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Latter-day doubts?

Local LDS member recalls suicide attempt, but remains in Mormon church

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‘I felt like I had to choose which half of me had to die,’ said David Baker, a local gay Mormon who attempted suicide in 2008. (Blade photo by Michael Key)
‘I felt like I had to choose which half of me had to die,’ said David Baker, a local gay Mormon who attempted suicide in 2008. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

‘I felt like I had to choose which half of me had to die,’ said David Baker, a local gay Mormon who attempted suicide in 2008. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

David Baker is living what he calls the “ultimate paradox.”

Like many 21-year-old gays in the D.C. area, Baker spent last Saturday at Town as he does many weekends. A drag show is taking place downstairs, but he and his friends went to the upper level to dance to the latest remixes.

“I started going clubbing shortly after I came out,” he said. “But I don’t go all that regularly — probably once a month.”

But on Sunday, the situation is different. After donning his best church clothes, the Salt Lake City native who now lives in Rockville, went to a Mormon church in D.C. for a three-hour block of weekly service.

Activities included hearing speakers from within and outside the congregation and scripture discussion. Baker, a University of Utah graduate, is also co-chair of the cultural events committee and helped work to plan social events with other church members.

Baker’s presence among his congregation is distinct because he’s openly gay in a religion known for its hostility to homosexuality and opposition to same-sex marriage. The Mormon Church earned scorn from many in the LGBT community in 2008 for taking a lead role in backing Proposition 8 in California, which ended same-sex marriage there.

“It’s the ultimate paradox,” Baker said. “It’s been a struggle not just in dealing with my sexuality, but in the reactions that I get from church members sometimes or the reactions that I get from the gay community.”

Even though he stands out for being gay, Baker said he’s able to mingle with other churchgoers and voice his opinion that he’s the same as any other Mormon despite his sexual orientation.

“Lots of people tune me out, but I try and approach it from a concept that we are all children of God, that we are sinners and we are all imperfect,” he said. “So to judge one sin as being worse than others, and my quote-unquote sin being worse than yours is absurd. And that seems to be a message that people understand.”

His path to personal acceptance hasn’t been easy. Baker once considered seeking out shock therapy to alter his sexual orientation as well as participation in Evergreen, the Mormon Church’s reparative therapy program. Such programs were long ago discredited and repudiated by medical professionals.

“I had come out to my family and a couple of friends and it wasn’t so much, ‘Oh, dang it, I’m gay,’ it was, “OK, I’m gay. I accept it. How does this comport with my faith?” he said. “So, I spent pretty much just every waking hour just poring over scripture, poring over words of prophets, poring over everything I could find on sexuality and religion.”

In 2008, Baker attempted to commit suicide by taking an overdose of pills. His roommate found him and took him to a local hospital for treatment.

“I felt like I had to choose which half of me had to die,” he said. “And I got to the point that I thought if half of me has to die, and I still won’t know the truth, why not just kill all of me and then I can finally know the truth?”

While undergoing treatment, Baker said a psychologist suggested to him there could be a distinction between the word of God and the guidance of the church. His roommate came to visit him and made the same observation in the exact same words.

“It sort of caught in my mind that maybe there’s a distinction between what God is saying and what the Prophets and the Apostles are saying,” he said. “Maybe these leaders of the church are Mormon and everything they say is not a direct fact from God, but instead tinged with their own personal beliefs, however flawed they might be.”

Baker is one of many other gay Mormons in the D.C. area who continue to practice their faith despite the religion’s position on homosexuality.

About 60 Mormons or former Mormons are affiliated with the D.C. chapter of Affirmation, a group for LGBT members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Fred Bowers, Affirmation’s D.C. chapter leader, said about one-third of those on his organization’s mailing list still identify as Mormons and participate in the Mormon church, although to varying degrees.

“Some people may go only to the church on Sunday and some may be more active with other things the church is doing through the week,” Bowers said. “And some may be there active, but they only participate in what they select, but there are a good number that actually do still attend church.”

Those who are Mormon and openly gay face challenges in adhering to their faith. For example, Mormons engaged in same-sex relationships aren’t permitted to attend special services, such as weddings, in Mormon temples. Those who are sexually active in opposite-sex relationships outside of wedlock or those who consume alcohol are similarly unable to attend.

But Bowers said many LGBT Mormons stick with their faith simply because they truly believe in the church’s teachings or because their families have a long history with the religion.

