Third-class citizens After a Russian grocery chain apologized for featuring gay parents in an ad, two lesbian parents told Meduza what it’s like to live in a country where their very portrayal qualifies as offensive
In late June, the Russian grocery store chain VkusVill put out an advertisement featuring a lesbian couple as part of its “Recipes for Family Happiness” campaign. The ad set off an avalanche of homophobic comments and threats against the company, and VkusVill soon announced it would delete the ad, calling it “a mistake that occurred as a result of some individual employees’ unprofessionalism.” This sparked another wave of criticism on social media, as people accused the chain of cowardice and hypocrisy. Throughout the debate, however, there’s been almost no mention of the difficulties same-sex couples in Russia actually face. To learn more about what life is like for same-sex parented families in Russia, Meduza spoke to Yana and Yaroslava, two women in a loving relationship who are now raising a child together.
To protect the family’s safety, Meduza has chosen not to reveal Yana and Yaroslava’s city of residence or their child’s age.
According to Yaroslava, Russian people on the whole aren’t evil. In fact, it’s her belief that people would be a lot more accepting if they could see that she and her partner, Yana, aren’t any different from straight couples. The prevalence of hateful rhetoric in Russia against the LGBT community, however, means there are still meaningful differences between Yaroslava’s family and straight families. For starters, Yaroslava and Yana have to be more careful about where they go with their son.
“When we have our kid with us, we scan the area for crazies, we don’t walk around at night or late in the evening, and we stay out of strange neighborhoods. Because if we run into trouble when our kid’s not with us, we can actively respond. But when you’re with your kid, you try to filter your speech, your reactions, and try to avoid possible conflicts,” Yaroslava told Meduza.
Luckily, it’s easy enough for the two moms to fly under the radar, especially when the whole family is together.
“People rarely come up to us on the street,” said Yaroslava. “We’re usually with our child — the three of us go everywhere together. When there’s a kid with us, we become less ‘visible.’ People have this stereotype that if there’s a child with them, [two women are] probably not a couple.”
When it’s just her and Yana, though, things are different; they usually hold hands, and they try to be “moderately open” about their relationship. But that doesn’t mean always turning the other cheek.
“[For example,] there was one time when people were talking about us behind our backs for a long time,” said Yana. “I turned around and said, ‘Whaaat?’ and they were like, ‘No, no, no, nothing!’” said Yaroslava.
More often, though, people are actually fairly pleasant.
“Sometimes people ask us questions — usually in a positive way,” said Yana. “They see we have a non-standard family, and they ask, ‘How does so-and-so work? What is so-and-so?’ Some couples get offended by those kinds of questions, but people asking questions isn’t a bad thing. They listen to the answers and realize that, other than our composition, we’re not really different from the average family. You can see the thought process beginning. How it stops seeming so strange. They start thinking, ‘Wow, what an ordinary family.’”
“It’s easy to hate an unknown figure, an abstract person,” said Yaroslava. “It’s harder to hate people you know, people you’ve seen and spoken to.”
“Lying never leads to anything good”
Yana and Yaroslava met online, and the relationship remained virtual, at first. Once they decided to meet in person, though, things moved fast.
“New Year’s was coming up, and I wanted to meet,” Yaroslava told Meduza. “I had the chance to go to the city where Yana lived. I went, and we realized things were serious.”
“We moved in together right away — it’s hard to build a relationship long-distance,” said Yana. “At first, Yaroslava came to my place and we spent a week together, and then I moved into her place, and now we’ve been together for eight and a half years. Women generally tend to form stable families more quickly — perhaps we feel more of a pull to it.”
Both women liked the idea of having children — the only question was how. They eventually decided on artificial insemination at a private clinic.
“We decided to do it that way so that some acquaintance wouldn’t be able to exert control over us and insist they have rights later on,” said Yana. “We wanted it to be just our child, without any randos involved. That’s why we chose to use an anonymous donor. Our child has two mothers and no father.”
For financial and health-related reasons, the couple decided that Yana would be the one to have the baby.
“The job I had been working was coming to an end, and things were going much better for Yaroslava at work at that point,” Yana said. Nonetheless, Yaroslava was by Yana’s side for the entire process, only missing one doctor’s appointment due to work.
“As far as our ages go, it didn’t matter who gave birth first,” said Yaroslava. “In the future, I might do it, too. But that’s a distant prospect — the atmosphere in this country right now is a little unnerving. If things were more normal, we’d be thinking about this more actively.”
One of the many difficult decisions faced by same-sex parents in homophobic states is what to tell their children about the situation. After all, having a child go into the world and speak openly about having same-sex parents can be dangerous, but treating the family as a secret can bring its own set of problems.
