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Gay Families In Ukraine

Victor is not young, Nikolai is twenty something, which of course is out-of-the-way: usually partners’ age does not differ a lot, but their case is just what they need. In fact it was this fact that helped guys explain their cohabitation to the curious old ladies in the neighborhood who are notorious for never letting anyone pass by without subjecting them to a thorough discussion.

Taking Victor and Nikolai as an example, I felt like disclosing the difference between a gay family and an ordinary one. And the difference proved to be just of a notional nature. The same joys and sorrows that the majority of our citizens go through. The same burden of problems: to get oneself warmed, to get enough food, to survive.

Sadly, Victor has lost his job recently when the enterprise where he had worked went broke. Nikolai holds a job at a computer center at a once-powerful defense plant. Currently the plant is scraping along and so the paychecks are scanty and long overdue. In cold weather, the temperature indoors falls to zero and even the computer seems to get frozen and slow down. Fingers get stiff as soon as after ten minutes of such a monotonous, immobile work and have hard time hitting the right keys.

Summer makes days easier to endure, no need to think what to busy oneself with. A plot of land, which gives provisions, calls for work. In the winter – just four walls of the apartment, TV, rare meetings with friends and each other's company. As a whole, it feels boring, at night it's cold and dark in this hick town’s streets.

Victor and Nikolai have been living as a couple for two years and a half. Their apartment does not stand out among other dwellings built as far back as the early 60s. The wall is graced with an embroidered portrait of the Ukrainian poet Shevchenko – a gift from Nikolai's mother. On the wardrobe there are toy houses made of match sticks – conceived of and made by their best female friend Vera. The sills are lined with flower pots, and plants are taken care of with thoughtfulness and expertise.

Victor is not young, Nikolai is twenty something, which of course is out-of-the-way: usually partners’ age does not differ a lot, but their case is just what they need. In fact it was this fact that helped guys explain their cohabitation to the curious old ladies in the neighborhood who are notorious for never letting anyone pass by without subjecting them to a thorough discussion. And so those gave their own explanation of Nikolai’s appearance – he is Victor’s natural child. So it was accepted: supposedly they are a father and a son, or close relatives, to put it shortly.

Either of them had his own path leading to this family. Victor’s life was hard – constant yearning for happiness, which, being a wanton fellow, allowed just a fleeting taste of itself – to run away right off, just like time does, pouring through the fingers, like sand.

The whole of his childhood was next to a nightmare. Brutally cruel stepfather worked off his dissatisfaction with life on the little Victor, beating him up until he lost consciousness, beating with fists or sticks before the eyes of the silent and submissive family… The boy endured the atrocities now with tears, now with escapes from home – and sometimes with losing consciousness – drawing ever closer to the edge of the abyss. He was lonely in the family, feeling unneeded. The constant atmosphere in the home was that of tension and scare. And so one day, after a fresh beating up the young man felt aversion to life and turned to pills… But this world did not let him go and thus had him carry this excruciating burden of fate on…

Probably the only joy of childhood years were the visits of his cousin for summer holidays. They hit it off right away and Victor developed a sort of affection toward his smart peer. At school he also started to eye the boys, not being able to explain his feelings to himself…

In the process of growing up the images of boys flooded the teenager’s mind with increasing intensity, he was feasting his eyes on their forms in shower rooms, and it cost him much trouble to keep in check his desire to touch their lovely bodies. And eventually this did happen. His roommate in the college hostel returned his touch. Probably that boy had also been waiting for this moment for long. At last Victor came to know what it meant to be loved, respected and understood. It seemed to be the first happiness in the life of the young man…

College years over, the boys had to part, being sent to different towns. For our hero it was the first pain of separation with the beloved. And not the last, unfortunately. It was only then that he realized that he was different from everybody else. But why? How to live on? – these questions were left unanswered. Victor’s heart was different to girls. It was longing for another, genuine love.

Now that I am writing this, while re-reading Victor’s autobiographic story titled «Delusive Happiness», before my eyes appear the person’s soul, impulses and longings, his passion of love, his affection for one, then another boy, those that were unrequited and those that brought about a storm of emotions, inspiration to live and to treasure his friend’s closeness, his kindness, warmth and exaltation… But as ill fate would have it – each time all of this got broken up… The hearts that had started beating in unison, got separated by circumstances, time or death… And the same pattern of destiny decade after decade…

My words sound dry – just a statement of facts. The man’s life consisted of instants of happiness or minutes of sadness, or hours of tragedies which grew into months, years, the lifetime. Each one has a destiny of his own, and some have the bigger percentage of joy, while others – quite the reverse. And even philosophers fail to explain this fact.

As Victor was growing up it became increasingly more difficult to watch his friends lead an orderly family life. He also longed for household warmth, wished to take care of somebody, to be needed. Getting from time to time to a large city, he started to purposefully seek out guys like himself. But if such encounters did occur, those were just one-night stands that only helped take the tension off the body but did not fill the soul with warmth.

