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WASHINGTON — “To be gay in Russia … it’s like a nightmare,” says Anatoly Kazakov.
Kazakov, 25, fled Russia in 2013, settled in the Washington, D.C., region and was granted asylum by the United States in September.
He told “America Tonight” that many people back home believe gays have a mental illness.
“There is no life [in Russia] for being gay, especially if you grow up in the middle of nowhere in a small town,” he said.
Like Kazakov, many other gay Russians have recently fled to the United States in hopes of being granted asylum, saying they're fearful for their safety back home.
Attorneys at Immigration Equality, a New York City nonprofit that offers legal services to the LGBT community and HIV-positive asylum seekers, say their caseloads have skyrocketed from 50 to 60 requests for assistance from Russian gays in 2011 and 2012 to 180 requests last year.
Many are trying to escape violent situations that arose following a 2013 law preventing gays from speaking about their sexuality or participating in public displays of affection in front of minors. The government labels that behavior “propaganda.”
“They felt unsafe in Russia,” said Aaron Morris, Immigration Equality's legal director. “Once these laws began to pass, for a lot of them, it was the last straw. I mean, they couldn’t take it anymore.”
‘They were waiting outside the club … Obviously, they knew this was a gay club. Then they asked us if we were ashamed to be gay ... I thought, ‘I’m going to die.’’
granted asylum in United States
However, it's nearly impossible to pinpoint how many gay Russians have sought and received asylum. Granting asylum is a secretive process involving many court documents that are not subject to U.S. public records laws. Also, some asylum cases can last for years while others take mere months.
The U.S. grants asylum on the basis of five categories: race, religion, nationality, political opinion and social group. Justice Department and Homeland Security officials said they could not reveal what percentage of asylum seekers identified as gay.
‘I’m going to die’
When he was living in Russia, Kazakov says he was attacked by a group outside a club in Chelyabinsk, more than 1,000 miles east of Moscow.
“They were waiting outside the club … Obviously, they knew this was a gay club,” he said. “Then they asked us if we were ashamed to be gay.”
Kazakov said the men repeatedly punched him in the face before running away.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to die,’” he said.
When police arrived, Kazakov said they interrogated him after they discovered he was gay. They never opened a criminal case.
“They told us … we better go somewhere or leave the country or get treatment,” he said. “For me, it was the first fact of realization that … I can’t get any protection in this country.”
In some cases, vigilantes lured gay men by pretending to be an online romantic interest and offering to meet in person. Many of the videos show gay men being humiliated by having the center of their scalp forcibly shaved and painted in rainbow colors. Some were forced to sit in a bathtub while an attacker poured urine on his head.
Kazakov saw many of the videos and said he lived in fear.
“For me, it was like one extra sign that I’m really scared that it could happen with me any day,” he said.
Overstating the threats?
“Almost anything in Russia is magnified a hundredfold here in the United States for domestic consumption. I question almost all of it,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Center for Family and Human Rights, a conservative organization that recognizes and promotes marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The organization signed a declaration in support of Russia’s law.
“I think it’s perfectly acceptable to say that not everybody has a right to tell their story to schoolchildren,” he said. “There is no human right in any international treaty that anybody has a right to tell their story to schoolchildren.”
Ruse has traveled in Russia, and he believes the media exaggerates the persecution of gays there.
“There’s two gay beaches in St. Petersburg,” he said. “If you go online … put in, ‘gay Moscow.’ Dozens of bars show up. It’s not like this is an underground community afraid for its lives. They live openly.”
As part of its December report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 94 LGBT people and activists from 16 Russian cities and towns. “The vast majority of LGBT activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch had been attacked at least once during public events in support of LGBT equality in 2012 and 2013 in several cities,” it reads.
“The authorities keep no data on anti-LGBT violence,” the report continues. “This allows them to deny that it is a serious problem and makes it impossible for independent groups to verify through official figures the extent of the problem and the apparent increase in violence in the past two years.”
Like Ruse, Immigration Equality's Morris has traveled to Russia. He said the threats LGBT people face there are very real. He said he spoke to scores of Russians in the LGBT movement who were looking to leave.
“We saw in the very recent past a huge top-down effort by the Russian government to disenfranchise LGBT people,” Ruse said, “and from that we also saw a sort of condoning of violence against that community.”