Vulnerable to persecution in Russia and other states in Eurasia, Russian-speaking members of the LGBT community are starting to make their voices heard in the city with the largest Diaspora population in the United States, spreading a message of tolerance and inclusion.
A crowd waving rainbow flags and signs in English and Russian with slogans like “We are queer, we live here” and “Homophobia isn’t kosher” held a rally in late May on the boardwalk in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, the traditional hub of the Russian émigré community in New York City.
The event was the first-ever pride march organized specifically for Russian speakers in the United States: the number of participants was estimated at about 300. A series of speakers—including Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen and New York City’s public advocate Letitia James—addressed the audience, expressing support for the Russian-speaking LGBT community.
The gathering was a cathartic moment for some. Many at the Brighton Beach event fled their native lands after being traumatized by relentless discrimination and harassment, a trend underscored by the ongoing and systematic abuse of LGBT individuals in the Russian territory of Chechnya. After an adjustment period in the United States, some are ready to speak about their experiences, and start countering the hate spread by authorities in Russia and elsewhere. Elvira Brodskaya, a 35-year-old currently seeking asylum in the United States, is among those willing to speak out.
“When I first came to the United States,” she began, “I was very afraid, I was afraid of every human being that I saw.”
Brodskaya later recounted that she was 26 the first time she became involved with a woman. “I tried so hard to be normal,” she told EurasiaNet.org in an interview. “I even lived with a man.”
In 2008, she fell in love with the woman who is now her wife, Anastasia Orlova, and threw herself into the relationship completely. The couple lived openly. Aside from some familial pressure and the usual precautions to avoid homophobia in Russia, they felt some semblance of a normal life.
But in 2012, the city of St. Petersburg passed an ordinance barring so-called “gay propaganda,” which, in effect, potentially criminalized public displays of an LGBT lifestyle. Similar legislation was adopted on a national scale the following year. With that, everything changed. “We almost felt like we were living in a different country,” said Brodskaya, adding that from then on, homophobic aggression became a consistent part of their lives.
The real trouble began in 2014, when male neighbors from an adjacent building shot a bullet through the couple’s window. No one was hurt, but when Brodskaya and Orlova went to the police station, the police refused to file a report on the incident, characterizing the men as playful “suitors.” The men then began to stalk the couple, and the harassment lasted for months. The couple ended up moving buildings, only to encounter hostility at their new location. In October 2016, they left Russia to seek asylum in the United States.
Brodskaya and Orlova are among hundreds of LGBT Russians who have come to the United States to escape persecution in the wake of the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law. Like many Russian-speaking asylum seekers, the couple arrived in New York with limited English, no papers, and no friends, and turned to Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking community for help.
Brighton Beach happens to be one of the more politically conservative neighborhoods in New York City, and official statistics show that local residents voted heavily in favor of Donald Trump in the last presidential election.
When Brodskaya tried to rent an apartment in Brighton Beach, the landlord instantly asked her if she was married. When she responded that she is a lesbian, he asked her why she hates men so much. She encountered similar obstacles while job searching. Because of this, Brodskaya and her wife opted to look elsewhere in the city to both live and work.
At the rally, Brodskaya told the assembled crowd that she now felt freedom for the first time in her life. “This pride [march] is really important because we’re saying, ‘We’re free, we’re here, we can be here,’” she said.
Brighton Beach has been a magnet for immigrants from the former Soviet Union since the 1970s. According to Nina Long, co-president of RUSA LGBT, a Russian-speaking American LGBT Group, housing and employment discrimination against the Russian-speaking LGBT community is prevalent in the area. Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable because they do not have employment histories and credit scores that are often necessary to secure housing. As a result, “people don’t often speak out [about homophobia] for fear of losing their jobs, their rentals,” said Long.
RUSA LGBT, which started operating in 2008, organized the Brighton Pride parade in an effort to challenge the homophobic attitudes there, as well as to protest the anti-immigration and anti-LGBT policies espoused by President Trump. Lyosha Gorshkov, co-president of RUSA LGBT, first conceived of the idea for a Brighton pride event two years ago, after he fled Russia only to encounter homophobia in Brooklyn.
The event kicked off with a pep talk from Yelena Goltsman, the 54-year-old founder of RUSA LGBT. “The important thing,” she told the marchers, “is to avoid any potential confrontation.”
Few people came to watch in the rainy weather, but many locals who did, voiced support for the marchers. Aleksandr Shilov, a 35-year-old Brighton resident carrying a toddler on his shoulders, was happy to see the Russian-speaking LGBT community exercising the right to free speech. “A lot of people from Russia have never met gay people before,” he said. “It’s good for them to see that here is a peaceful march full of regular people who are fundamentally no different than they are. Will it change their minds? Probably not. But you have to start somewhere.”
There were people who rejected the marchers. An elderly lady from Odessa, who did not want to be identified, told EurasiaNet.org she felt bad for “those people,” because they were all “sick.”
“What went wrong in their lives that they had to resort to this?” she said.
Some criticism came from the Russian-speaking LGBT community itself. Nikita Yergaliev, a gay HIV/AIDS activist and asylum seeker from Kazakhstan, watched the parade, but said he does not agree with the premise. “Russian people only understand power. This walk down the boardwalk with a bunch of little signs? The locals are going to laugh about it for weeks,” he said.
The organizers believe the parade went well. “The idea is not to anger people, the idea is to present ourselves to those people who don’t know who we are and say, ‘We are part of your community,’” Goltsman said. “I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother, people have brothers and sisters, and daughters here, we are part of the community, so accept us.”
Masha Udensiva-Brenner is a freelance writer and editor in New York. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, the New Republic, and Tablet. Maria Mammina is the Digital Content Editor at EurasiaNet.org and a freelance photographer.