Russian and Ukrainian Gays Seek Asylum in US
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In the wake of Vlad Tornovy, 22, being attacked for being gay in the Russian city of Volgograd and having two and a half beer bottles forced into his anal cavity, his genitals slashed, and his face bashed in with a rock before mercifully dying, the world is again talking about gay rights in Russia and the former Soviet Union. It is a tragic and violent climate, but what many people don’t know is how that violence is creating a growing community of gay Russian and Ukrainian asylum seekers in the US centered in New York.
Another Vlad, Vladislav Shumilov, 20, is applying for asylum in the US for being gay. From records from the hospital where he woke up concussed after being attacked outside of a Kyiv gay club, to written testimony from friends about how he was attacked and harassed in school, he is trying to gather as much written documentation as he can for his court date.
“[In Ukraine] you are always afraid you’ll go to university and they will beat you up, you’ll leave your house and you’ll be beaten up. For me that was normal, and only when I was in America I realized that it wasn’t, and you can walk down the street holding a guy’s hand and no one will beat you up for that.”
Vladislav, or Vladik to his friends, first came to the US in 2011 through the Work and Travel program, which allows foreign students to come to the US and work summer jobs and then stay an extra month afterwards to travel. That summer was the first time he learned from gay Russian friends that he could apply for asylum and stay.
After that summer spent in New York, Vladik went back to Ukraine, but things only got worse. Studying information systems at the National Technical University of Ukraine, all of his fellow students were exclusively men. “It was difficult because I couldn’t open up to anyone. I knew that I was different. I always tried to be nicely dressed, well groomed, and clean cut.” Though those differences had always been there and Vladik was not out to anyone at the university, his instructors began refusing to let him take exams or borrow books, and told him they were worried he would “influence or damage” the other male students.
Later, someone claiming to be from the university called Vladik’s father and told him that Vladik had been wrongly allowed to attend the university since he was gay, and that he had to leave because he was hurting the university’s reputation. Like many in Russia and Ukraine, the caller blamed Vladik’s homosexuality on poor parenting.
That night when Vladik came home his father attacked him, threatening to cut off the arm where he had had a peace sign tattooed on his wrist. After Vladik called the police and they held his father overnight, he knew he had to get out. Returning to the US through Work and Travel, Vladik decided to apply for asylum and friends put him in touch with Immigration Equality.
Starting in 1994 when then Attorney General Janet Reno made a Board of Immigration Appeals decision precedent, people have been able to receive asylum in the United Stated for persecution based on sexuality. That same year, Immigration Equality was founded to achieve legal equality for LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants.
Since then Victoria Neilson has run Immigration Equality’s pro bono asylum project, which is now helping Vladik. The project finds lawyers willing to take on the cases of asylum seekers persecuted for their sexuality free of charge. As those types of cases have grown, she has also developed a course for Immigration Court officers on dealing with LGBTI refugee and asylum claims.
Though the Immigration and Naturalization Service does not keep statistics on the number of people granted asylum based on their sexuality, since 1994 Victoria has seen the number of cases from Russia alone handled and won by Immigration Equality rise from 1-2 in the first years, to the current 8-10.
The rise in the number of asylum cases Victoria has seen coincides with a worsening of the gay rights situation in Russia and Ukraine.
At a time when gay marriage for the first time is supported by a majority of Americans, a recent study by the Russian Levada-Center showed opposition to gay marriage in Russia rising to eighty-five percent, with support for exterminating homosexuals rising to five percent. A no less supportive, if less morbid statistic, from the Ukrainian Gorshenin Institute shows that seventy-eight percent of Ukrainians oppose any sort of homosexual relation. (Although some argue that the poll answers are not really indicative of the real attitudes.)
Simultaneously Russia has undergone a mirroring of the passage of gay marriage by US states, with one Russian region after another passing bans on “homosexual propaganda.”
These laws assume that homosexuality is learned, and are officially focused on stopping minors from being exposed to “converting” gay influences. Functionally, however, the laws are so broadly worded so as to ban any positive depiction of gay people.
Back in December, Madonna was sued for $10 million under the St. Petersburg version of the law, after stating at a concert in the city that “I am here to say that the gay community and gay people here and all around the world have the same rights – to be treated with dignity, with respect, with tolerance, with compassion, with love.” The case was eventually thrown out, in part because the claimants could not prove that there were any minors present at the concert.
Currently, national versions of the law are lingering between the parliament and presidency in both Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian version of the law passed in its first reading by a large majority, as did the Russian version with only one vote against. So far, the international outcry both bills elicited has slowed them from moving from the parliamentary floor to the president’s desk, but at least in Russia the law looks all but certain to pass.
