When I ask Anya about the process of discovering her sexuality she laughs, “there was absolutely no reason for me to concentrate on such a minor thing in life as, who exactly am I attracted to sexually…who cares?!” And as she describes her life – her upbringing in a Siberian village under Soviet rule, the murder of her father when she was 10, the collapse of the Soviet Union as she came of age and her subsequent emigration to Australia where she became a young single mother – it is easy to understand why. She did, however, have what she describes as a very fulfilling imaginary life in her head:
“I literally thought that was normal, everybody will have fantasies which expand out of what you experience, and because for me it was normal from a very early age…I never really felt I was deprived of it because it was happening as a private experience for me in my head”.
Anya talks easily about her first ever sexual experience as a young child when she was four or five years old. It was with another little girl and she says it was a positive experience, and one that continued until the two girls went to school and ended up in different classes. And because there was simply no discourse around what they had been doing, later heterosexual normality just kicked in and it simply never crossed her mind that there was any other possibility other than a man and a woman. It wasn’t until she came to Australia as a young adult that she learned that there was such a thing as two women (or two men) being together in reality.
Born in 1970, Anya grew up in the industrial Siberian city of Kemerovo, 3,500km east of Moscow, and she remembers very early on feeling a strong dislike for her hometown. She has had virtually no contact with her father’s family since his death and as a result knows very little about that part of her history. What she does know is that her paternal grandfather had been exiled to Siberia from Moscow and, although she doesn’t know why, she assumes it would have been because someone overheard him speaking out against the Soviet authorities. She never met her him and doesn’t really remember talking with her grandmother, so this part of her history remains somewhat of a mystery.
What she does know is that her father grew up in a rural town just outside Novosibirsk. Her mother was from the outskirts of Moscow and gained a degree in electrical engineering; she graduated top of her class and chose to go to Kemerovo as part of the drive to develop the land for the greater good of the Soviet Union. By the time Anya was born her mother was 40, ten years older than her father. As a child she thought her father was a fireman because she saw photographs of him with fire engines; she later learned he was involved with the military in some way undercover – he looked after military machines (which included fire engines), but she doesn’t know any more than this.
Anya describes her father as being what Australians might describe as a larrakin – he was an amateur boxer and a bit of a ‘jack-the-lad’, and she remembers him saying that he didn’t know why anyone would bother living past 40, that he never wanted to live past 40, and that it must be so boring. Tragically, that was when he died. And from what she knows it seemed like such a pointless death – he was mugged by a group of hooligans one night and they murdered him. Anya was ten at the time but wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral which she says created a rift between her and her mother, who was simply encased in her own grief. No one checked in with Anya and how she was coping, she was just expected to behave in what she refers to as a ‘societally expected manner’. She still isn’t sure exactly how this traumatic experience has affected her throughout her life; she feels like it couldn’t not affect someone. But despite all this she doesn’t feel that her childhood was particularly tragic.
Before her father’s death, and later just with her mother, Anya lived in a typical Soviet apartment block. They lived together in a one-room apartment and all slept in the same room. She coped relatively well with academic work at school and had a good group of friends; she was good at Russian language and literature and figured out pretty early on that she was going to be a journalist, even publishing reviews and commentary in her local paper by the time she was 15. She had a boyfriend from the age of 14 until she left high school, which she says was a good thing at the time as it kept her out of trouble. She says she was madly in love with him, but that he would break up with her periodically to hook up with another girl (this girl later went on to become his wife). She says she continued to have fantasies about other women throughout this time; it was never something she would have considered talking about as there was simply nothing of what was going on in her head reflected in society; arts and culture were tightly controlled by the Soviet authorities so she doesn’t remember a single reference to same sex love or attraction. In any case, she was happy enough with the thoughts bobbing around in her head.
Anya graduated from high school, confident in her future as a journalist. Then suddenly the world as she knew it collapsed. The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union disintegrated and suddenly there were fifteen new states in the world which had once all been ruled from Moscow. In Anya’s world, this translated into much uncertainty about things she had always taken for granted. They suddenly introduced entrance exams for university and, although she had been top of her class, Anya failed.
