Irina Myrtceva paused and wiped away tears as she described her first visit to America.
"Now I can tell them it is a great nation," she said of her fellow Russian countrymen, who hear nothing but negative things about the U.S. from Moscow's government-controlled media.
Myrtceva, 29, is playing badminton at Gay Games 9 in Cleveland as part of a 30-person strong Russian contingent here as part of a scholarship program from the Federation Gay Games for athletes from nations were LGBT people are persecuted. Russia last year passed a series of anti-gay laws that eroded what little protections there were for LGBT people there.
"Things will get worse," said Myrtceva of the situation in Russia. She runs a sporting goods store in St. Petersburg along with her partner Natalie. The two, for example, want to have a child but are fearful that the new laws would allow the state to take their baby away. The couple have contemplated emigrating to a more gay-friendly nation.
Myrtceva is smitten with Cleveland, which she calls an "amazing city. I love the people here, the way they are always smiling and say good morning to you on the street." She is staying at the Cleveland home of Nikhil Chand and Rebecca Groynom and was Sunday cheering on Groymon as she competed in rowing.
She and Natalie have been together for four years, which she calls really good in Russia, where there is strong social pressure against gay couples. For example, Myrtceva's mother is in denial about her daughter being a lesbian and refers to Natalie as friends. While that is still not unheard of in the U.S., Russia is decades behind America is its acceptance of gay people.
Despite living in St. Petersburg, what Myrtceva described as the gay capital of Russia, she is leery of showing any public affection to Natalie since she would fear harassment from the police. What's as worse is the silence around the gay issue, she said, adding that "nobody will listen to you about this problem."
Being at the Gay Games has given Myrtceva new-found strength to be more vocal once she gets home. She is a member of the country's nascent LGBT sports federation and might take a stronger leadership role. If there was one message she would take home to her fellow Russians, it's that "being gay is not bad and it's not abnormal. We're not ill. We're beautiful."