Worried About LGBTI Russians? Worry About What Happens After They Flee

Published: September 25, 2013

 Much of the recent outrage about Russia’s anti-gay law misses the full context. Some are calling for a boycott of Russian vodka or the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Right-wing U.S. activists have also entered the fray, taking a stand in favor of the Duma’s new legislation. Often forgotten in the mêlée are the persecuted LGBTI Russian citizens themselves. If they must flee, where can they go? Who will help them?

When I hear about legislation like Russia’s, my thoughts go not to dumping vodka but to innocent people living in homophobic and transphobic environments worldwide who are forced to flee for safety, often for their lives. 
There are 76 countries in the world where same-sex relations are criminalized, from Singapore (up to two years in prison) to Kenya (14 to 21 years in prison). Some countries even impose criminal penalties on doctors and social welfare workers who help LGBTI people. You might then wonder whether Russia’s "anti-gay-propaganda" law is really severe enough to produce refugees. It doesn’t impose the death penalty, after all. But consider: This legislation barring public discussion of gay rights, gay identity, and gay relationships "anywhere that children might be exposed" effectively gives the state license to punish "gayness." And the concern is not just the law itself. State-sanctioned scapegoating opens the door to discrimination and harassment by private citizens. Activists in Russia have pointed out heartbreaking spikes in anti-gay violence among the general public following the anti-gay legislation.
The pernicious and invisible truth is that LGBTI people are forced from their homes by state-sponsored and citizen-led discrimination and violence every day, all over the world. 
As hard as it is to survive at home, becoming a LGBTI refugee or asylum seeker can be just as grueling. The first barrier is finding both the courage and the means to leave. In most countries, LGBTI refugees don’t have the resources or contacts to secure a ticket and visa. The vast majority who do manage to escape end up in nearby countries: from Iran into Turkey, from Uganda and Cameroon into South Africa, from Russia into Ukraine. Unfortunately, they often then find themselves in similar peril. While their sexual orientation or gender identity may not subject them to a prison term or capital punishment in this "country of transit," our research has shown that LGBTI refugees — strangers in a strange land — still experience anti-LGBTI harassment and horrific assaults like "corrective rape," in addition to the xenophobic discrimination that all refugees face. 
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