A young Russian drag performer has found solace in the United States after fleeing Russia amid violent, anti-gay attacks on the country's largest gay nightclub, where he had performed.
“Viktor,” 21, had once lit up the stage at Central Station in Moscow. The nightclub, once a haven for the Russian LGBT community, was subjected to shootings, water and gas attacks, and vandalism, according to management. After months of harassment, the club closed its doors for good in late February.
Two months before Central Station shut down, Viktor, whose name has been changed at his request, fled to California, where he has charted a new life in San Francisco. For the first time, he said, he feels safe being an openly gay person.
“It’s been crazy for me when I move here and people, gay people, lesbian or gay couples walk in the street ... hold hands together ... I never saw that in Russia,” Viktor said. “When you wake up here, you every time thinking, like, it’s like a dream. ... It’s not a dream ... it’s real, everything.”
“Being gay in Russia, it’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell." ... Here, it’s like, you’re gay and people just OK with that and people just understand it’s not your choice.”
In Moscow gay pride parades have been banned for 100 years, but in San Francisco's Castro district, where the U.S. gay rights movement was ignited decades ago, Viktor is attending his first gay pride parade this weekend.
“For me, it is basically a freedom flag,” Viktor said, pointing out the iconic rainbow flags that line the streets in San Francisco. “What this flag means -- freedom for everyone.”
Viktor has a new “gay family.” Married couple Michael LeBoeuf and John Tucker have taken him in and given him his own room to stay.
“It was a surprise when he first came out of the room all dressed up,” LeBoeuf said about Viktor’s love of drag. “I think we were both shocked, but also amazed at the transformation.”
They first met Viktor online and when they heard about the attacks at Central Station, gave him an open invitation. “I said, ‘when you’re ready, you come here, and J.T. and I will have a place for you,’” explained LeBoeuf.
Viktor admits he has lonely days, and misses his sister and the rest of his family, whom he left behind in Moscow.
“When you change, not just a place, but your country, that’s hard,” Viktor said.
But despite the homesickness, he believes his new-found freedom in California is worth it.
“Here it’s mostly better life because you can walk in drag in the street and no one told you anything like, something bad,” he said.
He recognizes not everywhere in the U.S. is as socially liberal as the city he has chosen to move to, but that hasn’t diminished his enthusiasm.
“In Russia you acting every day. ... Here you don’t act; here you walk like you want, here you do what you want, here you live your life like you want ... you enjoy everything that you do ... you understand, I am what I am,” he said.
Back in Moscow, Viktor’s sister said she misses him every day, and his friends at home cheer him on from afar.
“He has enough strength to make our dreams come true. ... I’m very proud of him,” said "Alexei,” a former Central Station performer, whose name was also changed.
While the anti-gay propaganda law made federal in Russia last June has not lead to a significant number of prosecutions, human rights activists say it has given the green light to the kind of harassment seen at Central Station and other places in the country. Politician Vitaly Milonov, an early architect of the law, whom "Nightline" spoke to in January, has since suggested a ‘moral police’ could regulate so-called propaganda, while gay clubs and social media be shut-down. In May, activists in Moscow were detained by police for displaying rainbow flags, and when an Austrian drag queen recently won a European music contest, it spawned a new wave of anti-gay sentiment in Russian media.
“I’m really afraid things will get worse,” Alexei said. “I think we are going there, to total discrimination."
“Even now I don’t feel comfortable speaking about gay people... I don’t want anybody to hear about that,” he continued.
While the old Central Station remains closed, the owners opened a new venue in another location last month, and so far there have been no reported attacks there.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Viktor has found a new drag show in the Castro, where he said he can take the stage without fear. On a recent night he performed a mash-up of “I Will Survive” and “I’m a Survivor.”
“This song means so much for me,” he said.
He plans to pursue a professional drag career, get married and have a family of his own.
“Everyone have American dream. ... My American dream, it’s being big drag queen ... being big performer for people ... being someone. Being gay and being someone,” he said.