Though the situation for gays in Russia and Ukraine was never considered “good,” the degree to which it has deteriorated often surprises asylees who left their native countries years ago.
Ivan Savine, 29, is the curator at 287 Spring and applied for asylum in 2006. As Vladik later would, Ivan was participating in the Work and Travel program when he learned he could apply for political asylum based on his sexuality. He had previously spent a year in high school as an exchange student in New Orleans, and after making friends who were out, he tried to come out to his mother when he returned to St. Petersburg. She didn’t take it well.
To keep him away from corruptive gay influences, she sent him to study in Chelyabinsk, known for its smog-filled industrial skyline, and most recently for viral videos of locals’ stoic responses to a falling meteor. After having been attacked multiple times on the street in Chelyabinsk, and detained by police after leaving a club in Moscow, he too decided he had to get out.
When he heard that St. Petersburg had passed a laws banning “homosexual propaganda,” however, he was surprised.
“It hit home big time when they passed that law in St. Petersburg of all places. I always thought that I was from the most civilized place in Russia. That it could happen in Tambov or Ryazan or Chelyabinsk, but in St. Pete? These are not some skinheads in the streets, that’s the legislative body.”
Journalist turned artist, Slava Mogutin, has seen some of the largest changes. As a twenty-year-old journalists in Moscow in the early nineties he outed politicians and wrote about Russia and the Soviet Union’s underground gay life at a time when sex between men had just been decriminalized.
On April 12, 1994, Mogutin and his then American partner Robert Filippini tried to register Russia’s first same sex marriage at the Palace of Marriage Number 4. Though they were turned down, the director of the Palace, Karmin Boreva, gave a speech emphasizing that she felt the state should recognize love and that she had no issue with their marriage, but could not register it because the law only recognized marriages between a man and a woman. The outcry following the marriage attempt and renewed legal prosecution led Mogutin to leave Russia, seek, and win asylum in the United States.
“Looking back, what was happening under Yeltsin was this brief period of freedom. I think if I was doing what I was doing back then now I would be in jail or shot now. I left at the right time I guess,” said Mogutin.
Kevin Moss, Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Middlebury College, spent extended periods of time in Moscow in the early nineties and now regularly testifies in asylum proceedings on the dangers Russians face if they are forced to return home.
He was also in Moscow in 1993 when Article 121 was removed from the Russian Criminal Code, legalizing sex between men, and remembers going to a large impromptu party organized for the repeal.
“That all happened back in the post-perestroika days under Yeltsin when they were trying to emulate and come closer to the West. Now all that openness, including openness towards LGBT people, is tainted with the legacy of the 90s and we’re going back to a much more monolithic approach and throwing out everything we did back then.”
Though homophobia has grown in the former Soviet Union since the 90s, persecution can also be selective and politically motivated.
Roman Manonov, 29, was a successful television anchor in Moscow. After a faulty privacy setting on his LiveJournal announced publically rather than just to friends that he was gay, he was suddenly out to his bosses and coworkers. After meeting with his bosses and removing the post, however, he was able to keep his job and life went on as normal.
That changed after he became involved in last year’s anti-Putin marches.
“I sent several complaints before and after the March of the Millions to the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office concerning statements made by people from the [Russian Orthodox] Church and nationalist close to the Russian Vice Prime Minister. Afterwards I started getting threatening phone calls, then text messages, and I one night I came home to find “die faggot” written across my apartment door.”
After the police refused to investigate he decided he had to get out, came to New York, and is currently applying for asylum.
The spread of anti-homosexual propaganda laws in Russia has coincided with a general tightening of freedoms and civil society, and most notably recent crackdowns on non-government organizations and opposition leaders.
Asylee and photographer Alexander Kargaltsev, 28, sees it as all being interrelated. “[The new law] indulges populism to shore up popularity ratings and draw attention away from the areas where the government is failing such as education, healthcare, corruption, and reliance on natural resources.”
In an attempt to raise awareness for the situation of the growing community of young Russian and Ukrainian gay and bisexual asylees in New York, Alexander began taking their portraits. Vladik was one of the models, and Ivan curated the exhibition entitled Asylum.
As violent rhetoric and attacks against gay men in Russia and Ukraine continue, and with the Russian parliament now debating a bill prohibiting the justifying of homosexuality, a prohibition previously only reserved for terrorism, the flow of asylees only looks likely to grow.
Ian Bateson is an American journalist, who has previously contributed to the Kyiv Post and Kazan Herald. He will also be a 2013-2014 Alfa Fellow in Moscow. Follow him on Twitter@ianbateson