Challenging homophobia in Russian-speaking Brooklyn
Artem Nevinchanyi is a striking figure: tall and rail thin with olive skin and haunting green eyes that have a piercing seriousness rarely encountered in a man his age. In 2005, when Artem was a seventeen-year-old living in a small Siberian city, he spent winter break visiting his older brother, Denis, in Kaliningrad. The two were on their way home from celebrating the Russian Orthodox New Year in a cafe when they were attacked by three homophobes on a bridge. Denis, a large, fit man recently discharged from the army, was the only person at the time to know Artem was gay. He tried to protect his brother, ordering him to flee the scene. Artem ran to call the police. The following morning, Denis was found dead. That day, Artem not only lost his sole confidant, but also his parents, both of whom continue to blame him for his brother’s death.
Five years later, Artem moved to Moscow, where life as a gay man was easier than it was in Siberia. But, the situation soured for him there, too. In April 2015, three men followed him home from a gay nightclub and beat him senseless in front of the lobby to his apartment building, screaming, “You’ll die here tonight, faggot.” He escaped with a broken nose, broken ribs, and several hematomas. He went to the hospital, where he had to file a police report, but the Moscow police refused to record the incident as a homophobic hate crime. Two weeks later, he got on a plane to New York, where he is currently seeking asylum.
As most asylum seekers do, Artem arrived in the U.S. with neither working papers nor English language skills. Because of this, he had to seek employment in the Russian-speaking areas of South Brooklyn. But the community was not welcoming — at his first job as a discount store clerk in Brooklyn’s Kings Highway, customers frequently uttered gay slurs. When he started working as a bus boy at a cafe in nearby Manhattan Beach, he soon had to quit because of snide remarks and emotional abuse from a homophobic manager. Though the owner of the cafe is gay-friendly, Artem decided to keep quiet about why he was quitting. “I know he [the owner] wouldn’t have fired her. He would have talked to her and it would have just made things worse,” he told me. “And then I would have had to run into her in the neighborhood — it is not a large community, and I prefer to maintain good relations.”
Artem is not alone. Many Russian-speaking LGBT people escape horrific events in Russia, only to encounter employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and sometimes even physical abuse in Russian-speaking areas of New York. And many of them stay silent about these incidents. According to Lyosha Gorshkov, co-president of RUSA LGBT, a Russian-speaking American group, LGBT asylum seekers are afraid to report homophobia not only because of their uncertain legal status, but also because their past experiences in Russian-speaking countries have left them with an acute fear of law enforcement.
This fear has intensified with the election of Donald Trump, who ran on an anti-immigrant platform, appointed the least LGBT-friendly cabinet in recent history, and eliminated the LGBT page from the White House website during his first week in office. In mid-March of this year, Denis Davydov, a gay, HIV-positive asylum seeker from Russia, was detained on his way back from a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands and held for five weeks at an ICE detention center in Miami. “Asylum seekers travel within the U.S. all the time and there had never been such a case before the current administration came to power,” Artem said. “This really frightened our community.”
In order to protest the policies of President Trump, whom New York’s Russian-speaking neighborhoods overwhelmingly supported in the election; to challenge homophobia in Russian-speaking areas; and to commemorate the recent abductions of gay men in Chechnya, RUSA LGBT held the first-ever pride parade on Brighton Beach, the largest Russian-speaking enclave in Brooklyn. On a rainy Saturday in late May, around three hundred people marched down the boardwalk carrying handmade signs and chanting slogans like, “Brighton, Brighton, we love you! Trump and Putin, bad for you,” and “Queer immigration, benefits the nation!” Artem, waving a giant rainbow flag, led the procession.
Three hundred people at a pride parade may not seem like much, but it was a feat to convince so many Russian LGBT people to march for their rights in a conservative, Russian-speaking neighborhood. Pride parades have played a pivotal role in U.S. LGBT culture since 1970, when thousands marched to commemorate the Stonewall riots in New York City. But in Russia, they never took off. In spite of numerous attempts to orchestrate pride events, it was rare that more than a few dozen people showed up to march.
