Posted on the Advocate!

Shortly after we got back from the bar, Ryan and I got to work on the story and photos. We worked until about 4:45 in the morning. We were so inspired and fired up about this great moment that we had captured.

I wrote a blog about it the following night and to my surprise it got great reception. First, Poynter did an article about BSU at the Games and included an excerpt of my blog and linked to it.  Then I received a pingback on my blog from a Latin news source that translated the Poynter article in to Spanish.

That was all great getting my name and my blog out there.  Then I get a tweet from MediaBistro’s publication FishBowlNY.Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 11.22.03 AM

I read the article they had written with the headline “Sochi drag queen manhandles Ball State Student.” I disagreed with their last sentence, “Perhaps the interaction with Amaro was the performer’s attempt to try and help put an end to the media crush.” I did not have this impression at all. I’ve been to many a drag show and these kinds of things happen all the time, with or without media attention.  It’s just apart of the job.

Well I quickly tweeted them back stating what I believed, and the writer responded to me quickly telling me he believed it “was a throw away last sentence, that should’ve been thrown away.”  He then updated the article stating that I firmly disagreed with the “theory last sentence” and that I was probably right.

After this engagement, we still hadn’t heard back from Advocate.  The story was almost finished and my photos were done and turned in.  Ashley Cox, a PR person in the class, came to me and told me she wanted to try pitching the photos to Buzzfeed.  While this would have been neat, I was still wanting to hold out for the Advocate. And I’m glad that we did.

One day after going out with only a few people, I returned to the ship.  Ashley told me that we still hadn’t heard anything.  I started to get discouraged and went down with Marcey to work on the photographs that we took that day. We got a beer and got to work.

Ashley comes down to the lounge with Ryan Howe and the documentary team that was with us.  She tells me that she had lied about the fact that we didn’t hear anything back from the Advocate and that they wanted to run the story and the photos on their site!

I was ecstatic and literally almost cried.  They have my whole reaction on film too.  When it finally ran, it was the top story of the day and got hundred of likes on facebook and comments on the website.

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The best little gay bar in Sochi

We ring the doorbell at a nondescript door and are looked at through a security camera. After this screening, the door opens and we are welcomed in. Bonu, our translator, talks to someone and tells them that we’re here to have an interview with Andre, the bar owner.

They go and get him while we wait in the cramped entry way. He appears dressed in a grey Abercrombie polo, in a manner in which makes it very clear he works out. He ushers us into a room marked “MEN ONLY.” The room is decked out floor to ceiling with larger than life photographs of ripped men in underwear. Our leader, Ryan Sparrow, leans over and jokingly says, “Are we sure this is a gay bar?”

The interview begins, and everyone is clearly nervous. We didn’t know the extent of the law or if anything bad could happen. In the interview, the question of if he had been threatened with violence or threatened to be shut down, he replies, “Absolutely not. People misinterpret the law and have blown it out of proportion.” He says that Sochi is so different from all of the rest of Russia as well, because A. It’s a tropical region and B. It’s a big city. This put us a little more at ease.

After about a 30 minute interview, we were told we could only take pictures of him, the performance and those that work there.  He then showed us through the bar to the back where the drag queens were getting ready.

Ryan opens the door and walks in. He is quickly shooed out by a news crew. There last night apparently was The Associated Press as well as BBC. It’s was  a cramped little area, sort of like a narrow hallway with mirrors. When we finally entered, we stopped to talk to a drag queen dressed like Liza Minelli. Her name was Miss Zhuozha, and she had been in the army before falling in love with a man.

Note that is not me in the mirror!

Note that is not me in the mirror!

Other drag queens were getting ready, one in only fishnets and a t-shirt. Smoking a cigarette, she looked at me so suspiciously and almost annoyed that yet another photographer was allowed in.  She went about her business and we soon had to leave for the show to get started.

We stepped out to the main stage and quickly had to find a seat.  A video begins to play on large screen on stage.  The video is of a little girl holding holding a heart balloon and singing the Russian national anthem.  She starts singing and the bar starts singing right along with her.  Something that brought tears to my eyes and chills to my spine.  Throughout the course of the song she was shown in a big stadium with rainbow flags all around.  It was a very moving video.

Soon a drag queen then comes out on stage.  She is dressed in tons of pink feathers.  She starts lip syncing to “I Will Survive.”  There was something different that I noticed right away between American drag shows and Russian ones. TIPS.  It’s common in American gay bars to run up during their performances and give them money, mostly singles.  In Russian drag shows, everyone pretty much just stays seated and may or may not sing along and dance in their seats.


After the first queen performed, she started talking and reading people in Russian. “Because reading is what?! FUN-DE-MENTAL” She walks over to where I am knelt on the side of the stage.  She tells the bar that I am one of her friends.  I stand up and say hello and she asks how I am doing.  I say “Fine”  She then puts a hand on my CROTCH!  I was kind of in shock but just went a long with it. That’s just something you do during a drag show.  It just caught me off guard and plus I don’t speak Russian so I had no idea what she was saying.

Photo by Ryan J. Sparrow

Photo by Ryan J. Sparrow

The second queen came on soon after that and performed.  Shortly after her performance we decided to leave since it was quite late.  We were on quite a high leaving the bar we came back and immediately got to work!  We just pitched the story to the Advocate and the photos following!

Спасибо за чтение.  Thank you for reading!

New Day, New Adventure

It’s about 11:40 and we are sitting waiting for something to happen. Nothing bad, just something. Most of us stayed up until 4:30 am and woke up 4 hours later to meet for breakfast. I crashed with all my clothes on and came to breakfast disheveled with my contacts foggy.

