Low Awareness Shelters Russia's Lesbian Moms
Overall, society's ignorance has been a blessing for Irina, a 41-year-old lesbian mother of two.
Several years ago, the English-language teacher left her second husband and set up house in Moscow with her female lover and her two teenage daughters. Her lover shared in the parenting and developed a close relationship with her children.
But thanks to Russia's low awareness of lesbians, Irina had little reason to worry about discrimination. Even when her lover went to borrow sugar from the neighbors, "they never asked me questions or gave me queer looks," she said, adding that the neighbors probably just assumed her live-in lover was a guest.
Ignorance also helps lesbian mothers in Russia who must deal with school or government officials.
"A single mother can wear a banner," Irina said gesturing to indicate a banner across her chest. "'Single Mother -- Two Kids.' It never occurs to any official that you are a lesbian."
Although Irina hasn't actually experienced discrimination, she, like many lesbians in Russia, is reluctant to be fully identified because she still fears it.
Motherhood is an issue that has been divisive in some lesbian communities, Germany for example. But in Russia, lesbians with children are not stigmatized, said Kate Griffin, a lesbian mother who lives in Moscow with her partner.
Griffin, a Briton, is the co-editor of "Lesbian Motherhood in Europe," a book that is part narrative and part a series of country profiles about lesbian parenting across Europe. She did most of the interviews for the book in Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium, before arriving in Russia, where she was able to do one interview before the book was sent to press.
Patterns of motherhood in Russia's lesbian community mirror the situation in the straight community, with the majority of lesbians, especially those over 30, also being mothers, said Yevgenia Debryanskaya, a mother of two boys who, until recently, was co-director of the Triangle Association, a now-defunct advocacy group for gay and lesbian rights.
When it was still in operation, Triangle organized a seminar in which lesbians shared experiences and lawyers advised women of their legal rights as single mothers in Russia.
Theoretically, Russian laws are quite favorable for lesbians, giving them more freedom than they have in other Western European countries, Griffin said. For example, when women apply for benefits or sign the birth registry, they don't have to name the father of their children, as they must in England, where the law is designed to track down absent fathers and make them pay child support.
Sometimes it's difficult for Western lesbian mothers-to-be to find men who are willing to be named. And then once they do name them, mothers have to bear in mind the men's situation, which impinges on their freedom, Griffin said.
Lesbian parents face many of the same problems straight parents face. When Griffin moved to Moscow with her lover, her then-7-year-old daughter, Alba, refused to come, preferring to stay in England with her father.
"When she first met [my partner], she was insanely jealous. She perceived it as a threat to her relationship with me," Griffin said. Later, on Alba's first visit to Russia during school holidays, she and Griffin's lover became friends.
Irina's daughters seemed to handle the situation of mom having a female partner quite well from the beginning. Although Irina said she had a very open relationship with her daughters about sex, "still they did not realize that mom could have a relationship with a woman," she said.
But after introducing her lover to her teenage daughters, the girls seemed to think, "If mom doesn't mind, why should we?"
While her daughters never asked her directly about her relationship, they developed a close relationship with her partner, often discussing things with her before taking them to Mom, Irina said.
One problem that lesbian mothers both in Russia and in the West have is that of being inadvertently "outed" by their children, who are too young to know better.
But Irina said by the time she became a lesbian -- after one sometimes-violent marriage, six abortions and a sexless marriage -- her daughters were old enough that she wasn't afraid of them blurting something out to the wrong person about her lover, "although it was implied that they should not talk openly about it in school," Irina said.
While many Russian women are pressured into marriages at a young age, perhaps before they discover their true sexual preferences, having children gave Irina the emotional independence to find what she considers her true sexual preference.
"Before, I felt because of the pressure from parents that it was my responsibility to bear kids, otherwise I would not be a worthwhile person," she said. "Then I realized that I had paid my debt as a woman. And they liberated me a little bit because I could provide for them," she added.
Obviously, one of the major problems for lesbians who want children is how to go about getting them. There is some interest in artificial insemination, but the cost is prohibitive for most Russians, Griffin and Debryanskaya said. More often, Russian lesbians have their children the natural way, Debryanskaya said.
When Griffin and her partner were considering options for getting pregnant they looked into artificial insemination at the European Medical Centre.
"They advised us to save our money and do it the old-fashioned way, if the partners could handle it," Griffin said.
Griffin said she has never heard of any lesbians trying to adopt a child, although technically this is not illegal in Russia.
One question often asked of lesbian moms is whether the children will grow up to be gay or lesbian.
Irina said her 16-year-old daughter is already experiencing the turmoils of dating teenage boys and her younger daughter hasn't started dating yet, but at least her daughters won't grow up ignorant of the lifestyle choices that are possible.
"If they see this option and choose this option later in life, that's good," Irina said. "They have better options than I had in my time."
© The Moscow Times
October 15, 1997