Updated 12/29/2021: This article has been updated to better reflect the identity of the author.
Every few years, I hurtle, airborne, across oceans and time zones to visit my home in Ukraine.
The journey and arrival have become rhythmic, almost procedural. First, I am told in incredulous tones how much I’ve grown: “Pochti nevesta ushe!” (“Practically a bride now!”) Then, Babushka ushers me into the kitchen, where she has baked an obscene amount of piroshki, as if I haven’t eaten since the last time I visited.
After the initial bustle subsides, I vegetate, jet-lagged, in the living room with a cup of tea and a headache. A relative will lean in conspiratorially, voice dipping an octave, and ask the inevitable: “So….do you have a boyfriend?”
Recently, an American friend suggested that I show my family a photo of one of my male friends as though he’s my boyfriend, just so they’d get off my back. I begrudgingly admit that, for a second, I considered it.
In the past, however, I would have scoffed at the suggestion. As a kid, I was very vocal about my distaste for getting married to a man. Adults would chuckle knowingly and say, “Oh, just you wait!” But I was adamant, telling them they’d better get used to the waiting.
Now, I’ve stopped arguing. Not because I’ve changed my mind, but because I’m not a kid anymore. And at this point, my aversion to marrying a man would be perceived as concerning. So instead, I play along. When asked the dreaded boyfriend question, I reply with a wistful, “I wish.”
As someone who identifies as queer, I’m accustomed to living a double life. There is a significant difference between how I present myself in my rural, conservative home in Ukraine — where being anything but straight is inconceivable — versus in Berkeley, where queerness is much more common and accepted.
Once, I let it slip to my Babushka that I’ve been to Pride. She gasped and asked, “But why? Isn’t that for….homosexuals?” She paused before the last word and lowered her voice as she said it, as though its mere utterance was a taboo. I quickly backpedaled, “Well, it’s for everyone who wants to come. I mean, I just went for fun, because my friends were going.” I felt guilty about lying, but couldn’t imagine how she’d react if she knew.
As far as my Ukrainian relatives and friends are concerned, I’m just a shy, modest lass who has yet to find the right man. Meanwhile, halfway across the globe, I’m kissing girls and eagerly enumerating the perils of compulsory heterosexuality to any soul who will listen.
But this code-switching isn’t limited to Ukraine. Even in the United States, there’s a difference between how I act with my friends versus how I act at home.
In high school, I was part of an all-queer friend group. These friends were from white, non-immigrant backgrounds and were very transparent with and proud of their LGBTQIA+ identities. I remember awkwardly and guiltily asking them to not mention their queerness when I had them over for birthday parties, for fear of what my homophobic family would say to them.
I remember marching in the Pride parade with my friends after telling my mom that I was going to the library to study. Ironically, I lived next to Hillcrest, the neighborhood that was famous for hosting the parade every year. In the days before it happened, I was told by my family to stay away from Hillcrest altogether, as if the queerness that resided there was somehow contagious.
Even when I’m in the same place, I find myself changing personalities, putting on different skins depending on who I’m with. Sometimes, it feels as though I’m switching between being two different people, one straight and one queer, rather than being one whole, complete person. This is a common effect of code-switching: Being unsure of who you truly are and feeling like an imposter.
To complicate matters even further, when I turned 18 I moved from Hillcrest, where almost every single building is decorated with a rainbow flag, to City Heights, where no one asks you your pronouns. I would be asked things like, “Do you have a boyfriend?” by male strangers on the bus. I’d bite my tongue and resist the impulse to reply with: “Bold of you to assume I’m straight.”
In environments like this, I sometimes wished that I could just slap a sticker on my forehead that said “QUEER” in all-caps. I’ve even Googled, “How do I stop giving off straight-girl vibes?” After growing up submerged in an environment where acting straight was the only option, this performance has been instilled in me and still shapes the way I present myself.
Though I know that Berkeley is a safer, more accepting space where there is less pressure to maintain a facade of heterosexuality, I still subconsciously cling to said facade. It’s less of a conscious choice and more of a reflex, a defense mechanism. For some immigrants and BIPOC like me, being expressive with our identities and sexual orientations can be more challenging than it is for white, non-immigrant people.
Whenever I interact with my Ukrainian family or friends, I wonder if there will ever come a time when I can throw out my code-switching and feel comfortable enough to come out to them. No matter how disastrous the prospect of my family finding out about my identity seems, I’ve got an underlying and fundamentally human need to be seen and acknowledged by those I love.
I know that it’s only a matter of time before they stop buying my act. I have now reached my 20s and pretty soon they’ll start getting suspicious over the lack of a fiance.
I don’t know what I’ll do when that happens. For now, I can only hope that by then I will no longer be afraid.