Dmitri Bondarenko was born and raised in Vladivostok, Russia, which means his experience as a gay youth was much different than it might have been in Canada, where he now lives.
Bondarenko says he knew he was gay from a very young age, but the concept of homosexuality was taboo in Russia. It wasn’t until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, that it was openly talked about, and then the talk was only negative.
“I didn’t even know what it was, even though as far as I can remember I knew I was gay,” says Bondarenko. “You’d hear the Russian word for ‘faggot’ or ‘homo’ used all the time but you never thought anything of it because it was never discussed [more broadly].”
“You just didn’t want to be one of ‘them.’ It was [considered] a sickness, a perversion.”
When he did finally start to see gay culture represented in Russian media, it was only in films and articles where gay people were depicted as trying to recruit Russian youth to be spies for the West.
“I read medical articles about treating ‘the sickness’ [of homosexuality] and saw movies where gay people were only villains or made fun of,” he says. “I always knew something was different about me but I never thought I was gay. No one was gay. It wasn’t even a thought.”
He played basketball and soccer growing up, but didn’t face any homophobic bullying in sports – not because the environment was accepting, but because sexual orientation was so far under the radar it wasn’t even considered. Bondarenko didn’t identify as a gay man because, to him, gay men didn’t exist in Russia.
“I thought one day I’d just be attracted to girls and that would be it,” he says.
Today, same-sex activity between consenting adults is legal in Russia, but there is no law preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Many regions of Russia have banned distribution of LGBT information to minors, as part of a law whose title translates as “On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development.”
“Now they have laws that they think are protecting children because they think gays are pedophiles. There’s no information, nothing guiding these kids and it makes me very sad,” says Bondarenko.
Bondarenko still has extended family in Russia that don’t know he is gay and he intends to keep it that way. He says it doesn’t matter to him, but his parents, who are accepting, don’t want to cut ties with that side of the family, who may not be.
“Gay people are scapegoats in Russia,” he says. “I think some of my family would be okay with it, but some would not want to speak to my parents anymore.”
“It’s always been easy to blame someone you don’t understand,” he adds.
Bondarenko came out in 2002 after his best friend died in a car crash.
“I thought to myself, ‘life is too short to be unhappy.’ I started reading about different programs in the city and thinking differently about being gay and came out to myself.”
The rest was easy.
His parents and sister took it very well. He met his partner Darren Loney in 2002 when Loney was a coordinator for Out There Sports & Recreation, a group for LGBT athletes in Winnipeg. Bondarenko joined the league and played ball hockey for over eight years. He and Loney started dating in 2005 and now live together in St. Vital.
“I’d only been in Winnipeg for a few years [when] I heard about ball hockey and thought it would be fun,” he said. “It was a great workout and it was laid back and a lot of fun. It was nice to go out and meet people who had similar interests.”
According to Bondarenko, interest in the league has since dropped and ball hockey doesn’t run anymore. He says that has good and bad sides.
“The less homophobia we have as a society the more gay people will be accepted into straight locker rooms,” he said. “It’s sad that numbers are dropping [at Out There Sports] but you realize it’s good because people can now play wherever they want.”
At 34, Bondarenko doesn’t play competitive sports anymore; he runs, and hikes (through Out There Sports) and spends time with his partner and their cats.
“After ball hockey ended I didn’t want to do much else,” he says, taking a big furry orange cat in his lap and petting it. “I like the hiking because it gives you a chance to socialize.”
This is the 2nd article in a series by Stephen Burns on sexual orientation in sports. You can read the other articles in which Burns profiles several gay athletes and examines their journey through the world of sports, by clicking on this link here: Out of the closet and off the bench