Anastasia Orlova and her wife, Anna Elvira Brodskaya, were asleep in their apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia, when bullets hit their window. Male neighbors were shooting at them, angry that the women had previously refused their advances.
It was the most violent of many homophobic attacks the pair suffered throughout their time in Russia.
The couple reported the incident to police, who did nothing about it, Orlova said.
They left their jobs, family and friends and fled to New York City, where they faced a complicated asylum process, had to find work as an immigrant, and suffered verbal homophobic harassment from fellow Russians.
But they don’t plan on going back.
“I was living in a cage over there,” Orlova said. “Here, with all the problems, I’m free ― and safe.”
In 2013, Russia outlawed “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors. The vague law essentially barred any public displays of being queer and sparked international outrage for encouraging homophobia.
Recorded hate crimes against LGBTQ people have increased in the years since, according to Russian LGBTQ advocates.
Since the law passed, asylum applications from Russia have increased every year. There’s no official count of LGBTQ asylum-seekers because the U.S. does not track applicants based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But official numbers show that the year before the law passed, there were fewer than 1,000 new asylum requests from Russia; last year there were 2,664.
Many challenges await LGBTQ Russian asylees in the U.S., including the uncertainty of the asylum process, homophobia within Russian neighborhoods and racism in their own community. But asylees say the underlying safety and ability to live openly is worth the struggle.
Sebastian Maguire, founder of Seeking Asylum and Finding Empowerment, a nonprofit providing pro bono legal services to LGBTQ asylees, helped Orlova and Brodskaya with their asylum application.
He told HuffPost that refugees are able to apply for legal status before coming to the U.S., but LGBTQ persecution is not grounds for seeking refugee status in the U.S.
Instead, LGBTQ victims must apply for asylum, which can be granted only after arrival on American soil. An asylum application can be started immediately after arrival, and applicants can stay in the country while they wait for a decision. A work permit may be issued a few months after the application is submitted, but the asylum process is long. It can take many years before a final decision is issued.
“They can’t work, they can’t sign a lease, so they go to Russian areas, which are often homophobic, to find cash jobs and sublet, and are vulnerable to harassment and exploitation,” Maguire explained.
Orlova, who worked in Russian businesses for cash when she was waiting for her work authorization, said she had to leave several jobs because of homophobic and sexist behavior from bosses, and sometimes she wasn’t paid.
“My boss at the deli asked if I was a ‘real lesbian.’ He accused me of faking it for asylum,” Orlova said. “What people don’t understand is that no one would go through starting over if they didn’t have to.”
In Russia, she was an English teacher with an apartment she loved, and in America she works at a deli and as a shampoo girl at a salon. Without a credit history and official income, she has struggled to find a place to live.
She sometimes thinks, “I came here for this?” But then remembers that after the shooting incident in Russia, fear kept her mostly indoors for months. She had to quit her job. “I’d work in a deli here forever before going back,” she said.
Brodskaya said she and Orlova still encounter homophobia in New York City ― from Russians who have called her “faggot” and told her she was disgusting.
Lyosha Gorshkov, co-director of RUSA LGBT, a group supporting Russian-speaking LGBTQ asylees in New York City, said hostility toward LGBTQ people in Russian-speaking areas of the city comes out in small yet devastating ways. He described being called “faggot” by Russian nurses at a health center and a time a butcher threw meat at him after politely handing it to other customers.
“I could see it in his eyes, his outrage toward me,” Gorshkov said of the butcher.
What people don’t understand is that no one would go through starting over if they didn’t have to. Anastasia Orlova, who came to New York City from Russia
To combat the treatment of LGBTQ people, RUSA began organizing a Pride parade in Brighton Beach, an area of New York City known for having one of the largest concentration of Russian-speaking immigrants in the Western Hemisphere. The first Pride parade there was held in May 2017. The second, in what they hope will be an annual event, was last month.
It drew a diverse crowd of roughly 350 people ― some from RUSA, some from other LGBTQ groups and some who just came on their own. The crowd, escorted by about 20 police officers, marched down the boardwalk from Coney Island to Brighton Beach. They chanted in English: “Queer immigration benefits the nation” and “Brighton Beach is proud today, lesbian, trans, bi and gay.”
When the parade reached the end of the boardwalk, Gorshkov spoke to the crowd and urged people to keep fighting for acceptance in their community.
“Do not get discouraged if someone curses you down the road. Do not get angry with them,” he shouted into a megaphone. “Ask yourself, ‘What have you done today to make you feel proud? What have you done to change the attitudes of the people on the streets, in your building, in medical offices, in Brighton Bazaar or Domino department stores or Tatiana Grill restaurant?’”
Onlookers were mostly supportive during the parade, cheering or just staring at the novelty of it.
A 70-year-old Russian woman who provided only her first name, Yelena, said she supported the event.
“In Russia, I was taught to hate [LGBTQ people], but here, it’s a free country. They can do what they want,” she said.
But when the parade ended and the police left, marchers dispersed along the boardwalk and heard some taunts. “Straight pride,” yelled one passerby. “Make America straight again,” shouted another.
Members of Voices 4 ― a non-Russian LGBTQ advocacy group ― quickly rallied and yelled back, “What do we do when queer lives are under attack? Stand up; fight back.”
Building solidarity with other social justice groups is important to RUSA. The organization provided signs at the parade with messages like, “Solidarity with Muslim immigrants” and “Anti-semitism is not kosher.”
The messages are meant for the RUSA community as much as the general public.
According to Gorshkov, some in the Russian LGBTQ asylee community still harbor biases that are typical in Russian culture, like stigmatizing immigrants and people with darker skin.
“The racism that exists in Russia, LGBT people are not immune to it,” Gorshkov said.
The culture change is a tough adjustment. “To change attitudes and stereotypes is hard. Many Russian LGBT people are racist, and that has to change,” Orlova added.
The prejudicial aspect of Russian culture causes some asylees to avoid Russian areas of the city altogether.
Dmitry, who asked to be identified by just his first name to protect his privacy, came here just over two years ago. He was fired from his teaching job in Moscow after a parent found out he was gay and accused him of “perverting” their son. Soon after, a vigilante mob attacked him as those present shouted gay slurs. When police arrived, they arrested him and subjected him to another beating. He spent the next month hiding in a friend’s apartment while he arranged his trip to New York.
When he arrived in the U.S., he didn’t speak any English, but he was determined to avoid the city’s heavily Russian areas and potential homophobic interactions.
“I told myself, no Brighton Beach, no Russian community,” he said.
A petite man with soft features and long blond hair, Dmitry said that in Russia, he walked down the street with his head down, afraid of being seen as gay.
Here, he walks proudly, with his hair coiffed in a perfect blowout.
“I’m in America now,” he said. “If people have a problem with me being gay, I can just tell them to fuck off.”
#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.