Nicole spent nine months this year locked up at home, where his parents “beat and humiliated” him for wanting to transition to female, before escaping and seeking refuge in Russia’s first LGBT shelter.The sanctuary, in a guarded complex on the edge of Moscow, can take up to 14 people.
It opened in April to house gay men fleeing Russia’s Chechnya region after revelations of jailings and police torture there.
Then in October, gay support group Moscow Community Center opened up the shelter to other LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people who are homeless or vulnerable.
The idea to create such a space in Russia had been long discussed but the crackdown on Chechen gays helped the Moscow Community Center to raise funds, said director Olga Baranova.
These include people who are transitioning, those thrown out by their families and others who have lost jobs or been attacked, she said.
The three occupants who spoke to AFP all come from the Caucasus region, where, they said, entrenched homophobia is rife.
Nicole, whose long dark hair is tied back in a ponytail, is from ex-Soviet Azerbaijan while the others are from Russia.
After Nicole, who uses masculine forms when talking about himself, grew his hair long and started taking female hormones, his family locked him in their flat for long periods.
“From January to September, I was locked up and they wouldn’t let me out,” he said, adding that he barely moved from the couch and had suicidal thoughts as he was unable to take hormones.
His parents finally agreed to let him leave for Russia and helped him buy a ticket but threatened to kill him and themselves if he ever came back.
“When I got here, I couldn’t stand on my feet, my muscles had atrophied,” he said, saying he suffered pain and swollen legs for days from long lack of use.
“I was fighting a battle with myself, with my inner self, with my appearance,” he says.
– ‘Build a new life’ –
The occupants of the refuge said they saw no future in Russia and, with help from its organisers, plan to go abroad.
Nicole is still taking female hormones and recently had his testicles removed.
He moved to the shelter after asking the United Nations for support and hopes to eventually move to the Netherlands.
“I have a few operations ahead and I want to build a new life and get new ID papers. Here I won’t be able to do that,” he said.
Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he appears extremely nervous, meeting in the Moscow Community Center’s office.
Another resident Grigory Chibirov, 22, is confident with bright blond hair and blue nail varnish.
“I feel safe there, among my own kind,” he says of the shelter. “We’re all friendly and support each other — because no one else does.”
Coming from Vladikavkaz, a city in North Ossetia, he said his parents and brothers felt “disgraced” by him being gay.
“I can’t live there because of who I am,” he said simply.
He was bullied from a young age in the region bordering Chechnya and his family even forcibly shaved his hair off when he dyed it.
“Fearing for my life, I left,” he recalled.
As an adult, he says he has been sacked from jobs, been attacked and had people yell “fag” at him in the street.
He plans to move to France and wants to work in fashion.
“In this country I won’t be able to fulfil my potential,” he says.
And he doubts things will improve.
“Maybe in 50 or 100 years — but it’s unlikely to happen while (President Vladimir) Putin is in power,” he says.
He cites recent laws, including one banning “propaganda” of gay relationships to minors.
The homophobic climate means almost no celebrities have come out. Gay pride events are regularly banned and crushed by riot police.
– ‘A second family’ –
The shelter offers a stay of six weeks in rooms with two or three beds, with free food, advice and counselling.
It has had 37 applications since last month from all over Russia including Moscow and the far north — more than twice the number of available places — Baranova said.
She stresses the organisers pick people with an achievable plan for their stay while trying to offer appropriate help to the rest.
Most residents are gay men, while around a quarter are transsexuals and 20 percent are women, Baranova said.
One transsexual resident, 31-year-old Nika comes from Karachai-Cherkessia region in the North Caucasus. She plans to go to France for hormone treatment and surgery.
With carefully painted dark lashes, she says she had been threatened by relatives over her orientation, but feels safe in the shelter.
“It gives you a roof over your head and security,” she says. “I gained a second family.”