“How could I possibly fail a Russian literature or language exam because I was so good at it, it wasn’t possible. It was devastating. My entire life was supposed to be that and now it’s not, so what is it now?”
With hindsight she suspects that there was a great deal of corruption in this time of uncertainty, and that many people took advantage of this to buy favours such as entrance to top universities, which may explain what happened. Despite the setback, she didn’t sit around for long:
“So I kind of got my shit together somehow and found this place in the Far East of Russia…a college to get jobs with the Far East Shipping Company in Vladivostok, as far as I could possibly go…Vladivostok was fantastic and I loved it, I absolutely loved it…and that’s where I had my first crush on a girl”.
So Anya moved to Vladivostok, more than four days by train from home, and spent a year at the college which she says essentially was training to be a waitress on cruise ships. But she loved every minute of it, despite the hard work, and she ended up working for the Far East Shipping Company until she emigrated to Australia.
It was during this time she met Irina, a fellow student at the college. She remembers everything about her being soft – her voice, the briefest touch of her skin – and how she always felt ridiculously aroused around her. The female students all lived together in shared rooms of up to six women and one day Anya walked into Irina’s room and found her giggling in bed with another girl:
“The other girl in bed with her was from Ukraine and she had been talking about a boyfriend back home, so the discourse was completely heteronormative, so when I saw them in bed, at the time it didn’t even click for me…but I was clearly a little country town girl that has no idea what is happening there. I was like, well I’d like to be in that position, I would like to be in that bed with her, and I wonder what would happen. That gave me a lot of material, for a while!”
This memory is completely distinct for Anya because that was the first time she actually questioned ‘is that actually happening, are they actually touching each other?’ She actually remembers thinking they might just be keeping warm, and realises now how naïve she was at 19!
Anya continued to work for the shipping company and it was on one of the cruise ships that she first visited Australia and started to imagine what a life there might look like. It began to dawn on her that the propaganda she had grown up with which demonised capitalism and the outside world was a lie – she had been lied to all her life – and she soon became angry and disillusioned. She realised she had no desire to stay in Russia, even though she loved her job and her life in Vladivostok. At the same time, growing social pressure also led her to rethink her future – at the time all of her girlfriends were married with children, and she felt like a leftover that nobody wanted. It seemed to Anya that this was thrown in her face by her family and friends all the time, that she was the last one on the shelf. At the same time there was a stigma around women who worked at sea and didn’t settle and have children. She says people assumed that they must be sleeping around with other women’s husbands, despite the fact that that wasn’t Anya’s experience at all. An in the end it got to her and she quit the job. But just before she left the shipping company she met Alexei.
Even though she had already made the decision to leave Russia by this time, she found herself in what she calls a ‘lovey dovey’ kind of moment where she believed Alexei would join her in Australia, even though she knew he wanted to stay and start his own business. They found an apartment together just outside Vladivostok and lived there for about three months; she admits it was probably one of those things that was doomed from the start, but Anya soon fell pregnant and social pressure was enough for her to decide to keep the baby because everybody else around her already had children:
“At least it was something to make me feel normal, because I felt completely abnormal. I didn’t have education by then, I spent five years in a job that was completely stigmatised, it was the best job of my life but so stigmatised, and I thought, that just makes me feel normal instantly, as soon as I got pregnant I felt normal, like I fit somewhere”.
At the time she was in the final stages of applying for a visa to live in Australia. Anya laughs when she talks about her first visa application:
“I was so naïve, I just applied for a standard visa – I mean who the hell would want me there? All I had at the time was a qualification as a waitress to work on cruise ships, who doesn’t speak English haha! I ended up being rejected on the basis of having no skills or language…that was fair enough!”
But Anya persisted:
“It’s sheer determination and optimism that gets me through life, it’s not the analysis…it’s just me and my enthusiasm, seriously, I just don’t give up easily, that’s my only skill!”
