From Russia, With Messy, Complicated and Sometimes Conditional Love

One time, a liberal on her high horse told me that if my parents don’t make me happy then I should just walk away from them and not be under their thumb. Because apparently when your mom is a radical feminist who accepts the shit out of your queerness, it doesn’t make you privileged, it makes you an expert on the right way to be gay. Things are never black and white, and there is no point in pretending like there is no grey area between being enthusiastically supported and being told you are Satan’s spawn by our immediate and extended families. For those of us lucky enough to have family that we love, the intersection between family relationships, culture, the real world and the LGBTQ community is a big grey area that we stumble about year after year.

That grey area smacked me in the face, along with the rest of Real Life the moment I graduated from college and moved back in with my parents, where together we would no longer be able to ignore the fact that I am very much gay. I moved back in, despite all my reservations, because I had a plan. A plan for what needed to be done before attempting to storm grad schools, one that would let me make up for not figuring out what I want to do with life earlier. Unfortunately the financial aspect of this plan meant that I had to choose between living on my own or getting shit done while not dying of starvation. The cost and logistics of the classes I had to still take meant that I could only work part time. I had a family that was willing to let me live rent free, that came from a country where it’s very, very common for several generations to live in the same apartment, and that was VERY excited to have their only child around again (I wasn’t quite as thrilled but I digress). So I dutifully packed my entire dorm room into my Subaru Outback (insert obligatory crass lesbian trope joke here) and relocated it two hours north, to the middle of the woods.

I am surrounded by more turkeys and deer than neighbors now.

I am surrounded by more turkeys and deer than neighbors now.

I told myself that I can do this for a year, it’s for my own good and if anyone can iron out the complexities of me moving in as an adult, after four years apart, it’s my family.

You see, there are only three of us in the US. We are immigrants, and for fifteen years we clung to each other for support and fumbled about American culture together. That and the fact that I was never actually parented as a child meant that we have a strange relationship that doesn’t quite resemble that of a parent and child – it’s a little Gilmore Girls at times, a little tear-drenched-nuclear-holocaust-because-we-are-not-very-conflict-avoidant at others, and all in all we as a family tend to broach the kinds of uncomfortable subjects that most families sweep under the rug. So knowing all this I moved in and we became the Three Angry Russians, with a cat and a butch girlfriend who sometimes showed up to remind everyone with her presence that this is not a phase.

My Russian Experience, filled with grandma's pirozhkis and love (left) vs what I get to see on the news during said pirozhki-eating experiences.

My Russian Experience, filled with grandma’s pirozhkis and love (left) vs what I get to see on the news during said pirozhki-eating experiences.

I am guessing you read the news, so you might have heard about Russia and how much it loves and embraces the LGBTQ community. Even though religion was straight up banned in the parts of Soviet Russia where I spent my childhood, there was always an abundance of conservatism and fiery Hellfire rhetoric, obviously disguised as pro-communist propaganda, but there nevertheless. Today the county is going through a bit of a religious revival, so we’re back to the more familiar rhetoric of using religion as an excuse to beat the living shit out of people.

This is where the grey area begins. Like Russia itself, my parents’ instincts are torn. My birth country can’t make up its mind whether it wants its culture to be a part of liberal Europe or conservative Asia, my birth parents can’t make up their minds between simply loving their only child and feeling like there is something fundamentally broken about me now. Some days they are supportive and amazing. Others not so much.

One year Russia lets a gay character have lots of screen time and some of the funniest jokes in our version of Ugly Betty, the most watched show in the entire country. I mean the man was a stereotypical flamboyant white male designer and his homosexuality was the butt of constant jokes, but he had a long term relationship that was talked about and there was a gay club that showed LOTS of gay people, and it was all there on national television. Yes, it made for absurd plotlines, but it was visible, and it was a big deal, and nobody said anything. Then a few years later there was the Pride Parade where everyone got their asses kicked, and a few years after that we have Sochi and the anti-gay laws.

On national television!

On national television!

Like I said, my parents are the products of that culture. And I get it, I really get their confusion and their constant fretting that I may come out to the wrong person. I agree that it makes no sense to drop a bomb like this on my grandparents who are old, live across the ocean, and whom I see once every three years if that. I get that my parents had a heteronormative vision of their one and only little girl and then that version was shattered by all the embarrassingly butch girlfriends that kept appearing long after they stopped hoping that this was a passing phase. I get it all. I also get that sometimes my parents are just plain embarrassed, and there is no logic behind it, only ignorance. And that I don’t put up with.

