Over the course of an hour, Russian journalist Masha Gessen put the fear of God into me about the peril facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Russia. The laws banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples are scary on paper. But, as Gessen made plain, those laws are more frightening in reality. Gessen joined Kaspars Zalitis of Latvia and Jovanka Todorovic of Serbia on a panel I moderated at last week’s Human Rights First Summit at the Newseum. Zalitis and Todorovic talked about the problems faced by gays and lesbians in their respective countries. The fight for respect and equality isn’t easy, especially since the majority of their fellow citizens think LGBT people are not normal. And while Serbia’s legal system “has been relatively good” for gay people, Todorovic said that her organization was “lobbying for the laws that have been adopted” to enforced.
But the situation in Russia dominated the discussion. A situation so dire that Igor Kochetkov, the chairman of the Russian LGBT Network who was also supposed to be on the panel, could not leave the country because the group was was being threatened. But Gessen spoke with enough urgency for both of them. “The Russian laws are even more extreme than you know,” Gessen said. She reported that Russia’s highest court upheld the broadly interpreted anti-gay “propaganda” law, which she said laid the groundwork for the state to remove children from LGBT families. “There won’t be change,” Gessen added. “We can only mitigate the effects.” By that she means that nations and organizations “need to help people get out [of Russia] with their families.” She also means that actions need to be taken that ensures “the Kremlin knows the world is watching.” For her part, Gessen is practicing what she preaches. She and her wife and their children are fleeing Russia in the next two weeks. Gessen explained her decision to leave in an August 2013 op-ed for The Guardian.
Two things happened to me the same month: I was beaten up in front of parliament for the first time and I realised that in all my interactions, including professional ones, I no longer felt I was perceived as a journalist first: I am now a person with a pink triangle. My family is moving to New York. We have the money and documents needed to do that with relative ease – unlike thousands of other LGBT families and individuals in Russia.
The folks at Immigration Equality, which provides legal information and legal representation, including a pro bono asylum project, told me that since the anti-gay laws took effect in June, they have seen a spike in inquiries from gay and lesbian Russians.
Immigration Equality executive director Rachel Tiven pointed something else out. For as long as she could remember, the most asylum inquiries to her organization have come from Jamaica. The Caribbean island is renowned for its anti-gay violence. But in two of the last five months, Russians have eclipsed Jamaicans looking into ways to escape prosecution and persecution for being who they are. It says something that more Russians than Ugandans, whose government continues to pursue anti-gay laws, are looking into fleeing their country.
Gessen said it is “completely unrealistic” to think that Russia will roll back its anti-gay laws. In fact, she said she expected a bill to take children away from their same-sex parents to be reintroduced shortly after the closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics. Just to be clear, Gessen made a chilling warning. Feb. 24, 2014, the day after the Olympics close, “is the day when things get really bad.”
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