In order to stay safe, Russia’s lesbian couples are often forced to hide their relationships. In a strongly patriarchal country they face a double stigma: they are vulnerable both as women, and as LGBTQ people. “The most difficult thing is the constant sense of worry, and the degrading secrecy,” says 23-year-old Yana.
But thanks to the internet — and a new wave of LGBTQ, feminist communities — it’s becoming easier for queer women in large Russian cities to seek out support and each other, despite the homophobia and misogyny that form a constant backdrop to their lives.
Together with photographer Dasha Tchainki, The Calvert Journal met with five lesbian couples in St Petersburg to talk about how they formed a life in the face of mounting social pressure — and what gives them hope for the future.
At first, Rimma and I were just friends. But at some point, I realised that there was no one I was closer to — and no one else I was attracted to. I didn’t know how she would react — I was so afraid — but I decided to talk to her. And, thank God, she felt the same way.
For me, the most difficult thing about lesbian relationships is the constant feeling of fear and the need to control your actions around other people. As a kid, I thought that it was normal to love people of any gender, but as an adolescent, my environment taught me in no uncertain terms that homosexuality was “wrong”. I think it would have been a lot easier for me if there had been visible LGBTQ people in my town. I recently came out to my 17-year-old brother, and he reacted very calmly: like, so what? That made me realise that the world is changing, after all. Queer people are more visible, and it’s easier for younger generations to draw their own conclusions and make their own choices.
People around me rarely guess my orientation: they love to share their homophobic views with me, usually expecting me to agree. I’m constantly afraid of messing up at work and letting something slip. I can’t always hold my girlfriend’s hand on the street, let alone kiss her in public. With Veronika, I realised that relationships can be both intense and exciting. We don’t attempt to shield one another from reality. We both have something to offer each other, and, most importantly, we both have lives outside of the relationship.
The hardest thing about being a lesbian in Russia is constant anxiety and humiliating secrecy, like we’re doing something wrong by loving each other. When we adopted a cat, its previous owner came to visit and we had to again pretend that we were only friends. The woman asked what was going to happen to the cat if one of us got married.
Sonya was the first person I told that I was transitioning [into a trans woman]. She took it in such a calm way, and that was so crucial for me. We’re a family: Sonya will always listen and support me, and I would do the same. One of my biggest vulnerabilities is my body: I still feel embarrassed when I undress; I’m scared that my body is unpleasant or disgusting. But that just makes it even more important that Sonya accepts and loves me the way I am.
I can’t talk about my relationship with my parents and relatives. We used to be very close, but now I feel this insuperable distance from them. I have to hide away my personal life, so it’s hard to make friends. I want homophobic laws to be abolished, just so the LGBTQ community can have the same rights and possibilities as everyone else. And one day, I believe that it will happen.
Olya and I were flatmates in a communal flat. We hid our relationship from our other flatmates: always almost being exposed, moving around the place like ninjas. I feel real fear when we walk down the street: it’s like I always need to be ready to beat off a physical or emotional attack. But I’m so used to that fear that it doesn’t stop me if I want to kiss Olya or hold her hand in public. I love a girl, and that makes me an enemy of our society which is very draining. Having supportive people who I can be around without having to constantly think about my sexuality or hiding it really helps.
Being queer in Russia isn’t easy, even if you’re not in a relationship. It takes courage and the ability to trust in yourself. Other than that, as a couple, we have the same relationship problems that would crop up if we lived anywhere. My friends support me, but if I could feel the backing of my parents, family, and colleagues, it would help me to be more comfortable within myself. Where there is support and understanding, there is the power to be yourself.
Sonya and I study acting together. Thanks to her, I’m discovering new sides of myself. I can look at myself from different angles and face my fears. I only recently started identifying as a queer person and haven’t encountered any serious problems yet, apart from my parents’ reaction — but even their attitudes are improving. I think I would have accepted myself earlier if I had had LGBTQ friends. But for now, I just want there to be more love and kindness in the world.
In Russia, LGBTQ people “don’t exist”. There are no films or television series which features our lives, which upsets me a lot as an actress. I’m not happy about the “gay propaganda” law and the fact that we don’t have Pride: you can’t walk down the street with a rainbow flag and feel like part of the community. It would be great if teenagers and kids who are only just starting to discover themselves and their sexuality could get real, accurate information about being LGBTQ.
Our wedding was a very thrilling and emotional event. In Russia, gay marriage isn’t legal but as my wife is a trans woman with male documents, we managed to find a way. It was important for us not as proof of our feelings but because of the legal freedom it gave us: only spouses are given access to the emergency room hospitals, for example. We married on 17 May, the International Day Against Homophobia. We didn’t have a ceremony, we just signed the documents, got a vegan cake, and went to celebrate.
I love cuddling, holding hands, grocery shopping together: all the things that make us closer. But the most difficult thing about being a queer person in Russia is overcoming the fear. You can encounter aggression anywhere: on the street, in the metro, in shops, even at the gynecologist. It’s a difficult thing to live with day by day.
Chloe-Kusya moved to St Petersburg to live with me, and we’ve been inseparable since then. Next to her, I feel like I can take on the world. In films or commercials, we only ever see cis-gender, heterosexual people. LGBTQ are excluded — and when we try to remind ourselves that we do exist, we face stereotypes or just aggression. It’s frightening to live in a country where I constantly hear that I shouldn’t exist.