I TRAVELLED TO MOSCOW during the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. I was there to support and participate in the Russian LGBT Sport Federation’s Open Games, a sport and culture event intended to rebrand homosexuality as healthy–no small feat in light of Putin’s anti-gay “propaganda” law, passed the summer before. Later, I wrote about the experience. The resulting story, “A Bed of Fists,” was published in a travel disasters anthology.
EXCERPT: A Bed of Fists
Before I’d left for Russia—before I’d even booked my tickets on Aeroflot, the airline with the world’s least buoyant name—my father and I tossed around the exact nature of a Soviet-era sofa bed. “It won’t be built for comfort,” he said, to which I replied, “Nor, I hope, for speed.”
I considered the matter then offered, “It will have no springs, maybe, because springs are ostentatious.”
“Or,” he responded darkly, “it will be all springs.”
Only ten minutes on Russian soil, and I was convinced my dad had been right about “all springs.” The airport was predictably dreary, and dodgy airport nachos or nerves had left me flatulent and nauseated. I found the kiosk selling shuttle tickets, but the agent didn’t look up from her newspaper, preferring instead to tap the back of her manicured fingernail against the window that separated us. I followed her gesture to a brochure taped to the glass. Presumably, it contained ticket prices and a timetable, but it was no more use to me than the agent—it was written in Cyrillic.
“Do you have anything in English?” I asked. Without looking up, she shook her head. This agent was definitely giving me all the springs. A cramp ripped through my abdomen, and I went to find a toilet.
Mercifully, the bathroom signs at Sheremetyevo were completely familiar. I picked out the lady in her triangle skirt from 50 yards away and scooted toward her without unclenching my ass cheeks. I pushed open the door, but instead of a row of stalls I was faced with another woman behind glass. Eyes wide—she shouted and waved her hands. I fumbled in my jeans to retrieve rubles but no matter how many bills I shoved under the screen, she kept yelling and gesturing. Finally, she let herself out of the booth, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back into the hall. With no break in her tirade, she dragged me around the corner and pointed toward another door marked by a stick figure in pants. I jerked my arm loose, unzipped my jacket, and pointed indignantly at my breasts. Without breaking stride, the woman shrugged and tugged at her hair as if to say, “Well what do you expect looking like that?”
I arrived on Konstantin’s doorstep unsure if I’d shit my pants. The answer—thankfully—was no, but upon being presented with a welcome fish caught fresh from the river, I vomited into my teacup. The activists in Konstantin’s tiny kitchen were either being polite or didn’t notice, having just received the alarming news that the authorities had threatened our host hotel management until they withdrew our reservation. Without a venue, there would be no human rights conference. As the activists smoked and shouted at each other under the buzzing fluorescent, I crept into the bedroom looking for refuge.
The sofa bed was open—an unfurled blini. A large photograph on the wall commemorated a sports event the Russian LGBT Sports Federation had put on the previous year. Local athletes had gathered outside Moscow to ski and snowboard in the anonymity of an unmarked stretch of forest. Smiling activists holding rainbow flags surrounded Konstantin, who wore a prim, close-lipped smile. His hands hung loosely at his sides, and his collar, as always, was buttoned right to his throat.
I lowered myself onto the bed. It was far scratchier than necessary. Macho growls erupted from the kitchen, breathy fricatives of Russian spoken under duress. I pulled the blanket over my legs. Not quite comfortable, I shifted, rolled, and shifted again. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the knobs of stuffing jabbing my ribs. There were a thousand reasons why my paperwork should have been denied—I’m a writer and an LGBT activist, for starters—but despite a comprehensive application form (“Do you have any specialized skills, training or experience related to firearms and explosives, or to nuclear matters, biological or chemical substance?”), somehow I’d been granted my visa. From the comfort of my apartment in Toronto, flying into Putin’s Russia on a tourist visa with a fake hotel reservation and my soccer gear hadn’t seemed utterly daft. Now, I wasn’t so sure. I rolled onto my back and stared into the dark. Cigarette smoke drifted in from the next room. My bowels rumbled. I made a mental note to tell my dad: a Soviet-era fold-out couch feels like a bed of fists.
From the comfort of my apartment in Toronto, flying into Putin’s Russia on a tourist visa with a fake hotel reservation and my soccer gear hadn’t seemed utterly daft. Now, I wasn’t so sure.
During the intensity of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, my friends in Canada, the United States, and around the world had signed petitions and poured vodka into the gutters to protest the anti-gay sentiment coming from Putin’s administration. From inside the country, dissenters were much more circumspect. I could see why. Putin was brimming with contempt, and he’d proven to be extravagantly punitive. When Pussy Riot donned brightly colored balaclavas and sang a protest song on the steps of a Moscow cathedral, he’d stripped to the waist and threw the women in jail for two years of hard labor. I really didn’t want to be sent to a Russian work camp.
“‘Oh, gays,’ they say. ‘They are going to nightclubs and they wear pink pants.’” I was standing in a freezing parking lot taking instruction from Elvina, cofounder of the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, who was briefing me on how “the homophobes” (as she called them) perceive gay people in Russia. I flashed-back on ‘70s images: a thin, fey man—with a purse draped over an arm, perhaps—in tight pants and a floral blouse, wrist as limp as if broken. These were the faggots Putin feared and hated so much, so this was where we had to begin. In an effort to replace that caricature with a brawnier, sportier representation—one that fit more easily into a world ruled by a shirtless bully on horseback —the Federation had organized their Open Games and asked international activists to show up.
My father had been amused when I told him I was going to play soccer in Russia, in February. “Let me get this straight,” he’d said. “You’ve decided to winter in…Siberia?” At the time, I’d chuckled along with him—nobody is more entertained by my folly than I—but now that I was waiting for the police to complete a bomb sweep on the venue for our opening ceremonies, it was all somewhat less hilarious.
“Give me your phone,” Elvina ordered, releasing a plume of cigarette smoke. “Mine’s blocked.”
I handed her the ancient Nokia loaner I was carrying. She dialed, jabbing angrily, and began shouting into the mouthpiece in Russian, drawing the attention of all assembled. Dressed in black from her high-heeled boots to her turtleneck and wrapped tightly in a short trench coat cinched snugly around her waist, Elvina possessed the air of an operative. I zipped my lumpy down jacket to the chin and looked around the lot. Just outside the entrance, clusters of police stood beside their cars, stamping their feet and peering at our group through the gates. We numbered in the low dozens. I knew from Elvina that I was the only Canadian but that there were also German, Swedish, and French activists joining the Russians. Although some people huddled around the heaters in their cars, most had chosen to wait out the sweep indoors. Of those of us in the lot, everyone was white, and everyone was an adult. The country’s anti-gay propaganda law—which made being out as LGBT an offense against minors—had forced the organizers to exclude anyone under 18 years old.
Elvina dropped her cigarette and handed back the Nokia. “Are you hungry?” To my surprise, she led me directly into a café in the basement of the same building we’d been waiting to have cleared of explosives.