Russia: How L.G.B.T. Couples in Russia Decide Whether to Leave the Country

Masha Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of ten books, including, most recently, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.

In March, a member of the Russian senate asked the prosecutor general to look into the issue of yoga in pretrial detention. Yoga classes, organized on the recommendation of human-rights activists, had been offered to a limited number of inmates since September. But then Alexander Dvorkin, a man who is considered the country’s preëminent expert on cults, wrote a white paper warning that yoga can lead to sexual arousal, which in turn can lead to homosexual contact between inmates. Yelena Mizulina, a parliament member who has proposed a variety of antigay bills in the last seven years, immediately contacted the prosecutor general’s office, and this past month, yoga classes for detainees were suspended.

We haven’t kissed in the street since 2013 [when the Duma criminalized] propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations. And we didn’t kiss in the apartment until I put up the blinds.
— Nina

I left Russia with my family five and a half years ago. The parliament had just voted unanimously to ban what it called “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” directed at minors and, on a separate day, adoptions by L.G.B.T. people. Mizulina publicly pledged to create a mechanism for removing adopted and biological children from the homes of same-sex couples. The country was tumbling into some black hole of homosexual panic, and getting out seemed to be the only sane option.

Even if the decision to leave seemed inevitable to me—even if, like many émigrés, I need to believe that I had no other option but to uproot my family and run—most of my queer friends have stayed. I know many people whose situations are substantially similar to mine but for whom the choice wasn’t nearly so clear-cut. These are people with the resources, financial and otherwise, to enter into the legally complicated and often expensive process of emigration—they would be able to move more easily and smoothly than many of the L.G.B.T. asylum seekers I know in the United States, who have had to start their lives anew with next to nothing. Their relative affluence and social connections both make it possible for them to carve a life for themselves in Moscow and make them feel like they have a lot to lose by leaving.

The decision to emigrate is unlike other life decisions. It is a leap into the unknown; in this, it’s like having a first child, and it can be like marriage. But, with marriage or having children, one can witness the lives of loved ones who have already taken the leap. Even in the Internet era, people who emigrate disappear from the daily lives of their friends and families. They pursue lives in a new language, form connections in a new society, and shape careers in a new framework, and the more they do this—the more they master the art of immigration—the less intelligible their lives become to those left behind. As life’s passages go, in other words, emigration is a bit like death.

Most of the people I interviewed for this article have been talking about emigrating for a long time. There was a point, in 2013–14—as Putin’s political crackdown intensified, the Kremlin’s antigay campaign revved up, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the Russian economy crashed—when all of them were looking for ways to at least secure the option of moving abroad: a second passport, a residence permit in another country. But during the past five years or so, they have stayed in a state of fragile equilibrium, ready to leave but not leaving. One couple even returned after four years of living abroad. Read more via the New Yorker