Finding Love in a Hopeful Place

2.12.2014

By Sasha Korbut

Growing up gay in the far east of Russia, I knew I'd never be able to be myself

Photograph by Evgeniy Koval

My high school classmates could tell something was different about me. They called me "faggot" or "girl." Sometimes they'd sexually harass me and slap my butt. Soon enough, it turned more violent and sometimes I'd get beaten up after school. This wasn't somewhere in Middle America: I grew up in Vladivostok, on the very eastern edge of Russia.

When I left, I attended Far Eastern Federal University and graduated with a degree in journalism. I was there on a scholarship, as a dancer at the university dance company, then joined Kauri, a modern dance company in Vladivostok. Normally my accomplishments would be a source of pride for friends and family in Russia, except that I'm gay—which puts me in the same category as criminals, drug dealers, and prostitutes.

At university I was finally able to find my own circle of friends, but even there I didn’t have the confidence to open up: not to my parents, not to my friends, certainly not to the whole world. Not even to myself. I wasn’t ready to accept that I might be different.

When I was 24 and out of school, I finally admitted to myself that I was gay and started to look for other people like me, but it wasn’t easy. Two or three bars existed in Vladivostok that people called “gay bars,” but a lot of straight people hang out there too—boys and girls who like underground places. It’s hard to tell who’s gay and who’s straight in these places, but it’s also hard to feel confident and safe in that environment. So I decided to look through dating sites on the Internet. When I typed “man looking for man” in the search engine, I only found 20 people around my area. All their profiles were incomplete and lacked even the basic details, and most had missing or blurred pictures. Even Grindr, one of the most popular gay apps in the world, only showed about six people in the Russian far east.

I eventually found one gay guy who I started to chat with. When we decided to meet, he picked a crowded and very “straight” restaurant for our first date. We went the entire meal discussing non-gay topics, and it wasn’t until we asked for the check that he found the courage to talk about “gay” things, groups, clubs etc. Then we took his car to a dark and deserted place, and only then was he relaxed enough to show some interest in me. That’s when I realized if I was going to be gay in Russia, in Vladivostok, that’s what my life would be like. Filled with dark, deserted places like this one, hidden away from society.

Finally I worked up the courage to tell my two best friends that I’m gay. My female friend accepted it, and she basically told me she already knew. My other best friend, a guy, was upset and said, “Well, what can I do?” I asked them not to tell anyone, but he told his wife. And his wife told him I couldn’t see their child, the boy who they’d asked me to be godfather to. And the funny thing is that she and I were friends first since we were classmates. But she said, “We’ll tell our son that Uncle Sasha exists but we can’t see him because he lives far away.” Like I was a character from a book.

I remember the day I told my parents. We were very close; we confided in one another, so I was caught off-guard, to say the least, by their reaction. They said things like, “The devil is living inside you. We have to call the exorcist and the psychologist,” or, “Why didn’t you tell us about the symptoms when you first discovered the disease?” It was crazy, and I didn’t know what to say. They asked me if anyone else knew about “it.” They were worried their friends would find out and stop talking to them. My mother was crying, saying things like, “I don't know how to face my friends anymore.”

Months later, it was like the conversation never happened. It seemed like my parents had hypnotized themselves free of the information and selectively forgotten what I told them. We still talk every week, and they still ask me seriously when am I going to find a wife, or tell me that someday I’ll find a girlfriend and get married. That’s when I change the subject.

I knew I couldn’t build my private life in Russia. So when I got an offer to study at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, in May of 2012, I took it. And it was there that only a few months later I met my boyfriend, Max. He was the first guy I ever held hands with in public. 

We met at a popular gay bar on December 1, and he was talking to a Spanish guy that I was checking out. I was interested for two reasons: First of all, because he was Spanish, and I wanted to go talk to him and practice my Spanish because I’d lived and studied in Spain for a bit. And then, of course, because he was cute.

I said, "Hi," and we started to talk, and I didn't pay attention to Max. The Spanish guy eventually introduced me, and the three of us spent the night together dancing, then ended up at Times Square, drinking hot chocolate and talking.

