In what I presume is a leftover from communism, Eastern Europe has lots of very specific workers’ holidays. In Poland, Teachers’ Day meant presents from students and a day off. Miners’ Day was a major holiday in mining areas and so on.
Last Friday was Russian Paratroopers’ Day. Paratroopers. I know. It’s like they knew I was coming.
Rostov was full of actual paratroopers. Drunk. Partying. In varying degrees of undress from their uniform.
The uniform is a natty blue hat and (I kid you not) a sleeveless blue and white striped vest top. Everyone has a “thing”. And my thing is horizontal stripes. When someone wears horizontal stripes and whether they’re male or female, 18 or 80, I automatically find them more attractive. I really don’t know what it is. But it’s real. I once very nearly got run over by a Tesco delivery lorry in Dublin because I was distracted by a man in a stripey t-shirt. Stripes are my kryptonite.
So, town was full of these young Russian military men, with their muscles and their nipples, their biceps and their pecs, their chiselled cheekbones and their shaved heads and their tans and their stripes. Their tight, sleeveless stripes. Drunk. And taking their clothes off. And stopping traffic and causing mayhem. And I was in love with every single solitary one of them. I had to completely reboot my libido on Saturday.
And, because I live my life entirely on the internet, I wanted to share this experience on Facebook. I was going to share a picture of that uniform and those shoulders. So I googled “Russian Paratroopers”.
And the first story that came up on Google was about a group of Russian Paratroopers in St Petersburg who had come across a lone gay man in a city square waving a rainbow flag and had attacked him.
That burst my fantasy bubble fairly quickly.
It’s on YouTube. Here:
It looks scary. He doesn’t look injured, but can you imagine being surrounded by that many angry military men? Terrifying.
Since arriving in Russia, I’ve pretended that the Russian government’s campaign against my tribe isn’t happening. I mean, Will and Grace is on telly every night. And when I log onto Grindr here there are at least 20 other men in my vicinity also logged on (a lot fewer than there would be in Dublin, but more than there would be in Tralee).
But in a way, that’s what’s most depressing. This is a modern country. People here have the internet. They travel. They keep up with world events. I won’t say that I haven’t noticed racism or sexism here, because I have, but by-and-large political correctness is on the rise. And yet, the Russian government is waging war on the LGBT community. I am in a country where it is legal to arrest me for being gay. Not for having gay sex. Just for being gay.
I’m in my safe little bubble. I’m leaving in two weeks. I can go back to Ireland, where saying that it’s OK to be gay isn’t classed as “pornography“. And no one knows I’m gay here. Having taught foreign students for years, I know when a class picks up on the fact that you’re gay. The German and the Spanish students will often guess. The Koreans, the Poles, the Chinese, the Russians. Never.
I don’t look gay. I remember working with a group of Slovenes and saying “You really should be more familiar with the works of Lindsay Lohan. She is a genius.” And the Slovene guys came up to me at the end of the class and said “I know. Lindsay Lohan really is hot, isn’t she?” An Irish group of people in their 20s and 30s would interpret that differently. They wouldn’t think I fancied Lindsay Lohan. They’d think “Connor’s a celeb-loving homo” and quite right too.
So far in my life, I only feature in one published book. A book a friend of mine wrote about his time in Poland. In it, he tells a story of sitting in a pub in the resort town of Sopot, beside Gdansk. He is straight. I am gay. We got talking to two girls. They asked me if it was OK by me that I was hanging out with a homosexual. They presumed my friend was the gay one, because of the way he crossed his legs. I just don’t read as gay in Eastern Europe. I’m safe here.
Part of me is relieved at that. I’m not in any danger. I won’t be beaten up by any paratroopers, or imprisoned, or asked to leave the country.
But I look at those 20 men on Grindr. I can only presume that they get up every morning and live straight lives. I’m sure some of them are probably married to women. And I see that man in St Petersburg, intimidated and ganged up on by the objects of my lust. And it upsets me. And I want to roar. And I want to act.
In the tiniest act of rebellion known to man, I wore my One Direction bracelet on Sunday. I have about twelve of them in Ireland, but I’ve only brought one to Russia and it’s been sitting in my bedroom since I got here. I wore it for one day.
But I want to act. I want to make a difference. I’m going to find my cause. I know so many good people. Half the people who studied law with me as an undergrad are now experts in human rights and in public law and are making the world a better place. Half the people who are doing PhDs in Education with me now are looking at issues like bullying, and bereavement, and mental health and they’re making the world a better place too. I know people working in charities and people in NGOs. And here I am, writing my navel-gazing blog, studying manhood and swanning around the world.
I flirt with politics. I can’t count how many times I’ve joined the Labour Party, and more recently the Socialist Party. But it never sticks. But when I get back to Ireland I will find a cause, and I will make a difference, because we live in a world that’s harder for some people than it is for others, and I think people can make a difference, even if it’s just standing in a square in St. Petersburg holding a rainbow flag on Paratroopers’ Day.
And I salute the man who flew that flag. And I hope the best for him and for Gay Russia.