“They’ve grown up with this.” Bowers said. “Just like an Episcopalian or Catholic or what have you, we still believe that. It hasn’t changed just because we’re gay or lesbian. We still believe in that church and we still believe in the principles of it.”

That’s the situation for Baker, who said he still considers himself a Mormon because he believes in the Gospel as presented by the church and because “they have the most truth.”

“That being said, I don’t think that they have it all,” he said. “One of the core articles of faith of the church sort of says that blatantly. It says that we believe all that God has revealed isn’t all that he’ll reveal, and we believe that he’ll yet reveal many great important things. So it’s very much an ongoing, open canon.”

Still, Baker said he’s adapted Mormon dogma into his own views of his sexual orientation. He said he doesn’t plan to have sex until he finds another man to marry — similar to how many straight Mormons abstain from sex until after they receive their nuptials.

“For me, no sex before marriage means a legal marriage because the church does recognize legal marriages — the traditional kind naturally — that aren’t performed in the temple,” he said. “And so, in my mind, that same non-temple civil ceremony would be recognized by God.

‘Wickedness never was happiness’

The difficulty of being Mormon and openly gay became particularly pronounced last week when a high-ranking leader of the church made anti-gay remarks during the 180th semi-annual general conference in Salt Lake City.

Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorom of Twelve Apostles, called same-sex attractions “impure and unnatural” and characterized efforts to advance same-sex marriage across the country as attempts to “legalize immorality.” Additionally, he suggested people can change their sexual orientation, which can be overcome through prayer.

“We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the Gospel must be wrong,” he said. “In the Book of Mormon, we learn that ‘wickedness never was happiness.’”

Packer, who as an apostle is supposed to be delivering words directly from God, made the remarks to a crowd of 20,000 people in attendance and millions more watching the sermon via satellite transmission in churches and homes throughout the world.

For many gay Mormons, the words stung. Baker said he “cringed” as he heard Packer’s remarks and left the room where he and others had been viewing the sermon. He then realized he had to watch the entire remarks so he could respond to them later.

“I went back and watched the whole thing, and as I was listening to his words, I just felt frustration and I was very upset by what he was saying because it went against where the church has gone for the last five or 10 years,” he said.

Bowers said the remarks were particularly unfortunate in the wake of recent suicides of gay teens who took their lives after they were bullied and harassed and were disruptive to the dialogue that Affirmation had been pursuing with lower-level Mormon leaders “to heal the damage that was done by Prop 8.”

“They’re working so hard to get some sense of support and everything that we’re working to do that, and then this statement comes along that’s not very helpful,” Bowers said.

Changes were made to the speech in an online version of the remarks published later in the week. Packer’s reference to inborn “tendencies” was switched “temptations.” A question of “Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?” was removed entirely.

Baker said another noteworthy change was the sermon had been downgraded from the level of revelation to a less stringent guide that Mormon church members would do well to follow.

“Before in the mindset of members of the church, it’s been seen as revelation even though it’s never been explicitly said as such,” Baker said. “To have that downgraded from everyone thinking it’s revelation … to actually, no, it’s just a guide, is really big.”

Kim Farah, an LDS spokesperson, said speakers have the opportunity to make changes to clarify their intent on the Monday following every general conference and the changes made to Packer’s sermon were in line with this practice.

“President Packer has simply clarified his intent,” she said. “As we have said repeatedly, the Church’s position on marriage and family is clear and consistent. It is based on respect and love for all of God’s children.”

Even with the corrections, Packer’s sermon has invoked the ire of the Human Rights Campaign, which pounced on the Mormon leader’s remarks.

Joe Solmonese, HRC’s president, called the sermon “inaccurate” and “dangerous” and said it could lead to more LGBT suicides similar to those that took place in the last month.

“When a faith leader tells gay people that they are a mistake because God would never have made them that way and they don’t deserve love, it sends a very powerful message that violence and/or discrimination against LGBT people is acceptable,” Solmonese said. “It also emotionally devastates those who are LGBT or may be struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

HRC launched a petition campaign against Packer for his remarks following his sermon. On Tuesday, the organization delivered to Mormon Church headquarters a petition signed by 150,000 people asking the leader to correct his remarks further.

Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, said the response to the initiative against Packer is the largest for any petition campaign in the organization’s history.

