Hanging Out with Russia's Only Gay Motorbike Gang
St Petersburg's Homoto say they're more about helping people hook-up than politics, but it's hard to ignore their country's anti-LGBT legislation and all the homophobic, ultra-nationalist motorbike clubs who want them dead.
"In Russia, bikers and gays are both oppressed groups," says Yuri, the founder of Homoto, the only gay bike club in Russia (as far as we both know). He explains, however, that the bikers' natural enemies – car drivers, police officers and the merciless Russian weather – still have nothing on the homophobes raging around the country.
St Petersburg, where Homoto is based, was the first Russian city to accept the infamous bill purporting to ban "gay propaganda" in 2012; it has since been implemented on a federal level. Most attempts at LGBT activism here, as in the rest of the country, are regularly banned and the activists fined, shamed and persecuted.
Homoto (Гомото in Russian) is a new club, and this is their first season riding together. Yuri is a man in his thirties. He has a flat, a job, a boyfriend (who hates motorcycles), a lover (who goes crazy for them) and a garage where the club members and LGBT activists sometimes go to hang out.
There is a historical precedent to Homoto in St Petersburg – a smaller club called Dykes on Bikes that existed a few years ago. It had no connection to the famous Chicago-based lesbian motorcycle club of the same name, and its ambitions were more commercial. Svyatoslava, one of the club's former members and a current member of Homoto, explains that the biggest part of the DoB's activity was a small business of arranging bike dates where the club members would take lesbian couples on motorcycle rides for a fee, creating an adrenaline-filled experience for those wishing to "wow" their girls. Now, Svyatoslava and a few more lesbian bikers are members of Homoto.
The majority of the club's members are male, and the girls tend to hang out separately. I had to arrange two different dates to meet them, as the girls were away on a ride to Belarus the day Yuri and the boys met me in the biker hang-out spot in the city centre. I meet the girls two weeks later by a pond in a vacant lot in a suburb. "The club is a support system," they explain. "We're not obliged to hang out together all of the time".
When I ask how many members there are in the club, Yuri hesitates – he's not sure himself, as they have don't have official initiation rituals or ceremonies for new members, nor a patch. Their VK and Facebook pages have about a thousand "likes" altogether, and Yuri created a website for those who want to follow the club's news but don't want to risk being accidentally outed by friends and family on social media. Many of the members, he explains, are over 30. They have good jobs, some family, and have learned how to conform to Russian society to a certain degree. Often that's how they can afford the expensive motorcycle hobby.
"It's not for me to try and break those habits," Yuri shrugs.
"A gay motorcycle club is not the same thing as a regular motorcycle club, or similar organisations. You don't get a membership card with us. If you have a bike and you identify as homosexual, you can be one of us. Actually, you're already one of us," he explains, adding that there about ten to 15 members who regularly show up to events and meetings.
This year's May Day protest in St Petersburg was the first official outing of the club, when they rode with the LGBT section of the march, though not all their members took part. Yuri says that many of his gay friends have no interest in politics, and many more are simply afraid of taking part in a pride-esque event, which isn't too surprising considering the usual reaction from Russian authorities to those kind of things.
However, the protest went as peacefully as it could in Russia, with the only incident being the homophobic MP Vitaly Milonov shouting abuse at the LGBT section of the procession – an event that was caught on camera and subsequently went viral in Russia. In the video, Milonov yells, "Perverts, scumbags, fascists! Fascist scumbags! Whores, perverts!" as several policemen hold him back.
"I was there when it happened," says Yuri, "and it was then that I realised that Milonov is simply a clown." Yuri refuses to agree with the media rhetoric of Milonov as a villain – he sees the politician more like a kid throwing a tantrum in the sweets aisle of the supermarket, the policeman his embarrassed parents trying to calm him down. "As soon as people realised he was there, everyone just ran towards him, to stare at him like he was some sort of a circus freak," he adds.
"If we talk in political terms, then yes, he's evil, he's trash," says Yuri. "He's just like all the other toys on the shelf, until you pull the string and he starts talking and all the hate comes pouring out. Sadly, he has become the public face of St Petersburg".
When talking about the club's activism, Yuri reveals a position that's different from most gay advocates: his strategy of destroying homophobia in the city is not just about saying the homophobes wrong; it's about showing that their key arguments don't hold up. "I want to position this club as a response to the majority of claims of modern Russian propaganda that frames gays as effeminate depraved perverts and paedophiles," he explains. "Men on motorcycles are so not what the propaganda wants people to associate with homosexuality. We destroy their stereotypes and their whole case has no foundation."
There are several other motorcycle clubs in St Petersburg, but Homoto doesn't interact with them. Yuri sometimes takes part in the big ride in the spring when the biking season opens – though without any pride attire. "There are 6,000 motorcycles there, no one's gonna notice my tiny rainbow ribbon anyway," he says. When I ask Svyatoslava about publicly displaying LGBT symbols, she says she'd rather not wave flags, as it helps to avoid hostile reactions. "All bikers here try to be so tough and alpha-male; if they see a woman trying to take the same role, they don't react nicely," she tells me.
Is Homoto the gay answer to the ultra-patriotic, alpha-male motorbike club Night Wolves? Yuri says no, not because he's trying to avoid comparison, but because he doesn't believe the infamous bikers are really even a motorcycle club. "Night Wolves is a political organisation. [Club leader and friend of Vladimir Putin, Alexander] Zaldostanov is a politician, just dressed in leather, not a suit".
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Homoto is more closely associated with Grindr than it is politics. "Politicians use sex to sell themselves, so we do too," shrugs Yuri.
As far as the club's ambitions go, Yuri is rather modest: first of all, this is a hobby club, a hook-up service and a support group. But if they do want to achieve notoriety, it won't be hard: "If we ever want fame as a club, we know we just need to make Milonov notice us, then he won't be able to stop promoting us," he says.
But, he points out, "going all Pussy Riot" is not really an option, as – for him – bikes and boys are still a more important feature of the club. "One of my favourite feelings in the world is stopping at a street light and seeing those who I call 'the married ones' – young hot husbands with strollers – staring at you with envy and desire as you speed past them when the green light comes on."
See more photos of Homoto members below: