Russia | School Program
I was an AFS exchange student to Russia. I was sixteen years old and I’m lesbian. I knew that Russia was considered more homophobic – on what scale? How to quantify hate? – than where I lived. But I thought that if the topic ever came up, I could be “straight passing”. As a girl growing up in the heteronormative society of Western Europe I knew how to agree that a boy was attractive. Honestly, I didn’t think about it a lot, because I was going to go to Russia, learn Russian, and live with a host family, and I had to consider what clothes to pack, which dictionary to take, and many other things. I wasn’t looking to fall in love. I hoped to not embarrass myself too much and I wished my host family would like the chocolate I brought with me.
I fell in love anyway. I fell in love with Russia, and her people. I made friends with a group of queer girls in my class who didn’t speak much English but made sure to repeat sentences as look as it took me to understand. I was able to talk openly about sexuality. My host sister told me that she thinks homosexual love is natural. Normal. I never asked my host parents about their thoughts, but I gave a pin with a picture of two girls holding hands to my host sister and she wore it at home.
While queer love in Russia is often something that can only be shared among friends, it is shared and treasured among friends. It is my belief that in time everyone in Russia will be free to love. I have experienced it and know that there is hope, despite the homophobic laws Russia still has. I grieve the murdered queer people in Chechnya and everywhere in Russia.
During my exchange, I learned many things about the world and myself (yes, also Russian). And coming back I learned even more. Phrases I heard in Russia that I thought to be sexist and homophobic, I also heard in my home country in the same tone of voice. Such as the fact that a girl and a boy cannot simply be friends, they must be dating. Or that yes, gay people are tolerated, if they keep quiet and don’t show any rainbows. Now I know what I experienced then is Reverse Culture Shock.
I don’t think sanctions will help. Sanctions lead to exclusion leads to isolation. In 1996, Russia stopped the death penalty to join the Council of Europe. Russia is not a member of this council in 2022, but I sincerely hope that Russia will be a part of it again, and that the world will know peace. It is easy to destroy something, but it takes a long time to create. AFS is dedicated to peace and I was an AFS student in Russia. Russia is my second home. I know Russia is not perfect, I know it will be a long road towards human rights. But I know it’s possible.