“I think it was the impact of Elder Packer’s words,” Sainz said. “Any one of those issues would have drawn significant scorn from members of the community and our fair-minded straight allies, but when you lump all of them into one sermon, and it comes from the second-highest ranking official of the Mormon Church, I think it rises to the level where people are going to pay attention and demand change.”

Sainz said HRC is seeking a further correction from the Mormon Church because Packer’s remarks were “factually and scientifically untrue.”

“They’re inaccurate,” he said. “And so, they owe the factual record a revision to reflect what is true.”

Michael Otterson, an LDS spokesperson, responded to HRC’s efforts by saying that while the church disagrees with the organization on many issues, they have some “common ground.” For example, Otterson said the church denounces the acts of bullying that led to numerous gay suicides in the past month.

“We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different — whether those differences arise from race, religion, mental challenges, social status, sexual orientation or for any other reason,” Otterson said. “Such actions simply have no place in our society.”

Otterson maintained the church believes any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong and marriage should be exclusive to one man and woman. Still, he said these beliefs “should never, ever be used as justification for unkindness.”

“The church recognizes that those of its members who are attracted to others of the same sex experience deep emotional, social and physical feelings,” he continued. “The church distinguishes between feelings or inclinations on the one hand and behavior on the other. It’s not a sin to have feelings, only in yielding to temptation.”

HRC’s effort to draw attention to Packer’s remarks has earned mixed reviews among some gay Mormons. Bowers said HRC’s efforts at drawing attention to Packer’s remarks has been helpful in moving the church to talk about LGBT Mormons in a more positive way.

“This event was very helpful as they did release a statement,” Bowers said. “We’ll look forward to probably hopefully some more positive statements, such as the one they made about … no one should be bullied for anything. They were in agreement that everyone had a right to be in a safe space.”

But Baker was skeptical about the impact that the 150,000 signatures from outside groups like HRC would have on Mormon leadership because he doubted many of the names were from people within the church.

“I don’t think the HRC campaign is going to be that effective in affecting the church, but I definitely think it is proven effective in galvanizing a lot of people for their cause,” he said.

Baker also said the HRC campaign is energizing the core following of the church and noted new Facebook groups such as “I Love Boyd K. Packer” have emerged suggesting that the LGBT organization is bullying the church.

“I think that there’s going to be a bigger fallout of this from inside the church,” Baker said. “And from a member’s perspective, it’s going to be rally together all the other members and be like, ‘Look these people are attacking us. We’re being persecuted.’”

Sainz maintained HRC’s initiative is “not intended against Mormonism” and said millions of fair-minded Mormons “welcome LGBT people and want to encircle them in love and acceptance.”

“We don’t take exception to the Mormon religion,” Sainz said. “Our issue is with Elder Packer’s sermon and it’s with the Mormon Church hierarchy’s conduct on some of these issues. So that is an important distinction that we make.”

A change in the membership core?

As the public campaign between Packer and HRC plays out, a more under the radar effort has also been taking place with LGBT Mormons seeking change within the church — particularly in the wake of the church’s role in Prop 8.

On Sept. 19, Marlin Jensen, a general authority of the LDS Church, held a meeting in Oakland, Calif., with about 90 Mormons who reportedly voiced their disappointment over the church’s involvement in Prop 8 as well as other positions related to LGBT people.

According to Mormon writer Carol Lynn Pearson, some speakers expressed anger that Prop 8 had given Mormons “a license to hate.”

After listening to the stories, Jensen reportedly arose and through tears said, “I know that never in my life will I experience an hour quite like this one” and “to the full extent of my capacity I say that I am sorry.” Still, he never said during his remarks that he felt the LDS support for Prop 8 was an error.

The meeting itself, in addition to Jensen’s comments, was notable for many in the Mormon faith — particularly in light of the fact that apologies from church leaders are uncommon for any reason.

Baker said he thinks the event is “indicative of more of a change within the membership core.”

“The mindset of the membership just sort of realized that, ‘Wow, the church has been really rallying around Prop 8, which has been going on for two years,’” Baker said. “A lot of people are starting to sit and ask themselves, ‘What am I really supporting here?’”

Bowers also said the meeting reflects how Mormons are becoming more aware of LGBT people in their membership.

“They now know from working with them or seeing them come to church and doing their callings and wanting to do things that Mormons do in the church that we are whole, good people,” Bowers said. “Some of that attitude, I think, has changed very significantly based on the work they’ve being doing out in Oakland.”

