In Russia, communism fell but homophobia didnt… …so gay immigrants are welcomed by queer Israel

Only a few months ago, six, maybe seven people showed up for the first Russian-speaking support group offered by the Agudah, Israel's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights organization.

Now, the Tel Aviv meeting room is filled to capacity, with roughly 60 people showing up each Sunday. The overwhelming interest cannot be attributed to advertising, though, because there was next to none.

"It was all word of mouth," Dmitry Royfeld explained through a Hebrew translator, in an interview at the Agudah's community center.

The 27-year-old, who has been living in Israel for seven years, knew he was goluboy — the Russian slang for gay, which literally means "light blue" — by age 14. But it was little more than self-acknowledgment: Under Soviet communism, homosexuality was criminalized.

In terms of being "out" in Israel, Royfeld has many opportunities that he wouldn't have in Moscow. For instance, he recently changed his family name, Bronfeld, and adopted this new last name to share with his boyfriend of one year, Sasha. And though his sexual preference can no longer land him in jail, even in the new Russia, homophobia is far more visible than any gay community.

"There is no Gay Pride day or parade in Russia and no special events," Royfeld said. "There are quite a few gay places there, but the state does not have a very positive attitude toward the matter.

"Here in Israel, there is a different atmosphere," he emphasized, citing the active presence of the Agudah. "This group helps us come out." (The Open House, the LGBT community center in Jerusalem, had steady gatherings of Russian olim until recently, and CLAF: Community of Feminist Lesbians, also based in Tel Aviv, offers a group for women only.)

Adi Kuntsman, a graduate student of sociology and anthropology at Hebrew University, agrees with Royfeld that all things queer are rejected by their native culture.

Kuntsman emigrated from Russia more than 10 years ago in the wave following communism's collapse. Before coming to Israel, it didn't occur to her to define herself as lesbian, even though she had fallen for women and was intimate with one.

"Lesbians don't really exist in Russian culture. They don't exist in literature or art. No one talks about them. They're mute and invisible," she said.

But after making aliyah, Kuntsman underwent a transformation. Integrating into Israeli culture not only enabled her to come out, but to become radicalized.

Before she moved to Ramat Aviv with her family and later Jerusalem on her own, Kuntsman simply thought of herself as a Russiyot, or Russian woman. But since finding the Jerusalem Open House and now CLAF, she shaved her head, proudly assumed the identities of butch lesbian and militant feminist, and adopted the name Adi — a gender-ambiguous alternative to her feminine appellation, Anna.

Not surprisingly, her outward gender expression and outspoken political ideologies are not readily accepted by either olim or sabras. Kuntsman therefore has little involvement with the Russian community and participates primarily in Israel's activist, academic and lesbian circles.

"Many Russians [here] are homophobic, butch-phobic — Russians have an especially hard time dealing with my butch appearance — and of course, feminism is a no-no for them," Kuntsman said.

Additionally, most "are on the right, some are in the middle and almost no one is in the radical left…Many, although not all, are also pretty racist," said Kuntsman, who sees herself as "kind of an exception." While she is compiling research on other politicized lesbian feminists of her background, she remains the lone Russian who regularly protests with Women in Black, a group working to end the Israeli occupation of the territories and promote Arab-Jewish coexistence.

Royfeld said this conservatism among Russian Israelis reflects itself among homosexual males.

Married men with families — wrestling with the pain of a double life — are a large part of the Agudah's Russian group. But according to Royfeld, there are many that lead even more destructive, closeted lives. These men are likely to cruise parks for sexual encounters at night, but are often overtly homophobic inan effort to mask their desires.

Immigrating at 20 enabled Royfeld to assimilate more easily than emigres from older generations. He escaped pressure to marry young and immersed himself in ulpan (Hebrew-language program) before looking for a job he would enjoy. Older Russians often take low-skill work immediately to support their families and never learn much Hebrew.

Kuntsman laments the fact that a generation gap is so pronounced among emigres in Israel.

"It must be hard for older [LGBT] Russians who don't know Hebrew. Like, they can come to a disco, no one would throw them out — maximum they'd be laughed at, if let's say, they look differently. But these people probably wouldn't come to a [CLAF or Agudah] community discussion evening or a social, because of the language and also different culture, background, mentality."

On the other hand, younger olim who are out often avoid some of the discrimination faced by Russians who are not queer, precisely because of their participation in the LGBT community.

According to David Shneer, a U.C. Berkeley graduate who lived in Moscow to research Russian history, the wave of immigrants to Israel over the last decade has faced extreme prejudice, making the group "a part of the new underclass."

At one point, Russian immigrants to Israel "were still seen as martyrs. There was a sense of pride; it was pro-Zionist, people could be true Jews," said Shneer, who recently accepted the position of assistant professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of Denver. "In the 1990s that changed completely."

The shift, according to Shneer, was the Israeli perception "of being overwhelmed…there was no longer the 'big, bad Soviet Union.' There's general resentment that emigres are using Israel for their own economic and social gain, not of a Jewish state."

But gay and lesbian Israelis are likely to be more accepting of newcomers than the society at large. In addition to Russian-speaking groups, Agudah's monthly publication, HaZman HaVarod (the Pink Times), contains a special section in Russian.

"There's little discrimination from Israeli gays; it's mostly integrated," said Royfeld.

Kuntsman concurred: "The spaces are open and welcoming, sometimes more welcoming then Israeli society in general because we are a minority."

The first time she went to a gay and lesbian party at her university, Kuntsman said, she was "dying of fear." She was concerned that Israelis "wouldn't want to talk to me because I was Russian, since, up until then, I'd been closed off from Israeliness."

Royfeld believes such perceived alienation could be avoided through better outreach.

"It is crucial that places like the Agudah get a Russian-speaking social worker or psychologist," he said. "We can't explore the self when Hebrew is a barrier."