“It’s so important to have all of us doing a little bit, listening to other people, reading about what is really happening, becoming involved.”
Oleg is a 40-year old gay man who was born and raised in a small town in Russia. He received asylum in 2014 and residency in 2019.
I had spent a year in the U.S. as a teenager, but I never imagined that I would emigrate here. The cultural differences were so strong and I just wanted to live in Russia. It took a long time for me to adjust to the idea of possibly living in another country. The most likely triggers were the changes that were happening in Russia in 2013. They started happening very fast – the government passed anti-gay laws and the liberal or democratic discourse was getting quieter and quieter. Everything was moving towards authoritarianism.
I came with a friend in 2014. We had no idea what it would be like when we got here and what it meant to apply for political asylum.
We came here absolutely blindfolded in a way. We were lucky to get the help of some pro bono lawyers to apply for asylum. At that time, the number of LGBT asylum cases from Russia was still pretty low. In 2014, a lot of my LGBT friends still hadn’t thought about leaving Russia. My friend and I were lucky and received our asylum approval pretty quickly. A few years later, the system was flooded. Many of my friends who arrived later have been waiting for years for their asylum interview.
After Trump was elected, there was a moment where I realized that Americans are not actually the final bastion of freedom that they’d like to be.
People say, “well, this cannot happen in America.” Well, it can. And other things can happen.
There are all these currents going on globally with nationalism and authoritarianism – it doesn’t give me a lot of optimism. I lived through the shift from a feeling of democratic freedom and possibility in Russia to the current state of nationalistic authoritarianism. It can happen here in the U.S., too. You need to constantly adjust to what is happening and live your little life, just trying to do whatever you can, and act locally, because that’s the only thing you can do. Because the global changes are just too strong. I wouldn’t build my future depending on any kind of national governmental support. I can’t live my whole life here thinking this is going to be a safe haven. And it is starting to look worse.
That’s why it’s so important to have all of us doing a little bit, listening to other people, reading about what is really happening, becoming involved. Gaining compassion for other people’s experiences of persecution.
For the past few years, I’ve worked as a waiter, a delivery person, a contractor. I’m thinking about ways to continue my education and give back. I would love to go somewhere and teach basic math and English to people. I’d also love to do some sort of photography, computer modeling, something that’s creative.
It requires a little bit more belief in yourself – it’s not easy to come to a new country and to break into a new area. I’m trying to try something new alongside working to make a living. None of my education and skills from Russia are transferable to the U.S. so it’s really starting over. You have to try and adapt to the new reality. That’s one of the things that’s probably important for the immigrants who come here. You really can’t prepare yourself. You need to prepare to learn, to adjust, to be flexible.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia liberalized some of its anti-LGBTQ laws. Notably, homosexual relationships were decriminalized in 1993. Transgender Russians were allowed to change their legal gender on identity documents starting in 1997, though many obstacles and invasive surgical requirements remained in place.
In recent years, the Kremlin and many Russian politicians have consistently described LGBTQ communities in Russia as existing in opposition with “traditional values.” On June 11, 2013, the Russian State Duma adopted a law banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors.” This law made it illegal for people to talk about anything related to LGBT issues with children and meant that gay parents were automatically considered “illegal.”
LGBTQ people in Russia have long faced threats, abuse inside their families, discrimination and violence, but the 2013 “gay propaganda” law increased social hostility and stifled access to affirming education and support services.
In December 2022, the Duma toughened this so-called LGBTQ Propaganda Law, expanding it to include adults and imposing heavy penalties. The new law specifically bans all materials that authorities consider to be LGBTQ “propaganda” and imposes fines of up to $6,400 for individuals and up to $80,000 for legal entities. Foreigners could receive up to 15 days in jail or deportation for breaking the law. Trans people are particularly at risk as the law forbids the promotion of information related to changing one’s gender assigned at birth.
Many believe that these recent moves by Putin and his government are connected to the war in Ukraine and growing authoritarianism in Russia. “LGBT people in Russia are recognized by the authorities at the legislative level as socially unequal. In other words, second-rate people. The sexual life of citizens is a part of human freedom that an authoritarian regime cannot tolerate. The adoption of the law is just another brick in building an autocracy in Russia.” – Yulia Alyoshina, Russia’s first transgender politician.