«Such a notion as two boys living together just did not exist. Information was absent and we also were absent, he says. – In 1978 one of my colleagues, having come from Kiev, revealed to me in a whisper that there is a place in Kreschatik (the capital’s main avenue) where «gays» were hanging out. I did not dare to ask who «gays» were, I did not know what this word meant but as the conversation went on I finally got the hang of it». Later he heard from kievites that in the late 70s, when such contacts were still illegal, gays also met in Kosior park near the public bathroom. But the police found out and started sending stooges to the place after which everyone was imprisoned.

The thought of the necessity to change himself and to start a family – and thus a new, if strange, life – haunted him persistently. Once he was introduced to a girl who took a fancy to him, and they made friends. Victor felt he was doing something wrong but was hesitant about breaking up this chain of events. He was still harboring the hope that everything will change for the better. The wedding party passed as if in a haze, to be followed by hoards of family problems in which he found himself caught. But only for the time being. The thought that he had made a mistake and thus had rendered another person unhappy, was haunting him with increasing intensity. Can a family exist without feelings? Can it be based on duties alone? Even the birth of a daughter failed to change the state of affaires. A year later his wife packed up her things and left. There was just one feeling in the man’s heart – that of bitter loneliness. And it came to stay for more long years.

Then the time came when the literature of the sexual nature started to appear. "Once I went to Dnepropetrovsk where I came across a gay article in the Fortune newspaper. I was almost 40 but it was for the first time in my life that I was holding such a material in my hands. I kept coming up to the stall and going away, fearful of "exposing " myself – for I had never publicly displayed that peculiarity of mine. Finally I did buy the paper. While I was doing this I had a feeling that everyone was staring at me as if I was a criminal. I read that article over and over again until I knew it by heart – that much important was the information for me. And later other publications followed: The SPID (AIDS) info and others".

With time the ads of gays seeking contacts started appearing in regular press. It was through one of such ads that Victor got acquainted with a group of gays in a large neighboring city. Victor recollects: "The age range was from boys to elders. We spent the whole evening in a cafe, and I could not make myself leave. We were chatting about everything while shunning the gay subject. We felt shy before each other even though we all knew who was who. We had no experience. Still it felt so good – to have like-minded people around!"

Someone of the company expressed an idea that it would be great to meet more often, to celebrate holidays and birthdays together, Then the desire was born to set up a group, to involve other people. Each of us had acquaintances of his own and so it was decided to collect all addresses and to share this idea. Victor, as the oldest one in the group, was asked to be in charge. He agreed and some time later he started receiving letters with requests from men to introduce them to others, and so the contact service for gays came to life. Gradually it extended beyond the regional scope and included the whole of Ukraine. It grew from a dozen addresses at the beginning to thousands at the moment.

Victor demonstrates the neatly arranged index-card and tells about the contact service: "Sometimes pretty funny letters come. Once I opened an envelope and a slip of paper dropped out of it. First I did not pay any attention to it, but later it turned out to be a measure of the author’s penis… Another correspondent writes that he wants to meet a well-off man who has his own dwelling and a car. I answered him with just a couple of words: And don’t you need a human being?

But the biggest part of letters are from those who are genuine about finding a friend or a beloved. The basic features of such letters are openness and kindheartedness. There are no any age limits here. Letters come from boys and from gray-haired men. They give you the feeling of loneliness, pain and despair. This category is nothing other than the soul’s agonizing cry.

Another, smaller category of letters, are from those seeking rich sponsors and protectors. And here the age range is distinct – from 18 through 25. But is there anyone who would believe in "love" or "eternal friendship" of these correspondents? What kind of "love" is this if these people are willing to sell themselves for a penny, figuratively speaking.

The third group is the smallest. These letters are from the men who wish to find an Apollo, an angel-looking dandy. As a rule, an author of such a letter is obsessed with his ideal while ignoring everybody else around him – to end up with crushed hopes in the long run. I genuinely feel sorry for them.

Sadly, there also have been negative messages – sometimes people are unfair, ill-meaning and ungrateful. Victor sorrowfully recollects the lines from one of such letters: "I know the purpose of such contact services for gays is to entice young boys into one's bed and enjoy oneself". Had this person a moral right to say such things? It is so easy to fling mud at others... Life is like this...

With his disinterested activity Victor strove to make others happy, trying to give them that which he himself had in his life only fragmentarily. And people met, and now they live in pairs in Kiev, Zaporozhie, Zhitomir and doubtless in other places as well. Many invite him to be their guest, but it is hard to hit the road now, even if the invitation comes from those who sincerely respect you and will surely give you a piece of their love.

* * *

Now we are going to listen to Nikolai. Everything was different for him. Easier and faster.As recently as two years back he was a diligent student of the Kiev University and did not entertain thoughts about "this stuff". In his own words he would give a read to the ads dealing with "male friendship" but failed to realize he was a gay himself. "I tried to think of girls, wedding – but thoughts kept switching to guys. So one day I chose a few ads from papers and wrote the letters.

