Interview by Robyn Ochs
Polina Skibinskaya: I was born in Odessa, Ukraine, back when it was part of the Soviet Union. Odessa had a spirit similar to New York: it has its own slang, a rich dark comedy culture, and a sort of romanticized history of mafia wars. A person from Odessa can usually be spotted among Russians as easily as a New Yorker among Midwesterners.
I finished high school in Odessa, and a few months later we moved to the US. I lived in New York for 13 years, then moved to Toronto with my partner Kiran. After the heartbreak of being a left-winger in the US, Canada feels like such a relief, though of course it’s far from perfect.
I am in a committed open relationship (not a contradiction in terms) with a woman, and, in fact, have never had sex with a man. This doesn’t make me any less bisexual: I simply consider myself a partial virgin.
I’m 36; I run my own company, which deals with translation to and from Russian.
I also write original fiction and nonfiction, though not nearly as much as I’d like to. Two of my short stories have been published in hardcore gay male magazines (apparently lesbian-identified women are responsible for a huge amount of male-male porn!), and I recently became one of a very few women ever published on AfterElton.com when the site ran my article Death By Torchwood and the Rise of the Queer Superhero, which made a case for Torchwood’s vision of a future in which sexual diversity enjoys such matter-of-fact acceptance that labels that identify different types of sexuality have disappeared from use.
Robyn Ochs: OK, I’m already impressed! Polina, how did you come to identify as bi?
PS: I’ve gone through a few “phases.” When I first began trying to define what I was feeling, shortly after I moved to the US, I immediately started identifying as bisexual. But then I noticed all the negative connotations bisexuality carries in the United States. From the perspective of an embattled gay and lesbian community whose basic rights are constantly under attack, it seemed important to pick a side. I also saw female bisexuality in particular being used left and right as a cheap source of straight male titillation. The messages I was getting from all sides were that bisexuality was somehow suspect, that it was a character flaw.
Very quickly, I started identifying as a lesbian. Strangely enough, I reclaimed the bisexual label after I was already in a steady relationship with a woman— being in a committed relationship made me feel more secure with my sexuality, so even though I was with a woman (and, in fact, had never been with a man), I felt I could admit my attraction to men without feeling like a traitor to “The Cause.”
In 2004, my partner and I moved to Canada, where same-sex couples had enjoyed equal rights even before samesex marriage was legalized in 2005. Since the Canadian queer community is considerably less embattled than its US counterpart, there seems to be much less animosity towards bisexual people. There is still plenty of misunderstanding of what bisexuality actually is—but misunderstanding is much easier to deal with than animosity!
In an environment where being queer is not a big deal, labels seem much less important. Words like “gay,” “straight,” and even “bi,” have more to do with our ideological alliances than with what we actually feel. For the most part, sexuality seems far too complex to describe using just one simple word. In that sense, “bi” seems like a better option because at least it rejects the necessity of picking one of the two imaginary sides.
RO: Were you raised in any particular religion? If so, did this impact your coming out?
PS: I grew up in a completely atheist environment, so religion had no impact on my coming out process. The Soviet Union was officially atheist which, strangely, didn’t stop it from being homophobic and anti-Semitic.
RO: What can you tell us about the experience of being bisexual—or more generally LGBT—in the Soviet Union?
PS: Homosexuality was illegal in the Soviet Union until a couple of years after we left the country. Officially, homosexuality wasn’t discussed: the Soviet Union’s official position was much like that of Iran: homosexuality was seen as a symptom of Western decadence, and so was understood simply not to exist in Russia.
I was 17 and a late bloomer when I left, only beginning to consciously examine my sexuality. My journey didn’t really begin in earnest until I was in the US. Looking back, I remember a complete vacuum of discussion. I remember having crushes on some of the women in my mother’s circle of friends—a woman from her work, a sister of her friend. These women were unmarried and what I would now call “butch”: outspoken, brash, with a loud laugh, unapologetically taking up space in a room. I have no idea what their sexual orientation actually was. It was never discussed.
I remember only one time non-heterosexuality was discussed. Many of the women in my parents’ circle of friends worked in the same organization. At one of the parties, one of them mentioned their male coworker and his “husband.” I remember there was no animosity in the woman’s attitude towards the gay couple, though they were definitely the butt of a joke. I remember thinking that it must be hell to be a joke your whole life.
RO: What words are used to describe lesbian, gay, bi or nonheterosexual people in Russia? Are these words equivalent to their English counterparts, or do they have a different meaning?
PS: The official words for “lesbian” and “homosexual” are the same: “lesbianka” and “gomosexualist.” Back when I lived in Russia (up until the ‘90s), I never heard bisexuality mentioned in any context. The slang word for “homosexual” is “gomik,” which is the short version of “homosexual,” and the Russian word for “blue.” I don’t know if there’s a slang word for “lesbian.”
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a lot of audio plays (usually musicals) were released in Russia on vinyl, especially for kids. One of my favorite albums was called “The Blue Puppy,” about a blue puppy ostracized for his weird color by anyone on his island. I remember one particular song that went “Blue, blue, we don’t want to play with you.” Then the pirates attack the island, and the puppy saves the day, thus earning everyone’s love and respect.
I remember fiercely relating to the puppy, long before I knew that I was queer, or indeed that “blue” was slang for “gay.” It was years before I realized just how brave the album’s creators had been (even though now, I find the cliché of a queer character having to save the world to earn simple acceptance just a bit questionable).
