Last June I snapped the above photo on Fifth Avenue during New York City’s LGBT pride parade. I was surrounded by Russian-speakers, many of them newly arrived from somewhere in the former Soviet Union. Most, if they had been to a pride parade at all, had been to a tiny, illegal gathering where the police arrested them while onlookers hurled insults. Here in America, there were thousands of police protecting them, and hundreds of thousands of onlookers cheering themselves hoarse.
Yesterday evening I spent Thanksgiving with some of those same people. About 50 of us crowded into a warm, welcoming brownstone in New York City. All the usual Thanksgiving elements were there—a table groaning with food, turkey (three of them), a little speech. Kids played on the floor while adults weaved around them ever more unsteadily as the evening wore on.
And again and again one heard the question: “Have you got your papers?”
Just as it was once a haven for Jews leaving the Soviet Union, the US is now home to a small but gradually growing community of gay and transgender refugees from Russia and other former Soviet states. They have a formal organization, RUSA LGBT, and an informal network that helps newcomers find work, housing and contacts. One of its leaders is Masha Gessen, a journalist who moved from Moscow to New York last year with her family after Russian lawmakers began discussing a law that would allow the state to take kids away from same-sex couples. The Thanksgiving dinner was at her home.
Among the people I spoke to were a sociologist who had come under scrutiny from the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency, because his course on gender identity breached the law Russia passed last year that bans “homosexual propaganda.” There was a gay couple, both journalists, who were arrested (paywall) after publishing stories exposing corruption in Sochi, the site of the Winter Olympics. There was a model from Moscow for whom the stress of concealing his sexuality from clients and employers became so great that he started developing cataracts. There was a smattering of people from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, and even a young Iraqi.
Of course, they’re the lucky ones. To get asylum in the US people have to be able to prove that being gay, bisexual or transgender has put them in actual harm’s way. Typically—unless their plight is so extreme that they can apply for refugee status from their home country—they have to come to the US first, and wait six months to apply for asylum. It can be months more before they get a work permit. Until then, they must either live off any savings they have, make money under the table, or find an employer willing to make a convenient “mistake” in their paperwork that can later be corrected. (One person I spoke to is working and paying taxes under someone else’s social security number.) Not surprisingly, Gessen’s Thanksgiving guests were overwhelmingly middle-class. Millions of LGBT people without the money or connections to come to the US in the first place are condemned to staying where they are, living in fear and trying not to attract attention.
Still, for the people who can make it, America truly is a haven. Before we started eating, one of the Americans present, with Gessen translating, explained the origins of the Thanksgiving tradition in the harvest festival that the first colonists celebrated along with a group of Native American guests. “Since then, people have just kept coming to North America,” they said, to laughter. “And now you’ve all come to North America. And we’re very, very thankful that you’re all here, and that we’re here, and we can all live the way we want to live. So let’s eat!”