Five years have passed, as it was only yesterday, I got off the plane in JFK, shivering and uncertain about neither my future, nor my past, carrying one suitcase, questioning myself if I was alive at all. My past has been brutally erased by the state of the “homosexual panic” emerging from the “traditional” political course taken by the Russian Government. The Russian authorities have declared a war to LGBTIQ individuals exercising its brainwashing technologies and using anti-Western, anti-liberal, and anti-human ideas. That vicious propaganda (the “best” replica of the Anita Bryant’s tradition) portrays queers as those who are “corrupting our children, and youth.”
The legal basis for that crusade is a “notorious” “propaganda of non-traditional values” legislation passed by the Russian Parliament in June 2013. By default, this legislation is aimed at targeting politically “undesired elements”, such as LGBTIQ activists, educators, teachers, scholars, etc. This legislation has brought to life the old concept of “scapegoat” who should be blamed for all national failures. In reality, the “propaganda law” is set to distract the society’s attention from the economic and political decline caused by the enormous corruption and Putin’s grief for power.
The “propaganda” legislation has a biggest support from the Russian Orthodox Church -the old enemy of social progress. Its actions have untied hands of nationalists, right-wing groups, and “ultra-patriots”, who have taken unprecedented steps to hunt LGBTIQ people down with Medieval atrocities. I had become a target for those groups as well as the Federal Security Service myself for being an open queer professor, deputy dean, and scholar promoting queer and gender studies. I had no much time to think over. I was chased by the Security agent and radicals and had to flee Russia without looking back. The same fate has struck many others who are forced to an exile, including to the U.S., looking for a refuge and better treatment, hoping to breathe freely with no fear to be judged, criticized or harmed for being our true selves.
I arrived at New York with no much friends, money, connections, language, and understanding the strange and totally unknown environment. By accident I got to Midwood (Brooklyn). By miracle I rented an apartment and settled down there not knowing exactly what the neighborhood looked like in a daylight. Slowly but not mistakenly, I begun to sense the familiar and strong, to suffocation, smell of my Soviet childhood while making my first trip to a grocery store. I had soon learned that my neighborhood was predominantly occupied by the Soviet emigres and fresh immigrants from all over the Post-Soviet space who have created a sort of ghetto with an invisible fence.
One day I was riding a Q train. I was minding my own business, chatting with mate, when I had spotted three elder women staring at us. They were talking loud in Russian. Not having a clue that we did understand the language, they were cursing us out, “Look at those faggots.” That was my first encounter with the “Brighton Beach” phenomenon. It did hit me, and I was about to spit out something back, but decided to keep my identity unrevealed, not particularly interested in arguing and wasting my energy. Next time, I was called “faggot” passing by a Russian store, and it felt disgusting.
By the time, I got involved with the Russian-Speaking queer world of immigrants in September 2014, I had been called “faggot” with a sad frequency. I experienced an unpleasant flashback. I pinched myself to make sure that I was in New York, not on the streets of my home city. No doubts, I was not alone in re-discovering the old Russian resettlement which is frozen in time. I found that many of my compatriots were living at the time in Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, and Brighton Beach areas. However, they preferred to not disclose their sexuality playing along by the golden rule of the neighborhood “Do Not Ask, Do Not Tell, but Gossip Quietly.” Russian-Speaking queers always find an excuse to stay in the closet, “if my landlord / my employer knew I was gay, they would kick me out.” I got furious, interrogating them, “Why did you come here, to tolerate the same treatment you had back to your countries?” Although I knew that there was not such thing as a magical carpet which can transfer people from one point to another quickly.
This is not easy for many of my LGBTIQ siblings to digest the new culture, which does not force you to hide yourself in order to survive. Often, our queers even do not have a vocabulary to define their feelings or identities. After years of being repressed and oppressed in their countries, they have developed a fear sitting deep inside, a fear to be emancipated and liberated because it requires to be responsible and stand for yourself. This is particularly hard to do when their myth about the “land of abundance” is shattered by the ignorance of the conservative Soviets. “Soviets”, frankly, trying to keep a status quo, not welcoming strangers to their communities. It leads my LGBTIQ fellas to stick to an internalized homophobia because they are not empowered to do otherwise!
When I got involved with RUSA LGBT in 2015, I had heard already about instances of physical violence against our people in Brighton Beach, including verbal abuse and threats at the workforce, and housing. As I learned, most of the victims were told that they had no rights because they were immigrants with no permanent status yet, and their perpetrators used that argument quite smartly. Our people, apparently, got terrified and swallowed that lie as they had no knowledge of the law and immigration proceedings, afraid of being deported.
