U.S. Jews Helping Gay Russian Asylum Seekers Feel at Home

Group founded by Jews from former Soviet Union is offering relief to asylum applicants, who are not allowed to work in U.S. and are sometimes forced to live on street.

Vlad Polishchuk/RUSA LGBT Co-President

Since the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the world media has ramped down its reporting on the persecution of Russia’s LGBT community. The Kremlin’s war against gays and lesbians is still going on, but the war in Ukraine gets the headlines.

As a result, more and more LGBT Russians are leaving for the West, dreaming about living openly without the fear of violence. The emigration wave is thought to number in the hundreds annually; international refugee-assistance groups report a sharp increase in LGBT asylum seekers.

Just this month a young Russian gay man in the United States, an exchange student, asked for asylum. Moscow then canceled the program; this year's 238 outstanding students studying in America will be the last.

For gays and lesbians aiming to leave Russia, the main big obstacle is obtaining a visa. “Most Russians who apply for entry visas to the U.S. are rejected because there’s a fear they will not return,” Neil Grungras, the founder of the ORAM refugee-assistance group, told Haaretz.

Grungras says Russians seeking asylum shouldn't divulge their sexual orientation when applying for a visa, even though there is no U.S. directive preventing gays and lesbians from obtaining one — that would be discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Those who manage to reach Europe and the States and ask for asylum face another obstacle: a long and intrusive questionnaire. Then you have to prove that you’re gay and in danger for that reason.

Evidence of an immediate threat raises the chances of being granted asylum, but not all cases are what Grungras describes as “people chasing after you with a machete.” Gay and lesbian activists who are clear opponents of the Putin regime are almost certainly granted asylum, but others have to recount threats or testify that their friends have been attacked.

Fleeing LGBT Russians often apply to Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, the United States and Canada. While applicants can work and even receive minimal financial assistance in some countries, they are not permitted to work in the United States; some have to live on the street as they wait for their asylum applications to be approved.

The Russian-Speaking American LGBT Group — RUSA LGBT — was originally made up largely of Russian-speaking Jewish volunteers. It was formed in 2008 to fight homophobia among immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

At first, the organization focused on Russian-speaking LGBT Jews; after all, it was formed after the massive Russian-Jewish immigration. Today it helps all Russian-speaking LGBT asylum seekers in the United States.

Founder Yelena Goltsman, a Jewish lesbian who came to the States from Ukraine in the 1990s, notes that members of the group host applicants in their homes for the first two weeks after they arrive in America. They help in all ways possible, providing food, money and information.

“When I started this organization, the main purpose was for Russian-speaking gays and lesbians to support each other, because of the homophobic tendencies that run very high in the immigrant community,” says Goltsman.

“It was important to create an organization that would support LGBT Russian speakers, especially young ones, who come out, as they have no reference point and are afraid that their community will reject them. It’s similar to what happens to Jewish Orthodox gays and lesbians who want to come out. There are many organizations that support Jewish gays, but we were the first to support the Russian-speaking ones.”

The organization’s Jewish origins are still apparent today, though Goltsman — a member of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the New York synagogue serving LGBT Jews — makes clear that everyone is welcome. “In the beginning, many Jews joined the organization, but we now accept everyone as long as they’re Russian speakers or share Russian culture and heritage,” she says.

The majority of the group's current members are not Jewish, but are rather new immigrants fleeing Russia - RUSA LGBT helps everyone regardless of affiliation. 

When the organization first heard about the persecution of gays in St. Petersburg a few years ago, it organized protests in New York. It didn’t shy from mentioning the Holocaust in that context.

“At the New York Gay Pride Parade, we protested the persecution of gays in Russia, and I carried a sign that said ‘First they came for the gays,’” Goltsman says.

RUSA LGBT also offers support and advice via Skype to gays living in the former Soviet Union. “I’m not here to tell anyone what decision they should make,” Goltsman says. “I've made my decision to leave — because I had no hope for a Jewish life there.”