Edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon | OR Books | February 2014 | 11 minutes (2,575 words)
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This week we are proud to feature a chapter from Gay Propaganda, a collection of original stories, interviews and testimonials from LGBT Russians both living there and in exile. The book was edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon, and will be published by OR Books in February. We’d like to thank them for sharing this chapter with Longreads Members.
“I had a career in Russia, a nice apartment, friends, family.
I sacrificed all that to be with Ana.”
I was born and grew up in Saratov, Russia. It’s a provincial town, built on a mix of old-fashioned Orthodox Christian values (which condemned homosexuality as a sin) and Soviet beliefs (when most people thought that homosexuality didn’t exist in the Soviet Society at all).
Both of my parents worked, and I was on my own a lot. I was a good kid, though. I did my homework, stayed home, and didn’t get into trouble. I was also shy and sometimes had a hard time socializing. My father was a history professor at the university, and my mom worked for a non-profit organization.
They were educated, intelligent, and generally very good people, but they were still very homophobic. My dad always made sure to explain that “homosexuals are rich perverts who are so overindulged in pleasures that they turn to unnatural acts for entertainment.” I’m not sure why my father thought that all gays were supposed to be rich. Maybe he implied that average people like us would never need to even consider engaging in such acts. And my mom called homosexuality “a grave sin that brings nothing but shame and despair to a family.” It was the only education I received about same-sex love as a child. Needless to say, it caused me a lot of anxiety once the realization that I might be gay finally hit me. ”
That happened when I was 15. It was in 1994, right after Russia went through a series of democratic reforms. Russia was getting pretty liberal at that time, and they even started talking about same-sex relationships in the media, something that had never happened before. I remember watching a late-night talk show when they announced their next topic: “Lesbians.” “The host talked a little bit about what lesbians were, and then she announced statistics, something that just shook me to the core: “On average, one out of ten women is a lesbian.” At that moment, I didn’t know a single girl who was a lesbian. But I surely knew nine straight girls. And it made me think that the tenth, the lesbian girl, could just as well be me. I know it was weird logic, but I’d had a crush on a girl from my class since I was thirteen, so it all suddenly started to make sense. It was like I discovered that I had an illness; maybe not a fatal one, but one without a cure. But then I started finding more information about lesbians, and it didn’t sound too bad. I remember reading an article in a magazine about Martina Navratilova (the tennis player) and Madonna (the singer), claiming that they were lesbians (or bisexual, in Madonna’s case). They were the only lesbians that I’d heard of at that time, and I was amazed by how talented, beautiful, and successful they were. I wanted to be just like them.
And I really wanted to find a girlfriend, but I was afraid to talk about it to the girls I knew. I always hid my sexual orientation in Russia, even when I went to the university. I didn’t meet anybody openly gay on campus. Even though singers and ballet dancers were allowed to be gay in Russia, ordinary people preferred to hide it the best they could. But I tried to concentrate on my studies and just not to think about it. I graduated and then enrolled in a post-graduate program, and got a job as an assistant professor at the International Economics Department, at Saratov State Socio-Economic University.
I was happy about my professional life, but my personal life was turning into a disaster. I was 22, and still single. My parents, who didn’t bother me about not having a boyfriend before, suddenly came to the conclusion that I was getting too old and it was time for me to get married. Russians usually marry young: my older sister got married when she was 18; my older brother married when he was 21. Graduation from college was considered to be “the time” to find a spouse and settle down. I didn’t come out to my parents, remembering their homophobic remarks and very anti-gay attitude. But most important, I didn’t want to disappoint them. And I knew that the announcement that they had a lesbian daughter would be devastating. They were always so proud of me, for being such a good student and a good daughter, and they did so much for me. I felt like I owed them to be straight.
My parents, all our other relatives, their friends, and even neighbors were putting a lot of pressure on me to find a husband. My mother had a long conversation with me, saying that it wasn’t normal not to be married or at least have a boyfriend at that age, and insisting that I must have some “emotional or physical retardation” if I wasn’t interested in men. She told me I had to either find a husband or see a doctor, so I decided to make my best effort and dated a guy my family had set me up with, but that failed miserably. We dated for all of two months, and then I told him the truth, that I was gay. He said I wasted his time, that he didn’t want to see me ever again, but promised not to tell anybody about why we broke up. I never wanted to date another guy after that. The whole experience was just too nerve-wracking, and I probably hurt the guy, too, or at least disappointed him. I didn’t want anybody to suffer.
In the months following that failed relationship, I felt even more lonely and empty than before. I decided that I had to find a girlfriend. That I deserved to love and be loved. In January 2002, I posted a personal ad online, but I chose a foreign dating site to do it. I didn’t want to use any local site and be exposed. I was teaching over two hundred students every semester: young people who were probably very familiar with all the local dating sites. If anybody at the university found out that I was gay, the news would spread immediately. I would be laughed at, humiliated, and would probably lose my job.
I got a few responses from women in different countries, from Europe and the U.S. But the only one I liked was a girl named Ana. She was from New York. We exchanged emails for a few months. Then we started talking on the phone, hours and hours of conversations. She was so smart, and funny, and easy to talk to. She was perfect, and I felt like she was the closest person to me in the whole world. She liked me very much, too. On the phone, I didn’t always understand her, and she didn’t always understand me, but we learned to adapt.
In May, she came to Russia to meet me in person. We met in Moscow. In person, she was even better than I imagined her to be. She was very pretty, with olive skin, long wavy brown hair, and the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen. When we first met I had no idea what to say to her. I was really shy, and broke, too. So for the days we were in Moscow I’d cook us little meals in the hotel, with food that I brought with me, on a little stove there in the room.
