to get a speaker to cackle to life. Then you talk your way in.
Perhaps because of its obscure location, once inside the spacious, modern and clean facility, everyone feels free and comfortable as they wish to be. No matter what the President says.
"It's politics," said Nastia, sharing a sushi dinner at Mayak with her girlfriend, Alex. "[In Russia] these are complex issues."
She shrugged at it all.
"We're individuals," she said.
The individuals come in all ways here at Mayak. There were women dolled up for a night on the town. There were men wearing leather pants yet no shirt. Others streaked mascara across their face in the dressing rooms in back. Still more just arrived in work clothes, looking as indistinguishable as possible, maybe just looking for a drink or three.
While Russia's gay rights issues have been a story in the West, they are little more than a longstanding reality here. The push by Putin to outlaw anyone involved in promoting "gay propaganda" was mocked. "I can't make you gay," Nemo laughed. "Study some science."
[Related: Obama highlights gay rights in Sochi delegation ]
There is an appreciation for the global support though, even though few think anything will change soon, in part because nothing changes quickly here. That's true even in the somewhat free-for-all Sochi region, which reportedly has the nation's second-largest gay community after much-larger Moscow.
While Putin is unpopular – "many Russian people don't like him, don't like our president," said bartender Aidar Kayumov – there is no lack of nationalism.
When the opening ceremonies played on the big screen, guests and workers watched intently. They cheered when the Russian team entered the stadium and again when the torch was lit. They paid far more attention to the show than the speeches, but they are united in their fandom. And there is no lack of enthusiasm for the Games.
Even the club's website – and in house advertising – features drag queens dressed as Olympic athletes.
On the big screen they show traditional Russian nesting dolls of the same sex, holding hands. There are advertisements proclaiming "together we are making a difference" and "without the colors of the rainbow, the world is grey and brown." There are rainbow flags stuck between the bottles behind the bar.
There were also a lot of hockey fans, fully demanding gold from Alex Ovechkin and the boys.
Putin and the others may want to define this community, but it's too complex and diverse for that. Mostly this is a look into the reality of so many of the world's gays and lesbians, who can only dream that the ability to marry was even a debate.
"You have to understand I'm coming from a place that has a very persistent homophobic culture," Nemo said, noting Russia is worse than Serbia, but only by a degree or two. "It's not like America. I've learned how to live in a homophobic country. I know the rules. I know what to say. I know when I can be open and when I can not."
The United States serves as a beacon here. Multiple people expressed an interest in moving there. One disappointedly told of a denied visa. Others asked just how life was like.
Nastia and Alex proudly noted their sushi was "Roll California."
"We love America," Nastia said.
Yet they'll root for Russia in these Games, though. In the end, the Olympics are about nationalism, each country against the world. And no matter how much Vladimir Putin may wish it wasn't true, this here, down this alley, through this metal door and into this energetic club, is as much Russia as anywhere else.
Hidden in plain view, just miles from Putin's big billion-dollar party, that more than anything is what they wish the world to understand.
They are here. And they are Russian, too.
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