Interviews

Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 01 December 1997

DAVID TULLER EXPLORES RUSSIAN GAY LIFE


Interview by Rex Wockner



 

San Francisco Chronicle reporter David Tuller spent a lot of time away from the paper between 1991 and 1995--hanging out in Russia exploring gay and lesbian life.

What he found was a gay alternate universe that challenged his basic notions of what it means to be gay.

He has written it all down in Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay & Lesbian Russia -- a travelogue, social history, news analysis and diary rolled into one.

David and I recently spoke (in person and by phone) about why Americans might want to pick up his groundbreaking effort (now available in paperback), which The New Yorker called "absorbing" and the Chronicle called "profoundly moving."

By way of full disclosure, I went to Russia with David on his first trip, in 1991. We were in a group of 70 American homosexuals who helped stage hugely successful gay film festivals and conferences in then-Leningrad and Moscow. I was strictly working as a news reporter during that trip but David was beginning the investigations that later got him labeled "The American Sex Spy" -- and gelled into this captivating book.

Rex Wockner: What will Americans and other Westerners learn about themselves from reading about Russian homosexuality?

Dave Tuller: For many people the idea of a book about gays in Russia seems far-afield. I show how my experience affected me and, by extension, other people could learn from that. A lot of my assumptions about what a gay identity means proved to be very challenged. I'm from New York, I live in the Castro, I thought I pretty much knew what I need to know about my own sexuality. I was kind of smug in that way. I ended up -- partly through having a romantic involvement with a Russian lesbian, partly through what seems to be their heroism and how they survived in really difficult times and not only survived but thrived in a way I ended up learning about myself and the impact of culture on sexual identity and how people anywhere really manage to make a life for themselves. Those are all lessons that can be applied here. I also learned not to be so smug about universalizing my American experience and thinking other people should just fall into it -- and realized there are other ways to conceive of things. Americans tend to be Messianic and American gays and lesbians no less so than American straights.

Wockner: As it evolves, what will the Russian gay community or movement look like?

Tuller: It'll look like ours in some ways but it'll also be different. The concept of community applies differently there. We want to transplant that idea of community but Russians because of their experiences under the Soviet system -- are incredibly resistant to a concept that links them to people they don't know. They were constantly forced into ideologically oriented groups that linked them to people they didn't know and had no reason to trust. So when gays come along and say, "Hey there's this big gay community and you're like all the other gay people," they say, "Well, fuck you." To me, the idea of community sort of means, "I'm gay, you're gay, and we don't know each other but we have a commonality of interests that should enable us to identify with each other." That's a concept that is really hard to take root in Russia at this time. Russians trust each other not in the abstract but only through immediate and personal connections. And it is completely understandable given their experiences and it makes a huge amount of sense. From a positive perspective, they don't want to have labels attached to them and they are more flexible in how they perceive things. They resist an identity that comes from a certain set of parameters: that gay men don't sleep with lesbians, that lesbians don't sleep with men. They find all that absurd because they don't want anyone to tell them what to do because they were always told what to do. So my lesbian friend, Ksyusha, who slept with men when she wanted, when I would say there are lesbians in the U.S. that would find that strange or a betrayal, she was like: "What are they, Communists? That's like totalitarianism. I lived under one totalitarian regime and I don't want to live under another."

Wockner: We have this notion in the U.S. that because we're gay we have quite a bit in common, and yet, personally, I probably have more in common with countercultural straights than with Republican or yuppie-materialist gays. That's just me, but did your experiences in Russia change your understanding of the U.S. quote-unquote gay community?

Tuller: Yeah. We are different. The myth is that we're not. There's a disjunction between the myth and what sort of happens on the ground. People who buy into the myth are impatient here. They say they're being inclusive but they are impatient with those who fall outside those parameters. I found, surprisingly, that people in Russia are very quick to judge but they are also very accepting of difference among those people that they know and whatever predilections they have. Because people only had each other, they didn't have anything else. They didn't have material possessions or careers they were really invested in. They invested those relationships with vitality and passion and drama. As a Westerner, it was both exhilarating and exhausting. There's also a myth about the Soviet Union that it was this totally grim place where everything that happened was bad and why would anyone ever want to read about it? I found this incredibly vital private life that people managed to create for themselves. For me it was incredibly heroic and fun. People had a good time.