At the time of getting my degree I received Victor’s reply. We met twice and a week later I moved in with him. It was not until this moment that I finally realized I was gay. This thought was a kind of shocking experience, but it was this that gave me the nerve to settle everything at one go.

* * *

And so I am the guys’ guest. We are drinking tea and talking about life.
Andriy: You’ve been living together for over two years now. Do you still feel love or your cohabitation has grown into the habit?
Nikolai: We’ve got differing characters and if it were not for love, we’d not be able to live together… It is rather a necessity than a habit. Should we live separately, we’d suffer from loneliness in a greater degree than we do now from some petty everyday problems which are an inevitable attribute of every couple’s life.
Andriy: Is there a leader and a led one in your family?
Victor: I guess not.
Andriy: Do rows occur often?
Nikolai: It differs. Sometimes three times a day, at other times – once in three days. This time – vehemently, another time – jokingly.
During our talk Nikolai was speaking Ukrainian and Victor – Russian. And so I asked in what language they prefer to communicate with each other.
Nikolai: We use the cross between the two. By the way, sometimes we can argue about the correct name of this or that.
Andriy: And what about jealousy?
Victor: We know a couple of two men, one of whom, Andrei, is 30 and another, Sasha, is 50. They live in a village, occupying themselves with farming, and they complement each other perfectly. On weekends they go to Kiev by turns to have a good time. Once I asked Sasha: "Aren’t you apprehensive of letting Andrei go there? He is young while you are not…" And he answered that if Andrei feels like that, he will leave him anyway, you cannot give orders to the heart.
This feeling of jealousy is beyond my understanding too. I view it as distrust. Jealousy is not love.
Andriy: How do you think the problems of a gay family differ from those that the "traditional" couple experiences?
Victor: There is practically no any difference. The same material hardships and everyday conflicts. The only difference is that a man and a woman have additional problems of childraising.
Andriy: Is it much trouble to live as a gay couple in terms of dealing with the people around, relatives, neighbors?
Nikolai: Problems do arise, especially in such small towns as ours. We have to devise something… My mother did not grasped the reason why I had left Kiev and come here. While I am still young the question concerning my abstaining from marriage is not so acute. But what will be in a few years? I won’t know what to tell her, and I won’t have guts to tell the truth. I am afraid she can find out by chance and I am not sure she’ll be able to live through this. And Victor’s mother is in the know, we communicate with her.
When people find out you are gay, they come to understand it's not that terrible.
Victor: My mother is an ordinary woman. Once I came up to her and explained everything. She asked: "And what does it mean?" It took me half an hour to go into details.
Andriy: Suppose gay marriages or, say partnership, become legal – would you get your relationship registered?
Victor, Nikolai: No, we don't fancy the idea of being mavericks. Our society is not yet ready for that. It's better to be a dead crow than a white one.
We started talking about their acquaintances and it turned out they have few close friends who are gay.
Nikolai: Our best friend is Vera. Incidentally, she is a lesbian. We see each other almost daily. She is a very kind person, she helps us around the house, bakes wonderful cakes for us. Certainly it feels somewhat boring to be without good gay friends in your town, but we've got a lot of hetero friends. They are fun to have around too.
Victor: Regrettably, in the gay community you often come across envy and womanish behavior – just like in a female company. It puts me off to hear men address each other in feminine gender.
If you take a look at ordinary boys, you see that they inevitably glamorize strength and power, and fights are usual among them. While gays – as soon as things are starting to heat up, either try to smooth them out or to beat it before the fight breaks up.
Andriy: I think heterosexual men should also strive to suppress aggressive "animal" instincts in themselves, for physical strength is not the best means of solving problems – from the society's point of view. But probably this is an innate quality in us. I've noticed we all are afraid of open aggression and gross power.
But I guess it is not to be denied that feminine behavior, a "toilet" element is part of our medium and subculture. Some people get a charge out of risky situations. In America they hold debates: it is to be safeguarded, it is sacred...
Victor: Here everything started with public bathrooms too, since there were no other possibilities and places to find partners, there were no any other ways-out. Everything was forbidden and persecuted, and the situation is different now. We should abstain from shocking the society and try to get rid of this stuff. Otherwise we'll carry this stigma on and on.
Andriy: What do you think, how will the life of gays change in the future?
Victor: There will not be radical changes in the immediate future. The attitude of the society toward gays will be undergoing gradual transformation, and the number of open gays will be gradually on the rise. The society will change its attitude when the new generation grows up.
Of great significance is also the economic situation. As long as people are embittered by material problems, they'll be irritated by everything that traditionally gets on their nerves.

* * *

Over the last two years Victor has been experiencing a kind of second youth – probably as a reward for all the pain he suffered in the past. He and Nikolai live, like many other Ukrainians, finding little joys in cheerless and boring everyday life. They live as a couple in silent love and mutual understanding, in the comfort of their home as an ordinary, undistinguished gay family. They live in a famed historic center of Ukraine on the bank of the powerful Dnieper, in the hometown of the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.

• Andriy Maymun

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