Baker said he thinks the meeting that took place in Oakland represents how change within the church and its views on homosexuality could take place over time.

“The way the church is set up is it’s going to be something from the inside that changes it — the membership themselves over time grows to sort of recognize homosexuality more rather than just going from a top-down approach,” he said.

In the meantime, Baker plans to continue attending church service as he looks for the right man to marry while occasionally hitting the clubs on the weekend.

“I believe that they have homosexuality wrong and that over time, that might change,” Baker said. “But in the meantime, I still honestly believe in the church. And they do accept me and they don’t hate me, but it is an interesting razor-thin line to be walking.”

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Colorado

Biden calls Club Q owners as community grapples with aftermath

Focus on the Family headquarters vandalized

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Entrance to the Focus on the Family complex in Colorado Springs after the mass-murder at LGBTQ+ Club Q (Photo by Nic Grzecka/Instagram)

As the LGBTQ community continues to mourn the loss of the five people killed in last weekend’s mass shooting, focus is now shifting to a reflection of anti-LGBTQ sentiment that has evolved from prejudice to incitement according to Nic Grzecka, a co-owner of Club Q.

In an interview with the Associated Press, one of his first since the chaos of the aftermath created by the mass-shooting, Grzecka said he believes the targeting of a drag queen event is connected to the art form being cast in a false light in recent months by right-wing activists and politicians who complain about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children.

Even though general acceptance of the LGBTQ community has grown, this new dynamic has fostered a dangerous climate, he said.

“It’s different to walk down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand and getting spit at (as opposed to) a politician relating a drag queen to a groomer of their children,” Grzecka said. “I would rather be spit on in the street than the hate get as bad as where we are today.”

On Thursday, President Joe Biden spending the Thanksgiving holiday with the first lady and family members in Nantucket, Massachusetts, called Grzecka and Club Q co-owner Matthew Haynes.

The president and the first lady offered condolences and reiterated their support for the community as well as their commitment to fighting back against hate and gun violence. They also thanked the two men for the ‘incredible contributions they have made and will continue to make to Colorado Springs.’

The president told reporters enroute to Nantucket, reflecting on the mass-shooting at the LGBTQ+ club and then another mass-shooting Tuesday, at a Walmart store when a night manager opened fire in a breakroom in Chesapeake, Va., killing six, and wounding at least half a dozen more, said he has plans to support a bill banning assault rifles during the lame-duck session before the next Congress is seated in January.

“I’m going to do it whenever — I got to make that assessment as I get in and start counting the votes,” Biden said

As the memorial outside Club Q grows, more attention is now being focused on the needs of the survivors and others in the LGBTQ community in Colorado Springs affected by the mass-shooting.

An annual ‘Friendsgiving’ feast for the members of the LGBTQ community unable to spend time with relatives because of their being LGBTQ and which was normally held by the owners and staff of Club Q was shifted to a community dinner at the Colorado Springs MCC Church.

In an Instagram post, earlier in the week, Grzecka thanked Colorado Governor Jared Polis, state Attorney General Phil Weiser, Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez and city councilmember Nancy Henjum in whose district the LGBTQ club is located, “for your hard work to ensure there was a Crisis Center to service the Club Q and Colorado Springs community during the holiday.”

Fallout over the shooting continues as anger mounts at what many in the LGBTQ community see as targeted hate amplified by a resurgence of anti-LGBTQ hate speech online and by right-wing media outlets and far-right figures such as Fox host Tucker Carlson.

Colorado Springs is also home to Focus on the Family, one of the largest anti-LGBTQ groups in the U.S. The Christian ministry group has opposed same-sex marriage, LGBTQ+ service in any branch of the U.S. armed forces and continues to advocate for the discredited practise of conversion therapy.

Late Thursday person or persons unknown vandalized the sign at the main entrance to the group’s headquarters complex. “We went out there to investigate if there was a crime that took place,” Colorado Springs Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Jason Ledbetter told the Gazette regarding the overnight incident. “There is no suspect information at this time.”

In a Instagram post, Grzecka displayed a picture of the vandalized sign with graffiti spray painted in black reading; “Their blood is on your hands five lives taken.”

In his message accompanying the picture, Grzecka noted:

Focus on the Family moved to our city in the 90’s, was a large group behind pushing through Amendment 2 along with Colorado for family matters. People such as Dr. James Dobson and Will Perkins have spread a nasty, false and hurtful narrative about our LGBT community.