Her persistence indeed paid off and she eventually ended up being granted a visa through a distant relative via some kind of family reunion scheme. She arrived in Australia aged 23 and pregnant, awaiting the arrival of the baby’s father. Then a few months before she gave birth Alexei called and admitted he wasn’t even going to apply for a visa – he wanted to stay in Russia. And just like that a single mother was born. Although she understands now why he stayed, at the time she was devastated – she hadn’t wanted her child to grow up without a father as she had. And suddenly she found herself in a totally different culture where being pregnant so young and out of wedlock was frowned upon. Again, she felt like an outsider, like she didn’t belong, and again she simply went into survival mode.
She arrived at the end of 1993 and her daughter was born six months later, but there was no time to rest as Anya set about learning English so she could apply to study at university. She was accepted to study IT at the University of Technology in Sydney and a whole new world began to open up before her. Everything from not understanding for weeks when her local barista asked if she wanted a lid on her coffee, to asking a one of her new friends if she could touch the skin on his hand – she had never met a black person before and had assumed his skin would feel different to hers, and was surprised to find out it was warm and soft just like hers. She also remembers the sheer variety of food on offer in Sydney – Thai, Indian, Lebanese – so much flavour when compared with what she was used to. Anya describes that first year as a new experience overload, which she took in all whilst caring for her new baby. And it was around this time that she first met someone who was openly gay:
“A friend of mine at the time…had a social circle that was quite open and one of her friends was gay, a gay guy, so I met him and I sort of extrapolated from there that, ok, if that’s a thing, and the opposite might also thing. At that point I hadn’t met any lesbians. It was more as a curiosity and disbelief, in that, what else am I missing?”
Although she now knew in theory there were possibilities beyond the heteronormative story she had grown up with, she was so busy studying, looking after her daughter and at the same time going through the process of sponsoring her mother to emigrate from Russia, she had little time to think about such things. She graduated and found a job as a network engineer for an insurance company, and that was where she met John. She describes him as the most incompatible person she could ever hope to meet, stable and predictable. Looking back she realises that, after what felt like a lifetime of upheaval and survival, John represented the first chance of a safe and stable life with someone who would look after her. He reeked of stability in his expensive suits and shoes, so why wouldn’t she date him? Had they had the chance to get to know each other better Anya believes they soon would have realised they weren’t compatible, but thanks to what she describes as her ‘extraordinarily over-productive ovaries’ she fell pregnant after knowing him only a matter of months, despite the fact that she had been fitted with an IUD contraceptive device.
They decided to give it a go together, so they bought a house in the Inner West of Sydney and started life as a family with Anya’s first daughter and their new baby. But things soon began to unravel; John lost interest in sex soon after the baby was born and Anya struggled to cope with her new reality. She understands now that she chose the stability and predictability of that relationship, but at the time she felt cheated, that she was trapped in a relationship that was not at all what she wanted. They did see a relationship counsellor, but after five years Anya finally decided she had to leave. He didn’t even like the same music as her, which meant that two of the things she loved most – sex and music – were things she felt deprived of in their relationship. But she concedes that they did end up having a beautiful daughter together!
Despite finding herself as a single mother once again at 34, Anya says she never experienced many of the disadvantages felt by so many lone parents because she had a good income and an equal custody arrangement with John. She found the freedom of being single exhilarating; she went to live gigs, and took up scuba diving and photography. And it was also around this time that Anya first began to look for other women who dated women, although she didn’t have much luck as the online dating scene was still in its early days. But she was happy being single and she remained so until she met Nick.
Nick was 15 years her junior and like a breath of fresh air to Anya. He was a barista at the coffee shop in her office building and they fell in love over their shared passion for music. Anya borrowed his MP3 player one day to go for a run and realised their tastes were almost identical, and their relationship grew slowly from there. She says that two years she spent with Nick were the happiest she’d felt since her days with the shipping company in Vladivostok. He was the kind of person who was up for anything, always high energy, always having fun. And there was lots of sex (and in particular lots of great sex!) But Anya knew it couldn’t last – she had to turn 40 eventually and there were decisions they couldn’t avoid forever – and in 2010 he broke off their relationship. Anya had fallen pregnant yet again, but this time she felt she just couldn’t have another child and decided to have an abortion. Soon after this they found the perfect house to move into for them both and Anya’s two daughters:
“And so it was the morning when we had to sign the lease, and I put it in front of him to sign…and he is sitting there with the pen, but said ‘I can’t do it’. I said ‘what are you talking about?’ And he said ‘no wait, you know things are going so well with us, if I move in with you, we will probably stay together for a very long time…if I stay with you and I don’t have children, then chances are I will resent you for that, because I always wanted children’. Imagine me having another f**king child, with somebody who is still riding to his workplace on a skateboard, it makes no sense. So like in the movie Sliding Doors, I really don’t know how it would turn out if I would have kept this child…I literally recall the moment when my heart broke in pieces, I could physically sense it. And so, that was in 2010, it’s now 2017 and I must say, I’m sure I’m recovered now, but it was by far the worst heartbreak of my life”.
