Subscribe to our RSS feed

Popular News Stories

  • Fuck poz guys!
  • Tom Hanks in Philadelphia Changed my Life
  • Canadian AIDS Society’s AGM and PHA Forum in Ottawa: some scholarships for HIVers available
  • Semen goes viral – or does it?



Side by Side, part six

Tuesday, 11 February 2014 Written by // Ed Wolf - Senior Writer Categories // Festivals, Arts and Entertainment, Movies, Current Affairs, International , Ed Wolf - Senior Writer

Ed Wolf at the LGBT film festival in St. Petersburg, Russia. Things are not going smoothly as a screening is interrupted by a bomb scare.

Side by Side, part six

Part Six: Angels Welcome 

Monday, November 25th

My hotel room is my safe space. When I close the curtains and write to you, I feel lighter. The terrible situation here can weigh you down; I can see it in the eyes of the people I’m with each day. I went to a supermarket down the street and bought a lot of cookies and I munch on them while I type; there are crumbs everywhere. The room is very warm, the air dry and I have the occasional nosebleed, sometimes a sneezing fit. Earlier I sneezed so many times blood got on my keyboard.

Bard has called. Juliya, another Side by Side volunteer, has offered to be our guide today. We take the subway across the city and meet her at the top of the escalator. Like everyone else, she is young, vibrant and committed to the festival going forward, no matter what the obstacles. She says she’s taking us to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest church in St. Petersburg, and that from the top of the colonnade we’ll be able to see the entire city. We’ve gotten one of the sixty-two sunny days mentioned in the brochure in my room. The sky is flawless, the air clear and very cold. The rain from last night has turned into frozen patches of ice.

We walk very quickly through the streets, crossing bridges over canals, into neighborhoods that look like Amsterdam. When the cathedral appears, it’s massive, like a mountain. We buy a ticket for the colonnade and start climbing up a narrow stairway. Up, up, up. The number one hundred is written on one of the steps and I begin to slow down. I haven’t climbed stairs like this in a long, long time. I can hear my knee surgeons in San Francisco shouting at me. “What are you thinking?”

We hit two hundred, squeeze through a narrow passageway, and we’re suddenly outside, completing the final journey to the top. Two hundred and thirty steps.

And indeed, the view of the city is spectacular. We can see the fast moving Neva River, the Gulf of Finland, dark woods way off in the distance. I feel the longing to see more, to explore what’s out there, but then come back to the situation at hand and why I’m here. I’m struck again by the thoughtfulness of the festival organizers, who have made sure that a volunteer is available so that I can have my tourist experience along with everything else they are doing.

The afternoon sun slips behind a large hotel and the air becomes even colder. We head toward another narrow stairwell. The two hundred and thirty steps are more difficult going down. I remember the mantra I used during the many months of physical therapy when I was on stairs. Step up on the good knee, step down on the bad. “Up with the good, down with bad.” A good strategy, I think, for us all.

We’re cold and in need of some warmth. We see a café and cross over to it. Above the entrance are the words “Angels Welcome.” We go in and see pastries as ornate as the Faberge eggs at the Hermitage. We order coffee and cake. Juliya asks for a kiwifruit and tells us she’s vegan. It’s a sudden reminder of home.

There are several chalkboards with English slogans written on them. “Believe in your dreams,” says one. “You’re amazing just the way you are,” says another. There’s a black and white photo of two women kissing. It’s so surprising and moving I’m suddenly on the verge of tears. How can this be here?

We talk about the festival, and whether tonight’s screening will happen. Bard keeps checking his phone, in case a text comes through with any updated information. Juliya attends the engineering program at a university and will have an opportunity to study abroad next year. She hopes to go to Prague to pursue her degree. There’s a part of me that wonders if she wants to get out of Russia altogether, but I can tell, from the way she speaks about her life here, that is not an option.

We make the long walk back to the subway and say goodbye to Juliya. The rush hour has begun and the escalators and tunnels underneath the city are filled with commuters. When we return to the hotel, I fall onto the bed.

The plan for tonight is to meet up with a volunteer who will lead us to the new venue where tonight’s film, appropriately called “Keep the Lights On,” will be screened. I’m amazed at the resourcefulness of the festival organizers to find alternative venues and then get the word out to their audience so quickly.