Amendment 2 was passed in 1992, and Colorado Springs (El Paso county) were the votes to pass the amendment, the same amendment that gave our city the nickname “hate city USA”

Words have consequences and your continuous false narrative about the LGBT community has consequences,
@focusonthefamily this message added to your sign has more truth to it than you may actually be able to understand.

This is not vandalism this is not an attack on Christian’s. This message is just that a message that was delivered in a way to ensure you receive it.

@cityofcos, Mayor Suthers when can we meet to discuss how this type of anti-gay speech, is coming from our own backyard.

The Gazette also reported that people from around the nation are holding in-person and online fundraisers for victims and families of the Club Q mass shooting. 

While the state has an official online donation site, the Colorado Healing Fund, a private online drive, also has become one of the largest appeals.

Good Judy Garage in Denver, an LGBTQ business, raised $25,000 in two hours after starting a GoFundMe drive on Sunday. The initial goal was upped to $50,000 and now is at $750,000, as donations continue to pour in. As of Friday, the amount collected was $761,707 raised.

Link to the GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-for-the-club-q-families-and-survivors.

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Colorado

Defense attorneys say Club Q suspect is nonbinary

Alleged shooter to make virtual court appearance Wednesday

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(Photo courtesy of Facebook)

The suspect in the killing of five people and the wounding of over a dozen others in the Saturday night mass shooting at Club Q is nonbinary say attorneys in documents filed Tuesday in the 4th Judicial District and El Paso County, Colorado Combined Courts.

The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that lawyers for suspect Anderson Lee Aldrich filed a series of motions after they were released from the hospital and transferred to the El Paso County jail in downtown Colorado Springs.

Joseph Archambault, who is the chief trial deputy for the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, and Michael Bowman, another state public defender, included a footnote in the documents which read: “Anderson Aldrich is nonbinary. They use they/them pronouns, and for the purposes of all formal [court] filings, will be addressed as Mx. Aldrich.”

The suspect has 10 charges stemming from the shooting. Five felony counts of first degree murder and five felony counts of bias-motivated crimes causing bodily injury.

In a press briefing earlier, Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez said the suspect had not made any statements to investigators, despite attempts to interview Aldrich.

The Gazette reported that Aldrich is scheduled to make a virtual appearance for an advisement hearing at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in 4th Judicial District Court. There is no date set for the suspect’s first in-person court appearance. 

According to the Gazette the six motions filed by the defense include a motion to unseal the arrest affidavit for the defense, a motion to limit pretrial public comment, a motion to provide ongoing disclosures to the defense, a motion for the court to prohibit ex parte search warrants by law enforcement, a motion for preservation of discoverable materials, and a motion demanding a preliminary hearing. 

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Gay Ukrainian immigrant looked to social media to find himself

Artem Bezrukavenko was born in Donetsk

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Artem Bezrukavenko (Photo by Andrey Strekoza)

On the streets of New York City, Artem Bezrukavenko stood next to a bystander with a microphone. 

“What would be your ideal boyfriend?” he asked the man. 

But he didn’t answer. Instead, he posed the same question to Bezrukavenko.

“My ideal boyfriend would be loyal, ambitious and monogamous,” Bezrukavenko said, adding: “He knows what he wants from life, loves me — I love him — and we have very good goals that are going to bring us together.” 

Of course, Bezrukavenko has already found this man. He and his boyfriend have been together for over a year and share a one bedroom apartment in the Upper West Side. 

But it hasn’t always been this way for Bezrukavenko. The 25-year-old, who was born in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, left the country for nearby Poland in 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine — beginning a period of prolonged bloodshed in the country’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. He moved to the U.S. a few years later, in 2017. 

Bezrukavenko told the Los Angeles Blade that he has been closeted most of his life. But, through social media, he said he learned to embrace his queer identity. 

“When I started to do content, I didn’t really show my gay side,” he said. “But, at some point, I just kind of dived into it. I saw there were a lot of people who could relate to me. And, in fact, I do change a lot of people’s lives.” 

Double-edged sword 

Discussions surrounding the LGBTQ community and social media often focus on cyberbullying and hate speech. However, some research has shown that the internet can also provide LGBTQ people, particularly youth, a safe space to explore themselves — especially if they come from an unsupportive environment.  