“We decided immediately that our son would have two moms,” said Yaroslava. “Lying never leads to anything good. Family is such a basic thing, and if there are lies within the family, what kind of base does that create for the child? What will there be to protect him?”
“[If you lie,] the kid will get the idea that his family is something to be ashamed of. And that creates room for manipulation,” said Yana.
But not all same-sex families in Russia take Yaroslava and Yana’s approach. For some, the risk is just too great.
“Some of our friends, for example, decided not to take their child to the playground at all when he was little because that would mean interacting with other parents. And when he got older, they chose to send him to a school away from home, so that none of his classmates would follow him home on public transport, and nobody would know where he lives,” said Yana.
Like all kids, Yana and Yaroslava’s son gets curious about where he came from. His moms are fairly candid about that part, too.
“We told him right away that we had gone to a clinic. We have books in English with pictures and drawings that show two mothers playing with their child and answering questions. Later on, our son asked us, ‘How was I born?’ and then he remembered, ‘Oh yeah, you guys went someplace,’” said Yana.
“He’s also sneaky: he’ll ask us a question and then look to see how we answer,” said Yaroslava. “And while he usually calls us different names — I’m ”Mama Yasya” and she’s just “Mama” — sometimes he just says “Mama.” And then he’s like, “No, not you, the other one,” and gets this sly look on his face.”
“We try not to stand out”
Both Yana and Yaroslava are out to their parents and have been since before they even met. While both women are currently on speaking terms with their parents, there was no guarantee that’s how things would go. When Yaroslava first told her parents that she is a lesbian, she was prepared for the worst.
“I told my parents when I was in college. I didn’t just tell them on a whim. I lived in a dorm, and I saved up enough money to live on for six months if my parents ended up cutting me off. I covered my bases, so to speak. And then I told them. Afterward, we didn’t talk for two weeks, and then everything was just like it had been before. My parents couldn’t take it anymore, and they called me first,” she told Meduza.
Telling them about the baby was tough, too.
“We told [my parents] after the first ultrasound. That’s the way we usually handle things. They freaked out a little, of course. ‘When did you manage to do that?’ But that’s just how it is. They worry about us,” said Yaroslava.
Yaroslava’s parents initially tried to dissuade her from telling her grandparents about her and Yana’s relationship. Eventually, though, they changed their minds, and Yaroslava ended up coming out to her grandmothers over the phone.
“[One of my grandmothers] took it really well. She said, ‘I’d been waiting for you to tell me.’ She came to visit, babysat our child. But my other grandmother was upset. One time, she lashed out and told me this isn’t my child,” said Yaroslava.
“She said, ‘Yana had her kid, now it’s your turn to have yours,’” said Yana. Eventually, the grandmother more or less came to accept Yaroslava’s family, but only after pressure from other relatives.
Yana was even younger when she first told her parents that she is gay.
“When I came out, I wasn’t even 16 years old yet. Afterward, I continued living with my parents, though our relationship was strained for the first two years. They were disappointed, they put pressure on me. They constantly rebuked me, saying this wasn’t me, and that it was upsetting to them. But over time, they accepted it, and now things are okay,” said Yana.
“Neither of us is from mega-LGBT-friendly families — nobody was waving rainbow flags around and saying, ‘We love you!’ Our parents had a hard time. But I’ve always maintained that if someone doesn’t like us, they don’t have to communicate with us. And they get that. And now they see that everything’s fine with us,” said Yaroslava.
She and Yana have dreamed of getting married for a while now, and they probably would have if it were possible in Russia. They eventually plan to tie the knot in Portugal, but the pandemic has forced them to put their plans on hold.
“We wanted to get married in 2017, but we didn’t manage to get all the documents together in time. We had a small child, everything was happening at once, and we had some financial issues,” said Yana.
“You have to get certificates from the registry office saying that you’re not married, then get them notarized, and then send them to Portugal. They check everything there, set a date, and then you travel there. Then they issue you a certificate with an apostille, but it’s only valid in countries where marriage and domestic partnerships are legal. We’d like to get married in Russia, but here we’re third-class citizens.” said Yaroslava.
Marriage is hardly the only aspect of life the Russian government makes difficult for LGBT people. According to Yana, the women are “constantly having to come up with ways to get around the system” — especially when it comes to motherhood.
