‘At school, there was a classic hierarchy amongst the guys: the machos were at the top, the nerds at the bottom. I was a bit of an outsider, because I didn’t fit into either category. One day, we heard that the girlfriend of one of the popular guys had been with a guy from another school. Soon afterwards, guys from both schools gathered at an open field to fight each other. The slogan of the campaign to recruit fighters at our school was “If you are a real man, you should join this battle!” Although I hardly knew the guy, the slogan struck a nerve. I loved this fantasy of becoming part of a brotherhood of strong men who would stand up for each other.

That day, more than two hundred guys circled around the two rivals, who, after some shouting, began to fight. We all followed suit. It was terrific. When you fight, time stops, and everything moves in slow motion. You single someone out, and for a split second you look at each other before realising you must attack. It is scary as fuck, because you don’t know how strong your opponent is and what he will do. The adrenaline racing through your body gives you a sort of high, and the more people you conquer, the higher you become. It feels like you are living up to some kind of warrior ideal.

‘I loved this fantasy of becoming part of a brotherhood of strong men who would stand up for each other’

It was nothing like the violence we knew from television or the movies. It was a mess. Most of the boys were just clumsily moving across the field and grabbing each other instead of really fighting.

The battle lasted no more than twenty minutes, but it was a total game changer. Even though I remained the odd one out, the other guys at school respected me for contributing to the honour of our tribe. It felt like a baptism into manhood.

Image: Elvin Boer

I started growing my beard. In Russian, a beard is called boroda or Борода, a word that is derived from (Бо)гатство Рода, meaning “wealth of the family tree”. For a long time, a big beard was regarded as a symbol of a man’s fertility, his ability to protect, provide, and take care of his family and children. These are all crucial elements of Russian masculinity.

With my manly looks, I became popular with women. When I went to clubs, it struck me that the scenarios for our behaviour seemed set in stone. The men were often fighting, not to bond, but to compete with each other. The women seemed passive, ready to be conquered. The men had to be active, confident and in control of what they did, but not too much. If they overdid it, they could potentially be seen as rapists. If they were too sensitive and caring, they would be considered weak and unmanly. I think there is a lot of fear in the straight world. Many women have ­– not without reason – been raised to distrust men, while men are under constant pressure to prove themselves.

My life changed when I left Russia and moved to Amsterdam for an internship. Life is easier here, more relaxed. Women often take the initiative, and most men do not feel threatened by it. While in Russia, a man has to be the breadwinner, here either sex can take up that role. I love it when my girlfriend takes care of me and makes me feel safe.

‘I can be profoundly moved by men. A nice, rough beard can be a reason for me to walk up to a man and give him a compliment’

Although I don’t have any sexual feelings for men, I can be profoundly moved by them. By something they say, by the way they move, by their faces. A nice, rough beard can be a reason for me to walk up to a man and give him a compliment. I love hugging and physically connecting with my bro’s. Back in Russia, most straight men will never do this. Not because they do not want to, but because such behaviour does not fit the blueprint of what a man is supposed to be, how he should behave.

I love hitting the town with my gay buddies. Before we go out, I take care of myself by putting on nice clothes and grooming my beard. At straight places, women are the centre of attention. At gay clubs, it is the other way around. Men often give me compliments.

Image: Elvin Boer

About a year ago, I was looking for someone to drive me to a festival outside Amsterdam, because my Russian driver’s licence is not valid here. Online I found a guy called Djai who was willing to give me a ride. We met at his house. The moment I looked into his eyes, I felt this massive yes in my body. An inner knowing that we belonged together. It wasn’t sexual – we are both straight – but his presence moved me immensely.

Djai’s little beard perfectly frames his feminine face. His slender body is both strong and vulnerable. When he moves, he uses all his muscles, while there is also a certain gentleness to his movements, indicative of his caring character.

‘It felt great to be physically close to other men in a caring way’

We drove to the festival together. We talked non-stop about our lives. I took part in his workshop, a playful exploration of male physicality. Participants had to push and hold each other very gently, like wrestling but without the fighting. It felt great to be physically close to other men in a caring way. After the festival, I told Djai that I felt like I had known him forever, and he told me he felt the same.

Recently, Djai and I went on a road trip in South America. It felt like a honeymoon with my bro. At the beach, we sunbathed naked, and sometimes we held hands. He did all the driving while I sat next to him in the passenger seat. I did not have to be in control, I could sit back and let him lead the way. I only had to feed him candies every now and then.’

Image: Elvin Boer