Ana is originally from Peru, and she moved to the U.S. a few years before she met me. She was such a lively person; she talked a lot and always made me laugh. She worked for a TV station in New York, and she brought me lots of videos, CDs with American and Latin music, souvenirs from her country, and pictures of her family and places she’d traveled. It was so easy to be with her. I had never felt happier in my life. We spent three amazing days in Moscow and then took a train to my hometown, Saratov.
My parents questioned me about this girl who came to visit, about what her intentions were, and I had to tell them that Ana was my pen pal, just a friend who wanted to see Russia. I felt really bad that we had to hide, that I wasn’t able to talk to my parents honestly about the most important person in my life. But I also didn’t want the trip to end in a scandal. My parents finally agreed for Ana to stay at our house, under the condition that she slept not in my room but in the living room on the couch.
The ten days we spent together in Russia were the best days of my life, and by the time Ana had to leave I knew I was really in love with her.
She loved me too, and the fact that she had to return to the U.S. was heartbreaking. We didn’t know when we’d be able to see each other again. At that time I obviously couldn’t apply for a fiancee visa like my sister did when she moved to the U.S. to marry her boyfriend. We wanted to try a tourist or a student visa, but then my situation changed. I heard back from a U.S. exchange program that I’d applied to months before, and I was accepted. I was scheduled to leave for the U.S. in summer 2002. The program wouldn’t bring me to Ana; all of us participants had to go live in Lincoln, Nebraska. But it would bring me close to her and at the time it seemed like a great opportunity for me to learn about the U.S. economy and help my academic work. In Nebraska, Ana and I stayed in touch the whole time. Our phone bills were huge. I managed to come to New York for Thanksgiving break and meet Ana there, see where she lived. It was the most beautiful city in the world. And, most importantly, Ana lived there.
The program ended in six months, and it was time to go back to Russia. Instead, I traveled to New York to be with Ana. It was hard leaving Russia behind. My parents were furious that I wasn’t coming back, and I was burning all bridges. I had a career in Russia, a nice apartment, friends, family. I sacrificed all that to be with Ana. My parents were the hardest part: I loved them very much, and it broke my heart not to be able to see them.
I didn’t have a choice, though. Even if Ana could come to live with me in Russia, we would never be able to be open there. Life in the U.S. might not always be easy, but at least here I never had a fear of being humiliated and punished for being a lesbian.
Even all these years later, my parents can’t deal with it. They know I live with Ana, but they don’t want to know about her. Every time I talk to them they tell me I’ve ruined my life. They ask me how I can live without papers in the U.S., when in Russia I could have a good job, close to my family. Now I’m an outcast; they guilt-trip me every time we talk, they always tell me I’ve made a mistake, that I’ve ruined my life. My mom has visited a few times. She stayed with us, and the funny thing is, she actually gets along with Ana.
Ana and I always wanted to get married. I proposed to her on May 18, 2003, on the one-year anniversary of our meeting in Moscow. I was still broke at the time, but I somehow managed to save enough money to buy her a gold ring with a heart covered with tiny diamonds (really tiny, but pretty). She said yes. But we couldn’t get married back then; same-sex marriages weren’t legal in New York. Regardless, Ana was my partner, and we’ve been living together ever since. In our hearts, we considered ourselves married and committed to each other, even if we had to wait to do it officially.
Ana and I also always wanted to have children, and we considered various options that would allow us to have a child, including adoption. But when our friend, a gay man, suggested we have a child together, we really liked that idea. Our daughter, Elena, was born in June 2009. Ana and I are raising her, and Elena’s father comes to visit about twice a month, and plays with Elena for a few hours. He’s happy to have a biological child, and also happy not to have the responsibility of caring for a kid full-time. He works long hours and goes on lots of business trips; he wouldn’t be able to take care of a child himself anyway.
Elena changed our lives a lot. Raising a kid is sleepless nights, added expenses, and no free time. But I’m really proud of my family. It might not fit the definition of “traditional,” but it’s a very happy one. My parents are happy I have a kid, too. I was 29 before I had her, so they were worried I was going to become an “old” childless woman. I send them pictures every day of Elena. My mom bought a new computer so we talk on Skype a lot, too. It’s funny, sometimes I send them photos of the three of us, but I never told my parents Ana and I got married. It was sad that I couldn’t tell them, but I don’t think they could ever accept it. So if I don’t have to tell them, why cause them the headache? Anyway, I accomplished the mission. I have a daughter I love, and my parents have a grandchild.
We decided not to get married until 2013, when DOMA was struck down by the Supreme Court, to get full legal recognition of our marriage. Now I can finally call Ana “my wife,” and this makes me smile every time I think about it.
Ana’s relatives have treated us really well. We moved to a new house this summer, and they came to see our new place. Ana’s little nieces and nephew were playing with Elena in the backyard. Our new neighbor, a twelve-year old girl, came up to talk to them and asked if they were visiting and how they got to know Elena. Ana’s niece, an eight-year-old, proudly said, “Elena is our cousin.” The neighbor girl asked how they could be cousins if Elena didn’t look anything like them. Ana’s family is Hispanic, all of them have dark hair and darker skin, while Elena has my very fair skin and blonde hair. Ana’s niece thought about it for a second, and then said, just as confidently as before, “She might look different, but she’s still part of our family.” When I heard that, I wanted to cry.