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"Tuller's observant reporting and personal experiences make for absorbing reading: the human comedy rendered in unexpected ways."—New Yorker
"Anyone who thinks San Francisco is the world capital of sexual polymorphism should read this book."—Adam Goodheart, Washington Post
"[This book is] is profoundly moving."—Jim Van Buskirk, San Francisco Chronicle
In the summer of 1991, bored with my job and craving adventure, I flew to Russia and became an American sex spy.
Well, that's what my friend Ksyusha and her crowd nicknamed me, anyway, because of my persistent and--to them--rather peculiar interest in discussing what they referred to as "the sexual question." I met Ksyusha that summer during my first trip to Russia, a land whose harsh allure had long intrigued me. As a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, I was part of a delegation of Americans attending an unprecedented gay and lesbian conference in Moscow and Leningrad. The event drew hundreds of Soviet citizens to the thundering heart of the empire during a season of profound political chaos; less then one month later, in the cool rain of August, Gorbachev's bumbling lieutenants would stage their comically ill-fated coup.
The ten-day gathering bristled with discussion groups, lectures, parties, film screenings, condom giveaways, and a gay rights demonstration and kiss-in within sight of the Kremlin. At a seminar on "gay and lesbian visibility," each participant had an opportunity to say a few words of introduction. Those of usfrom the West were used to this routine and we prattled on cheerfully about how and when we came out to our bosses and parents and how important it all was. The Russians were not well versed in the art of public self-revelation; though a woman from Siberia vowed to bring gay liberation to the country's hinterlands, the others did not seem comfortable talking openly in front of strangers.
When the circle came round to a tall, "aunt men, he deflected the attention by gesturing grandly toward a woman sitting opposite him. "I came here with Ksyusha, and I love her."
The women scowled and waved her hand with irritation
"I also came here with Ksyusha, and I love her, too," chimed in a man farther along the circle.
"I love Ksyusha very much--I'd even like to marry her!" proclaimed a third.
Marry her? This conference was certainly turning out to haven's own unorthodox perspective. Proposals of marriage were not exactly a routine occurrence at other gay conferences I'd attended.
All heads now swivelled toward this Ksyusha, the object, of adoration; she squirmed in her chair. I looked, too. At first glance, there was nothing particularly striking about her: her skin was sallow, her features plain, and her hair chopped short in androgynous simplicity. I don't remember what she said when it was her turn to speak, but after the workshop something impelled me to corner her on the curved staircase outside the hall. Her English was had, my Russian worse, but I managed to explain that in the fall I planned to leave work and return to Moscow for a while.
Her pale eyes Leaped with fierce glee. She pumped the air with her finger. "You must meet with me, I know many men!"
Sure, I wanted to meet men--tall men and hunky ones, men pining for someone to soothe the legendary anguish of their fevered Russian souls. But here, on the curving stairway, it was this oddly compelling lesbian who captivated me. She was scrawny, yes, but she moved with the sinewy grace of a dancer, and her fleshy, exuberant hands bounced constantly as she talked. As we stood there, and as I gazed at her, an unexpected longing rustled somewhere deep within me.
I met others, too, who long simmered in my memory. There was Gennady Roshchupkin, the country's first AIDS activist--pale as ice, angry, but soft-spoken and charming. And Arkady, a former psychiatrIc inmate, whose eyes darted back and forth with sinister foreboding.
Arkady had a proclivity for mumbled ravings; occasionally he'd-fling his arm over my shoulder, bend forward, growl something in my ear, and stare et me with dark significance. I never understood. Others had questions about Arkady, too. Depending upon the source of information, he was either KGB or CIA or pedophile or gun-toting gangster or some of those or all of them or something else again--a persuasive one-man argument for Churchill's famous dictum that Russia was "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
Arkady was not the only reminder of the brooding edge that wound. through the lives and psyches of Russia's citizens. during the ten days of the conference, I listened quietly as one person after another related dramatic tales of woe: imprisonment, blackmail, KGB harassment, loneliness, suicidal despair. These stories all sounded unremittingly bleak to me, but those recounting them often adopted an inexplicably matter of-fact tone.
