The Asexual Route in Ukraine
November 2, 2003
-Josh Strauss, RPCV
On the first day of training, our group was cautioned that Ukraine is a unique country in the Peace Corps world. It is a place of transition where many things look familiar to the American eye, unlike in many other Peace Corps countries, but the reality of the place is very different. Our training director used the case of the telephone as a metaphor. He said it looks like a phone, it might even act like a phone, but as we would soon discover, it was not what we would consider to be a phone. You could pick it up and hear another conversation, you dial it and you get someone you were not expecting, or while talking to someone else, a third person could appear in the conversation.
For a gay person, this idea of the telephone extends to interpersonal relationships. Ukraine can be a very confusing place. From the most superficial point of view, Ukraine can appear to be a gay paradise. One can readily see women walking hand in hand down the street; men talking to one another practically nose to nose; and men wearing clothes so tight that, well, not much is left to the imagination. But, as you look closer, you see that you have not, in fact, entered a queer Eden. You simply realize that you are living in a country where the cultural remnants of the Soviet era and general Ukrainian culture remain in marked contrast to the country you have come from.
Even with this revelation, life can still be confusing. For example, you have to remember that your same sex friend who kisses you on the lips means nothing sexual by it, it’s just a sign of happiness or excitement or, when s/he lays his head in your lap, it’s just amicable intimacy, nothing more. There is no tendency in Ukraine, unlike in the U.S., to equate physical intimacy, such as that described above, with sexuality. In fact, for the most part, Ukraine can be categorized as the epitome of a heterosexist society. The idea of heterosexuality is not only the first to be assumed, the notion of homosexuality is rarely even considered.
This explanation does not preclude the absence of homosexuality in Ukraine as a whole. On national Ukrainian TV, I not only saw such gay themed films as “To Wong Foo,” “Pricilla, Queen of the Desert,” and yes, even “Rocky Horror,” but I also saw uncensored European films with rather graphic gay sex scenes. Homosexuality is not a total unknown, and is even legal. The Soviet statute that criminalized homosexuality was repealed early in Ukrainian independence, but as a ploy for acceptance by the European Union, not as an indication of a liberalized society. There are gay bars, a gay magazine, and even a gay political party, albeit with no influence, in the country. There is also a Ukrainian drag queen, Vera Serduchka, who has videos on Ukrainian TV as well as songs on the radio.
With this background information, I come to my personal experience. My choice was not an easy one, but, after only a couple months in country, I made the decision to partially reenter the darkness of the closet, as most other gay volunteers also chose, and continue to choose to do. I was placed in a relatively large city in the south of the country in a secondary school. I quickly realized how lucky my placement was because I loved my city, my colleagues, and my students. Other volunteers from my training group were not so lucky. I made the conscious decision that a good experience at site would make me happier than being out and having to deal the possible repercussions of coming out to my community, including having to leave it. One extreme example that played a large role in my decision was the fact that the Russian word for “faggot” also means “child molester.” With such a linguistic connection and connotation, I felt that I had to tread water carefully. I chose to be out to the other volunteers in the city, and in the larger Peace Corps community, but in my host community, I chose the asexual route.
This decision was a difficult one, but the Peace Corps experience is not supposed to be a cakewalk. Part of what made the decision even harder was that every Friday night, one of the bars in the city was a gay bar. The only problem with this was that it was in the neighborhood where I lived and worked, and where the vast majority of my students and their families also lived. The time where I could be me, then would have to be away from my work site.
I only had one true gay bar experience in Ukraine, and it was somewhat intimidating. The bar was unmarked and the entrance consisted of a blue metal door. You knocked on the door, a small window was opened to see who you were, after answering a few questions, the heavy door would swing open, and then you could go in. It reminded me of entering a speakeasy or a Mafia-run casino. In either case, I felt like I was breaking the law. I decided that I did not want to feel that I was a criminal, so I decided not to go back. On another night, I made an attempt to find another gay bar with another gay volunteer. We found the right place, but apparently we were there on the wrong night. There was no one older than 16 in the place, and they were all as straight as an arrow.
But, that was my experience. I know of other gay volunteers, both male and female, who did date in Ukraine, and who did form part of the underground Ukrainian gay culture. Most cities with a couple of exceptions had no gay bars. However, many cities had networks and get-togethers in private homes. The problem with this arrangement was that there was no public mechanism for announcing these get-togethers. You needed to know someone who was in the network and, even then, the overlapping networks could exclude, at times, your contact with a network. This was frustrating because you knew that there was a community, yet breaking into that community could be difficult.
Although gay life in Ukraine was not always that comforting a place, Peace Corps Ukraine is another story. The staff was very open and understanding of gay volunteers. In fact, because of the difficulties of being queer in Ukraine that I have already described, a gay and lesbian “support” group was organized. It was not a support group in the Kleenex, tear-jerking sense of the word. Rather, it was more of a forum for us to talk things out, to validate ourselves, and to come up with strategies of dealing with the inevitable “Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?” and “Would you like to meet my daughter/son?” questions. It was a forum where we could be ourselves and not have to really worry about the repercussions.
Although being gay in Ukraine can be difficult, it is by no means impossible. In fact, all the queer volunteers I knew finished their service and several, including myself, extended our service. I loved my experience in Ukraine and miss it immensely. Although partially entering the closet was difficult, it by no means negatively impacted my overall experience, and it seemed right at the time. There is no panacea for the difficulties that being gay in Ukraine or in Peace Corps in general can cause. One just has to find a place where s/he feels comfortable and go from there.
Josh Strauss is now in graduate school in New England. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org@tufts.edu.