In the comfortable second-floor meeting space of Dupont Circle’s Le Mirch restaurant Wednesday evening, Nov. 13, the conversation had zero to do with anything so pleasant as fine dining. Instead, a small handful of organizers tried to give a group of about 20 locals better insight into the situation for LGBT people in Russia.
That insight began with a clip of Masha Gessen speaking with Euronews. The Russian-American, lesbian journalist, author of 2012′s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, was explaining why she and her family fled Russia to relocate in the United States.
”If it goes to the floor, it will pass,” Gessen told Euronews as her young child sat on her lap, referring to a legislator’s promise to draft legislation aimed at prohibiting gay people from parenting. ”They’re going to go after the kids.” Gessen detailed her rationale in an Aug. 10 piece for The Guardian titled, ”As a gay parent I must flee Russia or lose my children.”
From clip to first person, the event moved to Viacheslav ”Slava” Revin, a gay, HIV-positive Russian man seeking asylum in the United States following abuse and threats from Russian authorities due to his activism in that country. In August, Revin came to D.C. from New York, where he was living temporarily, having arrived in the U.S. in July. At the time, Revin spoke to The DC Center’s ”Center Global” group, with Larry Poltavtsev, president of the McLean-based Spectrum Human Rights organization serving as translator, and asked that his name not be included due to his immigration status. Revin has since relocated to Washington, where Patrick Forrest and his husband, Andy Monaco, have offered him temporary housing. More importantly, perhaps, attorney Elizabeth Carlson, is drafting Revin’s asylum request pro bono. Forrest added that Revin’s history of activism makes masking his identity pointless, and pointed out that Revin has been taking English classes regularly. While Poltavtsev was again in attendance, Revin this time spoke from his own prepared remarks.
”On June 12, I woke up to find a tweet from the police. It is not easy for the LGBT community to survive in Putin’s Russia,” Revin began, explaining that his LGBT activism was possible as recently as 2007, when he protested at an Iranian diplomatic mission in Russia with a sign reading ”Hands Off Gays.” By 2008, however, he wasn’t protesting Iranian laws, but being persecuted by Russia’s. ”I went from being able to post my comments about LGBT people in the newspaper to … being arrested. … I need to fear Putin, the government, the judge, my neighbors. I come back to my house and see on my door, ‘Sodomite lives here.”’
”For me it’s a choice,” Revin said plainly. ”You can wait for something bad and live in fear, or you can be an LGBT activist and say no. … I’m not a slave to the government. It’s my government. It needs to work for me.”
In the brief round of questions that followed, Revin was asked what his ”dream” might be.
”To have a husband,” Revin said to applause. ”Maybe moving back to Russia. I understand this is impossible now.”
From another man in the audience came, ”It drives me crazy that we’re all here and we care. My question — maybe it’s not for Slava, but it’s for everyone else — is what do we do? And why aren’t we asking our government to do it?”
Poltavtsev fielded that question, explaining that while it’s important to send a message to Russia’s LGBT community that their Western counterparts stand with them, most of the effort at countering the Russian crackdown on the LGBT community is being done at the State Department and on Capitol Hill.
”We’re talking to the State Department and the U.S. Congress about creating a blanket immigration program, similar to what you had for Soviet Jews in the ’70s and ’80s, so that they don’t have to go through hardship like we do with Slava,” he explained, pointing to simplified immigration protocols used to help Jewish émigrés flee the Soviet Union, and specifically thanking Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) for assistance in getting Revin to the U.S. ”We should put pressure on our congressmen and senators and get this immigration program in place, and that would help people like Slava.”
Added Revin, ”We can explain to the president that if the president and all the ministers from the G-8 tell Putin, ‘You look like a donkey, don’t do that’…. If at the next G-8 Obama talks about LGBT rights and explains, ‘You look very bad.”’
[CORRECTION: As originally posted, this story incorrectly reported that Patrick Forrest, rather than Elizabeth Carlson, is representing Viacheslav Revin in his asylum request. Forrest is, however, offering pro bono representation to another asylum seeker.]