I was particularly struct by a thirty-six-year--old librarian from a town in the Ural Mountains Hundreds of miles from Moscow. A plain, round-faced woman, she said she had waited years to meet someone w ho shared her attraction to members of her own sex.
"Did you ever believe that your sexual orientation was a psychological illness?" I asked.
I knew, of course, that the answer would be yes. It had taken me endless infusions of psychotherapy to overcome the conviction that I was a disturbed human being, and many of my American friends had struggled deeply with the same issue. Surely it had been far more devastating for this poor creature, trapped and isolated in the barren Russian provinces. I readied my notepad to record her imminent outpouring of emotional distress, and adjusted my features in an expression that reflected--I hoped--gentle understanding and the wisdom of the ages.
The woman looked at me blankly, and paused. Then she dispatched me with a derisive "No!"--as if the question itself were mighty peculiar.
I felt a brief surge of panic. If I had a need-to believe that Russians experienced their homosexuality in the same terms that I did-that their path of suffering and acceptance traced the contours of my own-then her sharp retort suggested a truth more complex, and perhaps more interesting, than I had anticipated. I was also confused by the married ones, or those who had been married, of planned to marry, or simply slept from time to time with members of the opposite sex--all of whom fell outside my standard definitions of the gay and lesbian categories. This included huge numbers of the conference attendees, far more than was the ease among the admittedly-unscientific sampling of my acquaintances back home. While some of the Russians complained bitterly about the need to live a double life, a greet many discussed their heterosexual liaisons with a nonchalance and freedom that startled me, steeped as I was in a deep distrust of bisexuality as a fraudulent pose.
I kept asking questions and paid attention. It began to dawn on me that maybe it was too facile to characterize all these cross-gender relationships as dishonest or false, too patronizing to attribute the phenomenon solely to self-deception or fear of one's own homosexuality. As the examples mounted, my preconceptions wobbled--and my anxiety levels rose. "What the hell is going on here?" I asked Marc, my roommate at the conference and a San Francisco photojournalist with a refreshingly self-deprecating manner.
Marc just laughed and shrugged his shoulders in good-natured bewilderment. One of my most delightful encounters occurred not at the conference itself but in a drab corridor at Leningrad's Hotel Karelia. This dilapidated building on the bitter outskirts of the city was a high-rise built with that distinctive socialist flair. Like all of these concrete slabs, it gave the impression that whoever designed it--if anyone did--was either drunk or visually impaired. Walls, carpets, everything oozed gray. The tiny elevators groaned and quivered their way between floors, and our rooms gazed out onto fields spattered with garbage.
The "key ladies" were the dowdy, round women with hair piled high who sat at rickety desks on every floor of the hotel; they collected our room keys when we left for the day and handed them back when we returned. At such establishments, key ladies were a venerable institution whose ostensible function was to serve the many needs of foreign guests. It quickly became clear that their real mission was to keep a wary eye on our comings and goings--and those of any Soviet friends. Despite the changes of recent years, hotels for foreign tourists still strictly forbade all locals from entering. Tall sour men patrolled the lobbies to repel potential infiltrators, yet some managed to shimmy past these dark-suited guardians of the social order. Key ladies acted as the second line of defense in this cloak-and-dagger drama.
The key ladies at our hotel protected their positions round the clock, glancing glumly at us as we passed, occasionally barking a mild pleasantry or a caustic observation in Russian that I barely understood. Behind the desk on the tenth floor sat Lily, a lovely exception to the general surly rule. At thirty-five, Lily was younger than most of her key-lady colleagues and far more amiable. On the way back to the hotel late one evening, my friend Sam, another of the Americans, recounted a conversation he'd had earlier in the day with Lily. She asked why he was wearing a button emblazoned with the slogan and Ya goluboi (I am gay).
"We're here attending a gay and lesbian conference in town , Sam explained.
Lily was embarrassed, but fascinated "You mean you are all homosexual? The women, too?"
"Yes. Except you don't have to whisper."
"As a homosexual . . . do you need a rr,an every day?"
"No, and as a heterosexual woman, do you?"
