Becoming Openly Gay in Novosibirsk

Getting confirmation that Grisha had, in fact, been killed in 1999 was a distressing way to start our week in Novosibirsk. But on the flip side, it's been heartening to see how well his friends have been doing in the ten years since I saw them last.

Valera was a 32-year-old salesman with a broken heart in 1995. He'd recently split up with his boyfriend, and talked with us about the pain of that separation. Today, Valera is still single, though he's built a comfortable life for himself: he's the manager of the elegant Max Mara store in downtown Novosibirsk and he owns his own apartment in the city center where he lives with his cat, Tasya.



Valera, now 42, is the manager for the fashionable clothing store Max Mara in downtown Novosibirsk. (David Hillegas)

He still sees his old friends from back then, and quickly arranged an evening for us with many of the people I'd met, including Natasha, who in 1995 was a 23-year-old student. At that time, Natasha had recently come out to her mother, who didn't take the news well. She was concerned as to whether our interview with her would be published in Russia, as she didn't want to have her sexual orientation made public in that way.

Today, Natasha is just about as openly gay as one can get: Nine years ago, she became a DJ for a radio talk show about gay issues. The radio station wanted "something scandalous for the ratings," she said. "And what was more scandalous than homosexuality?" Broadcasting from midnight to 7 a.m. four nights a week, Natasha dispensed what she calls "free psychotherapy" to callers. In fact, Natasha says, Grisha even called her radio show on the night he was killed.

This summer, Natasha began dating Lena, an interpreter who lives in Moscow. Next month, Lena will move to Novosibirsk as the first step in the couple's plan to eventually emigrate to Canada.



Natasha, now 33, became a local celebrity as the host of a radio show focusing on gay issues. (David Hillegas)

In 1995, Natasha spoke passionately about her desire to live openly as a lesbian. "I want to be able to hold hands with my lover in public, to kiss her on the street if I feel like it," she told us. "Basically, I want to be able to do anything a straight couple can do without getting stared at or beaten up. In American cities, people can do that." But immigration to the U.S., especially post-9/11, is an unlikely prospect -- and besides, Canada is appealing to the pair in other ways, not least because it's one of the few countries that offers nationally recognized gay marriage.

In the meantime, both Valera and Natasha say that for the most part it's easier now to be gay in Novosibirsk. Tomorrow: more on how gay life here has changed since 1995.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 13, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: Novosibirsk: Grisha's Death | Next: Novosibirsk: Zhenya's Arrest and Siberian Gay Life

Comments

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Sounds like more fun being gay in Novosibirsk than in Washington, DC.

Posted by: daniel | October 12, 2005 11:49 AM

Little does she know that it's not acceptable in the US, either. Can the blogger(s) make her aware of that?

Posted by: K | October 12, 2005 01:37 PM

I am not sure I agree with the other posters. Russia may be more secular than the U.S.

But, there are actual laws in many U.S. states that forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I wonder if there is any political awareness of the topic in Russia?

Posted by: Arlington | October 12, 2005 06:39 PM

Yes, Canada has just passed federal legislation allowing for gay marriage, and i have to admit, the man behind this, Irwin Cotler our Federal Justice Minister is a genius who has managed to fight every conservative in the country (including his wife) to pass this law. However, just because it is now law, doesn't mean that everyone is so accepting. Ie. If I were a gay Russian immigrating to Canada I would NOT settle in Alberta despite it being our richest province. Choose your city carefully before moving here. Montreal's pretty gay friendly if you don't mind the rest of the politics of the place.

Posted by: sandy | October 13, 2005 01:15 AM

K: I agree that gay couples probably can't do "anything a straight couple can do" in American cities -- but they can definitely do things that would raise eyebrows elsewhere. In New York, San Francisco and Washington (not in all neighborhoods, but at least downtown), gay couples can walk around holding hands and being affectionate without causing riots...

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | October 13, 2005 07:27 AM

Sandy, Lisa Dickey, what about the fact that a person was arrested as recently as two years ago in Texas for gay behavior? And that caused the whole Supreme Court drama, which resulted in much heated debate and the decision to strike down laws banning homosexual sex? Remember, this was only a year or two ago. And it reached the Supreme Court.

Many people in other parts of the world watch American movies and think that that's an accurate representation of America. Completely false.

Posted by: K | October 13, 2005 11:09 AM

K. You make a good point. But, today in 2005. I know that D.C. law protects me from being fired on the basis of sexual orientation. (I only live in Arlington). I'd say that's progress. And D.C. is not alone.

I think the blog is trying to convey that in a town called Novosibirsk it's o.k. to be gay. Like it would be in many urban centers in North America. I am still curious about the russian legal protections.
And if Valera's suit is any indication, Novosibirsk might actually be a better dressed town than many American cities.

Hey -- maybe we should start a blog of North American travels and compare notes? Whadya think? K? Lisa? Sandy?

Posted by: Arlington | October 13, 2005 11:58 AM

What are you saying, "a town called Novosibirsk?". We are a big city! We are the third largest city in Russia! Come on!
Natasha in Novosibirsk.

Posted by: Natasha | October 13, 2005 01:33 PM

I have to admit that I'd never heard of Новосиби́рск before this series. But then, I wouldn't expect many Russians to have heard of American cities like Denver, Indianapolis, or Memphis, either. Americans definitely need to be better education on the geography and politics of other countries, especially countries that are important to us like the Росси́йская Федера́ция is.

Anyone who thinks that gay people in America can walk down the street holding hands has been watching too much "Queer as Folk" (which was filmed in Toronto, Canada, not Pittsburgh, USA.) With very few exceptions, American cities are at best quietly hostile toward gay people making public displays of affection. Try walking through downtown Chattanooga smooching with your boyfriend and see how far you get.

Posted by: Scott | October 13, 2005 04:47 PM

To Arlington: I'm straight, I was just making an observation (because I'm interested in politics & sociology in America)

Posted by: K | October 13, 2005 09:41 PM

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