Queer Russian Immigrants Struggle to Escape Homophobic Discrimination

Andrey Protopopov and his husband Oleg Abshilava immigrated to the United States from Russia about a year ago to escape oppression from the Russian government. The couple lived in constant fear of discrimination and had to hide their relationship from the public. 

“We couldn’t even hold hands,” Protopopov said. “We were so scared.” 

The couple first lived in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, where they struggled with employment and unstable housing. After moving to Washington, D.C., the couple faced unaffordable medical bills after Abshilava was hospitalized. The couple is also dealing with feelings of depression, isolation, and trauma.

In Russia, where same-sex relationships are outlawed, queer people fall victim to homophobia on a daily basis. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, homophobic hate crimes and anti-LGBTQ groups have risen since 2012, when Vladimir Putin started his third presidential term. Due to the spread of Putin’s homophobic political agenda, thousands of queer Russians are fleeing the country. However, they continue to face serious emotional and financial struggles even after immigrating.

RUSA, the Russian-Speaking American LGBTQ Association, lends a helping hand to queer Russian speaking people who immigrate to the U.S. According to Katya Stark, a RUSA volunteer counselor, queer Russian immigrants continue to deal with their marginalized sexual and national identities after leaving. 

“It is very difficult for them. These people are overwhelmed,” said Stark. In order to combat Russia’s homophobic political agenda, RUSA aims to increase “acceptance” and “inclusion” of LGBTQ people within the Russian speaking public. They do so by creating an open community for people with a “Soviet past”. One way they do this is by organizing social events, such as Brighton Beach Pride. 

In 2013, Russia outlawed “gay propaganda” which disallows public displays of queerness. This summer, the Russian parliament made plans to expand the gay propaganda law, banning public discussion of queer relationships and any LGBTQ content in the media. In a time of war against Ukraine, Russians live in fear of being drafted to the militia. Queer Russians live in paranoia of being drafted or being outed, both of which could end in violence or imprisonment.

Currently, RUSA is prioritizing providing aid to Ukrainian and other Russian speaking refugees. On their Facebook page, they posted a thank you message they received from Irina, a Ukrainian refugee they helped through their immigrant aid program. 

“I want to express my deep gratitude for the support of the situation we found ourselves in, being completely unprepared and confused,” the post, translated from Russian, read. “I don’t know how I would have coped with my situation without the help of RUSA LGBTQ. Thanks a lot.” 

The program provides many services including emergency housing assistance, emergency financial assistance, and free legal advice.  Stark claims that many Russian immigrants who seek asylum don’t have access to services for a while, so they reach out to non profit organizations for financial aid. They also struggle with the language barrier so they often rely on other Russian speaking people to give them jobs.

Homophobic sentiments can translate into the Russian-populated neighborhoods in the U.S. Protopopov and Abshilava said that they were often subjected to slurs and dirty looks from other Russians when they lived in Sheepshead Bay. The divide between Russian immigrants puts the queer immigrants in uncomfortable situations and at risk of discrimination in their social lives and in the workplace. Protopopov eventually quit his job at Cherry Hill Gourmet supermarket due to homophobic comments from his boss who openly supported Putin. 

Protopopov and Abshilava soon after moved to Washington D.C. when Abshilava was offered a job as a kid’s soccer coach. Abshilava claims that he was also mistreated there by his Russian employer. When his leg was injured on the job, Abshilava’s boss dropped him off at the hospital with no further assistance. Abshilava was left to pay medical bills and received no medical leave. Stuck in a financial rut, the couple decided to reach out to RUSA and other nonprofits for help.

Protopopov and Abshilava are still struggling financially but they feel supported by RUSA and continue to be inspired by the idea of American freedom. “It’s hard here, but at least we see a lot of gay couples living freely, smiling, holding hands. That is what inspires us,” Protopopov said. Last year, the couple got married in Washington D.C. and they say that, as time goes on, assimilation gets easier. 

About the author(s)

Alexandra Aguirre is a journalist and student at the Columbia Journalism School.