One day this spring, Artem Kolesov set up a video camera in the Chicago townhouse where he lives, sat down in a chair and started talking to the young gay people of Russia.
“Yesterday I turned 23 years old,” he began.
He went on, in Russian, to tell the story of growing up as the fourth of six brothers in a small town, an hour’s drive from Moscow, where his father was a deacon and his mother was a youth pastor at the Pentecostal church.
“In my family,” he said in the video, “I often heard that all gays should be destroyed, that they should be bombed and that if anyone in our family turns out to be gay, my family should kill them with their bare hands.”
He spoke for 15 minutes, dressed in a plain white pullover shirt, his voice occasionally shaky as he talked about his suicidal thoughts and his search for courage.
“I never thought I would live to be 23,” he said into the camera, not knowing who, if anyone, would watch. “I think about everything I would have missed if I took my life.”
Frankly, Kolesov hadn’t been sure the world needed another coming-out video. But he told himself that if anyone did, it was kids in Russia, where being openly gay can be dangerous and discrimination is common and condoned.
The response to the video has proved him right.
“My heart has been breaking for the five months since I posted this video,” he said.
He’s a slender man with sharp, bright eyes. The left side of his face droops slightly, which, as he explained in the video, is the consequence of nerves damaged when he was born. His English is impeccable.
Almost every day brings Kolesov new messages from Russian kids trapped in a culture where they’re shamed and threatened. He spends hours communicating with them, grateful that he has made it to Chicago, where he doesn’t have to hide.
He came to the city two years ago, after attending college in Canada, to work with the renowned violinist Almita Vamos, who calls him “a very natural player, with a natural, beautiful sound.”
“When he started studying with me, he told the kids, ‘Don’t tell her I’m gay,’ ” Vamos said. “He was afraid I might not react well.”
Eventually, he opened up to her about the conflict that being gay had created between him and his family, especially his mother, whom he loves deeply and has always wanted to please.
Once, at the age of 7, as he tells the story, he overheard her friends lamenting to his mother that she had no daughters.
He put a pair of leggings on his head, like braids, and went to her and said, “I will be your daughter and help you around the house.”
If she suspected the truth about her son’s sexuality, it was never spoken of. Not until this March, after she’d made a strained visit to Chicago when he wrote her a long coming-out letter and read it to her over the phone.
“I was afraid if I did it on Skype, I would chicken out,” he said.
By his account, she didn’t respond well. She told him it was unnatural, that he was just trying to be cool, hadn’t found the right girl, should keep it to himself, needed an MRI, should come back to Russia to be cured.
Her censure motivated him to make the video, but also made him hesitate.
“People like to put out positive things,” he said. “A boy comes out, his parents accept him and everyone cries. No one wants to see a video where people are disowned.”
Apparently, they do. The video went viral.
Kolesov’s decision to come out was also eased by his relationship with Carol and Rob Schickel, a couple he met while playing the violin at Chicago’s Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Last summer, when they heard he had no money and nowhere to stay, they invited him to live with them in their South Loop townhouse. He made the video in their living room.
“I don’t think it was until he got to Chicago that he could really publicly be out,” said Carol Schickel, a psychotherapist. “His coming out has been not only about his sexuality. It’s about him being in life. What’s being revealed, even to him, is his deep inner strength.”
Because of the video, many of Kolesov’s old Russian friends deleted him from their social media accounts. He says the Russian church he once attended, aware of this video, is planning a youth course on why being gay is wrong.
Even if he wanted to go home for a visit, he wouldn’t feel safe. With the video, he has broken the so-called “gay propaganda” law, which bans the distribution of information on “nontraditional sexual relationships” to minors.
But if making the video has cost Kolesov relationships he cherishes, it has also led him to new friends.
“I saw that video on Facebook,” said Bruce Koff, a longtime Chicago gay activist, “and I wept. I went to my husband and said, ‘You have to watch this,’ and he wept.”
New country, family, life
Soon Kolesov will leave Chicago for California. In May, he got married to a man who is enrolling in a PhD program at UCLA. The Schickels, whom he calls “my American parents,” came to the wedding in San Francisco.
His only regret was that his mother wasn’t there.
“I hope her love for me is bigger than these misconceptions,” he said.
One thing he has learned in his 23 years is that you never know what’s going to happen next.