An American Lesbian in Central Asia–Interview and Personal Commentary

American Lesbian(AL): Dear GlobalGayz, I found your stories about Afghanistan to be of interest because I myself spent the past year living in Central Asia and have observed similar homoerotic behavior among my Central Asian (male) roommates. I also was many times at loss between what constituted as play, bullying, and true homoeroticism. I believe that since my roommates knew of my lesbianism, they felt freer to exhibit such behavior and it was for them both a kind of tribute to me and a bit of fun for them.

I will note that in my experience a similar type behavior can exist between close female friends as well. However, I really must emphasize the dangers of our western cultural labeling. I have also observed here that homosexuality is something ‘western’ and therefore okay for westerners but not acceptable for them, and that in their minds “a man can fuck another man but be perfectly normal” because its a question of power, bravery, sexual-prowess and not an issue of sexual orientation.

So I think that it’s important to look at the motivation in these instances and to examine not just sexual behavior but the intermingling of sexual behavior and relationships and the cultural concepts that define these. Thank you very much for your thoughtful message about the cultural/sexual issues of central Asia. I agree about the complexities of sexual/erotic behavior that are misconstrued by western categories and reporting. (I believe there is an another article on the Gay Afghanistan News & Reports page that addresses this issue.) As for your own experience as an out lesbian in those cultures I invite you to write a commentary based on observations/hearsay that you encountered there. Thoughtful writing about Central Asian lesbian Muslim erotic attractions is rare and I invite you to compose something that I can post for others to read.

Al: Thank you for your invitation. I have cobbled together some thoughts and here is my report. However, I can by no means say that I know something about being a Central Asian Lesbian. I can however say that I do know something of what it means to be an American lesbian in Central Asia, as I had lived there for three years and was open to all my dearest friends. So this essay should not be taken as a definitive truth but as a brief glimpse at a secret and evasive world.

Ironic as it may seem, I found more support for my sexuality in Central Asia than I ever did in the United States. I attribute this to the fact that I developed a network of tried and true friends- the majority who were straight- who took my “sexual abnormality” as just another character aspect of that quirky American. One (male) friend told me, in an affectionate joking style “I have never met a lesbian but if all lesbians are as you, then I also want to be a lesbian.” The implications of this statement being, he had previously never considered that a lesbian was someone you could trust and respect.

My lesbianess enables me a level of entry into the male side of a world where gender roles are strictly divided. Being biologically female I couldn’t completely cross over but I was allowed certain freedoms that in America we take as the normal intermingling of the sexes. This was even vocalized in one (male) friend who affectionately nicknamed me “boy-girl” and another (male) acquaintance, who sometimes jokingly and sometimes disparagingly, insisted on using neuter nouns and adjectives in reference to me. (Russian uses a gendered grammar) Other times I was hit by stark reminders that I was “only a girl” such as when a man refused to shake hands with me or when I was required to play hostess.

One of the most outward shows of support was when a man let me on a supposedly guys-only secret, that was, online hook-ups, commenting now you can find yourself a girl. Browsing this sight I found a large number of advertised “bisexuals”, a small number of men seeking men, and an even lesser number of women seeking women. These bisexuals I quickly struck from my list because they were more likely to be prostitutes (paid and unpaid) and I was looking for a good wholesome girl. I found one, but instead of becoming a lover, she became my very dear friend.

I will talk briefly here about our relationship because I feel that it illustrates some important points in views on homosexuality and homosexual behavior. This girl was a colleague of mine and I had set her up with a (male) friend whom she eventually began dating. As our friendship deepened I decided to come out to her. As she was the first female in Central Asia that I had come out to I was quite nervous. “I’m a lesbian”, I said. She looked at me as if I had just stated the most obvious fact in the world and replied, much to my amazement “I am too.”

