No Coming out Narrative, or Growing up Queer in the Soviet Union.
[ETA, March 2016]: since I am going to link this entry from my post about my Nebula-nominated story “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” I want to update with what happened in the four years since I wrote this entry. 1) I have met other ex-Soviet people in my age group who came out as queer, often but not always after immigrating to the West; have not met any other ex-Soviet trans people my age yet (if you are an ex-Soviet queer and/or trans person, I’d like to meet you!). 2) it turned out that my “friend who was always very supportive” became virulently unsupportive once I actually came out, and that marriage rapidly ended; 3) I am now very happily partnered to another NB trans person.
[ETA, 2/27/2017: Met more ex-Soviet LGBTQIA people! Hurray!]
Trigger warnings: emotional discussions of my personal experiences with homophobia, transphobia, bullying, intolerance in the family, and immigration.
In April 2011, I had a discussion about my participation in an online queer space with a person who ran it, with whom I had casually interacted with before. She said, among many things, “Look, I have no idea what “coming out” even means to you, frankly, if you’re in a heterosexual marriage.” I no longer come to that space, or speak to that person.
But I am finally ready to talk about this in public, to you – about what “coming out” means for me, as a person in whose language there was no word for “queer”, no words for “coming out”, whose reality did not include a “coming out narrative.” I am finally ready to talk about growing up queer in the Soviet Union; and what it did to me, to my life. This is a coming-out story that is only enabled by my liminal status as an immigrant (multiple times) now living in a country where coming out stories exist as a genre – and can be told.
A caveat. This is an emotionally difficult and triggery thing for me. I am speaking out because I must. But I am speaking out of pain. I tried to make a neat narrative out of this, but I cannot. It is too raw. It is not scholarly either.
Reading this, you do not owe me anything – not respect, not compassion, not even politeness. Nevertheless, I will not allow rude or derogatory comments here.
I am 35 years old. I was born in the Soviet Union, lived in Western Ukraine and subarctic Russia before immigrating to Israel when I was fourteen. I live in the States now. Of my generation of ex-Soviets (people in their mid-30s to mid-40s), I do not personally know a single person who came out as queer, though I have heard of one other person who did so after immigrating to the US.*
I came out on January 1st, 2011. This happened because of my participation in the SFF community, thanks to allies and their stories that taught me – in long, painful, triggery lessons – that what I am is not shameful or despicable; and so my queer identity at last became – by degrees, painfully – something I could talk about. But it hasn’t always been so.
I knew I was different since I was – six? earlier? Some people know very early on. I knew. But I did not know what I knew. I had my first same-sex experience during a summer pioneers’ camp; I was 11. I remember the first time I was bullied for being a lesbian; that was in the fall, after I returned to school from the summer camp. I wasn’t new to bullying; I had experienced physical violence/bullying since I was 7, for being Jewish. But my parents have explained to me how the Jewish thing worked, what to expect; my family was very Jewish and in a sea of anti-Semitism I was proud of my Jewishness and anti-Semitism did not crush my spirit. That time, I…. I remember the feeling of amazement sweeping over me. The kids who bullied me before, for being Jewish, they were sure. That time there was a lot of hesitation. They were not sure, and that had somehow made it worse.
I knew the slang/derogatory word for gay (‘goluboj’ – blue), but I learned the word for ‘lesbian’ from being bullied. My mother had the most horrible fear of me being queer, since I was very young, but she did not have a word for it either. In the beginning she tried to frame it in terms of male homosexuality, for which there were (derogatory) words; it has always been very perplexing for me, since I could not figure out how this applied. Then she talked about “that” -that is what she calls horrible things, disastrous things, like my father’s stroke. Things too bad to name. Later, when we immigrated to Israel and some concepts surfaced on her cultural horizon, she told me lesbians were the most disgusting thing in the world; “worse than gays,” she said.
I do not blame my mother – she is a product of her upbringing. [ETA 2/27/2017 – my mother has lived in Israel since 1990, and has had many years to adjust to my queerness and transness, but unfortunately only became more vehemently homophobic/transphobic; so “product of her upbringing” no longer holds.]
My feelings now are too often those of anguish and envy. Recently Russian legislation outlawed LGBTQI identities/expressions in Russia (again). My first reaction was, “wow, they are talking about it.” Being queer is illegal, but to me – to me- it is a step up from not even being acknowledged to exist. (From the article I just linked to: “Open discussion of homosexuality was almost unheard of in Russia until just a few years ago. A Soviet-era law that punished same-sex relations between men with prison time was repealed in 1993, but the subject has long remained taboo outside a smattering of bars and clubs in major Russian cities.” – and this only refers to the G identity).
