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Escaping Intolerance: LGBT Russian citizens seeking asylum from persecution in Pittsburgh and across the country 

"The law ... is meant to put homosexuality back in the closet."

Alex Vasilyev, a Russian citizen living in Mount Lebanon, is seeking asylum in the U.S. because of strict anti-gay laws in his home country.

Photo by Heather Mull

Alex Vasilyev, a Russian citizen living in Mount Lebanon, is seeking asylum in the U.S. because of strict anti-gay laws in his home country.

When he was 16, Alex Vasilyev told a close friend a very personal secret — he is gay.

It was 1999 and his classmate in the small Russian town of Grahovo outed him.

"It was the end of my life there," he explains. "I was pushed around. My coat was cut open with a knife.

"Guys would punch me and try to beat me in school and in town."

Vasilyev says he did not find relief from the torture even when he left his hometown to attend college in a larger community.

"I never felt freedom again in Russia," he says. "I met a boyfriend in college and every time we went out together, our lives were in danger.

"I was beaten several times by groups who thought I looked gay. My boyfriend was beaten. Police, instead of helping me, beat me and detained me."

The hatred was far-reaching. One night at a nightclub, he says, a bouncer nearly beat him to death because he didn't like the way Vasilyev danced. The bouncer, Vasilyev says, called him a "fag" as he punched and kicked him on the ground.

Vasilyev assumed that the torture and violence would plague him for the rest of his life.

It wasn't until 2004, when he came to the United States for the first time, to work at a camp in New Hampshire, that he saw life could be different.

"I met bunch of people from all over the world there and some of them were gay as well," he says. "We talked about our lives and, by far, my stories about being persecuted and tortured in Russia were the most horrifying."

When he then returned to Russia, he realized he could not stay: "I witnessed how things were completely different in the U.S. towards gay people."

Vasilyev, now 30, says that is what led him back to the United States in 2005. He lives in Mount Lebanon, a home he hopes to never leave. His past experiences with homophobia in Russia, along with new laws targeting LGBT citizens in that country, are the reason he and a growing number of Russian citizens are seeking asylum in the U.S. based on sexual orientation.

In 1994, the State Department began to recognize sexual orientation as a basis for protection from persecution. There is no official count of the number of LGBT individuals who have been granted asylum in the U.S., because the government does not keep numbers based on the reason asylum was granted — it only tracks the number of people per country of origin. In their applications, asylum-seekers are asked to recount past persecution, but they can be granted asylum based on a reasonable fear of future persecution if they return to their home country.

Vasilyev has reason to worry. A new Russian law banning "the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" has put an international spotlight on how gay people are treated in the country as it prepares to host the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi less than six months from now.

The law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in June, sets fines for those who "promote homosexuality to minors." Fines range from $300 to $3,000 in a country where the average monthly income, according to the World Bank, is around $800.

"The situation in Russia is depressing," says Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, a legal-aid and advocacy group that helps LGBT immigrants seek asylum in the United States. "Over the past decade we've seen more and more Russians seeking asylum and afraid to return home."

Tiven says that the number of LGBT asylum-seekers from Russia is now second only to Jamaica, which she says is notoriously homophobic. Immigration Equality has about 400 open cases of gay people seeking asylum per year, she adds.

Ivan Savvine, 29, of New York City, is a blogger and activist. He says Vasilyev's experiences are not unique and that he, too, faced similar circumstances before leaving Russia for the United States nine years ago.

"Growing up gay in Russia wasn't easy. It was painful and scary," says Savvine. "I was subjected to severe bullying in high school and then went on having more serious problems as an adult, including dangerous run-ins with homophobes and police, hateful remarks by neighbors and a general prospect of living in fear for the rest of my life."

Savvine was granted asylum based on his sexual orientation in 2006. He is now a U.S. citizen.

Critics of the treatment of LGBT citizens in Russia point to the new anti-gay laws as proof that the situation is still dire. They say such laws are meant to silence the gay community and instill fear in anyone who pushes for equality.