Sex between men was illegal in the Soviet Union for nearly sixty years, from 1934 until 1993, and highly taboo between women. The lengthy period of stigma has left deep homophobic roots in Russian society, even after the repeal of the law, and many LGBT people have remained closeted. For this reason, the Russian LGBT community has been divided about the efficacy of such public actions. The Russian authorities have tried hard to prevent them, including instituting a 100-year ban on pride parades in Moscow starting in 2012.
In 2013, the State Duma (the Russian legislative assembly) passed a law prohibiting the “propaganda” of “nontraditional” sexual relations to minors. This has created an atmosphere of impunity, resulting in severe spikes in homophobic crimes, and causing large numbers of Russian LGBT people to flee the country. Many of them end up in New York, a gay-friendly city with one of the largest Russian-speaking populations in the U.S. But, New York’s generally liberal attitude toward LGBT people doesn’t always apply to the Russian-speaking areas where asylum seekers tend to live and work. Surrounded by Russian speakers, many are haunted by past traumas, and often have trouble shaking their own internal homophobia. When RUSA LGBT’s Gorshkov first proposed the idea of a pride parade in Brighton Beach at a RUSA meeting in 2015, very few were interested. “Why should we march in there?” people asked. “Why would we put ourselves in the spotlight?”
The election of Donald Trump both angered and frightened members of RUSA LGBT, and motivated Gorshkov to revisit the idea that had been rejected by his compatriots the year before. At a twenty-five person RUSA meeting the week after the election, Gorshkov again proposed a parade. And, once more, the response was underwhelming — only five members were enthusiastic. But this time, the parade’s proponents pushed harder. “I did not come here to lie about who I am,” said Elvira Brodskaya, a thirty-five-year-old redhead who had fled St. Petersburg with her wife after being terrorized and stalked by neighbors and emotionally abused by family members. “So, I really wanted this parade to happen.” She experienced both housing and employment discrimination from the Brighton community, and was perturbed to learn that there were places even in New York where she felt unsafe exposing her true self. Over the next few months, she and other supporters, including Artem, worked tirelessly to garner enthusiasm for the event.
That December, a Russian asylum seeker named Aleksandr Smirnov, who worked for a small Russian-speaking supermarket chain in Sheepshead Bay, faced repeated threats and physical attacks from a homophobic colleague. He reported the incident to the supermarket’s management, but they failed to take action and, in fear of his safety, he quit. Smirnov, who posted about the incident on his Facebook page in January, became the first member of the Russian-speaking LGBT community to go public about homophobia in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. According to Nina Long, co-president of RUSA LGBT, and one of the organizers of Brighton Pride, the incident resonated. “It really hit home that you live in New York but at your place of employment in Brooklyn you can be powerless,” she told me. With Smirnov’s story out in the open, people felt they had something concrete to rally against. In late March, the parade’s supporters had gathered enough willing participants to set a date.
In early April, the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, broke a story about the mass abductions and torture of gay men in the Russian Republic of Chechnya. In the weeks leading up to the parade, more than three hundred people signed up to join, including members of the U.S. LGBT community. Gorshkov was invited to speak about the parade on RUSA Radio (not related to RUSA LGBT) and, though he faced the expected homophobia from listeners calling in — some listeners referred to the LGBT community as “sick people,” others said it was shameful to talk about LGBT issues on air because children might hear — he also received some positive reactions. And, according to Long, RUSA received encouraging notes from members of the Brighton community itself, including the proprietors of St. Petersburg Bookstore. “They reached out last year and said, ‘pride is coming, how can we help?’” said Long.
On a chilly, intermittently drizzly Saturday morning in late May, people with flags, signs, and pink triangles commemorating the victims of the antigay purges in Chechnya, gathered in the boardwalk pavilion at Ocean Parkway. Gorshkov, who rushed about preparing the group, worried that the weather would stop people from coming. But, the crowd of marchers kept growing, and by the time I saw Artem, carrying a rainbow flag with U.S. stars, the rain had stopped. Artem was exhilarated by the crowd, and optimistic about the day to come. “We haven’t seen any homophobic incidents yet,” he said. “And that is a good sign.”