Fact that almost neither of queer immigrants reports any incidents of violence to the police. I do not blame them, as in our countries the last call you would make if something happens is to the police. Police, by default, are the enemy of LGBTIQ in the vast majority of post-Soviet countries. Police are perpetrator, who harasses, hunts, abuses, and kills LGBTIQ folks in Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Azerbaijan. So, police are not an option.
In 2015, during on e of our regular meetings, half joking, half seriously, I proposed to hold some sort of Russian-Speaking Pride (that lately I would call Brighton Beach Pride), “We should face the community, we should take the initiative, and finally come out and show them that we are here, and we are queer living side by side with them, going to the same stores, and doing their hairs for the God’s sake.” I added, we were not in Russia anymore, where you cannot not address to the law, but we were in the U.S., in NYC, the City where discrimination is officially prohibited. The idea met no support at first and was named a utopian concept. Some even suggested to follow the simple strategy of escapism, “Let’s leave them alone [meaning Brighton Beach], and just move to another place.”
The idea to keep pretending of being someone else while you are not, and let people to continue living in their bubble, which you have no access to, is not appealing to me, and makes me struggle with my own community. I can understand their struggle though.
It took me two years of educating, inspiring, provoking, teasing, and empowering my LGBTIQ siblings to persuade them that if we were not going to take care of ourselves, to rise our voices, and to take steps towards changes, we won’t be able to find a peace, and we will transmit our fears, and anxiety to others who might come after us. I DO have another argument in my pocket though, which is – moving to other neighborhoods is not a guarantee that we leave behind our own lack of confidence, and lack of self-acceptance. You might move to Manhattan, but you cannot move out from your own internal doubts, burning your spirit.
The idea of having Brighton Beach Pride does not come from the desire of glory, or desire to set fire on the Russian-Speaking neighborhoods, accusing its residents in bigotry and obscurantism. The concept of Pride comes out of the necessity to fulfill our dreams, necessity to feel safe, necessity to secure the future of those who would love to live there but have no strengths to speak up.
The essence of the Brighton Beach Pride is to create friendly relationships with locals, to help them to overcome patterns, and stereotypes towards us and “others” as homophobia is just one of components of xenophobia. It is crucial to remind that once some of our antagonists were victimized, marginalized, and ostracized by the Soviet Government, which had forced them to abandon everything they had, and came to the U.S., where eventually they have found a refuge. This is the same with LGBTIQ people now. We are coming from the Soviet republics, fighting for our right on being happy, free and alive!
There is a terrifying historical throwback as a new genocide (alike Holocaust) has emerged as hundreds of queer people have been tortured, and many of them have been killed within the last two years in the Republic of Chechnya in Russia. There is an institutional violence in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan where LGBTIQ individuals get captured by the law enforcement and beaten up in the cell while their names are in a public record. There is a wide spread chain of a right-wing nonsense called “Occupy Pedophilia”. The movement which was started in Russia by a neo-Nazi leader, and has extended to Ukraine, and Belarus, aimed at hunting gay people down (they call it “safari”), humiliating them on camera, physically abusing and blackmailing them afterwards. There is a disturbing arise of the Russian Orthodox Church that bringing back the Medieval methods of treating LGBTIQ individuals, taking away their children, and demanding to criminalize sexual relations. Desperate, and often spiritually broken, LGBTIQ individuals seeking for any opportunities to leave their countries, coming to the U.S., to NYC, to Brighton Beach!
For us, PRIDE is not a way to show off as many might say, but a strategy to heal our wounds, and, perhaps, for the first time ever, to find a sense of belonging by becoming a part of loving, and receptive community free of prejudices, nightmares, and flashbacks!
RUSA LGBT had launched the first Brighton Beach Pride two years ago, on May 20th, 2017, which attracted more than 300 supporters, including Public Advocate (now – New York State General Attorney) Tish James, writer and journalist Masha Gessen, Broadway actor Josh Daniel etc. That was a joyful, historical and unprecedented momentum. Although the Pride was not taken positively by many skeptics from the Russian-Speaking LGBTIQ. The main argument was that we were shaking the air and fighting the “wind mills.”
Well, such skepticism does not take us aback. People need to realize that changes do not come over night. Changes is a slow, sometimes annoying and full of disappointments, process.
Pride is not the only tactic of change. It could be other strategy in a baby steps logic! I SAY, start loving yourself, start telling yourself that you are not alone, and you are not to be blamed for somebody’s ignorance, start talking to your mates, friends, parents explaining them about yourself, and start being honest when you are asked either in a barber shop or Brighton Bazar “Are you married?” Do not let prejudices to overshadow you! This is your life and your fight, and this fight not necessarily should be global, or publicly recognized, this is YOUR choice how it should be as only YOU are in charge for your own life, and your future!
As long as I live, I won’t get tired to shout out loud, Pride comes with your ability to believe in yourselves rather than with ability to satisfy social expectations!