Two and a half years after I came out to my mother, I went through a breakup and my own mother surprised me. She let me talk about it for hours, she said wise Mom things, she took me shopping. In fact, both my parents were supportive, respectful, didn’t make a single gay joke or wished unto me a boyfriend in the New Year. For a whole month after the breakup we were in full on Gilmore Girls mode, with lots of feelings shared, meaningful things discussed, my relationship actually validated instead of awkwardly glazed over.

But much like their Motherland, they couldn’t let progress happen without a backlash and on New Year’s Eve, as Times Square was counting down in the background, I was reminded of my place where my gayness will always be treated like a shameful secret in a toast. There it was, the “we love you but you have to understand you are dirty and we can’t tell people about you because it will make everyone implode if they know, and we can’t ever have grandchildren, and you should be grateful that this is how we treat you because you told us yourself that some parents beat and disown their gay kids” toast. Two and a half years later, two serious gay relationships later, after months of living in the same house as me and seeing how me being gay wasn’t a giant orgy colored with rainbow flags (props to you if that’s what being gay is to you, nothing wrong with that!), after a hundred honest conversations, fights, several promises that yes I can still have kids and I want kids, there it was – a backlash.

Sometimes when I tell people about this, they react the same way as the aforementioned liberal daughter of a radical feminist. They tell me that I should just move out, move on, and stop doing this to myself. I can just leave, they say, as if saying that will liberate me from some sort of prison. I mean yes, I can leave. I know people who have done it and were happier for it. But I choose to keep having this complicated private battle because for me it comes from a place of love and hope every bit as much as it does from a place of fear and ignorance. With my family it all comes tumbling out in a very un-American way – the sweet, the wise, the ugly, and the cruel. A big part of it is cultural, an even bigger part is our own clashing personalities. We can fight like there’s no tomorrow, mostly because we trust that there always will be a tomorrow for us. Some days I consider myself incredibly lucky for it – some families don’t get a chance to fight to understand one another. Other days I am just tired.

Sometimes that’s what families do, they try (and fail, and try again) to navigate each other’s flaws and misunderstandings, real or imagined. The issue of my sexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it site there along with the ghost of Ex-Soviet Conservatism, next to the news of yet another act of violence against someone like me, along with my own pangs of internalized homophobia. and that’s my reality that I choose to live out, like many others who dance this complicated little dance.

Avatar of Zhenia

Zhenia is a recent college graduate who studied science things (and English lit, go figure) and wants to be a wise Medical Person who helps All the Sick People, but in a holistic way. In her free time she likes to write about her thoughts and feelings, because she has too many and she will otherwise implode. Oh, and she sometimes trains cats to do tricks and it’s adorable.

Zhenia has written 1 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. Thumb up 6

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    As a fellow Russian queer, this hits so close to home. Thank you for writing this. My parents are nowhere close to accepting any of my choices, but they’re still my family and my ties to a country that sometimes feels like home. And I’m not ready to give that up.

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    My family has been living in the US for awhile (I’m third generation on oneside and fourth on the other), but I still grew up hearing Polish and Czech and learning about the good times in the old country, normally while chowing down on something bought from Cleveland’s Polish Village. My very religious and traditional family is still light years away from accepting me. It is so reassuring to hear that you too go back and stay with them because they are family, even when it is not the easiest thing to do! Stay strong!

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    Thank you so much for writing this. That dance between social culture, family and identity/orientation is so complex. When I was lst in Russia in 1998, and the biggest pop star in the country that year was Shura… who’s pretty much a screaming disco queen and brilliantly outrageous performer (I’m amazed he’s never become a bigger star in the west). Seeing his broad-based popularity gave me a lot of hope for the future of that country. But after the second Chechen War, when a new bogeyman was needed, it all seemed to go downhill. Yes there are widely-known-to-be-gay superstars like Dima Bilan, but keeping closeted seems to be the contract they have to make to maintain any media access. What’s saddest is to hear Dimitri Medvedev (the one time mainstream reformer?) make recent statements which just echo those of Putin. As long as United Russia is in power, (and after all the Olympic debt and subsequent inflation comes to fruition I think Putin and Co. might have a very bumpy ride) there can be no social progress in Russia.

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    I so relate to your struggle with and defense of staying at home with a family that isn’t always 100% supportive. I’ve lived at home for the past two years after being away for 4. And coming out after I got home was hard, really fucking hard. And even though they still tiptoe around my queerness like it’s a live grenade that will detonate if it’s ever even given a side-eye, I still love them. And they still support me in every other way. And I wouldn’t give up my relationship with them for anything, ever, no matter if they never change their minds or hearts when it comes to my queerness.

