Home Social Justice Russia’s leading LGBT rights activist advocates for asylum seekers

Russia’s leading LGBT rights activist advocates for asylum seekers

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Masha Gessen would not be surprised if she was the only publicly-out gay person in all of Russia.

The author and political journalist, who is considered Russia’s leading LGBT rights activist, spoke to a group of students, faculty and community members Thursday night about her work and her cause for Russian asylum seekers.

“When (people) talk about a clash of civilizations, as horrible as that sounds, there’s a grain of truth to that, too,” she said. “There’s a global culture clash right now.”

Gessen was born in Moscow and moved with her family to the United States in 1981. A decade later, she returned to Russia and served as a member of the board of directors for the LGBT rights organization Triangle for five years.

“We raised a little money, and we brought 70 American activists from all over the United States to the Soviet Union to basically conduct this conference with Russian activists,” Gessen said. “A few months later, I got a call from a friend in St. Petersburg. Six kids from Siberia had shown up, said they heard (us) on the radio and but didn’t (hear) what the date was, so they took the train to Leningrad so they wouldn’t miss it.”

Gessen has written extensively on her disdain of Vladimir Putin, starting with a Vanity Fair piece in 2008. She has also written on Russian anti-gay propaganda for publications like The New York Times.

“There are incredible elements to these laws,” Gessen said. “It prohibits the distribution of information that will cause harm to the development of children, including social equality in traditional and nontraditional marriages.”

As legal discrimination against LGBT individuals in Russia increased, Gessen became more ostracized, eventually fleeing the country in 2013 after talk of taking children away from gay parents.

She feared that her eldest child, a son she adopted in 2000, would be taken from her. The St. Petersburg spokesman for the propaganda law had mentioned her family by name during interviews.

Throughout 2014, Gessen wrote extensively on the violence exacted against LGBT individuals under Putin’s presidency, including violent attacks led by police.

“We were screaming at the cops and they said quite reasonably at that point, ‘Well look, there are a lot of them and we can’t arrest them all, but we can detain you,’” Gessen said, who was later detained on suspicion of videotaping private facilities while visiting an imprisoned Pussy Riot member.

She has criticized the attitude Western countries have had toward Putin following the Sochi Olympics and invasion of Ukraine.

“Aside from Western civilization, there’s traditional values civilizations that Russia forms alliances with,” Gessen said, mentioning other traditionalist countries, including many in the Middle East.

She talked about efforts to combat the violence in Russia, including organizations in the United States that help asylum seekers find each other and needed support. She noted that a lot of people gravitate toward New York because the largest asylum-seeking community is there.

Gessen believes the best thing students sympathetic to the cause can do is find ways to help asylum seekers.

delfin bautista, the director of the LGBT Center, hoped students would gain something from the international perspective.

“I think the possibility to learn about LGBT realities in other countries is important,” bautista said.  “We can learn from the activism which is so vibrant. We can hear about their challenges, but also their resilience.”

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One Comment

  1. Karen Drake

    October 30, 2015 at 5:44 PM

    interesting article.


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