Wockner: If in Russia you have gay men sleeping with women and lesbians sleeping with men -- and yet here we think that sexual orientation is more or less fixed and genetic -- which is the truth?

Tuller: One of the things I learned is that truth is very complicated. For different people it's different. We have a need here for a hard and fast truth that applies to everybody, and life isn't like that. It's my hypothalamus, it's my genes, whatever. If that's so, why was I myself having those feelings for my [female] friend Ksyusha? That was a really welcome surprise to me -- a part of myself that I didn't know was there and discovered. Part of that was being taken out of my context here and plopping myself down in a completely different one where anything is possible.

Wockner: So there's hope for my seducing the hunky straight bear down the block?

Tuller: Oh, absolutely, or the straight woman.

Wockner: They called you "the American Sex Spy?"

Tuller: Yes, the people at the dacha, the group that I fell in with, who gathered at a dacha, a country shack outside Moscow. That was their gay community where they focused their lives. This was an older lesbian couple that has been together for 20 years and they hooked up with a guy who was about 10 years younger than them who was very sexy and I had a crush on but he maintained that inside he was a lesbian and he was only attracted to lesbians and he's had a menage with them for 15 years and they accepted him as the lesbian that he thought he was.

Wockner: Were you able to come to accept him as a lesbian?

Tuller: I came to accept him on his own terms. I came to accept that he wasn't going to be sleeping with me and what other possible reason could there be of course except that he was a lesbian? There was also my friend Ksyusha, who had been with all of them at some point in some form. In the States we're so proud of being post-modern and queer and revolutionary but my friends have been doing this without theorizing about it for 20 years. How more alternative family structure could you get? But they didn't talk about it in the same way, so when I was there doing my interviews they thought it was very, very funny and started calling me 'The American Sex Spy.' When I told them I'd come out to my Russian Jewish cousin who lives in the suburbs of Moscow, they thought that was even funnier and started calling me "The American Sex Terrorist." But I realized they didn't come out to their families not because they were ashamed of it, not because they had so-called internalized homophobia, but because in the Soviet Union, people kept quiet the things that were most important to them. It was their way of protecting it and honoring it and their version of gay pride really.

Wockner: There are plenty of American gays who would consider keeping quiet about it a very queer form of gay pride.

Tuller: You can't just take our notion of what's correct and apply it there. You can't go over there and decide the people who are being quiet about it are doing it for the same reasons an American would do it. I prefer our context. I prefer being able to talk about it. But the psychology is completely different. And it would be untrue to attribute it to shame, self-loathing, whatever. Everybody -- not just gays and lesbians -- survived in the Soviet Union by keeping things hidden; everybody had a closet--political, ideological. For gays and lesbians it was just one more way in which they compartmentalized their lives to survive. It was protective not destructive.

Wockner: Russia is still really messed up but in very different ways than under the Communists. Are people starting to come out now that there is much less fear of the government?

Tuller: I think so. People are starting more to be not so afraid, definitely. There's a couple of gay discos and clubs that people feel comfortable going to if they can afford it. But it's not a talk-show culture where people are going to feel comfortable going on whatever their version of 'Oprah' would be.

Wockner: How about telling their families?

Tuller: It's very difficult. Everyone there lives in a two-room apartment with his or her mother. If I didn't live 3,000 miles from my mother in New York, I might be more reluctant to be as open with her as I am. Privacy there becomes a mental construct rather than a geographic or physical one. It's not just about not wanting to tell your mother because you don't want to be open with her. Everybody learned to respect other people's need to keep parts of themselves hidden because society was so set on exposing everything.

Wockner: Will we ever see a thousands-strong gay-pride parade through Moscow?

Tuller: I think before you see that you'll see people flocking to gay theater performances or thousands of people buying gay novels. They're very into cultural stuff more than, quote, political stuff. Politics still means communism, so even gay politics is considered a dirty business. It's all about someone trying to make a name for themselves, get ahead on someone else's back. And so this kind of quasi-politics in the broad sense that we have here -- they reject anything even remotely political. Who knows when that will change? And it's not up to us to show them how to change. It's up to them to figure out what they want and how to make it happen. And that's what I learned.


Cracks in the Iron Closet appeared in paperback form Nov. 1. It can be ordered online at http://www.press.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/hfs.cgi/00/13432.ctl. Two chapters of the book can be read online at http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/4030/.


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