The next two or three years for Anya were filled with pain and anger. She knew his decision made sense, but it took years for her to heal the wound that their breakup caused.
“And then slowly slowly, somehow…I think I started healing…When I started recovering, the last three or four years I have started becoming more or less datable, because before that I would damage anybody who comes near me. It was just too much sadness and anger. But my robust sex-drive convinced me that it was probably not a good choice to stay single forever!”
About a year after the breakup Anya enrolled in a Bachelor of Counselling, largely, she admits, to try to understand what actually happened between her and Nick. And this led to what Anya refers to as one of the most interesting things that has ever happened to her, which in turn has taken her life in a direction she could never have anticipated.
The counselling course took place in the evening as she was still working full-time in IT sales. One evening she was on her way home late from a class when it suddenly started pouring with rain. Anya ducked into the nearest pub to wait out the downpour and ordered a glass of shiraz to pass the time. It was late, sometime between 9 and 10 and the pub was virtually empty. As she walked back from the bar:
“…this vision appears in the doorway, also a little rain-soaked, tall figure, and I’m going, ok this is unusual! She is very tall with broad shoulders, but other than that she looks as though she is a girl. And I’m looking at her face, a very pretty face, and I’m just stuck on her face, and she looks at me because there is no one else there, and the look in her eyes is really quite vulnerable, and at the same time sort of daring…and the whole package was just so captivating, and I said to her “I just brought you wine” and I gave her my shiraz…it was the most spontaneous thing I have ever done in my entire life”.
Anya felt so out of practice dating that she realised she had no idea what to do next! But this mystery woman took the glass of shiraz and the next few hours disappeared as they talked and talked until closing time. She told Anya that she also worked in IT, that she was visiting from Melbourne for work, and that she was trans.
“This was the first time I met a trans person in my life. So we drank shiraz and talked and talked. And at the end of this, she says, do you want to come up to my hotel (she was in the hotel upstairs), you need to see her face to see how much I wanted to go up to her hotel room! And I’m just going, yes I do, I really do, but I didn’t want to not know what I’m doing… And that’s how the whole thing began. So we went upstairs, and I watched her undress…and I laid my eyes on her boobs…and that was the first time, after fantasising about it my entire life, I had access to a pair of breasts – I became boob obsessed! We were together for about five or six months…I don’t think my hands ever left her boobs, they were constantly glued to them! And hers were obviously small ones, maybe A or B cup, she didn’t have implants, just from hormones…You know, the physical arousal that her body gave me was something I have never experienced before”.
Anya fell for Marcia fast – she was pretty, smart and kind, but also just a really good person. But Anya soon learnt that, if you consider how complicated all humans are, for many trans people going though transition life is three times as complicated. In the end she realised that, much as this woman loved her and wanted to be with her, at that point in her transition she just wasn’t able to give of herself to the relationship to make it work. Anya describes the act of transitioning as a necessarily self-centred process, and it was her experience in this relationship that made her realise two things which would dramatically alter the course of her life.
Firstly, she decided to focus her counselling studies on supporting the transgender community; her exposure to the transgender world made her realise that there was a whole community who were marginalised and so unfairly treated for just trying to be themselves and she wanted to be a part of supporting that community. Second, she now knew that she really did prefer the love of women. She did try to date a guy one more time, someone who she was seemingly compatible with in every way, but she just wasn’t attracted to him. She had thought that the most important thing was who the person was, regardless of gender, but this experience made her realise that the male body just didn’t interest her.