When I go down to the lobby there is Marcia, the woman who did the translation for “We Were Here.” She and her girlfriend and another jury member, Vika, will take Bard and I to the screening. We travel to yet another part of the city, a circuitous route involving several train changes and a long walk down some dark streets. We arrive in front of a large building; a large number of police stand outside. They go through everyone’s bags and purses. I pull out my camera and show it to them and then head for the entrance. I see a young man standing just off to the side. He’s painting his fingernails bright red.

I go up several flights of stairs and then into a large room full of festival-goers. I see the organizers, Manny and Gulya and Tanya. I hug Sasha, the man who met me at the airport; it seems so long ago now. I check my coat, buy a Side by Side t-shirt, and meet a man named Valery who is the director of LaSky, the gay center in St. Petersburg that was attacked earlier this month. We make a plan to meet the following day. I go into the theatre and take a seat. A woman with a microphone makes a few opening remarks and then the film begins. Finally, it seems, the festival is able to proceed.

The movie is about a relationship between two men, one of whom uses crystal meth. It draws me in at times, but mostly I’m aware that at any moment, someone could come rushing into the room and stop the screening, or worse. With only fifteen minutes left in the film, it happens. There are shouts from the lobby and the lights suddenly come on. The film stops. We’re told to get out of the building, there’s the possibility of a bomb. By now, this experience is becoming routine and the audience is more frustrated than frightened. But the police are loud and vocal. “Keep moving, get out now,” they say. The checkroom is a long narrow closet and it’s difficult and time-consuming to retrieve your coat. It takes a while before we all make it out onto the street.

We stand in the cold. At least half of the audience wanders away into the night. The situation is especially frustrating because one homophobe making a single call can so easily disrupt the festival. Since the police checked everyone’s bags as we went in, we’re not sure why they take the call seriously. I speak to Gulya and tell her how calm and patient she’s handling this difficult situation. She says there is no other choice.

Someone joins our huddled group and says there’s a gay club nearby which has arranged for the audience to come and watch the end of the film. We walk through a dark alleyway, up a stairway in the rear of a building, and into a long narrow room. There’s a stage and projection screen at one end. The film suddenly appears and we watch the last few minutes. The gay couple decide to end their relationship and the film ends. The audience applauds for the owner of the bar who let us come in out of the cold.

Back on the street again, we say goodnight to the festival organizers. They tell us there’s word that tomorrow’s screening may attract a crowd, some of whom might hassle us as we enter the theatre. The may even throw things at us. Bard jokingly remarks that we probably shouldn’t wear any Prada, in case there are eggs and tomatoes.

Our guides offer to take us to a bar near our hotel. As we ride the subway, the atmosphere and conversation becomes very somber. Bard is so visibly shaken that I put my arm around him; I don’t care what anyone might think. He asks me not to do it, he doesn’t want to cry. We find The Fish Fabrique Bar, order drinks, sit around a small table, are quiet. The young woman who translated “We Were Here” says that the hopelessness they all live with is very difficult. There are so many obstacles. Public opinion that homosexuality is unnatural and unhealthy, governmental policies that stifle freedom of expression, apathy of the queer community itself. When asked if she ever thinks about leaving Russia, she says yes.

I tell them about the first gay pride parade I ever marched in. It was 1972 in New York City. I don’t remember how many of us there were, but it wasn’t like the parades today. We began to walk and there were people on the sidewalks who shouted and yelled at us. I watched several men leave the march at a busy intersection where there were a large number of people waiting to jeer at us. Once in a while someone would step down off the curb and join us; there were no barricades back then. We didn’t know where these parades would really lead to. We didn’t know if the crowd on the sidewalk would ever stop yelling at us. But we kept going and going and going and going.

We’re all tired and despondent and draw the evening to a close.

When I get back to my room I feel the heaviness in my body. My legs are throbbing because I’ve walked so far and so long today. It becomes clear to me that while I’ve  come to St. Petersburg to be a part of the festival, what I’ve discovered is that I can walk again.