The two of them hadn't had time to finish their discussion. Sam, a dedicated queer activist with a blond mop of hair and a mischievous streak, wanted to explore the subject further. "I'm sure she's going to tell her friends about us, and I want to give her some more 'education' before she does that," he told me wryly.
When we returned around 1:00 A.M., Lily was folding laundry. She tossed us a good-natured smile, and we began to chat. She was an instructor of English by training; she worked the night shift at the hotel to make extra cash." But my husband hates my job because he knows there are lots of men around, and he's afraid of losing me," she confided.
Sam laughed. "Then he should love all of us."
I told Lily I'd like to hear her thoughts about the conference. Would she mind discussing them? She'd do so with pleasure, she said, sounding flattered . . . and by1he way, she had more questions and would we answer those too, please? For the next three hours--until long after my eyes began to slip shut--we consumed dozens of Marlboros arid gave Lily a condensed course in gay liberation. During that smoky,-freewheeling exchange, she gave us in return a revealing portrait of Russian attitudes toward homosexuality.
"It is strange, of course, that you are here." Lily parceled out her words in a crisp, cool lilt. "I am surprised because I see such people as you for the first time at the hotel."
She said that she knew no gays and lesbians, that she had never talked to any before. She might have seen a few of them on the street, but she couldn't be sure. "For my mind--I don't want to offend you--but for my mind, I think your behavior is not normal," she said gently.
Sam protested. "Pro, it is normal--it's just not considered normal."
But Lily shook her head sadly. "I think you are depriving yourself. You cannot feel that a woman is beautiful, that she is like a flower, like a fresh rose. You cannot smell her body, and you will never know it."
Lily had many ideas about the behavior patterns of gays. Did we want to be with young boys? There were laws against that in the Soviet Union, she informed us soberly. And who fulfilled the female role? Who did the cleaning and ironing? was it that we wanted to look like-women, to use lipstick and paint our-nails? Or did we actually want to be women?
Many people in the United States, I told Lily, had the same questions. Yes, some men did like young boys, and some wanted to be women. "But most gay men, like me, enjoy being men. And they don't want to be with boys or with men who want to be women, but with others who like being men." I was aware that this all sounded a bit smug, but I wanted to keep the discussion simple.
Lily shifted in her chair, tapped the ashes from her cigarette. Her opinions, which would have offended me if uttered by an American, struck me now as simply naive: she believed what she'd been taught because she never had reason to believe otherwise. Yet she was genuinely curious, and her earthy charm and gracious manner disarmed me.
Lily advanced some interesting notions about the causes of homosexuality, notions that were common among other Russians I met. One was the "prison theory"--that inmates were forced by circumstances to become homosexuals because they were separated from members of the opposite sex. "But you have not been separated that way," she acknowledged, perplexed.
Another line of reasoning: that we turned to each other out of desperation at the failure of attempts with the opposite sex. She asked about our past experiences with women. Sam said that he'd had none; I told her that I hadn't had a girlfriend on many years. Marc, who had Just joined the conversation, explained that he'd been miserable when he had tried to force himself to date women. "Even my parents could tell the difference once I gave that up, and accepted my being gay because they knew I was much happier."
Lilly tilted her head and absorbed this information; then, she leaned forward and playfully Lifted her gray skirt above the knee. The coy, delicate gesture revealed a shapely leg. "And if you see a woman without her dress . . . ?" she asked, voice soft as a pillow.
Lily fell silent; took a slow, pensive drag on her cigarette. "You see," she went on, "I cannot fully understand men who do not want a woman as a woman. I can see now you are not deviants, that I can speak with you, eat with you, I can may be even be friends with you. But I can't understand your behavior in a sexual way.
We talked some more. Sam, Marc and I all tried to explain that being gay was not just sex, not just lust; that it involved emotions as round and full as those that other men felt for women, that she felt for her husband. She asked questions; we answered; she probed some more. And then--in the haze of insight that sometimes precedes sheer exhaustion-she cast her arms in the air and unfurled them over her head. What we were saying, for some ineffable-reason, made sense to her now.
"California, take me with you!" she exclaimed cheerfully, to no one in particular.
