When I was a little kid, I used to pretend to be a mermaid.
The Tail of Emily Windsnap
The Little Mermaid
After years of work with various tutors and my speech therapist, I eventually got to the point where I could vocally express what I wanted to say, until the time came when I discovered a new type of “silence,” one that was more ambiguous and vicious.
Around the age of fifteen, I started to get the inkling that I wasn’t as straight as I’d originally thought I was. Queerness, for the most part, was easy enough to discover in the English language. Like Alice going down an LBGTQ+ Google rabbit-hole, I discovered, thanks to the internet, words like ace and bi that felt right for the most part. But I couldn’t say the same for Russian.
Queerness wasn’t a language or culture spoken in my Russian-speaking household, much less acknowledged. Questioning gender or sexuality out loud wasn’t a thing I felt I was allowed to do, much less vocalize. Up until I was in my teens were no queer stories in my life. Not on the TV screen in my family’s living room, or in the picture books my mom read to me as a kid. No stories where the prince transitions into a princess or where the male knight falls for the prince. No narratives beyond the boy-meets-girl happily-ever-after.
Oftentimes, queerphobia isn’t just found in the language of noise, in swear words yelled across streets or sprayed across walls. It is also found in the language of silence. Carried by tight lips and closed mouths. When something is not allowed to exist openly, at the least it sometimes becomes a myth, like mermaids. At worst, it can become a monster. Yet as much as I have ached at the absence, I have found solace through these narratives. And I’ve found elements of my multilingual struggle in other people’s stories.
Years after watching the animated version of The Little Mermaid, I returned to the original story written by Hans Christian Andersen. At first, I was struck by the disparity between the dream Disney presented and the nightmare Andersen revealed. Instead of simply trading her voice for legs, the little mermaid’s own tongue is cut out. And instead of finding the happily-ever-after she wanted, the little mermaid instead loses her prince to another, ultimately dissolving into sea foam.
For many, if they first watch the film and read the story later, there is almost a sense of feeling cheated, of losing the happy ending we were raised to expect. And this may have been what I felt the first time I read this tale, until I dug deeper into the story of Andersen himself. How the author wrote love letters to women and men. How he was in love with a male friend of his named Collin, one who could not reciprocate his own affections. In reading this history, one begins to read The Little Mermaid as queer allegory, a story of societal taboos and boundaries, of forbidden love, of the longing for something that could not be voiced (perhaps Andersen’s own feelings in a time when such feelings were barely allowed.)
When I discovering this information about Andersen, I thought of how I didn’t even know what the Russian word for queer or gay was until I was in my twenties. It had not even occurred to me that such language existed until I stumbled across the word, Goluboi, in the New Adult series Abroad by Russian-Jewish American author Liz Jacobs. As I read the story of a young queer man not much older than myself, there was a strange reckoning.
For all the years I made my way through books, seeing pieces of my identity reflected back in the pages I read, reading Abroad felt like the first time seeing my whole self in the mirror. It almost felt like a revelation, discovering that there was another meaning to the word, Goluboi, that I had just known to be just light blue. That the same word used to describe the sky was also to mean gay. Blue—the color that was missing from ancient Greek texts. Not because the ancient Greeks lacked the facility for color perception, but because their language had not evolved enough yet to recognize the color blue for what it was, something distinct and tangible.
I thought of how I didn’t even know what the Russian word for queer or gay was until I was in my twenties.
Growing up, any time I discovered another LGBT Slavic figure was a moment of complete shock. Whether it was the first time I learned about Masha Gessen, a LGBTQ+ political journalist who fled their birth country for the safety for their and their family’s safety, or that Tchaikovsky, one of my family’s favorite composers and pride of our culture, was likely queer, I was stunned, not only by the fact that other people like me existed, but that this information was not available to me, was erased from me until I had gone looking for it. That Tchaikovsky, composer to some of the world’s most well-known fairytales, like Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, has a significant part of his personal story continually effaced and straight-washed speaks to the omission of LGBTQ+ history, the erasure of our queer ancestors. Maybe had I known other queer narratives like mine, maybe the weight of mother’s mother-tongue would not have felt so heavy.
Not knowing the language for who you are in the language of your family’s tongue, is to feel separated from the conversation of your blood and history. It is to be like the color blue, something that exists yet is non-existent and unspeakable in language at the same time.
Dealing with the literal silence that engulfed me as a child, to the queerphobic silence surrounding the absence of LGBTQ+ language or discussion in my conservative household, made speaking about feel like walking on knives, an exercise in pain.
My experiences with speech delay and speech therapy made me feel more self-conscious with words, yet it also made me more careful with them. By learning to measure the weight of each word that came out of my mouth and later out of my pen, I’ve learned how to be more thoughtful with the things I’ve said, about bilingualism, about queerness, and about stories in general.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” From the time I was a child, I had known what it was to be limited by one’s degree of fluency, whether in Russian and English or the language of sexuality. While I struggled to find the words for who I was, that did not mean that I didn’t exist. I just needed to search a little harder for the words that registered to me.
Language is complicated, but it is not static. After Abroad, I kept coming back to blue, stumbling upon the color in my reading of other queer artists’ works, such as Jul Maroh’s Blue Is the Warmest and George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue. In these stories, blue became more than a color, but a code signaling gender and other times signaling safety, a queer camaraderie. In learning about another meaning for blue, for goluboi, I slowly went from a world of absence and silence to a world of queer language and color, through the stories I read and continue to keep reading. And hopefully, through my own writing, I can start to take back my own voice, one word at a time.
Michele Kirichanskaya is a freelance journalist and writer from Brooklyn, New York. A student of the New School MFA Program and Hunter College, when she is not writing, she is reading, watching an absurd amount of cartoons, and creating content for platforms like GeeksOUT, Bitch Media, Salon, The Mary Sue, ComicsVerse, and more. Her work can be found here and on Twitter @MicheleKiricha1.