Since moving to the US, I cannot shake the envy of the coming-out narrative. Coming out here is hard, heartbreaking, too often dangerous, and requires great courage; but it is a thing. It is a story. You get to hear it. “How I came out.” There are queer people in the media, even if those are negative portrayals. There are books, role models – not enough, but they exist here and there. There are words. Of course, the US is not uniform and not everyone had the same experience; so much depends on location, ethnicity/race, class, the parameters of one’s queer identity. But I don’t think these gradations existed in the Soviet Union.* There was no “coming out narrative”.
Coming out was not a possibility for me, not even because of the price to pay, but because, growing up in the Soviet Union, I didn’t know what I was. I had no points of reference.
No books, no TV personas (negative or positive), no movies, no newspapers. NO WORDS. I had no WORDS in which to describe myself, I had no LANGUAGE to help me understand who I was.
Thinking about what it meant to be *me*, I often experienced a feeling of unspeakable shame, disgust, and despair that I could not put into words. I later came up with “monster”.
I turned to my imaginary worlds, which were populated by queer people (but they were the default so I did not need to invent words) – which is how I often got bullied and beaten, because I would stupidly tell these stories to a few “friends” in school, who then banded up with others and beat me for these and for being attracted to girls. It would have been perhaps easier for me if I’d never been attracted to boys. I was. Just not very often, and not until much later in life.
Of course, there wasn’t even a derogatory word for ‘bisexual’, or any word for bisexual – at least I never heard of it. There were no words for the non-binary gender configurations which have at last explained me to myself and with which I have come to identify in the recent years, once I learned the names for them.
As a result of the homophobia, bullying, and confusion, in my early teens I invented a near-religious system of strictures focusing on the concept of ‘unfreedom’ (nevolya) and the need to control and police oneself very tightly lest any shamefully monstrous urges, thoughts, and needs escape. By my late teens I managed a great degree of success in this. I no longer was accused of queerness. Neither did I date. I was, of course, pressured to date men, but I found out I could lie about that. So I did. If I talked to you about my late teens and early twenties at any point, there is a high chance that I lied to you.
Lisa Bradley wrote, in a roundtable of the Queer issue of Stone Telling, “”all my life I’ve struggled with a vain yearning, now mostly put to rest, that I could shave off unwanted aspects of myself.” This is absolutely true for me. My gender/sexuality was something that I locked out of my life. Like words, it did not exist. I married early and am still married to a friend who has supported me though many, many years in which I desperately hated myself. This is where my life is right now. [ETA 2/27/17, I deleted some things, as it was a misrepresentation].
I am preoccupied with silence in my work. Silence is not about choosing not to speak out, silence is the lack of language in which to speak out, the impossibility of even rudimentary understanding of the self – understanding that must come before action, before reconciliation, before everything. The first issue of Stone Telling, Silence to Speech, was addressing that in part – a recognition that not just me, but many other people move in silences, are erased, are gathering courage to speak – and poetry is such a powerful vehicle for this.
We need words. Narratives. To guide us out of the terrible unspoken silences.
Coming out –for me – is not about who you sleep with, or do not sleep with. Coming out means naming yourself – and words have power. Coming out means no longer participating in the erasure of one’s identity, self, dignity, existence. Coming out means – a voice.
I am reveling in the existence of the words ‘queer’ and ‘genderqueer’ in my life. I rejoice in the possibility for all of me to exist and be named and come into light. When I had no words for myself, when I could not call myself queer – I wasn’t, somehow, straight and cisgendered. No. I was just silenced. I was erased. But I was still – that.
My struggle is within myself, to find the strength to speak despite – and because of – my lived experience. I must keep flailing for identity and dignity despite the realities of my life. Publishing Stone Telling has been a tremendous gift – supporting the brave and painful, raw and triumphant voices that find their words and their stories despite dangers and demons has empowered me to do likewise.
And yet I often think about all those who cannot do so, who cannot begin to do so, who do not have the words, or who have the words but cannot pay the price of speaking out. Not every road leads to freedom. But perhaps my story will be useful for someone out there.
Thank you for reading.
*reading about this, I know that awareness of G and L identities started to surface during the Perestroika period in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but I cannot tell you anything about it. I do not know.
**Again, Moscow and St. Petersburg probably had more awareness of at least the G (and maybe L?) in the underground; here is a Wikipedia entry. I don’t know anything about this.