Then she looked directly at us. "I do see now that being gay is a feeling. That you not only have sex"--she pressed her hands together twice in short, quick motions--"but that you love a man, too"--and pointed toward her heart.
"And after talking to you, I see that you are normal " She nodded her head gravely. "And I think that our society is guilty because it doesn't allow us to have contact-with each other. . . All homosexuals and straight people must be able to talk together."
A wave of delight splashed over me. For I imagined that in many ways Lily embodied the challenge facing the Russian gay movement, struggling to rouse society from its long, dour ignorance. Her lack of knowledge about the gays and lesbians all around her was unfortunate; but her willingness to listen, to debate--and, ultimately, to welcome the new ideas burrowing into her mind--was an example of perestroika at its most potent and thrilling.
It was now 4:00A.M. The early light-from another of Leningrad'slong summer days trickled in through the window, and the conversation meandered toward a close. Lily asked us our ages; when Sam, the youngest, said he was just twenty-two, she let out a wicked little whoop. "Twenty-two years old, and already a homosexual!"
I gave Lily some lipstick as a gift and asked her to pose for a photo. "I might write an article about-this," I explained.
She frowned with mock sternness. "Yes, but if you use the picture, you must not make a mistake and write under it ,a Russian lesbian.",
Just before we shuffled off to bed, Sam turned and asked one last question. 'Are you going to tell your husband about us?"
Lily grinned. "Of course! First thing in the morning!" Sam, Marc, and I, and the rest of our eclectic queer delegation, had arrived in Russia at an auspicious moment. Control of events was clearly slipping from Gorbachev's grasp, and the ultimate success of his reforms was in doubt. During the past year, the Soviet leader, hesitant and fearful, had swung back and forth between the KremLin hard-liners urging him to impose order by force and the democrats and capitalists yearning for more freedom and open markets. A month earlier, in June, his archrival Boris Yeltsin had swept to an overwhelming victory in elections for president of the Russian Republic, swamping the official Communist Party candidate and becoming the first leader with a popular mandate in the nation's thousand-year history.
Amid the turmoil, the easing of restrictions on public debate had smashed the suffocating rigidity of socialist ideology. Newly unfettered media explored once-taboo topics with ferocious enthusiasm, exposing the lies of Soviet history and decrying government corruption. Plays and movies subverted cherished myths of the workers, paradise. People flocked to lectures and forums on an astonishing array of controversial subjects, from the horrors of Stalinism to the country's disastrous health care system. In previous decades, members of the intelligentsia surreptitiously traded banned books in carbon copy samizdat editions; now they and everyone else devoured officially published works by Solzhenitsy and others.
Amidst these developing freedoms, a tiny gay and lesbian rights movement percolated noisily. If the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the official end of the Iron Curtain, cracks were finally beginning to fracture what some dubbed the "iron closet."
The movement faced tremendous challenges, not the least of which was pervasive public fear of homosexuality; in a 1989 poll, a third of those questioned said that homosexuals should be "liquidated" and another 30 percent wanted them "isolated." Nevertheless, for the first time since Stalin's terror, a few "sexual dissidents,"as they began to call themselves, were coming out publicly, starting gay newspapers, fighting for repeal of the sodomy law, and disseminating information about AIdS. Despite the minuscule numbers who participated in such efforts, they had forced. the issue into the public consciousness and onto the political map--and they showed no signs of slowing down.
The Soviet activists had organized the summer conference jointly with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a San Francisco group that functioned on a shoestring budget as a gay version of Amnesty International. Since I covered gay and lesbian issues for the Bay Area's major daily newspaper, the idea of writing about the nascent efforts of those just emerging from their underground existence appealed to me.
