“Russian LGBTs seek asylum in U.S.” – Bay Area Reporter, February 2014

  • February 20, 2014
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Russian LGBTs seek asylum in U.S., An Interview with Okan Sengun, Esq. 

by Heather Cassell, Bay Area Reporter, February 2014

An influx of Russian LGBTs fleeing the Slavic nation is landing on U.S. shores seeking asylum, according to queer immigration experts.

Immigration Equality received 120 requests for assistance from LGBT Russians seeking asylum in 2013, Michael Sisitzky, a staff attorney for the organization, said during a recent online panel discussion about Russian LGBT human rights and the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Sisitzky said the number of requests doubled from 2012 to 2013, with the number of requests from Russian LGBTs spiking fourfold a month after President Vladimir Putin signed the anti-gay propaganda bill into law last summer. Immigration Equality is currently working on more than 30 asylum cases for Russian LGBTs when normally it worked on 11 cases from Russia a year, he said.

Gay immigration attorney Okan Sengun in San Francisco agreed.

“There is definitely an increase in Russian gay asylum applicants, especially in New York and San Francisco,” said Sengun.

Two months ago at Christmas a group of gay nightclub workers and their manager, Arkady Gyngazov, showed up at Immigration Equality’s offices in Washington, D.C.

Gyngazov, who is the former manager of Central Station Nightclub in Moscow, said life was good for him until recently.

“My gay life was quite good,” said Gyngazov, who moved to Moscow from his small hometown in Siberia in 2006. He immediately built a life for himself as an openly gay man in the bustling Russian capital.

He worked as a clerk and managed the nightclub, he said during the online discussion with LGBT and human rights experts, which was hosted by the National LGBT Bar Association.

“I was never an activist,” said Gyngazov, whose life revolved around the nightclub. He never attended or organized gay Pride events or rallies, the club was his life, but life was rapidly becoming more difficult for him in Moscow.

The situation became dire when he and the club were attacked by anti-gay rioters. He found that in spite of how difficult it was to leave his life in Moscow, he had to. He never hid his homosexuality and he didn’t want to begin now.

Within the two months leading up to his leaving Russia, “It became more hard to meet my friends [and there were] some problems [that] started in the club,” he said.

SF man wins asylum

Ivan K., a 26-year-old gay man who isn’t out to his family and didn’t want to have his full last name used because of concern for his family’s safety back in Russia, didn’t want to hide who he was either. Last May he sought and obtained asylum in San Francisco with the help of his friends and Sengun, his attorney.

The B.A.R. met with Ivan at Sengun’s office in downtown San Francisco last month.

The somewhat shy, but bubbly Ivan who traded Moscow for San Francisco was happy to be safe living and working at Trader Joe’s in the “gay mecca” where he is no longer threatened daily by being attacked simply because he is gay.

Unlike in Moscow, he is out at work and surrounded by supportive co-workers – gay and straight – and bosses, he said. In Moscow, where he worked for Johnson and Johnson’s offices, Ivan watched as a new supervisor fired an out gay co-worker. Ivan kept his sexuality hidden at work, but it wasn’t the life he envisioned for himself.

Living in Moscow, where he moved from his small town in southern Russia when he was 22, he learned to be careful. He didn’t go to or leave gay nightclubs alone, but even taking those precautions didn’t protect him. He became a victim of many anti-gay assaults, he said. One sent him to the hospital with a cut in his eye and bruises.

“I had a lot of accidents,” said Ivan, who described the anti-gay assaults as “accidents” and “situations.” “I saw a lot of bad situations.”

Ivan began to search for the life he wanted and found it in San Francisco during a visit in 2012, but it would still be a year before he would return permanently. He returned to Moscow, but nearly a year later he suffered his final anti-gay assault. A month later he left Moscow to study in Toronto, Canada and then made his way back to San Francisco to visit friends by May 2013.

By that time the situation in Russia for LGBTs was rapidly deteriorating into a series of violent incidents that were sometimes deadly. Then Putin signed the anti-gay bill into law.

“For me, it is dangerous back in Russia and be openly gay,” said Ivan, who holds degrees in engineering and law. “My American friends advised me, ‘Hey you can’t go back to Russia. You should stay here.'”

His friends introduced him to Sengun, who used to work for the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration. Sengun fast-tracked Ivan’s asylum case and within two months, an unusually quick turnaround, his asylum was granted.

Asylum is typically a last resort because it is a tedious and long process in most cases, said Sengun. Immigration Equality’s Sisitzky agreed.

“Ideally we wouldn’t be in a situation where people have to flee their home countries and activists there could actually work to realize some kind of positive change,” said Sisitzky, who sees asylum as an “escape hatch” once situations in countries get to a point where it’s no longer safe.

“When it gets so bad to the point when those activists who are just everyday people are no longer safe, no longer comfortable [to] live their lives there,” said Sisitzky, “they know that if they make it to the U.S. they can receive a claim for asylum.”

Ivan saw his life in Russia as he knew it had ended. He tolerated the situation until he was in fear of his safety if he returned.

“It’s very important to love … and give your love for other people,” said Ivan. He never described himself as an activist, but now he wants to return to school to become a documentary filmmaker to tell gay people’s stories and to create a campaign to help support LGBT Russians.

“I want to be who I am. [It] is very important to me to be honest and be open,” said Ivan. “I think that its main part of success [is] to be open and be honest with yourself.”