On the boardwalk, where marchers had started to gather into formation, protected by thirty members of the NYPD, I met a man named Roman Savrasov. A recently arrived thirty-year-old from St. Petersburg, Savrasov was nervous about his first public LGBT event. “I know everything will be ok,” he told me. “But I can’t help feeling nervous. Especially with so many police around.”
There were not many onlookers. A small, elderly woman in a bright blue jacket told me in Russian, with a dismissive wave, that she didn’t know anything about “these issues,” then asked me why there weren’t more costumes. “I went to the parade in the West Village once and they had people dressed as Elvis!” Naum Portnov, a fifty-seven-year-old emigre from Odesa who was sitting and reading on a boardwalk bench, told me he was looking forward to the parade. “Why not?” he asked. “At least these people can think for themselves, unlike everyone else around here.”
In front of the restaurant Volna, a waitress in her forties, who told me her name was Lena, shook her head in disgust. “This is an abomination,” she said. “How dare they come here and do this. It’s not normal. They need help.” An older waitress — Lena’s aunt — stood by the entrance and urged her niece to calm down. “This is awful,” she said, gesturing at the parade. “But thank god our family is fine. Everyone has kids, I have grandkids, and we’re all normal. That’s all that matters.”
Down on the boardwalk, I overheard a conversation between an octogenarian and his fifty-something home attendant. “Kakoi uzhas,” they muttered (“how awful”) and gestured toward the parade. I stopped them and asked why they were so angry. “Love is between a man and a woman,” the woman told me. “And these people should all be locked away.” She asked me what I thought about the event, and, when I told her everyone should have the right to express themselves, she sneered and asked me, “What, are you a homo too?” then stormed away, plopping down on a nearby bench. “See how much you’ve hurt her?” said the octogenarian, leaning on his cane. Then, he softened. “I don’t agree with all this, but they should be able to do whatever they want.”
The more people I asked how they felt about the parade both during and after the event, the greater the range of opinions I encountered. Many of the elderly people — those who can seem like they never left the Soviet Union — supported LGBT rights. “It’s important to remember that attitudes in Brighton are mixed,” said Long, emphasizing that forty percent of Brighton had voted for Clinton in the election. “It’s insulting to the people who do respect us, to throw them into this pile of bigoted Russian-speakers in New York. That’s why we feel empowered. We’ve seen good here, too.”
Most striking though, was that the majority of Brighton residents who spoke enthusiastically of LGBT rights were also staunch Trump supporters. Misha, a small, smiley Ukrainian man in his sixties, had come to Brighton thirty years prior, and expressed such strong enthusiasm for Trump that it poured out of him completely unprompted. “The great thing,” he told me, after explaining how happy he was that there was freedom for everyone, including gay people, in this country. “Is that we have President Trump. He supports gays, and he’ll let everyone be who they want to be because this is America!” I challenged him, reminding him about the views of Trump’s cabinet, and the removal of the LGBT page from the White House website. But he dismissed my points with a wave of the hand. “It’s no problem,” he told me. “He’s doing things the right way. He said he has no problems with gays, and other minorities in this country,”
As I neared the end of the march route, at Brighton 15, a rally had started. Brodskaya took the microphone, her red hair waiving in the wind, and told the story of how she and her wife had come to the States. Roman Savrasov, the anxious young man I had interviewed at the start of the parade, was in the crowd beaming. “I’m so glad I did this,” he told me. “Everything was so peaceful; my anxiety is gone completely.” Artem was thrilled, too — the march had gone swimmingly, there were no violent incidents. “My only worry,” he told me. “Is what will come next. What will happen in the neighborhood after the parade, once the police are gone?”
Masha Udensiva-Brenner’s writing has appeared in Guernica, New Republic, and Tablet, among others. She is the host and producer of Expert Opinions, a podcast on Russia, Eurasia, and Eastern Europe, on EurasiaNet. Follow her on Twitter at @MashaUBrenner