According to a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, sexual minorities between 10 and 16 years old more often reported joining a group or web-based community to make themselves feel less alone compared to their heterosexual peers. An Australian survey of people aged 14-21 found digital spaces provide an ideal practice ground for LGBTQ youth to come out, engage with gay culture, socialize with other LGBTQ youth and experiment with non-heterosexual intimacy. 

Ross Murray, vice president of the GLAAD Media Institute, said LGBTQ people often use social media to find people like them. He said it can be very easy to feel isolated, but “social media helps you find and realize that you’re not alone.” 

On the flip side, Murray said, social media is also used to broadcast who you are. “You can be the one who is sharing your life, being your authentic self, talking about the joys and struggles, so that other LGBTQ people can learn that,” he said. 

Bezrukavenko has seen both sides — inspired by LGBTQ creators and empowered by making content that celebrates who he is. 

“I looked at some people who were being gay on social media and showing their life,” he said. “I felt like, ‘oh, my gosh, there are so many gay people.’ And they’re not feeling it’s a disadvantage, they make the best out of it.”   

That’s not to say social media isn’t an increasingly dangerous place for LGBTQ people. GLAAD, for example, recently analyzed the five major social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok — finding none scored over a 50 percent for LGBTQ safety, privacy and expression. TikTok — the second most popular form of social media amongst teens, according to Pew Research — scored the lowest, with 43 percent. 

“This is the dark side of visibility, I guess,” Murray said. “The more visible you get, the more of a target you become.” 

Murray said social media is a place where we put ourselves out there. We do it for an intended audience, he said, like people we can educate, comfort or guide. “But that can be seen by anyone,” he said. “And that being seen by anyone also then can turn into a weaponization.” 

Bezrukavenko — who dabbled with, but ultimately abandoned, social media before coming out — said fear of online harassment kept him from pursuing it for most of his life. He said he always wanted to do social media, but his biggest fear was that he would be bullied for how he talked or walked, like in school. 

War in Ukraine

His life changed drastically in 2014 as war erupted 80 miles from his home in the Ukrainian city of Dobropillya. Bezrukavenko, who was raised by his mother and grandparents, was 17 at the time and had just finished high school. 

In an attempt to salvage his country’s lost influence in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded and annexed Crimea on the northern coast of the Black Sea in March 2014. Then, pro-Russia separatist rebels began seizing territory in the eastern part of the country. But as fighting with the Ukrainian military intensified, the rebels started losing — causing Russia to invade eastern Ukraine in August 2014. As of September 2014, more than 2,500 Ukrainians have been killed. 

Bezrukavenko wanted to build a life for himself. Not only was there war, but he also said he knew he was gay and — though he saw the country making some efforts toward LGBTQ tolerance — ultimately didn’t see Ukraine as a place where he would be comfortable.

“I knew I did not belong in Ukraine, and I always wanted to go away,” he said. 

Bezrukavenko said his Ukranian identity is complicated — he hasn’t felt a strong connection to the country since he left it in 2014. Even with today’s war in Ukraine, he still doesn’t feel a strong sense of Ukrainian identity. 

In February of this year, Putin announced a “special military operation” in the country — the war still has no end in sight. Nearly 8 million Ukrainians have fled the country since Russia’s invasion, making it the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Russia has also been accused of war crimes

Bezrukavenko still has family in Ukraine. In fact, his uncle is fighting in the war. “I don’t really miss Ukraine, and I don’t really want to live there,” he said. “But I don’t want them to be under the bumps.” 

Bezrukavenko said he thinks his sense of Ukrainian identity has faded because he moved from the country at a young age. He said since moving to America, the feeling has faded even more. 

“My whole adult life, I was out of there, so I feel like I’m probably more American than Ukrainian at this point,” he said. 

Bezrukavenko’s journey 

So he could leave the country, Bezrukavenko’s family — who he was not out — borrowed money and sent him to Warsaw with a three-month allowance. Knowing little Polish, he was set to start at the University of Management.

He said he had to “hustle” in Poland. In addition to school, Bezrukavenko worked two jobs at a time – working for months without a day off. At one point, he was expelled from school for poor attendance. (He was later readmitted.) 

“I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “It’s not like I didn’t want to go to school, I just didn’t have time.” 

After six months of being in Warsaw, Bezrukavenko’s mother joined him. They shared a small studio apartment with nothing to sleep on but a small couch. He worked during the day while his mother worked nights. 

