Gays seem to be everywhere these days. No longer do you have to comb through Harlem's drag balls or spend your nights parked in lay-bys off A-roads near Milton Keynes to uncover people engaging in same-sex relations, because this is 2014 and a good majority of us appear to have realised that being gay is no more abnormal than having shins. Essentially, it's really not a big deal if two people, regardless of gender, are into each other and want to demonstrate that by smashing their respective body parts together.
We in the UK, for example, have come a long way since Thatcher's Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned the "promotion of homosexuality". Yes, it's weird that it took until 2003 for her Tory Party to realise that government-mandated, sexuality-based discrimination isn't the best look for a supposedly modern society. But now we all know that homosexuality isn't going to ruin our nation's youth, and the gays are absolutely everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except Sochi.
The city on Russia's border with Georgia isn't just special for hosting this year's Winter Olympics. According to Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, there are precisely no gay people living there whatsoever (he didn't mention if the same can be said for bisexuals, but I guess he was trying to avoid making any sweeping statements). Sceptical of whether it's really possible for a city to exist without even a microscopic gay population, I set out to discover the truth. Unfortunately, I don't have the resources to conduct my own "Life and Labour of the People of Sochi" survey, so I used gay dating apps on my iPhone instead.
You'll have heard of Grindr, because it's existed for half a decade and you have ears. But what you might not be familiar with is Hornet, a newer GPS-based dating app that, unlike Grindr, allows users to change their location to anywhere in the world. Which means that as soon as Pakhomov started boasting about presiding over Russia's Westboro Baptist utopia, I was able to log in, update my location to "Sochi, Russia" and work out conclusively whether he was bullshitting or not.
As the new location loads and I ask the app to "explore here", the suspense heightens. Is my phone about to self-implode in a swamp of broken pixels? Will the results screen just come up blank? Or might an animated image of Pakhomov's face appear, screeching, "Told you so!" like a strangely bigoted Nelson Muntz?
Confusingly, none of this happens. Instead, row upon row of male faces, torsos and genitals start gushing on to my screen. I scroll down, flicking past the continuous stream of images as yet more gay men appear from the digital ether.
There are no definitive statistics about how many gay people there are in the world. But looking at a range of modern surveys, results from a number of countries vary from around 1 to 6 percent of the population identifying as homosexual. Sochi has a population of about 340,000, so if you take the top end of those results – that 6 percent of people aren't straight – there ought to be a maximum of around 20,000 gays living there.
So the results of my search, of course, are no real surprise. There's nothing in the Black Sea waters that surround Sochi making everyone straight and Pakhomov doesn't reign over an exclusively heterosexual population; he's clearly just very misinformed, and – if his "gays are alright, as long as they 'don't impose their habits on others'" comments are anything to go by – a bit of a homophobe.
Conversations are hard to come by as I scroll through. Either the Hornet users in Sochi don't speak English, or the majority of people who engage me in chit-chat aren't genuine. In fact, it's possible that some of them don't genuinely want to have sex with other men.
A group called Occupy Pedophilyaj (Occupy Paedophilia) is thriving on Russian social networks. It's the brainchild of unparalleled dickhead and former leader of neo-Nazi group Format18, Maxim Martsinkevich, who has founded factions across the country in a bid to "catch paedophiles". Only, what they're doing isn't catching paedophiles. Since Putin signed off Russia's anti-gay law in June of last year, groups like Maxim's have been using social networks to lure young gay men to private locations, where they humiliate and torture them, before posting footage of the abuse online.
I speak to several men in Sochi who insist all is fine. I ask one, calling himself Stan, what he thinks of the mayor's comments. "I am indifferent," he says. So his comments weren't offensive to you, I ask? "Absolutely no! His comments is fine. He is clever man," comes the reply.
This is a running theme with a number of the men I speak to. Another, for instance, tells me: "I am not such a patriot for gay people," adding, "Putin is a strong leader, I like him."
It seems that those with the most alluring photos are the most defiant in not criticising Putin. That could be because they naturally gravitate to the Russian president and his raw, bear-hunting masculinity. Or it could be that these are the profiles far-right homophobes are using to hunt Russia's gay youth, in Sochi and across the rest of the country.
Eventually I get into a proper conversation with one user. I'll call him "Chuk", as he asked me not to use his real name – even just his first name – for fear of the consequences. "Many good people will leave from Russia. Our mayor has no idea how many gay people and lesbians are here," he tells me. "Sochi has a gay beach, where many young people come from across Russia. It's been around for about 20 years, since it was a nudist beach, and nobody said anything before the past year. We even have three gay clubs!"
I ask Chuk what he thinks of the rhetoric being spouted by the likes of Putin and Pakhomov. "I am scared to go out in Sochi, now," he replies. "[There are] no gay activists in the local community now. They [are] gone. It has got too risky, and we're scared. I'm so scared."
The world's media has been focused on Sochi for the past ten days, and will continue to broadcast footage from the games for the next week. Many groups have used this as a platform to highlight the Russian government's bigotry, and a slew of public figures had called for a boycott of the Olympics before it began, including Stephen Fry, who compared the country's anti-gay laws to the Holocaust.
"The very essence of the Olympics has outlived its usefulness," Chuk tells me. "It becomes a show of dictators. And the boycott could be in vain. Europe still waves to the Games, if they are here. We want force to free us. We are being killed and you [are] not understanding."
When I tell Chuk of my real reason for virtually visiting Sochi – to see if there are any gay people there – he asks me for help. "Please," he says, as my phone bleeps with a final Hornet message. "Tell the world. If you must come for [the] Olympics, then see what they do to us and make them stop. Make them."
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