Once upon a time, there were two tall, blonde Dutch girls with a big dream: to travel the world together.
Not only did these girls share a friendship, but they also shared a romance. And this romance made their families a bit concerned about their travel plans. You see, they had set their sights upon traveling the Trans-Mongolian Railway, the longest railway in the world, which connects Moscow to the capital of China.
And Russia isn’t exactly the first country that comes to mind when one thinks about LGBTQ-friendly travel destinations.
Well, you guessed it: I happen to be one of those girls. And I wasn’t about to let that stop me.
So, my girlfriend Roxanne and I did some research.
When searching for “LGBTQ” “Russia” and “travel” our friend Google found that Lonely Planet has a ”gay and lesbian travellers” page for most countries. With help of that guide and some other trustworthy websites on queer travelling, we found that being gay in Russia is not illegal anymore, but that promoting an LGBTQ-lifestyle is.
Of course “promoting” can mean anything, and we didn’t know how far it went. Was it holding hands? Kissing in public? Talking about it?
In this case, we felt that it was definitely better to be safe than sorry, and not show too much gayness in public. Being gay in Russia is still very much frowned upon. “Frowned upon” might actually be an understatement. If you pay attention to world news, you know exactly what I’m talking about. LGBTQ people in Russia are no strangers to violence.
With all this information, we went on our adventure. This is what we learned along the way.
Consider what you want people to see.
Overall, we had a fantastic time traveling in Russia, and met amazing people along the way. But we did have our struggles with figuring out how to present ourselves.
We are from Amsterdam, which is one of the gay capitals of the world. It’s a place where you can be out and proud in public, although some people will still frown upon showing lots of PDA.
Because Russia is a conservative country, we decided to travel as “just friends.” We did not feel comfortable enough to be our true selves, and we hid our relationship from almost everyone we met while we were there. This resulted in some frustrating moments, especially while couchsurfing.
We couchsurfed every place we went. Couchsurfing is a platform that is meant to bring people closer, but for us, it ultimately drove us apart, because we weren’t comfortable telling our hosts that we were in a relationship. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the small private moments we could have with each other, and were very happy that we spoke a language no one could understand (and that we could still call each other “sweetie” in Dutch).
We looked at it like this: We’re not traveling as a couple to show off our romance. We’re traveling to explore different cultures together, and it’s only right that we respect their customs in return.
Don’t be surprised if you’re asked if you have a boyfriend/girlfriend.
We discovered that one Russian custom particularly relevant to us is that girls are considered ready for marriage at the age of 21. If you get a husband, you gain a better status in society; you have someone to take care of you, to provide money, a house, and a family.
All the young girls we met through couchsurfing told us they experience pressure from their mums to get married. Some did (almost) marry under pressure of their families. One of them married with the idea of getting a divorce in two years. Another broke off an engagement and decided not to settle.
So, like I said, don’t be surprised if you are repeatedly asked if you have a boyfriend. Just consider what your answer will be when you are. Ours simply was that we don’t, because it would be too difficult while traveling. And everyone was satisfied with that answer.
Some PDA is okay.
Some PDA will not seem gay, particularly if you’re women. And Roxanne and I also have the privilege of not “looking” queer (I do have to admit that growing my hair out was, in part, with the intention of looking more femme). Being queer is generally more acceptable for women than men in Russia (I guess it’s a yay for inequality for lesbians in this case).
We found that many Russian girls walk hand-in-hand on the streets. In general, girls are touchier and closer to each other than boys, so people will just think you are best friends. In a culture where being gay is still taboo, people will also tend to assume that any mild PDA is innately platonic.
Only one couchsurfing host asked if we were a couple – which we denied, as he made it clear that he was not okay with gay guys, and only semi-okay with lesbians. The same guy told us that talking about being gay is a forbidden topic in Russia (you can imagine how uncomfortable we felt then).
On the other hand, a different host was amazed by our friendship. She called it a “level 80 friendship,” was awed by how sweet we were to each other, and loved how we ended each other’s sentences. She definitely had no clue.
In Moscow, we met Tanya and Olga, a lesbian couple, who told us more about gay life in Russia.
“I personally never kiss my girl on the street, but we hold hands,” Tanya told us when we were sitting in a gay-friendly cafe. “Up to this moment, no one has ever told me it is a bad thing or something. If people would, I’d definitely tell them to shut up.”
Nonetheless Tanya and Olga told us that they often hear homophobia at universities, at work, and on the street. This is sadly considered common, and is why they’re forced to hide their relationship at work.
Tanya works at an international company with homophobic Russian management. She told us that she doesn’t exactly hide her love life, but she does have to use “he” and “him” when referring to Olga. Unsurprisingly, it’s even worse for gay men in these environments, and many gay men are forced to act homophobic in order to fit in at work.
If you don’t want to hide your relationship, travel to St. Petersburg or Moscow.
The horror stories about gay men in Chechnya definitely did not help our families feel better about our travels.
But Tanya and Olga told us that Moscow and St. Petersburg are more tolerant than the countryside. And though there are still not too many gay spots, we also discovered that St. Petersburg and Moscow now have some official gay-friendly places to patronize. But the further you travel out of city centers, the more homophobic people become.
Tanya is from Moscow, as is her mother, so she’s quite tolerant. Olga, on the other hand, is from Zhigulevsk, and her family is not tolerant at all, which is why they still don’t know about her relationship with Tanya.
You can still be out, you just have to do so safely.
Tanya said that she is out and proud with friends, and that she brings Olga along when she sees them.
She also told us that some girls organize “Pupsiki Parties,” a series of parties for lesbians (men can come too), and that queer women can meet at concerts, movie premieres, and festivals that are gay-related.
There’s not much, but it’s something.
“I’ve never lived in other circumstances, so I can’t imagine how ‘normal’ gay things should go,” was probably the most important thing Tanya said to us. “It’s hard for me to imagine that we can stand in the middle of a square and kiss.”
For me, this is sad. But it’s also real. It’s the true feeling of being a queer local in Russia.
So, can you be queer in Russia?
It’s definitely possible. It’s a challenge for sure, but does it ever come easy?
The culture and people we met totally exceeded our expectations – in the best way. But we definitely underestimated the feelings that come with hiding our relationship.
I would not suggest Russia for your LGBTQ honeymoon, but if you are looking for adventure, Russia is the place to go. Plus, the Trans-Siberian Railway is totally bucket list material! The landscapes that pass by your train window are incredible. And in the end, we were happy we decided to travel by Trans-Mongolian Express from Ulan Ude into Mongolia.
Russia was great, but we are ready for a new country, new customs, and thus, a new adventure.
Have you ever visited Russia, or do you want to? Share your experiences in the comments!