Russian lawmakers are on the verge of widening a package of notorious legislation from 2013 and was designed to shield children from various forms of what authorities deemed to be "gay propaganda"
Moscow (AFP) - Backstage at a bar in Moscow, a troupe of drag queens surrounded by make-up palettes and sparkling costumes join hands before taking to the stage for what could be one of their last legal shows.
The mood is surprisingly upbeat at “Draglesque Brunch”, given they are facing new repressive legislation that could see their shows banned and the performers fined or potentially jailed.
“How gorgeous! How fun! The vibe is super warm … there’s a river of mimosas flowing in there already. So my dears, let’s enjoy today’s wonderful brunch!” says the host, who goes by the stage name of Margot Mae Hunt.
In a white gown and a wavy blond wig with yellow and lilac feathers, Mae Hunt, as well as the others in the green room, is relishing the moment – because what comes next is anyone’s guess.
Russian lawmakers are on the verge of widening a package of notorious legislation from 2013 that was designed to shield children from various forms of what authorities deemed “gay propaganda”.
Russia's most prominent LGBTQ advocacy groups and activists have been branded "foreign agents"
The initial laws passed by Russia’s conservative parliament came amid deepening ties between President Vladimir Putin and the Orthodox church, which promoted hardline social values and cautioned against Western influence.
But this latest round also applies to adults and observers say the rules could impinge upon everything from books and films to social media posts and even drag shows.
And the flamboyant entertainers risk becoming outlaws.
“For now, what kind of impact the law will have is unclear. We’ve spoken to lawyers… we’re trying not to think about it,” says one of the drag queens performing, Skinny Jenny, holding a vape in her white-gloved hands.
- ‘Destructive ideology’ -
Whatever the parliament and Putin decide, Skinny Jenny – wearing a flowery dress, white silk headscarf and pearls – believes the group has done nothing wrong.
Drag queens in Moscow say they will move their performances underground if needed
“Our show doesn’t have anything to do with propaganda, we’re promoting creativity and celebrating the art of cross-dressing, which has existed for many, many centuries… not only abroad, but here in Russia too,” the 26-year-old says.
“What we need right now is a dose of life, beauty, happiness and love,” Mae Hunt adds, “and that’s exactly what burlesque is about.”
Russia has for years been an inhospitable environment for anyone whose views differ from the hardline interpretation of “family values” promoted by the Kremlin and the Orthodox church.
But beginning last year, many of the country’s most prominent LGBTQ advocacy organisations and activists have been branded “foreign agents”, piling administrative and legal pressure on the embattled groups.
This spiral accelerated after February when Moscow ordered troops into Ukraine, and space for narratives in society other than the Kremlin’s virtually disappeared.
For the performers in Moscow, the looming threat means living in the moment
A presidential decree published in September recommended “urgent measures to protect traditional values” against foreign countries and “extremist and terrorist organisations… spreading destructive ideology”.
“A special military operation takes place not only on the battlefields but also in people’s minds,” said Putin-friendly lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein, to back the new legislation, using the Kremlin-preferred vocabulary to refer to its military intervention in Ukraine.
A first draft of the bill proposed that people convicted of pushing “LGBT propaganda” to adults would face a fine of 400,000 rubles ($6,700).
- ‘Ready for the worst’ -
But members of parliament have since reviewed amendments – expected to be passed soon – that could increase that penalty to two years behind bars.
For the performers in Moscow, that looming threat means living in the moment.
Performers could by impacted by legal changes to give two years to anyone convicted of pushing "LGBT propaganda"
“We’re still alive and still bringing happiness to people,” smiles Skinny Jenny, while performers around her tighten each other’s corsets and put final touches to their make-up.
Spectators meanwhile take their seats on the other side of the curtain to the tune of Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out”.
Among them is 37-year-old Marie, glowing from the “warm and cosy atmosphere, the good mood and the humour”.
But the new rules are on her mind too.
“The new law has brought fear, confusion and indignation,” she told AFP.
“It feels like each show could be the last.”
Russia has for years been inhospitable for anyone whose views differ from the Kremlin's "family values"
Moments later Skinny Jenny jumps onstage for the opening lip-sync number. Then a queen perched on black platform shoes and wearing a big red heart costume takes the stage.
And the few dozen spectators cheer when it’s the turn of the burlesque artists to slowly undress.
“Is this really Russia’s biggest problem right now?” Mae Hunt says, gesturing to the room, loud with laughter and music.
“I want to hope for the best, but we are getting ready for the worst,” she says, adding there’s already a solution in place for that scenario.
“We’ll just go underground and become even more legendary!”