All these experiences also forced Anya to think for the first time about sexual identity and labels:
“For me, labelling and identification wasn’t really that necessary, but somebody asked me, how do you identify then, because your girlfriend is trans, do you identify as lesbian? So I was kindof forced to have a little think about it…and I thought, well no I don’t identify as lesbian, because on the one hand to me it sounds a little exclusionary, it would exclude all parts of my history, and on the other hand I didn’t know what would happen next, so I thought maybe I’m bisexual?”
However, Anya simply didn’t like the labels that were available, and in particular she didn’t like the term bisexual:
“At that point I hadn’t heard the word pansexual, but then I did eventually. Pansexual is somebody who dates anybody regardless of gender…if somebody doesn’t identify as binary at all, as neither male nor female, non-binary people are born with a gender which was assigned to them, it just doesn’t feel right, either non-binary or trans, where the line is a little bit blurred. So to me that doesn’t matter. So that’s where pansexual fits really well for me, even though it’s not a very popular term, that’s how I identify”.
Soon after the breakup Anya found herself at a sexual health conference in Sydney as she had decided she wanted to focus her degree on sexual health. She joined a break-out session on transgender health where the presenter, who was a trans woman herself, asked for volunteers to work on a project to support the community. Anya was keen to sign up and she very quickly got caught up in the collaboration and creativity of their work together, leading to a brief but ultimately doomed affair which she believes she embarked on in part as a reaction to her break-up with Marcia. She says the physical component was completely different this time, that she’d had a great deal of surgery to enhance her breasts and create a vagina, sometimes known as a vagina noveau or a designer vagina. But she says this woman had so much trauma and so much pain to deal with that Anya never felt that she was perhaps even able to be authentic, that she was being sold something that this person wanted her to believe rather than her true self, and Anya had to break up with her. They continued to collaborate on their project which was challenging; they did manage until the close of the project earlier this year, although Anya was relieved when it was finally over.
About a year ago Anya started a master’s degree in medicine, and then in May 2017 she took the huge step of quitting her job in IT sales to pursue a career as a sexual health counsellor full-time. Her work until that point was focused on the trans community, but she was never doing it to make money. Now she has clients from across the spectrum of sexuality as well, but with a focus on the LGBTQI+ community. She is also considering undertaking a PhD once she has completed her master’s; she has been frustrated by the lack of data and research in the field of trans community health issues and is keen to contribute to this area.
When Anya talks about coming out to those around her, she describes the process as organic and stress free; her social circle was inclusive and diverse so none of them so much as blinked when she told them about Marcia, even describing their reaction as underwhelming. Her daughters were also completely unfazed by her coming out – they didn’t mind who their mum dated as long as they were an interesting person. Someone she hasn’t yet told is her mother who is now 83. She says her mum comes from the world of her childhood where differences in sexuality simply did not exist (on the surface at least).
When Anya looks back on her past she can see why it took her until she was in her 40s to focus on her happiness and fulfilment:
“I didn’t put any priority on sex, there was a lot of self-neglect going on because I had the children, and I had my mother, so it’s almost like, trying to meet my own needs would be such a luxury. Now at least the children are grown up enough and I don’t have to worry about that. But it’s always been competing with something else. You know survival is usually the priority, survival of my children…so I never prioritised this, it was just bobbing along. And I can have quite a fulfilling imaginary life in my head! If I just stop blaming circumstance and take responsibility, I would just go ok, well I haven’t prioritised it.”
More recently Anya has been flirting with various dating apps, although she describes the current dating world as a minefield:
“On the one hand I am not sure…I want to be in a relationship but do I want to be hurt, do I want to keep trying and keep trying? Because as you see, even after the 2010 breakup, I managed to recover somehow, and give it a couple of good attempts, that didn’t work, so am I making the right choices? How long does it take for me to actually just admit to myself that I’m making the wrong choices and it’s not going to happen for me?”
She says that has been receiving messages from potential dates:
“But I never clicked on them. Ever. For a year. Because I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. Whether it’s me not wanting to be hurt. I don’t know. I say I don’t have time, but of course it has to be deeper than that, right?”