By the end of the night, I realized I was paying attention to the wrong guy, because the guy who made me feel butterflies in my stomach was Max. He’s tall, has dark hair, is well-spoken. He’s a gentleman. He’s kind of like Mr. Big from Sex and the City.

I still remember everything about our first date. He told me about his family and his childhood; As we got to know each other, I realized that we are total extreme opposites. He’s a business-oriented, professional, organized, suit-and-tie Wall Street kind of guy. I’m what you’d expect in a dancer and a writer: “go with the flow,” free-spirited.

I liked the way Max talks, he has the sort of voice you hear on evening radio. I like to watch him while he sleeps and listen to him breathe. He doesn't know it, but I wake up first in the morning just so I can watch him while he sleeps. And he always smells good. It’s one of the things I like best about him, his cologne mixed with his own smell drives me crazy. Like I said, he’s a serious guy; he loves to read about business and international relations, but he still holds on to his childhood habits (reading comic books and eating peanut butter chocolate ice cream is his version of paradise). Although he only cooks once in a blue moon, when it happens, the things he makes are delicious. I still wonder what his secret ingredients must be.

We’ve been together over a year now and it hasn’t all been easy. At one point, it seemed it wouldn’t work out, but it passed and I realized he’s exactly what I was looking for. We’re still getting to know each other every day; sometimes it feels like we’re from different planets. Recently Max asked me to move in with him. I told him, “Sure, let’s discuss,” but my internal monologue was yelling out, Holy shit! I’ve never lived with someone; it’s a bit terrifying. What if I do something wrong or mess it up? It's been a month since he asked and I still can’t make a decision. I hope I’ll eventually say yes but it’s weird, for some reason I never thought about how being openly gay, I’d have to make those kinds of decisions, it’s new.

I’m still dancing, but I’ve also started writing for a couple of Russian magazines and newspapers, and gradually writing about gay issues in Russia. A couple of major magazines in eastern Russia have published a few of my articles but it’s a small world so of course my parents found out about the content and asked me to never write anything on the topic again. They’re afraid that when I come back to Russia I’ll have problems with the government, they’re worried I’ll end up in jail. But while I’m free and have something to say, I’m going to keep writing, to keep pushing back.

It’s funny, when I first moved from Russia to New York, I stayed with an American friend, Paul DuCett. We’d met on Couchsurfing two years before, he’d been in touch and asked me where he could find a place to stay in Vladivostok, and I gave him some advice at the time but we never actually met in person. So when I got the scholarship to study dance, I got in touch and he ended up letting me stay with him at his place in Queens for a few months. We spent a lot of time talking; he speaks Russian and used to live in Nizhny Novgorod.

One day, I was looking through books in his library and found an old newspaper titled Bay Windows from December 4, 1986. The front-page story was “Gays in USSR,” and it was written by Paul himself, almost 30 years ago, under a pseudonym he used, David Stone. He described his experience meeting gays in the Soviet Union during his many trips there, and how this “invisible” group of people lived their daily lives under the iron curtain. Here’s what Paul wrote in 1986, about gay life in the former Soviet Union:

"Homosexuals in the Soviet Union, as in any other country, exist in large numbers and have next to no voice in a society that is hostile to them. Soviet morality officially condemns homosexuality and deems it a crime punishable by imprisonment of seven years or more, depending on the particular offense. In the Soviet Union gay political groups or parties are illegal since they would interfere with the state's monopoly on politics.

"Gay bars, dating services, gay magazines and periodicals, which would necessarily be businesses (profit or non-profit), are illegal because they would interfere with the state's monopoly on economics. All gay sexual acts, pornography, and personal associations are illegal because they contravene the state's supposed infallibility on questions of morality.

"The hope that homosexuality will become accepted and unpersecuted in the mainstream of Soviet life hinges more than anything on the will of high-party ideologues. If they were to decide tomorrow that homosexuality was ok, they could repeal the anti-homosexuality laws and call-off the KGB queer-hunt in a single act. The unfortunate fact, however, is that there is no stimulus for them to do so.

It made me think about how almost nothing has changed.

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