When I came out to my Russian mother, she shook her head and attempted to ignore my homosexuality for nearly a year. In June, before I left for Toronto's Pride Parade with my girlfriend, she told me to “behave.” She wasn’t comfortable with my sexuality, and she never did really accept it. This month, when we left together for a cross-Atlantic flight to Russia to visit our relatives, she didn't warn me about anything.
I already knew.
Russia has always been conservative and homophobic, but in recent years this has gone from relatives disapproving of homosexuality to the government taking one of the most intense anti-gay stances in the world. Almost every day, the government releases new laws and government statements that make queer Russians’ lives more and more difficult – if not impossible. Current legislation forbids people from spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.” Because Russian legislatures lack a clear definition of gay propaganda, the law effectively bans people from saying anything pro-gay. People have already been attacked for looking gay, police arrested everyone who attended a Saint Petersburg gay pride event, and last month a neo-Nazi group forced a boy to come out on camera and then brutally beat him. Most likely, the boys’ attackers thought they were beating the gay out of him as a favour.
Although I’m lucky enough to be a Canadian citizen who resides safely in Toronto (I moved from Russia in 1998 to Canada, because my parents wanted a better life for me), right now I’m a Russian lesbian visiting relatives in Russia.
To survive the past two weeks, I’ve had to pretend to be straight.
I'm currently staying with my grandparents in a small village in southeastern Russia with a population of less than 600. Both my grandparents from my mum’s side and my dad’s side live here. When I was a kid, I would come visit for a month every summer, but the older I get, the more boring this place is, so I visit Russia less often. The last time I was here, I was 17, and not out yet. The city nearest to me is Samara, which used to be known as the second capital during World War II. It's the sixth-largest city in Russia, and it’s not the kind of place where you will see rainbow stickers on windows – it's a place where shopkeepers give you the evil eye if you look a little different. This country is built on old-fashioned Orthodox Christian values and the beliefs of the Soviet Union. Lenin statues still grace almost every town square.
Most the time when I’m here, I hang out and walk or drive around the village with my cousin. He shows me his graffiti and steals plums for me; sometimes I give him Canadian coins as a novelty. At our respective home, we end up listening to Russian-skewed international news coverage and updates on Putin's anti-gay agenda. My cousin doesn't like Putin, but he doesn't like the gays either. Last night, a conversation with him and his friend amounted to his friend admitting that he has two gay classmates, but he doesn't “want to associate with those kinds of people.” But I say nothing. If he knew I was gay, he wouldn’t want to associate with me either, and if the neighbourhood skinheads found out, they’d be happy to rape me. Every time I walk down the street, I’m reminded of this when I see them leering at me. I’m privileged enough to look typically femme, but if they found out I was gay, they’d be happy to “correctively” rape me. I’m a lesbian, a blight to my country, and they would be applauded for fixing me – or at least trying to.
Besides making me worried about my safety, my secret has also stressed my relationship with my aunt, among other family members. A few weeks ago, we went to her son’s wedding. My aunt dislikes my cousin’s bride, but she was glad to say she had raised a good, heterosexual boy who married a girl before his his 22nd birthday.
“Did you like the wedding?” she asked me.
It had been my first wedding, and I sat at a table with my cousin's friends. I spent the second half of the event listening to the guys make jokes about femme gay dudes.
“Yes,” I lied.
She told me that when I get married and have my own wedding, it can be like my cousin's ceremony. A real Russian wedding.
I nodded, faked a laugh, and then accidentally choked on my own forced chuckle. I know that if and when I get married, it won’t be in Russia, and it won’t be like my cousin's wedding. The majority of my family wouldn't come, and they probably wouldn’t speak to me after they found out whom I’m marrying. And there’s nothing I can do about it. So every day, when a family member asks if I have a boyfriend, I mumble, “No.” They’re shocked. I’m almost 20, and in Russia, everyone marries young. But I do have a partner. I've been in a committed relationship with my girlfriend for over a year, and it hurts, because when we Skype here, I can't introduce her to anybody – she's just “my friend.” No babushka would understand. So I am forced into silence, for my sake and my family's safety. I play straight around them, and then wear my girlfriend’s shirts to bed.
I feel powerless – no matter how much I want to speak out, I can't. While I have a life in Toronto, I have family here that needs to be protected with the assurance of my normality. I feel helpless because the only brave thing I can do is wear a tank top with a picture of Keith Haring on it – a small act of defiance nobody will ever know.
I have heard about the protests in Moscow, and I keep seeing Twitter exploding with hatred for Russia, calling for boycotts against Russian vodka and the 2014 Winter Olympics. Although my loyalties lie with the persecuted, I disagree with the attempts to boycott Russian vodka. I don’t agree with punishing legitimate businesses for something their bigoted government ordered. Also, I am a Russian citizen who holds a Russian passport; if I protest or am found guilty of any of the vague anti-gay laws here, I could be detained for up to fifteen days or fined. Most importantly, I’m both a lesbian and a Russian. These are my people – on both sides.
A few days ago, my aunt gave me this Sochi 2014 keychain. It's hard to look at its cute rabbit mascot. It’s supposed to be a symbol of national pride, representing the glory our athletes will achieve next winter, but if I put it on my keys am I supporting my home country or homophobia? Am I putting on a keychain or am I a hypocrite?
Right now, I don't know.
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