Often, when we speak about the immigrant experience in America, we speak of opportunity and freedom, and for LGBT people, of safety, equality and being reunited with our loved ones in a place where it isn’t a crime to love them. Much of the time, we don’t talk about what we leave behind. In Alla Gorik, a matter-of-fact yet intimate short story, a Russian immigrant tells about having to move to New York without her girlfriend of two years, yet still talking to her every day. That complex push and pull between staying and leaving is also faced by many of her friends.
Gay Propaganda, a book of Russian love stories edited by Russian-American journalist and LGBT activist Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon, is a nod to the country’s 2013 ban on distributing gay “propaganda” to minors, including holding pride events, defending gay rights, and equating gay and heterosexual relationships. As the spotlight shifts from the Sochi Olympics to Crimea, we have to keep our eyes on those left behind — not only on their continued persecution, but on their humanity, the complex challenges they face, and their love. This is definitely the moment for Gay Propaganda.
Alla Gorik: a short story excerpted from Gay Propaganda
“I always ask her how her new girlfriend is, and aren’t I better?”
Alla Gorik, 27, has short blonde hair, a constant wry smile on her face, and a-matter-of-fact way of speaking. We met at a happy hour in New York organized by Rusa LGBT, a network of Russians and Russian speakers who meet up regularly for socializing—or to demonstrate in front of the Russian consulate, depending on the circumstances. It was Alla’s first time joining one of these gatherings, and she marveled at how many Russian gays and lesbians there were in New York, her new home.
I moved to New York in May of 2012, though I’d visited once before, in 2009. I’m from Khabarovsk, a city in the Far East. I was bored. I’d been living there so long. Where I’m from you’re considered an old maid if you’re 25 and aren’t married and don’t have children. I was living with my girlfriend, Ira, when I decided it was time to leave, but she didn’t want to go. We kept applying for visas to come to the U.S.; I kept getting approved but she didn’t. This happened three times. Now that I’m here and she’s there, Ira’s still trying to convince me to come back, but that’s not happening.
We were together for two years; I’m not quite sure what we are now. We’re together but we’re open, and I keep telling her to come over here but she won’t do it. At least now she finally got a passport so maybe we’re getting closer. But I think Ira would only come if I went back and got her. She’s like that; she needs to be pushed along.
We met at a birthday party. Back then I was the quiet one. I didn’t go out much, stayed at home on the computer. At the party Ira came up to me. She was very arrogant, like a warrior. She put her legs on my lap, and made me stay the night. But then things changed. After we moved in together it started being me who made all the decisions.
We bought two cats together. Hairless cats. They were like Ira’s kids. We had our own place back then, but now Ira lives with my mom and the cats. My mom is cool, though. Her attitude is, “If you’re not crying, we’re good.” When I was 23, my mom called and asked me if I was a lesbian. The way I answered was a few days later I brought Ira home. My mom would joke sometimes that we must have met in jail, especially after I got my tattoo. I’ve never been in jail, by the way. I’m really lucky with my mom. I had two colleagues back home who were fired after word got around that they were gay. One of them was disowned by her mother after that.
Here in New York, I work in technical support for a web company. It’s owned by Russians. I’ve been there for a little over a year now. Even though I work with a bunch of Russians, none of them knows I’m gay. They all came here during the Soviet Union times so they still have that mentality. Sometimes, I want to tell them just to scandalize them.
I had another girlfriend here but it didn’t last too long. Three months. But I still talk to Ira basically every day, so let me tell you about her. She’s thin, that’s the most important part. She likes computer games; she’s a real maniac about them. And she loves cars. She redesigns them. Classic cars. She just bought her second one. And she’s a hairstylist: she cuts guys’ hair. She’s also a total gym nut. She’s always sending me photos of her six pack. I tell her it’s too much, women shouldn’t have so many muscles.
She was married at one point, quite young, at 17. She lived in a small village, and the guy she married, she told him she was a lesbian but he said he didn’t care. When they were married, Ira was always with other girls, and he was always yelling about it. But he was warned. He knew the conditions in advance. He can’t really complain.
I always ask her how her new girlfriend is, and aren’t I better? She doesn’t say anything though. Just moves on. At the end of every sentence I ask her: “Why are you over there? Come over here to be with me!” She tells me to stop it, that she’s still thinking it over, but she’s had almost two years to think it over! When I left she cried and asked me to stay and wait for her to apply one more time. I told her I’m already 26, how much longer could I wait?
I applied for asylum, but my hearing isn’t scheduled for almost another two years, because there’s such a long waiting list in New York. So if I get asylum that’s when I’ll go back and try to convince Ira to come here, though I’ll probably have to go to Ukraine so she can meet me there, since I won’t be able to enter Russia. My lawyer told me it’s best to apply now, since things are so bad in Russia. He says they could get better soon. I disagree. I don’t think things will be getting better anytime soon.
Back home I have some good friends, a couple, two women with a young son. They’re worried the government will take him away, so they’re not sending him to preschool. They don’t want him telling the teachers he has two moms. A lot of my friends who can are moving to St. Petersburg. At least there it’s a little more cultured. A big city.
Another friend, a guy you can tell is gay—he gets beaten up all the time. When I left he had stitches in his face. He worked at a telecom company and when he was up for a promotion there was another co-worker angling for the same promotion. So he told the boss my friend was gay. Instead of getting a promotion he was asked to resign.
I asked him why doesn’t he leave, why not apply for asylum in Europe? He told me he doesn’t want to learn a new language. It’s a Russian character trait, to complain and complain but not do anything about it. Not me; I got out of there.
—As told to Joseph Huff-Hannon