NEW YORK - The Brighton Beach boardwalk witnessed history on Saturday as the first Russian-American Pride Parade descended on the heart of the Russian-speaking community in the United States. The neighborhood has been home for immigrants from the former Soviet Union for decades. In recent years, it has again become a refuge – this time for LGBT asylum-seekers fleeing homophobic persecution in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
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Russian-speaking gay, lesbian, transgender and queer people, accompanied by families and friends, waved signs proclaiming, “Brighton Beach is our home.” Others referenced the Jewish background of many Brighton residents: “Homophobia is not Kosher,” “Shalom Brighton.” With these signs, as well as others featuring Soviet jokes such as “There is enough sausage for everyone,” participants called on the Russian-speaking community to accept its LGBT members.
While drag queens wearing traditional Russian headdresses danced to a live band accompanying the parade, residents of Brighton Beach gathered on the boardwalk to inquire about the meaning of the commotion. Many welcomed the first gay pride march in the neighborhood. “They are right to bring the parade here,” said Ira Bammi, 54. “Our community was educated in the Soviet Union, but they want to show that they exist, they are also here. We do live in the 21st century, and it is time to accept them.”
Polina Gurevich, 76, has lived in Brighton for 14 years. “Why should people go all the way to Manhattan to express themselves?” she asked, referring to the large annual gay pride parade that takes place on Fifth Avenue. “Even in a small community like ours there are many different people who have different views. Yes, we were brought up a certain way in the Soviet Union, with a certain rigidity, and so we bring it with us anywhere we go. But life teaches tolerance and as years pass, you learn that people have rights, even if they are different.”
But others were less welcoming. “This is unacceptable. Even more, it’s offensive,” said Anatoly as he watched the parade from a bench on the boardwalk. “I don’t care who they sleep with, but I’m against a public display.” Anatoly, who has lived in Brighton for 20 years, added that he thought most locals share his views. “We are surprised that the police and the government supports it,” added his wife, Ariada. “They are stopping evolution, and in both the Bible and in the Torah it says that it’s a sin – Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s an ugliness and God will stop it.”
After the parade, participants admitted they feared the reactions of locals and were relieved that the march ended peacefully. Some pointed to the heavy police presence and the large number of the participants, around 300 people, as the reason that those who disapproved kept their distance.
“They are afraid to speak out now, but when it's one-on-one, they are not opposed to violence,” said a young man named Dima. “The march moved along peacefully and it’s great that it happened. Still, there was one granny who yelled out that we should be beaten with sticks. But the younger generation is more accepting.”
“That is not necessary true. I would say among the younger generation, its about 50-50,” retorted his friend Leon, who doesn't live in Brighton but ventures to the neighborhood when he's overcome with nostalgia for Russian food. Both say that members of the LGBT community can be denied service in local cafes or shops, fired from local businesses, suffer verbal abuse and even get attacked. “I don’t feel comfortable here, it reminds me of Brezhnev’s times in the Soviet Union,” added Leon. “I think twice about what to wear when I come here.”
L., in her 30s, lives in Brighton and has come out only to her family; she therefore preferred to watch the parade from the sidelines. “A lot of people in Brighton know me, and I did not want them to know,” she explained. “This is the first attempt to decrease homophobia here and its great. It’s really hard to be out in Brighton, you will hear a lot of comments. I used to work at a doctor’s office and I would hear the doctors talking about gay patients.” When asked about changes in attitudes among Russian-speaking Americans, she said: “I didn’t see any changes here in the last 10 years.”
Journalist and gay rights activist Masha Gessen noted the presence of citizens of Russia and other former Soviet republics who fled to the U.S. in order to escape homophobia. “It's hard for asylum-seekers to be invisible in their own community, where they live... And N.Y.C. is quite friendly, but not Brighton Beach. People had incidents here, violent incidents,” she added.
Yelena Goltsman, whose network for Russian-speaking LGBT individuals, RUSA LGBT, organized the parade, was proud of the event. "Every time you go into a new frontier, it's historical. And when you open a new frontier, it's not necessary welcoming – and in this case we knew it's not welcoming," she said. Among other activities, RUSA offers support to asylum-seekers. "A lot of the people here are so homophobic, there is no moving them," said Goltsman. "But others are those who are in the middle. We are not here to provoke people, we are here to provoke thinking.”