As Russia enjoys the spotlight that shines from the multibillion-dollar splendor of the Sochi Winter Olympics, over in Moscow, dismay runs through Central Station, Russia's largest gay nightclub.
With its bullet-sprayed doors and protective razor-wire fencing, Central Station management says it has been subjected to shootings, water and gas attacks, and vandalism. Considered by many patrons as "the cultural center" for gays in Russia, the lively venue is known for its colorful, irreverent drag shows and modern house music. But the staff says a recent spate of homophobic attacks has terrified the gay community there.
They say it's all part of an intensifying anti-gay sentiment in Russia, a country that's never been widely accepting of homosexuality, but recently has been inflamed by a controversial anti-gay propaganda law.
The law, signed by President Putin last June, bans the "propaganda of non-traditional relationships" to minors, and has received international condemnation. It claims to protect children from information about homosexuality, but human rights activists say it's really a crackdown on gay rights, a form of institutionalized homophobia meant to suppress gay-rights activists from holding public events and gay people from living their lives openly.
"More than 90 percent of people support this law," said Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg lawmaker who helped craft the law. "That means that the other 10 percent, it's whatever, maybe one tiny part is against this legislation, so it's not a problem. "
Citizens who have protested the law before and after its passage have been violently accosted and attacked by anti-gay activists who claim to favor "traditional" Russian values. People unfurling rainbow flags and other pro-gay displays have been aggressively detained. The law arguably has emboldened a new wave of discrimination and violence, including vigilante groups that lure gay teens online, then torture and humiliate them.
"Nightline" spoke to several members of the gay community in Moscow and Central Station patrons. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.
"They just have a legal right to hate us," said 20-year-old "Alexei." "Now they think that gay people can harm children."
"Alexei" says he is "100 percent gay," but acts straight in public to survive.
"I'm trying to be one of the crowd, black and white," he said. "I'm trying to be invisible."
Alexei and many of his friends find refuge at Central Station, one of the few places they say they can be open about their identities.
"For gay society, this club is very important," said club manager Andrew Lishchinsky. "It's a symbol of freedom. It's a symbol that the rights of gays are not discriminated."
Alexei works at the club as a drag queen. With make-up and costumes, he literally transforms. And yet, he said, it makes him feel more "himself."
"This mask makes me be real," he said, applying his make-up. "Strange, but it always works that way. On the outside world, I wear [the] mask of straight guy, to be one of them, to hide."
Here, Alexei and his drag queen friends step out of the shadows and into the spotlight, onto a bright stage where they are applauded and respected. In a society where gays are hated and reviled, Alexei said, drag is empowering.
"It's the only place we can do everything we want," Alexei said. "We dress like we want, we do everything we want, we kiss everybody we want. We are free here."
But, Lishchinsky said, things have changed for the worse and he is worried about the survival of the club.
"I cannot say that old times, the situation was very good," he said, "but not very bad as now."