The Winter Olympics in Sochi have put a spotlight on some of Russia’s more controversial domestic policies. The Russian law banning “propaganda” supporting nontraditional sexual relationships has come into particular focus.
Passed in June, the measure limiting public discussion of LGBT issues has been broadly enforced.
One of the first gay Russians to flee the country and be granted asylum in the U.S. since the law passed has landed in a new life in Pennsylvania. To get there, he journeyed from Russia to Cuba then on to Mexico, where he found his own way to the spot he’d identified on Google Maps to cross the Rio Grande.
He walked into the U.S. about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Spotting a mounted camera, he walked directly toward it and found a patrol car.
“I went over there and I asked them, ‘Is this American territory?’ They said yes, this is America. So at that point I said I’m here to seek political asylum,” recalled the man who asked that his real name not be used in this story.
He communicated through an interpreter, but speaking almost no English himself, he still lives in the Russian community in Philadelphia. He doesn’t feel safe being publicly “out.”
His lawyers refer to him as S.R.
Attacks on gays escalating
In Russia, S.R. experienced random harassment and attacks in public, something the Human Rights Watch believes escalated last year.
Joe Catuzzi, a law student at Villanova University who became involved in S.R.’s case, explained that Russia didn’t even decriminalize homosexuality until1993.
“It was previously a crime to just be a homosexual,” he said. “But then, starting around 2005, you had different regions in Russia starting to pass these anti-gay propaganda laws and then that basically came up to the national level where it was signed into law by a margin of 236 to 0.”
As S.R. put it, the propaganda statute made law out of what was already culture. Just under three-quarters of all Russians believe homosexuality is morally unacceptable, The Pew Research Center found last year.
In that atmosphere, S.R. said, he began to fear going to prison.
“A person can only be patient and withstand something so much until eventually you just decide, I need to leave — and find a new life,” he said.
While Russian police have beat up participants in gay pride parades, videos of New York City pride celebrations showed S.R. the possibility of a different world.
“People were dressed up and they weren’t promoting any propaganda — they were just celebrating who they were and celebrating the fact that they were happy to be here,” he observed.
From Russia to detention
S.R. said he resorted to entering the country Illegally after he was denied a tourist visa.
As a result, he spent his first five months in the U.S. in detention facilities.
From Texas, he was sent to York, Pennsylvania, home to one of the biggest immigration detention centers on the East Coast. About 800 migrant detainees live in the middle of rural, central Pennsylvania. With no foreign language resources in the inmates’ law library and no Russian interpreters available, S.R. struggled to prepare the paperwork to apply for asylum.
“Honestly, my biggest fear was that I would get deported. That’s what was always on my mind — right when I went to sleep, and right when I woke up.”
When law students Catuzzi and Michelle Majkut, recruited by a nonprofit to assist S.R., first met him, he had a black eye.
Another detainee had beaten him up, while calling him gay slurs in Spanish.
Between the visits of the law students, S.R. spent his time writing out longhand accounts of his experiences for his counsel.
Working closely with another Russian-speaking law student, Igor Ponomarev, Catuzzi and Majkut helped prepare 700 pages of supporting materials for S.R.’s case.
Learning English, looking for work
He was released the same day in November that a judge granted him asylum, wearing the shorts and sandals he was wearing when he crossed the border, recalled Catuzzi.
“We went in the car, turned up the heat because it was pretty cold that day and then as we were driving, the first stop we saw was a Walmart. We thought, ‘Let’s go in and do what we can and get some stuff together.'”
Today, S.R has one month of English classes under his belt. He’s looking for a job and getting his footing in his new neighborhood.
“Being around Russians I still feel a little bit sensitive about my past,” he said. “Just walking into a Russian grocery store, you still feel a little bit hesitant to talk to them — as opposed to walking into an American grocery store you feel completely fine.”
Spending his first months in custody has not dampened his enthusiasm to be in the United States.
“Recently I decided to explore the city a little bit. I got on the subway and went to the downtown and I kind of got lost a little bit in some areas I wasn’t really familiar with,” S.R. said. “I didn’t plan on being there, but in general being there, being free was just great.”
S.R. may have more company in the United States soon. Asylum applications from Russia were up 16 percent last year. Organizations that work with immigrants say, anecdotally, a growing number seem to be fleeing the anti-gay environment.