Journalists covering the Olympics want to write about Russia’s gays, who face many legal and cultural barriers to acceptance. The easiest way to do this is to go to Cabaret Mayak, Sochi’s best-known gay club. A nice thought, only they’ve all done it.
The AP: “Welcome to the Mayak cabaret, the most reputable gay club in Sochi, and one of the few safe places for gays in the Olympic host city to meet.”
The Guardian: “It was the early hours of Sunday morning and business was brisk in Sochi’s only gay nightclub.”
Canada.com: “About 100 gays, lesbians and heterosexuals sang, danced and partied into the wee hours Monday in the slightly down-at-the-heels bar only a one-minute walk from a park where a statue of Vladimir Lenin broods over a huge hospitality tent erected by Samsung for the Olympics.”
Washington Post: “In a gay club in Sochi, the host to the 2014 Winter Olympics, people gather to drink, dance, chat and catch a show.”
Deutsche Welle: “The one-story building that houses Mayak is squeezed between two high rises downtown, right on the seafront. It won’t be easy for visitors to find during the Olympics: it doesn’t advertise, or even have a sign - which is typical for gay bars and clubs in Russia.”
Yahoo: “This is one of the few gay bars in a city where the mayor was quoted claiming there are no gay people.”
The Globe and Mail: “...a cabaret and dance club that is the centre of gay society in Sochi and a stylishly lit counterpoint to the idea that all Russian gays are repressed and on the run.”
The Daily Telegraph: “A rare look inside Sochi’s gay club Mayak.”
There are many, many more, but you get the idea.
The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe had the same idea, but when she dropped in on Mayak, the thrust of her story changed.
On Saturday night, I decided to check it out, along with friends who work for The Guardian, TIME, and The Independent. A flock of AP reporters was already there, enjoying mojitos. In the hallway, a TV reporter was interviewing two girls in leopardware on camera. Nearby, a Danish TV reporter named Matilda told me she was interested in doing a story “that isn’t victimized.” It was an important story because “gay rights are a big issue in Europe.” The bar owner, she said, was busy giving interviews in a private room. “We called last week to schedule an interview and we got 15 minutes between the Finns and the Swiss.” Her local fixer tapped me on the shoulder. “There are three more journalists sitting next to her,” he said. But, he explained, they were Russian correspondents. “They’re confused,” he said. “They don’t know what to do, professionally.”
“We’ve given over 200 interviews in the last month,” says Mayak owner Andrey Tanichev. Every country has sent its correspondents, he says, “except the Spanish, God bless them.” The Americans have sent the most reporters, but the BBC has set a record: they came by four times.
Anyone who’s been to an event overrun by media knows that it ceases to become anything other than a media event—a press conference.
At best, the spotlight is annoying for Mayak’s regular clientele, who even if they’re openly gay may not enjoy having every moment of their nights out filmed. At worst is the fear that all this coverage will cause problems for Mayak and Sochi’s gay community, which has generally been treated with a live-and-let-live policy, once the reporters go home.
Either way, these quick-hit stories see Russia’s sociocultural problems reduced to two weeks of parachute journalism, with a drag show in the background. “It’s a bit fake, all this attention,” one patron told USA Today’s Dan Wolken.
Sochi, a resort town that’s relatively tolerant by Russian standards, isn’t the place to report on the plight of the country’s gays. Getting at the larger issues is impossible for journalists credentialed for just the Olympics, who have to stay in the area. They’re doing the best they can, but run the risk of sending readers away with the impression that gay life in Russia is all smiles and camp.