Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.”
If you ever need a witness for your wedding at New York’s City Hall, just ask me. The pros charge $25 a pop; there is a person in the building who will arrange for a witness if you lack one. But I am a highly qualified amateur. I know both of the so-called chapels; I know that Tuesday is calmer but Friday is way more fun. A few weeks ago, I served as a witness for two couples. Because getting married is the thing to do if you are a gay or lesbian refugee from Russia.
There are many of us. No one knows how many exactly, but Immigration Equality, the biggest organization working on behalf of LGBT asylum-seekers in this country, hired a full-time Russian-speaking paralegal last winter — and still the wait for an intake interview can be weeks or months.
When you’re a refugee, you are nobody. Back home, you had your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends and even your enemies, all of whom gave you social capital.
If you’re like Nik, a journalist who recently emigrated from Sochi, you might have had the police after you, which was a sort of recognition felt nearly every hour of every day. If you’re like me, you were recognized on the street and in cafes. (As a journalist, I’d often been on television; as someone who opposes Putin’s regime, my picture had been featured on pro-Kremlin sites listing Russia’s ostensible enemies.) Or you might be like Natalia and Asia (pronounced: As-ya), whose neighbors threatened to report them to social services for raising an adorable 2-year-old girl in a same-sex household.
And now you are in New York, where nobody knows your name. But you are safe. When I talk to LGBT refugees from Russia about what it’s like to live in New York, the first thing they mention is the safety. Which is funny and awful, because they are talking about the most basic kind: physical safety. People are no longer afraid of being beaten or killed, or having their kids taken from them. Other than that, they have no safety net: no job, nor the right to look for one; no friends, other than those they met at the Russian LGBT refugee support group; no papers. This last one becomes the biggest missing piece. “Bez bumazhki ty bukashka,” an old Soviet song goes: “Without a piece of paper you are but a tiny bug.”
And a tiny bug is exactly what you feel like if you live in New York City, speak with an accent, look like you’re under 40 and have no papers. No rental apartment, no alcoholic drinks, no Costco card for you. One of the most prized recipes exchanged among new refugees, second perhaps to securing a good immigration lawyer, is how to get a New York state ID. It involves opening bank accounts, engaging in a certain number of financial transactions and traveling to the outer boroughs on a regular basis — because not all bank branches will open an account for someone with a foreign passport and without a Social Security number. Refugees also coach one another on how to get an apartment through a co-signer, how to get your emergency-room bill adjusted down and where to find free English classes.
And then there’s the one place in New York City where you can get a gorgeous bumazhka — a piece of paper — recognizing you and a partner as a married couple. You can use your Russian passport with its tourist visa. Hell, the visa can even be expired. You need one witness. Pay $25, and a city official will say to you: “By the powers vested in me by the State of New York, I now pronounce you married. You can seal your union with a kiss.” Then you kiss. In public, safely.
About two weeks ago, I witnessed for Nik and Phillippe, who had asked me to assist. They wore matching blue Oxford shirts, black vests and black bow ties. They bought their silver wedding bands in Chinatown, not far from City Hall. They’d had an appointment with a human rights organization earlier in the day, and they’d been too shy to go in matching outfits, so they changed in the cab on the way over. Nik and Phillippe and I couple-watched as we waited our turn. Our favorite were the Latina lesbians in their late 40s, one wearing a tailored white suit, the other, a white wedding gown. They had a rolling suitcase with them, presumably because they’d also changed clothes somewhere along the way.
Three days later, I witnessed for Natalia and Asia. That time, my favorite couple were two French men with a French bulldog. A lot of people came: my wife, Darya; Oleg and his husband, Dmitry; Andrei and his husband, Denis; Ksenia and her wife, Liza. Everybody wears their wedding bands on their left hands, American-style, rather than on the right, as Russians do. Not only can you get married at New York City Hall, you can also attend your friends’ weddings and get the thrill of recognition all over again. We took group photos in the chapel and in front of a giant picture of City Hall, placed inside City Hall specifically for such photo-ops. I don’t think anybody cared that the clerk kept pronouncing Asia’s name wrong, like the continent; she still felt more recognized than she had since she, Natalia and their daughter came over in January.
And I do not even believe in marriage. I’m opposed to it as an institution, and I’ve spoken about it publicly often enough that the Kremlin youth movement has declared me the No. 1 enemy of the traditional Russian family. But it turned out that getting settled in the United States with my partner and our three kids would be a lot easier if we got married. When Darya and I wed in late March, we frustrated our chosen minister by trying to refuse to say vows as part of the ceremony. In the end, each of us ended up writing our own vows. In hers, Darya said she was not so much wedding me as she was marrying the United States of America.
“We are still in the honeymoon period,” she said of her new country. “I’m sure we will have our ups and downs. But I will always love her for enabling me to marry the woman I love.”
Neither Nik nor Phillippe nor Oleg nor Dmitry nor Andrei nor Denis nor Ksenia nor Liza nor Natalia nor Asia nor I could have put it better.