New York City prides itself on being a progressive bastion of tolerance. But for gay and transgender immigrants from the former Soviet Union, homophobia can follow them to the Big Apple.
“People say you’re making it up because it could not happen here,” said Lyosha Gorshkov, president of RUSA, a support group for Russian-speaking LGBT people. “But it’s happening.”
Gorshkov was speaking last month at a town hall for LGBT immigrants in Brighton Beach, the heart of the Russian-speaking diaspora in Brooklyn. Despite cold sleet falling on the boardwalk outside, around 30 people made it to a community center for the meeting. The goal, said Gorshkov, was to bridge relationships between different immigrant communities “regardless of identity, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of religion.”
English-Russian interpreters were on hand. Brighton and the surrounding neighborhoods of Sheepshead Bay and Midwood are filled with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan. The familiar language and familiar culture make Brooklyn a natural starting point for post-Soviet newcomers, but gay and transgender immigrants often face a familiar problem: homophobia.
“People who experienced and survived violence against them in their home countries cannot endure the same violence in the United States – in New York particularly, which is considered a sanctuary city,” said Gorshkov.
He cited instances in Russian-speaking neighborhoods of gay and trans people being cursed at and denied medical services, harassed on subway platforms, or being dismissed when they brought issues to the police. (Gorshkov invited elected officials and police representatives to the town hall, but they were unable to attend.)
Medical discrimination stings in particular because there is a growing HIV epidemic in Russia, which Gorshkov says has given HIV-positive gay men even greater reason to flee. Although the HIV crisis affects all sexual orientations, research published last year in the PLoS Medicine journal found that Russia’s anti-"gay propaganda" law has made finding adequate medical care particularly difficult for gay men: "After passage of the 2013 law, it became illegal to post or discuss information for gay men and other MSM [men who have sex with men], even on informational websites in Russia."
These tensions exist in the shadow of a negative political climate. Brighton Beach is a politically diverse neighborhood, but leans conservative. Donald Trump won many of the area’s precincts in 2016. Gorshkov worries about the influence of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, even though Brighton Beach itself is an immigrant neighborhood.
“They voted for Trump and they support him entirely,” Gorshkov told Eurasianet. “They could adopt [his] rhetoric and project it” onto gay immigrants.
Participants at the town hall, however, did not want to stereotype all residents of Brighton Beach as homophobic or bigoted. In fact, Gachai Mammadov, an immigrant from Azerbaijan, shared the positive experience he had as the first openly gay employee at his Russian-speaking workplace, a medical billing company in Sheepshead Bay.
“At the beginning I was feeling extremely uncomfortable,” he said. Co-workers pestered him with overly personal questions like “who is the wife and who is the husband?”
Despite his discomfort, Mammadov answered the questions and his co-workers grew to accept him. Now the environment is so LGBT-friendly that he has recruited three gay friends to work at the same company.
“I’m trying to make Brighton gay!” he joked.
The town hall included two speakers who offered resources for people dealing with discrimination. Yelena Tsodikovich, a neighborhood organizer from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, talked about anti-discrimination laws in New York City. For example, city employees are not allowed to ask for a person’s immigration status unless it’s necessary to do their jobs, such as checking if someone is eligible for a federal program. NYPD officers are not allowed to ask crime victims or witnesses about their immigration status. A hotline, 311, is available to anyone facing discrimination.
Yelena Zhuklevich, a therapist at Brooklyn Psychotherapy Services, said there is counseling available in Russian for both LGBT clients and their families.
“What I see from my patients, the most difficult part is to come out of the closet and tell their parents about their sexual orientation,” said Zhuklevich.
One woman at the meeting said she was glad to learn there was counseling available in Russian for parents and families. In a heartfelt speech, she asked the group to extend empathy towards parents of LGBT children as well.
“You have this beautiful support,” said the woman, who gave only her first name, Tanya. “You can come to the groups, you can talk to each other. […] Your parents, your families, in many, many cases are alone in their situation because they have no idea about this possible support.”
She begged members of the group to reach out to their parents, even if they were not on speaking terms.
“Your parents: don’t think for a second they do not love you,” said Tanya. “Even if they fight with you. Even if they don’t want to talk to you at the moment. Deep down they love you, because you are the center of their existence.”
It’s unclear if the meeting succeeded in its goal of bringing groups together who had not listened to each other before. At one point, a member of the audience asked if anyone in the room didn’t support the LGBT community; no one responded.
But after the meeting, Tanya said she hoped at least one person in the room that night heard her: her daughter.
Sharon Lurye is a Brooklyn-based journalist and a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism.
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