The Other Side's Other Side

A surprising look at gay and lesbian life in Russia

Later that evening, we played a cassette tape with an eclectic selection of dacha favorites: French ballads, Sade, Roberta Flack, the Eurythmics. As Ksyusha swayed to the music, Vitya encircled her from behind with his brawny arms. He kissed her neck, ran his hands up over her shoulders and then, lightly, across her breasts; she closed her eyes and leaned back into his gentle caress.

There was something innocent and oddly touching in that gesture; watching them, I realized how much they had learned to accept each other through their years together. My pity for Vitya wrestled with awe and a little jealousy at the obvious devotion they all shared. Somehow, the dacha concept of lesbianism -- very different from what I knew back home -- allowed Sveta and the others to overlook the hard-to-overlook detail that Vitya was, in fact, a man. They let him be the lesbian that he believed he was, and he loved them back as only another woman could.

When San Francisco Chronicle writer David Tuller went to Russia in 1991, he expected, he says, to write about the dreariness and drabness of gay and lesbian life inside the former Soviet Union. But what he found astonished him.

As detailed in Tuller's book, Cracks in the Iron Closet, Russians possess, under the most cruel and adverse circumstances, a fluidity and emotional openness that's very different from our own more rigidly one-or-the-other, gay-or-straight approach to sexuality. Tuller's personal journey -- in which he found himself, as a gay man, falling in love with a woman -- is interwoven with observations about many aspects of post-Soviet Russian life, and makes for a book at once emotionally captivating and intellectually precise.

On July 30, Tuller will be the guest of honor at a reception, hosted at the New Main Library by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, intended to raise awareness about conditions of life for gay and lesbian people overseas. The event, which starts at 6 p.m. in the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, is free.

What did you learn about sexuality while you were in Russia?
"There's so many things it's hard to say. I think I learned a certain amount of humility in terms of not assuming that other people, especially people in other cultures, should be like me. There was a sense in which I went over there with all good intentions, assuming I'd bring some ray of light into their bleak lives. I think what was so remarkable to me, and I guess what I wanted to try to capture, was the heroism, the degree to which they created rich and vital and really fascinating lives. It's pretty easy to come to San Francisco and have a very nice life. I think in a lot of ways it's a lot harder to find that in other places."

How is it different over there?
"They reject the whole concept of identity. To them, when I presented that a gay identity means this, a lesbian identity means that, they said, 'That's communism. That's totalitarianism.'

"And here the whole thing about coming out and the axiom of coming out, that you have to come out -- and I'm comfortable with coming out, I've been out for 15 years -- they keep secret the things that are most important to them. I think I came away with a greater appreciation of secrecy, that it's OK to have secrets."

How did the people you wrote about react when they read the book?
"They were really excited. They were just thrilled that I dedicated it to them. I was reading it with them, actually -- I was sitting with them and reading. They just loved it. They were really laughing at some of the parts.

"You could really see their humor and their wisdom. I think they're flattered. I think it really came across to them that it was written with a lot of love and tenderness. It was important to me that they should read it and not feel that I took advantage of them in any way. I did it for them, sort of, too.

 
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