So, too, did the opportunity to visit the homeland of my ancestors; my father's parents had fled from the Soviet Union to America shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution--part of the vast wave of Jewish refugees during the early years of the century. My grandfather died in 1952, two years before I was born, but Grandma Rose was the great love of my early childhood. By 1991 she had been dead for twenty-five years, yet I still thought of her every day and gained strength from the memory of our time together. Traveling to Russia felt like one more way to keep her spirit alive within met
The conference itself-was wild and wonderful and weird. In Moscow and Leningrad--soon to be renamed St. Petersburg--hundreds of-men and women flocked to workshops on lesbian writing and safe sex, fundraising strategies and gay spirituality. With cultures clashing right and left, the encounters between Russians and Americans were by turns dizzy and touching, ferocious and highly comic. Irina, a statuesque interpreter who was writing her graduate dissertation on some obscure theory about the use of gerunds in English, was stumped when called upon to translate slang terms like "rimming" and "butch."
Though Irina-was married and had a young daughter, the conference tapped hidden facets of her own sexuality. "I'm so attracted-to the men here that I now think maybe I'm a gay man in a woman's body," she confided to me, only half in jest, on the overnight train between Leningrad and Moscow.
One young man asked Laurie Coburn, a large, cheerful woman who was a member of the organization Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, to find him pen pal parents in the States-and requested that she pass along a color slide of himself lying naked (and semi-erect) on his bed. In a poignant encounter, Laurie also met with Svetlana, a prim, plump redhead with a gay son.
Silent tremors raked across Svetlana's compressed lips. Her cheeks flamed with fear and too much rouge. Perched carefully on the edge of her chair, she recounted how her enraged husband had threatened their son with a knife because of his sexual orientation.
The young man, who appeared to be about twenty, looked on silently as Svetlana beseeched Laurie to help him find a way to emigrate. "Maybe there is an American lesbian who might be willing to marry my son so he can leave. I'll pray every day for the people who can help him." She squeezed her hands together tightly and delicately dabbed her redrimmed eyes.
One of the conference's most historic events was a demonstration against the country's sodomy law on the plaza in front of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, a site chosen both because of its proximity to the Kremlin and its reputation as the city's main public cruising spot. The press corps arrived in force for this unprecedented display, which featured speeches, banners, and-enthusiastic same-sex kisses. Some onlookers stared in confusion and shock; marry stalked off, enraged.
I found-myself profound y moved by the willingness of the Russians to risk public exposure, a willingness that demanded far more courage than my own coming-out years before. At one point Asya, a black-eyed Siberian beauty, grabbed the microphone. She and four friends, all in their early twenties, had traveled thousands of miles to attend the conference and had told their parents they were on a sight-seeing visit to tire capital. Now, in front of television cameras, A-sya led the crowd in chanting, "My ne boimsya, my ne boimsya! (We are not afraid, we are not afraid)."
Ksyusha, the woman I met at the gay visibility workshop, turned out to be a dyke den mother to many of Moscow's gays, and the more time I spent with her the more I appreciated her appeal. She was funny and maternal and brandished her raucous sensuality like a whip. But she had a somber side, too; et times a listless dejection dimmed the glint in her eyes.
The day after the conference ended, she kept her promise to introduce me to men. It was a Saturday evening. Marc and I had moved from the hotel to the apartment of an acquaintance, and we met Ksyusha--and her all-male entourage--at Pushkin Square in the center of town, across the street from the country's first McDonald's.
I was particularly struck by a young man named Igor. His eyes were sharp as rocks, and black; his skin, smooth and perfect. He was twenty-five and beautiful and, at least initially, aloof. He scooted forward at a bristling pace; I scurried to keep up.
I couldn't understand much of what Igor said, so I concentrated hard on absorbing the waves and rhythms of his peppery speech. He spoke in rapid, bitter explosions, his voice rough as rust. What I did catch was this: he was a doctor and, yes, he was married, with a five-year-old daughter. They lived far from the city and, of course, he loved them. . . No, his wife didn't-know that he had come to Moscow to attend a gay conference.
He pronounced the word dochka (daughter) with a quick downward punch, as if asserting the fact of her existence would help him to remember it. When he spoke of his wife, it was in a tone both casual and curt; he apparently accepted his marital status as a given, but didn't care to discuss it much.
"Are you returning home soon?" I asked.
"No, not for a while." Then: silence.
