It was the Russian equivalent of Stonewall.
A dozen men and women held a press conference in Moscow to announce the beginning of Russia’s first major gay and lesbian organization. Only two of the people there would reveal their names.
Stonewall, the riot by drag queens at a Greenwich Village bar that gained visibility for the gay and lesbian movement in the U.S., was in 1969. This equivalent Russian event was in February 1990.
David Tuller’s Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia — available on Amazon — takes an intimate look at the homosexual side of Russia, a world many don’t even know exists. By interviewing people he met during several trips to the former Soviet Union, this gay American descendant of Russian lineage provides a rare glimpse at perhaps the most misunderstood people of an often-misunderstood country.
The book, a success as a hardcover, is now out in paperback from the University of Chicago Press. They hope it will be adopted by classroom instructors as a textbook, Tuller says.
Tuller, who grew up as a pretty much typical Jewish boy in New York, eventually moved to San Francisco to pursue a fairly commonplace American gay life.
“Then I left for Russia,” Tuller writes. “Where, to my surprise, I fell for Ksyusha, a sexy dyke of extravagant emotions; and befriended a man who fervently believed he was, inside, a lesbian; and met so many bisexuals that I figured they couldn’t all be making it up; and I learned the delicate pleasures of donning pumps and a fabulous dress.”
Tuller says, “I experienced, in startling and unexpected ways, a different kind of sexual freedom than I had found in the golden enclaves of New York and San Francisco.”
He came to understand, he writes, that Russian lesbians and gays simply didn’t fit the American model to which he was accustomed. They don’t fit any model, really.
“Ah, yes. For a moment I had been in danger of mistaking this place for a country in which rules of logic and reason tethered experience to some recognizable semblance of reality,” Tuller writes. “But despite its thin veneer of Western trappings, despite its gay discos and cafes and new millionaires, this was Russia still.”
He did find, though, a diverse lesbian and gay community — or at least an extensive collection of lesbian women and gay men who weren’t very sure about organizing into a community. And being “out” was not a concept they embraced.
“I spend time with people, not with anarchists or Trotskyites or lesbians,” Tuller’s Russian friend Lena said. “And I don’t want to fight for the rights of lesbians — they never repressed lesbians here because no one knew that they existed … You know, I’ve lived with Sveta all my life, and no one’s ever said a word against it. But after all, I don’t go into a bakery and say, ‘Hi, I’m a lesbian, give me bread.'”
Her opinion is a common one, Tuller writes. Russians are not quick to embrace many American ideals. At least one of the friends Tuller made in Russia saw a problem with American arrogance.
“Well, Americans think they can save us,” Sveta told Tuller. “They think that they’re the Messiah. Or Superman. An as for the American gays and lesbianki, maybe you can help then with your book, David, because they think they are … the Supergays and the Superlesbianki.”
While the people he encountered changed his opinions about the country, he also found that stereotypes are based in a bit of truth. At least some of the ones about Russia are. He writes that people there drink vodka heavily.
Tuller has been a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1988, and he helped found the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. Using his skills as a reporter, he records the stories of his experiences in a country that stubbornly and openly declines to conform to the American mold.
Writer Edmund White, author of Our Parts, has high praise for Tuller’s book. He says it “is as remarkable for its portrait of an emerging homosexual society in Russia as it is for the alternative it presents to American-style lesbian and gay culture.”
White is certainly correct that “this book will cause the lesbian or gay reader to reexamine completely his or her assumptions.” It caused Tuller to reexamine what it means to be gay and challenged his views of himself. (He writes honestly about falling in love with a woman while in Russia, something that is unsettling, at the least, for any gay man.)
Russia spans eleven time zones and occupies parts of two continents. It is, of course, a diverse place, and the author of Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia doesn’t claim to have seen it all, but his experience provides a unique glimpse into the closet of Russia that only sees small cracks of light from the outside.
Tuller has written a remarkable book about the country with which he fell in love and the people from which he learned a new kind of gay pride. It is not an arrogant pride, but a simple dignity taught to him — and now to us — by people who value their individualism in a society that still forces conformity.