The only other mentions of any non-heterosexual lifestyles I can remember were a poem that mentioned “homo” and “lesbo” as examples of seedy Western decadence, and a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I saw with my class. I didn’t know that at the time, but this was my first lesson in artistic responsibility. As far as I can remember the text of the play hadn’t been fiddled with—it had been translated into Russian, of course, but the events hadn’t been changed as far as I can tell. But the acting and the direction had completely changed the tone of the play into a homophobic diatribe. This was years before I saw any other versions of the play, but even back then, as I goofed around with my friends, I remember feeling extremely bothered by the play and having no idea why.
RO: Your partner, Kiran Mehdee, has an excellent piece in the Getting Bi anthology. Tell us about how you met Kiran, and your relationship with her. You live in a country with marriage equality—have you and Kiran chosen to marry?
PS: Kiran and I first met on an Internet board dedicated to the US version of Queer as Folk. We bonded over our shared frustration over the show. We had so much in common that one person accused us of being the same person! Since we were both living in New York at the time, we met up, along with a few other members of the board, and connected right away.
Very quickly, we were spending most of our free time together, sleeping over at each other’s apartments or spending all night talking on the phone. This went on for about a year before we actually became a couple! When we told our mutual friends that we were together, their reaction was, “Wait, you weren’t together before?”
I feel like knowing Kiran has made my world bigger. We grew up in such different worlds, had completely different experiences, underwent two completely different sets of indoctrination—and yet we somehow arrived at such similar spiritual and ideological places. She’s constantly teaching me new things about the world and about myself. And we have great adventures together!
One of the things that had originally attracted us to each other was our near-identical attitude towards marriage. We both grew up with mistrust of the institution of marriage. We both see it as a financial contract that has very little to do with emotions or commitment. In Canada, couples who have lived together for at least a year are considered to be common-law married, regardless of sexuality, and common-law couples have pretty much the same rights and responsibilities as couples with a marriage license. They are treated the same when it comes to immigration, taxes, ownership, etc. (In fact, the common-law definition extended to same-sex couples even before same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada.) If in the future a situation comes up when it’s more beneficial to be married, we’ll reconsider.
RO: In a previous conversation, you mentioned that you have been researching the Canadian sexuality-based refugee system, and finding significant bias against people who identify as bisexual. Can you tell us what you have learned?
PS: Bisexuality is still grossly misunderstood, even in a relatively progressive country like Canada. While socially this doesn’t seem to be a big issue since most Canadians are generally more accepting of queer sexualities, when it comes to official decisions, this can sometimes lead to terrible consequences. I’ve written a few articles about the Canadian refugee system, based on research and experience. But as my personal definition of my own sexuality evolved, I realized that all my information dealt only with gay- and lesbian-identified refugee claimants, and that I hadn’t come across any mention of bisexuality as basis for a refugee claim.
I went to a talk by Sean Rehaag, Assistant Professor at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, and Tamara Vukov, Post-Doctoral Fellow of Communications and Media Studies at McGill University. Along with Viviane Namaste, Associate Professor at Concordia University, they are studying the treatment of bisexuals and attitudes towards bisexuality by Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board. At the time of the talk, they were just completing the data gathering stage of the project, in which they had gone through thousands of case materials and judicial decisions regarding bisexually-identified refugee claimants, and were starting the analysis phase.
They presented statistics and quotes from various judicial decisions. According to statistics, between 2004 and 2007, more than 50% of gay and lesbian refugee claims were approved (as compared to just under 50% of claims based on other factors), but only a little over 30% of bisexual claims were approved in the same period.
Quotes from judges’ decisions illustrate why bisexual claimants are so often rejected.
Bisexuality seems to be constantly misinterpreted as a temporary “phase” a person goes through until he or she finds a mate and “commits” to one or the other sexuality. One judge wonders why a male claimant “still” considers himself bisexual when he is in a committed relationship with another man.
There’s also an expectation that a bisexual person must be involved with people of both genders at the same time; otherwise that person is not really bisexual. Several quotes from judges show that they are suspicious of the fact that the claimant hasn’t participated in a same-sex relationship lately. One judge writes, “The claimant [has not] established his identity as a bi-sexual person. There is evidence that he is heterosexual. The claimant testified he has not had any homosexual relationships in Canada.”
(In fact, any reference to an opposite-sex relationship can cause a judge to deny a refugee claim. This also goes for gay- and lesbian-identified claimants. It’s very sad considering that in many countries, people are forced into marriages regardless of their sexuality or opinion, and those are usually the countries where queer people are most in danger of persecution.)
Perhaps most cruelly, bisexuality is often seen as an escape route from homophobic persecution in the claimant’s native country. Some judges have a hard time understanding why the bisexual-identified claimant doesn’t simply stick with the opposite sex and avoid homophobic persecution in his or her native country. This quote from a judge broke my heart: “There was some discussion whether the claimant could live safely in Pakistan as he had in Canada: that is to say, by marrying a woman and satisfying his need for male partners clandestinely. Counsel remonstrated against this argument. If the claimant claimed to be homosexual and not bisexual, I might have agreed with counsel. As he is self-described as bisexual and not homosexual, I do not.”
RO: Unfortunately, judges can be as misinformed as anyone else. But their judgments have greater consequences. Are steps being taken to address this inequality?
PS: Hopefully this study will result in a serious overhaul of the refugee system’s treatment of bisexual-identified people. Canada’s official attitudes towards bisexuality lag behind the much more progressive personal attitudes—and I think they will unavoidably catch up, though in the meantime, all this misunderstanding over artificial concepts and labels is putting very real people in great danger.
RO: Polina, thank you for your time. I look forward to meeting you and Kiran in person some day!