Our group ate dinner at a nearby cafe; the only items available were mushrooms in wine sauce and tasteless potato salad. Afterward, two of our vodka-laden companions zigzagged off in a lover's dispute, and the rest of us debated our next move. We voted to take a stroll along the Arbat, a popular tourist shopping street where vendors hawked shawls and military hats and those irritatingly ubiquitous matryoshka dolls that nestled snugly inside each other.
Igor arid I stayed close together, and once again he began talking, talking . . . I didn't interrupt. He took my elbow and linked it in his; then held and rightly patted my hand. I slung my arm over his shoulder, ran a finger through his thick, curly hair. He glanced around anxiously.
"People, so many people!" he muttered, then leaned over and quickly licked my lip. When we passed beneath the shadow of a tall, deserted building, I pivoted, skin hot through my shirt. He gripped me, kissed me--frankly and fully--on the mouth. The trembling intensity of that slow, aching kiss arose from the knowledge that we had nowhere to go, no chance to be alone; we were both visitors to the city, staying with our respective friends in very cramped quarters.
It was midnight in Moscow. Ksyusha urged us to crash at the dacha (country cottage) of an older lesbian couple she knew. Igor, eyes churning with anticipation, pressed me to accept the invitation. But as we all boarded the train at Kiev Station for the fifty-minute ride, Ksyusha pulled me aside.
"There's a difficulty," she said in a conspiratorial whisper. "I told my friends that I might-bring some Americans along, so you're okay. The others are old friends, so they're all right, too. But I don't really know Igor, I just met him, and my friends are going to ask who he is and why he's come. . . That's the way Russians are. I'm sorry, David, I can't bring him."
I shrugged my, shoulders, disappointed. But what could I do? It was their country, their rules. As we settled into our seats, Ksyusha beckoned to Igor, spoke to him in corner . . . and then he was gone. Thus was my bedmate for the night--whose lust and pain and deep, dark ardor singed my heart--cast outside the tight comfort of our circle.
I never saw Igor again. Back in San Francisco, his image fluttered in my memory like a curtain m a breeze. When Marc showed me pictures he had taken of Igor, my face flushed and my chest tightened. Later, during the blackest hours of the August coup, when I feared that my newfound friends would be arrested and shipped to another archipelago of gulags, my thoughts returned to him and to the sudden rupture of our four-hour romance.
For in some telling way, my brief experience with Igor eloquently illustrated for me many of the issues confronting Russian gays and lesbians as one world collapsed and new possibilities emerged: the passionate urgency of their liaisons; the desperate lack of privacy; the ambiguous role of marriage and family; the tight friendship net-works that viewed outsiders (except for an occasional Westerner) with suspicion.
I returned to Russia two months later, and again and again through the next few years: I went to bear witness to the struggle of gays and lesbians for dignity and freedom, to record the pain and richness of their lives. And, oh, what riches they had scavenged from the shrill and petty wasteland of their Soviet existence. Almost everyone I spoke to expressed the view that the entire country was, in metaphoric terms, one enormous labor camp. But the more I understood the regime's fierce efforts to control its subjects, the greater I appreciated how those whom I met devised inspired strategies-psychological, philosophical, physical--to escape the onslaught.
Secret places, in the city and the country and in the mind's depths, too, were coveted, cherished, and zealously protected. Like convicts scraping, scraping their way out of cells with rusty spoons, citizens of the giant Soviet gulag burrowed through the system's cracks in search of private pockets of liberation.
Some quickly lost all strength and failed. Others succumbed to the pressures and betrayed friends and relatives. Yet many persevered--fueled and fortified, more often than not, by vodka or staggering flights of fantasy, by sex or emotional extravagance or feats of artistic creation. These very acts of defiance kept them vital, and the dark existence that they found within the cracks and the shadows nurtured them. If it did not always grace them with an abiding sense of peace or stability, at least they could linger in occasional moments of pleasure and passion--moments whose elusiveness rendered them all the more poignant.
For those whose sexuality veered from the norm, the burden and the despair could be far greater. But so, too, could their ability to slip through the cracks into hidden worlds. Though defined by a difference that separated them from most, they could gain strength from the discovery of others like-themselves.
Excerpted from Cracks in the Iron Closet by David Tuller Copyright © 1997 by David Tuller. Excerpted by permission.
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