“You’re constantly anxious because you feel like an outsider,” said Yaroslava. “We don’t count as a proper family. Since the pandemic began, we’ve just sat at home and hardly gone anywhere. If Yana gets sick, there won’t be anyone to watch our child. We don’t even know what we would do in that situation. She’s officially registered as his mom, but I’m not. We’ve read horror stories about how they send children to temporary detention facilities. So we’ve just sat at home. At one point, Yana and our child ended up in the hospital for three days, and I introduced myself to the security guard as Yana’s sister. That’s not a good feeling.”
“I can give Yaroslava power of attorney, but that’s not the same thing. Meanwhile, the children of literal drunks are playing in the garbage outside of our apartment, and that’s considered fine,” said Yana.
“So, despite that, I was there for my son’s birth, despite the fact that I’m raising him, I have no legal connection to him,” said Yaroslava.
Yana and Yaroslava don’t want to emigrate; Russia isn’t the easiest place for them to raise a child together, but it is their home. On the other hand, they know things might get worse, and they’re prepared to do whatever is necessary to keep their family intact.
“If things ever get really bad, we’ve talked about leaving Russia. We think about it periodically, and we know we need to be ready for it. A lot of people see emigration as a panacea, but there will still be discrimination abroad — only now it’ll be because we’re immigrants,” said Yana.
“The way we see it, there’s a point of no return. For example, if they pass a law in Russia that affects children in LGBT families and it pertains to us. In that case, we’ll gather our things and leave immediately, no questions asked. We’re not going to stay in Russia just because we were born here,” said Yaroslava.
Indeed, while things are tolerable now, the women can see which way the wind is blowing, and it’s not encouraging.
“There are all kinds of groups, like Male State, or Pozdnyakov and his comrades, who are bringing this all up. They haven’t affected us personally, but they’re applying pressure, and they go unpunished. And the story with VkusVill, when the harassment started… If they release data that can be used to identify you, the harassment starts immediately. These creatures — I can’t call them men — hate women, feminists, and LGBT people. And it’s practically encouraged by officials,” said Yaroslava.
“Luckily, Russian anti-LGBT laws haven’t directly affected us yet. And we haven’t experienced any direct aggression, even after the gay propaganda law,” said Yana.
To minimize risk, the moms keep their social circle pretty small. While their neighbors and families know about their relationship, they don’t feel much of a need to spend time with others and prefer when it’s just their family. According to Yaroslava, their main problem comes at bedtime.
“We sometimes stay up talking for way too long,” said Yaroslava. “I’m an introvert, and I usually don’t like talking to people, but I’m always happy to talk to Yana, and we never run out of things to talk about.”
“There’s no critical thinking, but people as a whole aren’t evil”
Not long ago, in the early aughts, things seemed to be looking up for LGBT people in Russia. According to Yaroslava, though, the rise in homophobia over the last decade is part of a centuries-old playbook.
“If you follow the story of Russia and the [Commonwealth of Independent States], you know people have always been oppressed by someone or other. For a long time it was serfdom, then the father tsar. And now, people subconsciously perceive Putin’s government as a tsar,” said Yaroslava.
“When our country was more neutral, nobody paid much attention to LGBT people. But when [the government] started telling people what to think and do, people listened,” said Yana.
“They also mess around with the facts,” said Yaroslava. “If they show [pride] parades, they only show men dressed up in skirts and heels and makeup — they don’t show ‘normal people.’ When they talk about us, they point to extremes and negative examples. They look for facts that haven’t been proven, and they stick them everywhere. And in Russia, unfortunately, that works.”
But as difficult as things are for lesbian couples in Russia, it seems to Yana and Yaroslava that gay men have it even worse.
“People generally expect less from women, demand less. And because of those same stereotypes, women are allowed to do more. They can be more masculine or more feminine, and they won’t be judged as harshly as a man who fails to conform to the established standards of masculinity. Plus, there’s still the stereotype that gay men are responsible for spreading AIDS.”
Even so, Yana and Yaroslava feel a need to hide their relationship, and that can be painful.
“Few people think our family is like other normal families. With the same emotions, relationships, and obligations. They only see us as sexualized objects. But it’s not even the stereotypes that bother me, it’s that there’s no way to hold people accountable for the things they say. It’s frustrating that people can insult LGBT people however they want, which can lead to real threats, and all of it will go unpunished and will be covered by the gay propaganda law,” said Yaroslava.
VkusVill’s decision to retract the ad featuring a lesbian couple was disheartening for many. But to Yaroslava, the fact that they even considered running it in the first place is a good sign.
“What happened with VkusVill shows that people here are slowly learning to think for themselves,” said Yaroslava. “Because there was quite a bit of support. And the more educated you are, the better able you are to think critically and understand things.”