“There was no time for anything,” he said. “It was just working.” 

Bezrukavenko worked several jobs in Warsaw — from distributing flyers to being a receptionist and sales associate. “You know, it sounds terrible but it was a good time,” he said.” I had a dream and I was saving money for America.” 

After three years in Poland — with only $500 in his pocket — Bezrukavenko moved to the U.S. in 2017. His mother stayed back in Warsaw. 

In the years since, Bezrukavenko has moved coast to — starting his journey in Ocean City, Md., then New York City (for one day), then Chicago, then Los Angeles, then Austin, until he ended up in Manhattan. 

“I did a circle kind of,” he said.  

All the while, he worked in restaurants, call centers and retail — to name a few — to make ends meet. 

Coming out — twice 

Artem Bezrukavenko (Photo by Andrey Strekoza)

During this period, Bezrukavenko was closeted. While living in Warsaw, he remembers telling his mother he was gay. She suggested that a psychologist could help him.

“Even though my mom is the most progressive mom ever — I mean, she was my best friend all my life. But she still couldn’t believe that I was gay,” Bezrukavenko said. “So we kind of forgot about it.” 

After having his heart broken in Austin — though he said it “wasn’t really that broken, I was just being [dramatic]” — Bezrukavenko came out to his mother again. This time went smoother than the last. 

“After I came out to my mom, I was just like, I just need to come out — I just need to get it over with,” he said. 

Bezrukavenko publicly came out as gay in a video posted on Christmas 2020 while living in Austin. In it, he held the LGBTQ Pride flag over his shoulders. Within three hours, the video had 500,000 views. 

“I thought in my head, I make a problem for myself being gay,” he said. “Why don’t I look at it as not a problem but an advantage?” 

He said that his life changed a lot after posting that video, something that shocked him. He began to grow on all different platforms — like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube — sharing his story, doing LGBTQ-themed videos, posting so-called “thirst traps” and doing comedy. 

Bezrukavenko also noticed that many people online were already saying he was gay. For example, he said he ran a YouTube channel in Polish about living in America while he was closeted. As the channel grew, so did the number of people saying he acted gay — which, at the time, made him feel ashamed. 

“They would say I am giving Cher,” he said, referring to a viral Shawn Mendes video, where the singer told his then-girlfriend Camila Cabello that “it’s giving Cher.” The meme invited inappropriate jokes about Mendes’ presumed sexuality. 

But as it turned out, Bezrukavenko said, being unapologetically himself on the internet set him free and racked up more views. 

“I realized at this point, why do I hide myself?” he said. “I have a very unique perspective.” 

Gay content for gay people

Now, Bezrukavenko is living in Manhattan with his boyfriend, mainly creating content on TikTok, Instagram and OnlyFans. 

Bezrukavenko recently teamed up with a fellow gay influencer, StanChris, to film a series of videos later seen on TikTok and Instagram. 

“He seems really, really motivated — and I really liked that,” Chris, who asked the Blade to use his first name only, said. “He’s like, go, go, let’s work. And he’s always thinking of new ideas and stuff.” 

The two met after Chris noticed a viral Instagram reel Bezrukavenko posted. When Chris clicked on the account, he noticed Bezrukavenko had already attempted to DM him. So he wrote back, and the two began communicating. 

Chris, who lives in New Hampshire, was in New York for a skateboarding event and suggested that the two meet in person to film videos. After spending some time in Bezrukavenko’s apartment, the two embarked on a night in the city.

“We were just interviewing random people, asking them questions for more short videos to make,” Chris said. “And we both got multiple viral videos from doing that, so we had some good energy, good vibes, good luck.” 

Bezrukavenko said he is focusing on making gay content for gay people. “I realized at some point that there is not enough gay content — that there is not enough good representation,” he said. 

He does have one account, Art in the Park — a TikTok page with over 120,000 followers and north of 3 million likes where he interviews people on the streets of New York City — with the purpose of capturing a wider audience. Though he has come to love interviewing people, he said he is also focused on his LGBTQ-themed comedy on his personal accounts. 

Bezrukavenko said his life is the most stable it’s ever been. After losing both his grandparents last year, he met his now boyfriend.

“I don’t want to say I’m a religious person, but I feel like there’s some power,” he said. “I told my mom a lot that I feel like [my boyfriend] was sent to me by my grandparents.”

He described his personal life as “very boring because it’s very good.”

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