"‘Nontraditional sexual relations' means ‘gay.' It is a broad law that imposes fines for everything from holding hands to admitting you are gay," says Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Showing any support or acceptance of gay issues could be punishable.

"The law is deeply discriminatory. It is hateful. It says there is no place in Russian society for the LGBT community. It is meant to put homosexuality back in the closet."

Since the law passed on a federal level in Russia, government officials have said hateful things about gays, and anti-gay activists have become increasingly violent, Denber says.

"The law really has created an atmosphere where it is OK to be homophobic."

Denber says Russia is not a safe place for LGBT people. Those willing to stay in the closet and avoid public displays of affection or activism may be able to stay under the radar, she says. But she questions what kind of quality of life remains.

"If you want to live openly, you will not be safe," she says. "You would actually have to deny who you are. Is this a fair way to live?"

Denber says the Sochi Games present an opportunity for Americans to get involved in the push for human rights in Russia. She suggests they write to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the Winter Olympics approach.

The Olympic committees could not be reached for comment, but have issued public statements saying they are seeking "clarifications" of the anti-gay laws and how they will be applied to athletes and visitors at the games.

Human Rights Watch is not calling for a boycott of the Olympics, but Debner says pressure must be put on the Olympic committees to enforce their ideals.

"The Olympic charter rejects discrimination, and the host country is supposed to uphold human rights and human dignity," she says. "The USOC and the IOC can make a difference. They are choosing not to."

Vasilyev and Savvine do not believe that Russia deserves the world stage now.

"It is a shame that such a big event is happening in a country where human rights do not exist," Vasilyev says.

He does not think the games should be held in a country "where people are judged and persecuted not for actions but for their look, race, origin and sexuality."

Savvine believes the Olympics should be boycotted outright and would like to see international sanctions applied to Russia due to overall human-rights violations. That gays are being targeted openly by new government regulation, he says, is not surprising.

"It is a shameless attempt by Putin's regime to both galvanize the ultra-conservative base and simultaneously distract the attention of the general population from its economic failures, ubiquitous corruption and the overall disastrous state of affairs in the nation," he says. "They are using LGBTs because this group has traditionally been stigmatized by the conservative Russian society," he says.

That stigmatization is what is leading more Russians to seek asylum here.

Vasilyev points to a poll he read recently in a Russian newspaper online that said 84 percent of the Russian public supported the law, and says that's why he does not want to return. He does not blame the people, but cites a lack of access to education, free speech and non-state-controlled media to that would provide differing views.

According to Tiven, at Immigration Equality, a provision in the current immigration law hurts LGBT immigrants more often than other immigrants: U.S. law requires that all immigrants apply for asylum within one year of their last entry into the country.

"It is an arbitrary deadline," she says. "If you come from a country that persecutes you for being gay, a country where homosexuality is illegal and punished, it can be hard to comprehend that you should come here and tell the government here you are gay — that you can be protected."

Tiven says that because seeking asylum is a legal process, it can be confusing. She says those who cannot afford to hire a good attorney or find a pro-bono group like hers to represent them can face denial of their applications.

Vasilyev's case is a testament to that. His first request, filed within the one-year deadline, was denied.

"I didn't know anyone back then," he says, "and I solely trusted one attorney who promised a lot but did not do much."

He is now in the appeal process and hopes to continue living an open life in Pittsburgh. He is anxiously awaiting a letter that will inform him of his day in front of an asylum officer at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Washington, D.C.

If he is not granted asylum here, he will seek it in another country. To Vasilyev, returning to Russia is not an option. He wants to stay in Pittsburgh because of the life he has built, including owning his own business, and the freedom he has experienced.

"I can go anywhere. I can go to Gay Pride. I can live my life and be myself without fear. I would never be able to do that in Russia," Vasilyev says. "Here, it doesn't matter who I am."

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