    And I love that you pointed out the incredible privilege it is to have a family that embraces and encourages radical feminism and queerness. It’s a fucking privilege to believe that, because a family isn’t supportive of your queerness, you absolutely should just leave. It’s a fucking privilege to think that that is a choice that is even possible, never mind desirable.

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      You’re so right with the last paragraph. Just like being queer or whatever isn’t the entirety of who we are; being homophobic or unsupportive isn’t the entirety of who the people around us are. It takes just as much courage to stick with it as it does to cut ties I think, and either is a totally valid choice.

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        Agreed. I love my family so much. And, yeah, there are times that their lack of support for my queerness feels like it’s gonna crush me. But so much more often than that they provide me with so much love and encouragement for every other part of me. They are some of the most loving people that I know and we all worked so damn hard to build our relationship back (after it all blew up in high school for reasons entirely unrelated to my queerness).

        When I came out, my brother accused me of being selfish because he thought I didn’t think enough about how my being out would change our relationship. I told him that I could never have a truly good relationship with them if I was still hiding this part of myself. And I still believe that. But it doesn’t mean that the entirety of my identity is wrapped up in the fact that I date girls, nor is the entirety of our relationship altered because of this fact. Because, truth be told, after the initial months where they freaked out and couldn’t figure out how to talk to me anymore, everything has pretty much settled back to normal and we actually do have a really good relationship. Yeah, we tiptoe around some issues, but what family doesn’t?

        I know that I am so very privileged to have a family that lets me mooch off of them while I finish law school. I’m so very privileged to have a family that doesn’t use my queerness to bash and shame me. They never threatened to kick me out; they just set some ground rules, and I’m fine with that. Because I worked to damn hard to have a relationship with my parents to give it up now.

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    Kim L, but it IS possible in Zhenia’s case. Desirable? It’s up to her.

    As a fellow Russian-born lesbian in Canada, I have cut off all contact with my parents. But that’s because we didn’t have “some days I felt lucky” and “other days I felt tired”. It was more “every day I felt fucking morally pounded, accused, guilt-tripped, shamed, blamed, called an egotist for even coming out, treated with outright disgust, an incredible amount of anger” and other wonderful things like this.

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      Yeah, I understand that. I wasn’t saying that cutting off ties from family shouldn’t be an option for some people. It’s also a huge privilege for me to have a family that, while less than completely supportive, doesn’t continually bash me or shame me. They just don’t talk about it. And that’s a privilege. I get that. I was just appreciative of her pointing out a certain dynamic of privilege that exists within one of the variations of that scenario. It made me think, and I appreciated it. So did your response, and I appreciate that too. I’m sorry that you’ve had to go through that with your family. I’m sorry that so many people do. And I’m sorry if my first comment seemed dismissive of that dynamic. It wasn’t meant to be and I’ll try to be more careful in the future.

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    Zhenia, thank you so much for writing this! My family is Russian Orthodox and I am so familiar with that feeling. I think it’s really up to you to either accept the grey area between all out acceptance and downright hatred (for my family that middle area is denial), but to also find what it is that you can handle and accept of your families behavior versus what things you can’t tolerate. Anyways, kudos and much love gyvishka.

  7. Thumb up 7

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    Wonderfully written. Thanks for sharing this. It is very difficult for me, as an Asian to explain why I choose to continue living my mother and her rabid homophobia. It also very difficult for them to understand how a parent can LOVE her daughter, but still ‘reject’ her gay side. I love my family and will continue to live with them despite their imperfections.

    As for the privilege part, I see it more as a form of ‘clash of cultures’ or different definitions of ‘good parenthood’ based on one’s culture. I don’t consider having the feminist mother as a privilege. As I am quite privileged enough to have a wonderfully imperfect tiger-mother, who is wholly capable of loving me and pointing out the defects in my personality (though I don’t see them as defects at all. I’m gay and it’s a natural thing).

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    Thank you so much for writing this! My real (i.e. Russian) name is Zheniya too, I’m from Moskva. I haven’t experienced any acceptance from my parents in regards to my queer-ness (and other things), but I’m glad accepting Russki parents are out there!

    Filial piety. A lot of “high horse liberals” just don’t get it. As much as our culture is messed up and homophobic (as are a lot of other cultures), I would choose our cultural value of interdependence over Western independence any day.

