KYIV, Ukraine ― The crowd at G-Versace Club ― mainly queer men, but also a sizable proportion of young women ― went as wild for every performer as the audience might at a Beyoncé or BTS concert. The Feb. 11 show opened with “the Go-Go GIANNI Boys,” a troupe of scantily clad, svelte men who danced choreographed numbers. Then, six drag queens with names like Gina Smile or Alcodiva took to the small stage, lip-syncing to both Ukrainian and international hits.
Inside this dark, smoky underground club, one might not have had any clue that a brutal war was raging in this country. Yet it had been just about a year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
While all were eager to forget the war for a few hours, it wasn’t ignored, either. Toward the end of the show, all of the drag queens gathered on stage for one grand ensemble piece. Together, they stood tall while the entire club sang along with the popular “Army Remix” of “Oi u luzi chervona kalyna”, a powerful military anthem that has symbolized Ukrainian resistance since the War of Independence from 1917 to 1921.
That Saturday, the club opened at 2 p.m., which is standard for wartime weekend parties in Ukraine’s capital. Martial law means that civilians aren’t allowed out on the streets after 11 p.m. in Kyiv. The show was over by 9 p.m., giving people time to get home before curfew. The early end didn’t stop people from having a good time, with the bartenders pouring drinks and the patrons grinding and dancing until the last minute.
“[The drag show] relieves the emotional burden from the war for a short period of time, helps us to relax and chat with friends,” Arthur Ozerov, who was the star of the show as drag queen Aura, explained to me via Telegram, a popular messaging app.
Ozerov is no stranger to the military. When the war began last February, he volunteered to join the military administration. In April, the world watched in horror when a mass grave containing hundreds of bodies was found in Bucha, a town outside of Kyiv, after Russian forces withdrew from the area. Ozerov got to work making more than a hundred wooden coffins by hand and delivered them to Bucha.
Despite what he and the rest of the country went through, there was an unexpected positive outcome of the war, he said.
“I became much more open. The war made me brave,” Ozerov said. “I came out [as gay] in June, it allowed me to be free now. I calmly talk about my passion for drag culture and am not afraid of judgment from others.”
In addition to his work in the military administration, he found another mission he believes helps his country: speaking up for the LGBTQ community in Ukraine, which continues to face widespread stigma and discrimination. A poll last year showed that 4 in 10 respondents hold a “negative view” of the LGBT community, compared to 6 out of 10 six years ago.
But Arthur wants to show the world that his country shares the same values as Western democratic states, in contrast with Russia, where President Vladimir Putin’s regime has cracked down on LGBTQ people. Drag shows and clubs like this one demonstrate how Ukraine is different, Arthur believes.
“This shows Ukrainians that we are Europeans, we value and respect freedom among LGBT culture in the European Union, and we want the same freedom to exist in Ukraine as well,” he said.
“Ukraine is a free country, it was and will be.”
See more photos from the G-Versace Club drag show below.