Breakfast was a plentiful buffet of fruit and dried out hash browns as well as hard sausage (no pun intended).  Some tried to smuggle out fruit for later consumption and others went back to nap and shower before we left.

Yesterday, we set out to cover what we could of the opening ceremonies. This would be difficult since we could not get into the Olympic Village and didn’t have tickets. we talked to people that could speak English and those who spoke very little English.

The rest of the day today was full of standing in lines and going through security. We decided to go to see the Olympic Park in the afternoon.

There were people waiting in line for tickets getting tired of waiting. They were throwing passports and demanding tickets.

We headed to Sochi where the Olympics aren’t actually held. They’re actually in Adler which is about a 35 minute train ride awat. The we walked around and finally got something to eat at a traditional Russian restaurant. I had dumplings which were the best thing ever! We then took a cab back to the train station to get back to the Olympic village.

Sorry this blog is so late a lot we have been doing and little time to write.

Here in Moscow!

Yesterday was a blur and didn’t have much time to blog.  So here is the blog for yesterday and today!

Yesterday we arrived in Amsterdam around 5:45 AM!  The other half of the group got in around 3 hours later.  So we were stuck there for awhile.  Later, we hopped the shuttle for the hotel and about 15 minutes later we had arrived.  We got there and our rooms weren’t cleaned yet.  We put all of our stuff down in a a locked room and headed back to the airport to get on the train to the center of the city.

We got to the ticket kiosks and realized they didn’t take most of our credit cards.  And being in the city for only a day, most of us didn’t want to take out cash. We figured it out and ended up getting money out just for some tickets.  8.50 euro to and from.

Once downtown, we walked up to get out of the station. On the outside, the station was gilded with gold and very ornate.  It was one of those stations that would be very hard to lose track of and forget.  A game plan was made, and we broke off to explore the city and planned to meet back up in an hour to see what we wanted to do.  Walking around was quite an amazing experience.station

Gathering together an hour later some decided to go to the Anne Frank museum and house.  Others, just wanted to walk around and find a flower market. We walked around and found quite a few canal bridges and took many pictures of different slanted buildings as well and interesting things we found.

We walked around for another 3.5 hours meandered through alley and accidentally stumbled across the red light district.  After walking around in circles we just decided to head back to the station and found others who were ready to go as well.  Forgetting my toothbrush at home I stopped in a HEMA store (basically a Target full of clothes, electronics and cosmetics) and grabbed a toothbrush and some Dutch toothpaste.  So that’s cool right?!

After heading back to the hotel, all of us were tired and grouchy.  We got back and took showers and felt very renewed.  KFC just happened to be across the street and we ran over to get some dinner. We headed back to the hotel and went to BED! After about 30 hours without sleep all of us just hit the pillow and were down for the count.

We woke up and packed and headed back to the airport for Moscow. We didn’t have wifi much today so very minimal posts.  In the Amsterdam airport, we accidentally stumbled on a protest of the Russian anti-gay protest.  There were some Dutch women singing a song and dancing to some music.  A couple people joined in from our group and were interviewed by a team afterwards asking if they liked and if they knew what it meant.  The song’s title was literally “Kiss the Russian”  a couple of lyrics were “Boys kiss boys and girls kiss girls”  Some of us said “OH CRAP” and that we should be here on video.

The Amsterdam airport was so very confusing and inefficient.  Every gate had it’s own security without anything beyond it except they waiting area.  Any liquids you had in your bags either had to be transferred or thrown away.  Anything bought from the food and gift stores had to be non-breakable and under a certain amount of liquid.  If you buy liquid it had to be unopened and sealed in a plastic bag from the store. The most inefficient security check followed.  We weren’t sure what they allowed since some things on receipts that were breakable said “weapon” and some things they said they’d throw away.

Our flight left at 11:40 am and with the three hour time change we arrived in Moscow around 6:30. We went through passport check and customs just fine which we were worried about. Got to the hotel finally, after sitting in traffic for about 2 hours we finally got here to the hotel.  Starving, we quickly dropped off our bags and quickly ran to the buffet to stuff our faces.  Now, we’re connected and blogging and pretty much working on anything we have right now.

Pictures of Amsterdam to come! Have a great afternoon everyone!!

Preparations for Russia

The Olympics.  A time for many to relax and watch the event unfold at home.  I, however, am lucky enough to be traveling over to Sochi, Russia this week!

BSU At The Games is a freelance news outlet that I have been working for since last semester.  We are lucky enough to be representing Ball State University at the Olympic games for the second time now.

The trip is paid for, the bags are packed.  Now, we’re just waiting for the plane to take off.  That doesn’t happen till Wednesday, though.  This has been a long road and it’s prepared us for this.  We traveled to the USOC Media Summit back in September/October.  We got a slight taste of what may be in store for us.  Non-stop working and turning out photos and stories like any other news source.  Our stories and photos have been featured on WTHR here in Indianapolis, as well as the Gazette out of Colorado Springs.  We are also looking forward to working with the Spokesman Review in Spokane, as well as a possible tie in with CNN!

While we have no idea what Sochi has in store for us, we plan on hitting the ground running.  Many have packed in a single carry-on, while others (like me) with camera equipment have chosen to check a bag.

I’ve had many people come to me with concerns of Russia right now.  For me, this opportunity is too great for me to simply pass on. Being a gay man travel to a part of the world so intolerant, does put me on edge a bit.  Reading the articles and hearing from LGBT people living is Russia is heartbreaking.  I hope to be able to talk to some people living there and hear their stories directly.  For me, this opportunity goes beyond covering the Olympics.  It goes all the way to helping those in my community who have faced a far greater struggle than I can even imagine.