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    Thank you for this, Zhenia. I’m Ukrainian Orthodox (but my parish apparently follows the Muscovite Patriarchy, ugh), and reading the recent coverage of everything in Russia has made me re-evaluate the pain from a community that I am fiercely attached to.

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    I don’t think it’s fair to say that Russia must choose between being European and “progressive” or Asian and “backward”, I don’t think there’s any Asian country that can match Russia’s long history of systematic oppression and violence. Maybe this is because I’m Eastern European not American so Russia looks a lot scarier, as a source of oppression, than the Middle East while, say, Japan or Thailand seem miles ahead in terms of progressiveness / human rights.

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      Andreea, I certainly did not mean to imply a binary in which all of Asia is backward while all of Europe is progressive and I was certainly not speaking of Russia’s imperialist tendencies, which are very real. I was simply speaking of cultural influences. Russia has long historical ties to the more conservative and traditional Middle Eastern countries and Russia outside of the very large cities such as Moscow has been deeply religious even throughout the Soviet regime, and is currently going through what appears to be a religious revival. The gentry in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, on the other hand, has tried to align itself with European customs and traditions for the past couple centuries(in the 19th century there were many Russian nobles that spoke only French and no Russian)and today there is a definite fascination with American culture there. Thus there are many conflicting cultural influences in Russia that affect its policies, general opinion and its mainstream media when it comes to issues such as women’s and LGBT rights and it’s stance on religion.

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        Yeah, you were talking about cultural influences – specifically about how it’s bad for Russian culture to be “polluted” by “backward” and “conservative” non-white people. Although Russia is behind those countries in terms of progressiveness not (just) because of its history of imperialism, but because of its history of violent institutionalized homophobia – supported first by the pretty westernized elite back in the 18th-19th century, then by the atheist communist regime.

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          I can see how easy it is to read those two terms as improperly used. Perhaps a more apt reading is that generally speaking, Asia places greater importance on retaining traditional cultural practices as opposed to the West’s focus on change or more specifically ‘modernity’.

  11. Thumb up 3

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    “We can fight like there’s no tomorrow, mostly because we trust that there always will be a tomorrow for us.”

    What a beautiful way to state this. My family fights all the time, but it’s because we’ll still be together.

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      That line made me tear up because that’s definitely not the case in my family. Growing up, there was lots of tip-toeing around and never addressing anything serious because the bonds between us were just too fragile to handle the strain. And when I became an adult and finally tried to talk honestly with my parents about our differences, everything fell apart.

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    Zhenia, thank you so much for writing this article. My family emigrated from Poland when I was young, and I relate to so much of what you’ve said here. My parents are amazing and supportive – it took them a while, but they got there – but coming out to my extended family is out of the question. That, combined with all the recent news about Russia (and other Eastern European countries…the Catholic Church in Poland isn’t exactly a shining beacon of tolerance), makes me SO grateful that my parents moved to the US, which consequently makes me feel guilty for rejecting a huge part of my history. Thank you again for sharing this.

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    One of my favorite AS articles, and I really appreciate the comments as well. I’m estranged from my family (my choice) and the guilt is terrible — would love an AS article about how to decide when to cut ties, or how to navigate compromise as was beautifully described here. I should search the AS archives …

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    I can relate to this too, I moved to Australia as a kid with my Russian-Jewish parents and grandma. My parents said some horrible things after I came out, and have never told my grandma, who lived with us/still lives with them. I also had a similar experience with my parents being surprisingly supportive after a painful breakup. But in the end moving out was the best decision. Not only was I able to have romantic relationships without the restriction of not being able to have people over or stay the night often – it’s also been so good for my relationship with my parents. I used to feel so much pressure from them and that’s reduced. They’ve become more mindful now of valuing the time we spend together, and most importantly they don’t have the same power over me that they used to, and they know it. Without such a power imbalance, our relationship is friendlier. Gradually I’ve become more comfortable mentioning and talking about my girlfriend. Finally – six years after I came out to them – we went out to dinner with my parents and girlfriend. It’s a slow journey but worthwhile.

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    Really interesting article. It’s a shame what is going on in Russia right now.
    I was born in Poland but grew up in NY and I have to say I have been blessed with my parents being completely open and understanding and not really caring all that much about my relationships. But I know many other polish girls who haven’t been so lucky, even in straight relationships when they date outside of their race/culture/etc. I think the issue with Eastern European families, at least for Polish is that the culture is so religious (Catholic) and very traditional but hopefully some of these things can change.

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