I sleep for four hours and wake up with a start. I’ve left my laptop on. When I go to turn it off I see a Facebook post that says there’s been a fire in the building that hosted Saturday night’s screening. There’s nothing to do for now but try to go back to sleep.

This article previously appeared in The Believer here

Arts and Entertainment Section

Activism Section

Current Affairs Section

  • E-cigarettes


    Are they for harm reduction, a tool to help people quit or both? And what about the authorities’ attempts to regulate them? Megan DePutter weighs in on the vaping craze and the issues it raises.
  • PrEP pops up on cruising sites

    PrEP pops up on cruising sites

    Marc-André LeBlanc says that PrEP is a hot topic in HIV prevention circles. There is more and more discussion about it in gay media, on social networks, and even in mass media. But is it even on the radar of the average gay man?
  • Canadian Treatment as Prevention advocate lauded by his peers

    Canadian Treatment as Prevention advocate lauded by his peers interviewee Dr. Julio Montaner has been nominated to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, a prestigious honour that recognizes the significant contributions and achievements by Dr. Montaner in the field of HIV/AIDS. Bob Leahy reports.

Events Section

  • A big, fun “Kiss Off” to HIV.

    A big, fun “Kiss Off” to HIV.

    Wayne Bristow has been busy with his local ASO (AIDS Service Organization) putting his photography and new video creation skills to work on a World AIDS Day/Month event.
  • What Canada can learn from Australia’s HIV response

    What Canada can learn from Australia’s HIV response

    CATIE ED says “Australia has done better than Canada in terms of the number of people living with HIV, the number of new HIV infections, and the number of people who are aware they are living with HIV”; calls Canada’s accountability model "pretty mushy"
  • The evolution of angst

    The evolution of angst

    From grass roots activism to professionalism – and government imposed restrictions on advocacy work. Bob Leahy at a conference which examined the changing political context within which our much evolved community-based response to HIV takes place

Features and Interviews Section

  • The chaser’s tale – part two

    The chaser’s tale – part two

    Bob Leahy in part two of a frank conversation with recently diagnosed Joseph Sinnott who deliberately exposed himself to HIV in search of the erotic and a sense of belonging. Here Joseph discusses the aftermath of the act which made him positive.
  • The Undetectables

    The Undetectables

    Bob Leahy interviews the folks at New York’s’ Housing Works about their innovative new campaign which uses a comic book narrative to explore with clients the benefits of achieving and maintaining an undetectable viral load
  • The chaser’s tale – part one

    The chaser’s tale – part one

    Bob Leahy in a frank conversation with recently diagnosed Joseph Sinnott who deliberately exposed himself to HIV in search of the erotic and a sense of belonging. In part one, Joseph gives us a glimpse of drug use, slamming and the world of bug chasers.

Health Section

  • The chaser’s tale – part two

    The chaser’s tale – part two

    Bob Leahy in part two of a frank conversation with recently diagnosed Joseph Sinnott who deliberately exposed himself to HIV in search of the erotic and a sense of belonging. Here Joseph discusses the aftermath of the act which made him positive.
  • The End of AIDS Is a cynical lie

    The End of AIDS Is a cynical lie

    From Mark S. King says "I am not going to be here for the cure. I am not going to see the end of AIDS. And neither will you."
  • A gay man of substance(s)

    A gay man of substance(s)

    Patrick Ettenes talks about his experiences with drugs. “I’m writing about this and trying to be honest. When was the last time you looked in the mirror and did the same?”

International Section

Legal Section

Lifestyle Section

  • Second time around

    Second time around writer David Phillips is getting married today (Congratulations David and Craig!). Here are his thoughts.
  • A gay man of substance(s)

    A gay man of substance(s)

    Patrick Ettenes talks about his experiences with drugs. “I’m writing about this and trying to be honest. When was the last time you looked in the mirror and did the same?”
  • Poz Cruise 2014

    Poz Cruise 2014

    Joshua Middleton on the latest shipboard retreat filled with close to 300 men and women, both gay and straight, who are either living with HIV or affected by it

Living with HIV Section

Media Section

Opinion Pieces Section

Population Specific Section

Sex and Sexuality Section