Dmitry knew it was time to leave Russia forever the night a first date went terribly wrong. He met a man through a gay dating app, popular in Europe the way Tinder or Grindr have been in the U.S. "He seemed like a normal guy. He said he was a clerk in an office or something," Dmitry (who preferred not to use his last name here) explained. They agreed to meet at a bar. But when Dmitry arrived, five men were waiting for him, none of which looked like the picture from the man's profile. "They were all gay-haters," he lamented in a recent conversation with VICE Impact. As he got close enough to confirm none of the men were his date, they launched to attack. One grabbed at his collar, another tried to bear hug him from behind. "I fought them off as much as I could, then I ran." He got away with some minor scratches and a bruise, went home and started researching on the internet what it would take for him to claim asylum somewhere he could be safe.
That was in 2016, three years after Putin's infamous anti-gay propaganda law validated an already toxic homophobic culture. The law criminalized anyone holding a pride event or speaking in defense of gay rights. If found guilty, perpetrators could be fined up to $31,000. "It was like a quintessence of all that was happening those years. It's like the state says 'gay people are shit and you're outlaws, we will not protect you anymore," Dmitry remembered.
Dmitry saw the impact of the law reflected in the media and pop culture as well. "I was at a friend's house just hanging out watching TV when this famous talk show came on. It was a really popular one, and the host starting talking about gay people so badly, it made me so angry." Dmitry said.
The man he is referring to is Dmitry Kiselev, whose on-camera hate speech enraged human rights activists worldwide. He proclaimed to a cheering audience that the law wasn't enough. Direct to camera, Kiselev touted: "I think they should be banned from donating blood or sperm, and if they die in a car crash, their hearts should be burnt or buried in the ground as unsuitable for the continuation of life."
Dmitry decided he'd work another year to save money while figuring out how to apply for asylum. That was until his boss found out he was gay.
"He told me that there was no place for people like me in his division. He said,'You should quit. You shouldn't shame us.'" Dmitry did quit, but he didn't go quietly. "I called him an asshole," he said.
To make ends meet while he figured out how to get out of the country, he worked remotely and did odd jobs. He eventually came upon a Facebook group called RUSA LGBT. The community group based in New York has been around since 2008, and is somewhat of a one-stop-shop for those both seeking sanctuary out of places they weren't safe, and those who had made it the U.S. seeking support in starting over. . Whether it's helping people as they apply, connecting them with free lawyers, or if needed, temporary housing and affordable medical services once they arrive, they do what they can. The organization is also completely volunteer-based with no paid staff positions.
In the last few years, RUSA LGBT has seen a serious increase in people seeking assistance out of Russia. Alexy Lyosha, Co-President and a former asylum seeker himself, says that it's partially due to HIV programs closing there, but also that services that do exist are corrupt because of the intolerant culture.
"If you go to get medical care for HIV there, they are going to ask you how you got it. Sometimes they just assume it's because you are gay. Some doctors say, 'You are a faggot, and you are going to die, I am not going to save you.' We have people here whose partners have died waiting for treatment. Or who won't get treated at all because they don't want to deal with the humiliation," Lyosha said.
Russia surpassed over a million documented HIV cases last year, with the estimated total of infections being higher to include those who don't get tested. The World Bank estimates 20,000 will die each year from HIV/AIDS by 2020, no thanks to a governmental attitude that's been described everything from apathetic to in denial that there is an epidemic at all. Reports show that only 30 percent of people get treated for HIV once diagnosed, whether they contracted it from sex or needles because of lack of access to medication. The crisis has also driven many Russians to the black market for HIV meds, which brings the risk of counterfeit products and price-gouging.
Dmitry, however, didn't find out he was HIV positive until he came to the states. He had bought a tourist visa and round trip ticket from Moscow to Los Angeles even though he knew he wasn't coming back. "They didn't have one way tickets available, I could only get a plane out, if I bought one for the way back," he said, a little resentful of the hit to his wallet. Once in L.A., he booked a motel in San Diego, where he had a Russian friend he had met through Facebook who offered to help him get oriented to the U.S. When he told his friend that he hadn't been tested, and they went in together.
"I had some health concerns in Russia, but I wasn't sure," he explained. Once he found out, he started getting treated right away through a clinical study at the UCSD Antiviral Research Center.
When asked what it would have been like it he found out in Russia, he says he doesn't know what he would have done.
"It's like a death sentence," he said. "They say those tests are confidential, but they aren't. They put a big red 'x' on your file, anyone at the hospital can see it. They don't respect your privacy."
Now in New York, Dmitry attends weekly HIV support group meetings run by RUSA LGBT. He also just filed his asylum case with a pro-bono lawyer and is awaiting confirmation for a work visa, which takes up to 150 days. While he's found America to be a starkly positive contrast to his home country, he has also been warned of certain areas when he might not be well-received.
Lyosha sees it happen frequently in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, known for its heavily saturated Russian population.
"A lot of people who come here undocumented and can't speak English. Where are you going to go? Where you can speak your language. But people are humiliated," Lyosha says of the area, which he also lived in when he first arrived in New York. "It's almost worse than Russia in some ways because many of the people who live in that area came here during the beginning of the Soviet Union, and their views are that much more outdated."
This year, Lyosha and a team of 150 volunteers are looking to change that.
While RUSA LGBT has participated in New York City's famous Pride Parade, they are taking it local for the first time with the Pride Parade in Brighton Beach on May 20. Lyosha expects some pushback from the community, but it's not stopping him. "I'm not scared personally, but I'm aware that something might happen. Not physical, but verbal abuse is quite expected."
He feels it's especially important to march because it's a privilege people back home don't have. Just this January, 300 people were banned from marching in a LGBTQ pride event in the Arctic circle, in the town of Salekhard, Russia under the anti-propaganda ban, which has banned pride parades for 100 years. Lyosha explained, "We do this here because we need to address it to the public and confront those views. People are being treated as second class there, too. It's worse than Russia because those people left so long ago, they haven't evolved."
As for Dmitry, he plans on marching this year as well. He also wants to become an activist in the HIV community, and recently protested at the Russian Embassy in response to the horrific reports of the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. And while he is grateful to be free of the hateful environment in Russia, it's a little bittersweet.
"Once you claim asylum, you can't go back. You leave that country because you are in danger." While most asylum seekers are able to travel once they become citizens, Dmitry says that doesn't matter. "I won't go back to Russia, ever. It's not worth the risk."