The Russian Far East – Where Are the Lesbians?
May 19, 2000
-Karen Kowal, RPCV, May 2000
I’m sitting here at the computer on the morning of New Years Eve and writing. My Russian friends would think that I am crazy if they knew. First of all, I have to admit that it is nice to say that I have friends. I’ve been at site for only three months and I know that many of my fellow volunteers can’t say the same. It seems this third month is some sort of marker. The holidays are here and whether we want it or not some level of homesickness occurs, but for the most part we have overcome those early stages of culture shock. Though things are surprising, aren’t they?
It surprises me to sit in my apartment and wonder what’s the matter, especially when things appear to go well. I have some friends, as I have already mentioned. My job as a teacher at a university is good. It has its ups and downs as teaching does. Essentially my city is great in many ways.
I write home and like to compare it to Madison, WI, the city of my college days. It is about the same size and a university town as much as a Russian city can be. It sits between two rivers not two lakes like Madison. That’s where the comparison may end for the most part. Madison is liberal and would boast a gay-friendly atmosphere. They elected Tammy Baldwin to Congress on her merits and as a bonus she’s a lesbian. I wonder if this atmosphere exists here.
These feelings I have seem unexpected in some ways. I don’t like to believe that I came here with blinders on or naively because I expected for the most part not to find our gay culture here. I didn’t expect to be confronted with the notion that I would miss that gay atmosphere. It is something that I didn’t predict myself. I wouldn’t define myself as a gay-activist in anyway. I’m not a flag waver or a banner carrier. I’m not striving for the toaster oven. I find myself longing for that comfortable lifestyle and wish I had some forewarning about this gay culture shock sometimes. We didn’t address any gay issues in training. We only received the LGB RPCV newsletter and I read an article by a woman in Latin America. I felt sympathy and thought, God, it’s going to be hard. I’ve come to realize that sympathy is like sunburn on a hot day in some ways. You’re sitting outside and your friend looks at you and mentions how red your skin is. You reply that it only looks bad and it doesn’t hurt. Then you are home alone the next day and realize damn, this hurts like hell. It’s not painful to be homosexual in the Russian Far East maybe just lonely.
Its hard to leave the house some mornings with this desire to see someone like me. Sometimes I just pretend to see a lesbian. It’s a game to make me feel better. There are enough beautiful women here to keep it interesting. Essentially though there is this sense of constraint. Some days I feel like I’ve entered a time machine and I am having the same experiences as I had ten years ago. I seem to be under the rubric “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I first felt it in training. There is the anxiety of losing these new friends and just the general fear of alienation if found out. With these possibilities in mind, it would lead to a long two years. I monitor my speech when talking to people and classes. I have gone back to playing the pronoun game and generally hoping that certain subjects don’t come up in conversation. Then there is the idea of being conspicuous. As an American I am automatically conspicuous. Do I want to be doubly conspicuous? I look in the mirror daily and wonder if I should be wearing some lipstick. Am I a lipstick lesbian? Did I dress too much like a lesbian today? I asked this to one of the other volunteers here and she replied, Maybe you think that because you ARE a lesbian!!
Oh yeah, I AM a lesbian. Who should know this fact though? It is painful to look at people I know and people I am developing potentially deep friendships with and know that there is already a line drawn in the sand. You can only come this close. I’ll only let you hold me at arms length. We have a culture bump that exists and do you notice it? I feel like I’m involved in a crapshoot and I wonder if it’s worth the gamble. The loneliness is in not knowing how much credit to give people. This isn’t just towards the Russian people but also towards the other volunteers here in the Russian Far East. I find myself longing to be with the other gay volunteer because I know he understands and has been through the same things I have been through. Sometimes it isn’t simply the desire to talk to him but the comfort of sitting next to him simply because he knows. I realize at times that I have digressed to the past again. I don’t give other volunteers a chance like I did with my friends at home after coming out, to build a different sense of trust. These old statements return to my mind. They only think they know. They only believe they understand. They don’t have the answers I’m searching for. They are the same old questions which are now of a different color.
Where are the answers though? They are somewhere inside of me. I have to assume this to be true. They are harder to find. All things seem harder here in Russia though. It is more difficult, more challenging. Another volunteer asked me once, How do you find the lesbians? I laughed and said, Well, there isn’t a map, they aren’t marked with an L in the phone book. At this moment, I really wish they were.