Cultural Affairs: LGBT Asylum
A story of LGBT Russians Seeking Asylum in San Francisco
By Stan Sarkisov
Published Feb 2015
Three decades of life compressed in two suitcases: Katya and Taisiya packed their most important belongs—their laptops, underwear and socks—and left Russia’s cultural capital for America’s gay mecca. In six years they expect to be able to safely visit St. Petersburg as U.S. citizens. Filing for political asylum—the process of seeking permanent refuge in a foreign state because of persecution in your home country—was their first legal step. Asylum enabled Russian Jews to leave the USSR during the Cold War, and now it is allowing LGBT Russians to leave Putin’s regime. Developing case law supports LGBT people winning approval for asylum in the United States, and since Russia passed an anti-“gay propaganda law” in June 2013 that has made it a crime to say anything positive about being non-heterosexual, LGBT Russians are increasingly fleeing the country. Katya and Taisiya were the first in their friend group to leave, landing first in New York City where they met with Equality New York and got connected with a network of Russian-speaking LGBT immigrants. They arrived in San Francisco last April, coming because they believed the asylum process and success rate would be better here than anywhere else in the nation. With zero contacts in the city, they navigated the impossible rental and under-the-table job markets. “Our experience shows us the power of community,” says Katya. “It is easier to meet people here. People are more closed in Russia,” she claims. In July 2014, Katya and Taisiya got married in City Hall, surrounded by friends they made in San Francisco—other asylum seekers, both straight and gay. Last Election Day a letter recommending their approval for asylum arrived. Excitedly they called their pro bono attorneys at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP to make sure it was not a bureaucratic mistake. Once their background check clears, their application will be officially approved. Their honeymoon was a road trip along the California coast. “We were in Monterrey and an older, straight American couple asked to take our picture. They said we looked beautiful holding hands on the beach and when we told them our story, they said they loved us. It was the first time I felt complete acceptance from society and I knew I could be myself here,” Katya says. Soobchestvo, “community,” is not an often-used word in Russian. “In Russia, you are one ‘community.’ You should not stand out. You should not be different. Standing out is dangerous in Russia…if you stand out, you will be pulled in,” explains Sergei, who was granted asylum in June 2014. Sergei arrived to Oakland in February 2014 with Artyom, his best friend and ex-boyfriend. Until two months ago, Sergei lived with a lesbian couple whose daughter was an American foreign exchange student in Moscow; Artyom is still with them. The couple put them in touch with their friend, an attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). She took both cases for free. Although Artyom’s case is still pending, Sergei’s went smoothly. It took two months from application to approval. “That is a record; I don’t know anyone who got it that fast,” Sergei, who stays in touch with 15-20 Russian asylum-seekers in the Bay Area, says. As with Katya and her wife, the Department of Homeland Security determined that Sergei had suffered persecution in Russia, and did in fact possess an immutable characteristic that made him the target of violence and harassment. Yet living as an openly gay man in Russia had altered Sergei’s perception of persecution. “I moved here thinking that a lot of my experiences in Moscow were normal. Being stopped outside of a gay bar and taken to a police station for questioning was not abnormal for me,” Sergei says. “After the anti-gay laws…it got scary. I read about gay people being killed and no one being held accountable. Young straight men even started hunting for gay guys, torturing them, and uploading the videos to YouTube” recalls Lyosha, who arrived to San Francisco in January 2014. He is still waiting for his interview, and like all asylum seekers, he will not be legally authorized for employment until his status is granted or six months after filing his application has elapsed and a different form is approved. Although refugees get permission to leave their country while still on their own soil (making them a bigger target in the process), asylum seekers must be legally present in the U.S. to file. Lyosha already had a U.S. travel visa, a hurdle big enough for many Russians. He sold his stuff, quit his high paying IT consulting job and moved. “I was planning on moving, but these laws pushed me out,” he explains. Lyosha’s story is perhaps the most stereotypically Russian. He’s from a Siberian town near Lake Baikal; it was closed to all non-inhabitants during the Soviet era. His family moved to a small village in the Russian Far East, and he remembers seeing bears from the garden. His father,“an army man,” enrolled him in a police academy. “This one was okay, you didn’t get beat up by older soldiers like you would in the Russian Army,” he assures. Lyosha quit after a year to finish university with a degree in technical engineering. “I was the only person from my graduating class to leave the region, to go Moscow. Of course I am the only one to go to the U.S.,” he explains. In a country where citizens are legally restricted from freely moving from one region to another, his journey is beyond even a daydream. After only one roommate interview with an older gay couple, Lyosha got a room near Polk Street. Luckily for him, he had enough money saved to live in San Francisco for a year. “I don’t know what I will do if my asylum application is denied,” he says. His Plan B for now is to return, although legally an appeal is possible. All asylum seekers coming to one the U.S.’ most progressive and tolerant cities find it too expensive to live here. “I moved here because San Francisco is close to Silicon Valley and my only work experience is in tech,” Lyosha explains. “But I do not know how to rely on others because no one has ever helped me. I do not have a sense of community here yet, but I didn’t have that in Russia either,” he says. Unlike Katya and Sergei, Lyosha is not out to his parents and friends back home, but he is open about his sexual orientation here. “My goal is to just be happy and feel safe, to find a partner and start a family,” he says. “I hope to have that here.” For him, San Francisco is the land of possibilities. Katya and her wife, Sergei, Lyosha, and many of the LGBT Russian-speakers are all interconnected here in San Francisco. They arrived with their own baggage, but together they are all building their own community.