Dumbfounded I began to seek for clarification. She had kissed women and even shared a man with one. However, I quickly learned that there was something different about her understanding of lesbianism than mine. She frequently said, “Let’s give up men and just love one another. Women never hurt each other. It is the men who hurt us.”

With this she hit upon the most essential point: the polarization and self-containment of gender into two very separate worlds. What women do in their own world (here) is of very little consequence to men and vise versa except in the instance that occurrences in the one upset the balance of the other.

I learned quickly that this is a culture of touch: Women would hold me and stroke my hair. They would sleep with me and cuddle me. They would even kiss me on my cheeks, my face, my neck and tug on my breasts. This action to them held no eros, only pure affection. The most extreme example was when an older woman grabbed me by my crotch, tugging a bit, and exclaimed “Ah! My daughter!” I was shocked but it was apparent she wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary.

Behind all this however, was a gay scene. I could go to the local gay bar. It was pretty pricey and therefore only attracted well-off local men and foreigners. However, on World AIDS Day, this bar sponsored a free educational event geared for gay men and prostitutes. It was “by invitation only” and closed to the public. I was surprised to see such a diverse crowd that included not only sex workers and drag queens but NGO workers and local university students.

It was at this bar that I heard the following tale: In a village, in the South, there were two girls. No one ever considered they were more than very close friends until one of the girls was stolen. Bride stealing, although illegal, is still an accepted tradition. The other girl lost her mind and it came out, scandalously, that they were lesbians and very much in love.

This story, to whatever extent that it is true or false, demonstrates the difficulties of being both a woman and of loving women in a world where society’s tradition is more powerful than the will of the individual. I also heard tell of a man in the village where I lived who really wasn’t a man at all but a woman. “I know,” the teller said, “because she was in my first-grade class. She was a girl and then one day she was a boy”.

From my observations, the most difficult part of gay life in Central Asia is the lack of self-awareness. Homosexuality itself is not well defined and each homosexual thinks that he or she is “abnormal”, not knowing that their point of reference for normalcy has been skewed by a lack of knowledge.

GlobalGayz: You said, ” the polarization and self-containment of gender into two very separate worlds. What women do in their own world is of very little consequence to men…They would even kiss me on my cheeks, my face, my neck and tug on my breasts. This action to them held no eros, only pure affection… ” This behavior appears to be both full of delight and ignorance at the same time. The de-sexualization of touch and caress; physical intimacy without the overlay of genital arousal, which we seem to have been lost here in the west.

Yet, one might well imagine a deeper erotic/emotional desire within these women who are often considered property, procreative baby-ovens and momentary libido reducers for men and separated from the male world of privilege and independence. Did you sense an occasional couple of women ‘crossed over’ the cultural boundary to actually be somewhat-lover with one another? Or were they so bound up by culture they really had no idea of lesbian romantic intimacy? ( I realize we may be talking about two different sets of women: rural uneducated women and urban ‘high-rise’ women?)

Al: Well, to answer your question, this friend of mine I spoke of in the essay was well aware of the cross over and actually used her teasing with me (calling me wife, for example) to keep her boyfriend’s eyes on her. Men do become jealous when women seem to only need one another. (Really I do wonder how this plays out in a harem) Once, in jest, he swore at her “Poshol na hoi”. It means “fuck youself” but literally it is “go onto the dick” and so he was answered, also in jest, “Your dick isn’t necessary to me”. He found the implications of that small humor unsettling and this gave her leverage.

So yes, your thinking is on target. Not to perpetuate stereotypes, but I have found that Russian women value eroticism and sexuality (and they are valued for such) whereas ‘Muslim’ women value (and are valued for) their chastity. So this woman was a Russian who loved and respected Muslim culture…

I must say that it isn’t their Muslim lense per say but that, first, the culture is very practical: relationships, even heterosexual ones, are based more on economics than on love; secondly, I never met a woman there whom I considered lesbian… only perhaps bi-curious. Were I to have met lesbians who were out to themselves and others my perception might be totally changed.

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