From Russia with (gay) love

Russia's infamous "anti-gay propaganda law" has inspired activism around the globe, from large demos to Barbie Breakout's YouTube protest. But what about gay Russians themselves? And how well is Germany extending its hand?

As more and more refugees flood into Germany, they are joined now by a new group: gay Russians. Is sexuality a valid reason to seek asylum?

“For gays, Russia is dead… Pack up your things and leave!” says Pavel (name changed). A Siberian who left his hometown for Germany back in April, Pavel was the first Russian to be granted refugee status here based on his sexuality. The road to Berlin wasn’t easy: he spent four months in various German asylum homes where, among his mainly Muslim fellow asylum seekers, he felt like “a mouse in a cage of snakes.” Yet in August, he finally got word that he could stay and work in Germany: “I’d give anything to have seen my face at this moment; it was something indescribable.” He’s now settling into life in Berlin and has just started German lessons.

Quarteera, an organisation for gay Russians in Germany, has been helping Pavel since he arrived and, unsurprisingly, he wasn’t the only one trying to escape his home country’s homophobia. Quarteera say that they are currently in contact with about a dozen gay Russians going through the asylum process in Germany. Not everybody has been as lucky as Pavel though. One lesbian couple has already been ordered back to Russia; they’re now appealing against that decision.

Sexuality as grounds for asylum remains a very contested area and it has its fair share of horror stories. Until a few years ago, the Czech Republic was still testing male applicants’ ‘gayness’ by hooking their penises up to a machine and showing them straight porn: any hint of an erection and asylum was denied. It also emerged recently that the UK has been ordering gay asylum seekers to ‘prove’ their sexuality, and accepting homemade pornography as evidence.

Germany, too, is far from a leading light in these regards. A ruling made last year effectively ordered an Iranian lesbian, Samira Ghorbani Danesh, back into the closet, saying that she could avoid persecution in Iran (where the death penalty exists for homosexuality) if she only behaved discreetly. (After an appeal, she was eventually allowed to remain.) An advocacy group for gay rights, ILGA Europe, scored the German asylum system poorly in their most recent report, noting that they don’t provide any training or guidelines on how to deal with gays escaping persecution. Joël Le Déroff of ILGA says that while we await a pan-European ruling from Brussels, the outcome of individual cases can depend entirely on the judge.

The official line from the State Department for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) is that if an asylum seeker presents a credible case that they’ll be persecuted for being gay on return to their home country, they’ll be allowed to stay. As well as Foreign Office reports from the origin country on homophobic threat levels, the consistency and detail of an applicant’s story are the deciding factors, says BAMF.

That worked out quite well for Pavel in the end – and, as Putin shows no signs of repealing Russia’s draconian policy against “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”, he almost certainly won’t be alone for long.

When being gay is a crime.

With France and England passing new laws this year, there are now 15 countries worldwide (plus parts of the US and Mexico) where same-sex marriage has been legalised. And adoption rights for gay couples tend to follow suit. Germany, meanwhile, continues to debate the legality of gay marriage versus Lebenspartnerschaft. Homosexuality is still a crime in at least 76 countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, which account for a shocking 40 percent of United Nations members – perhaps the reason why the UN launched its first global campaign to promote LGBT rights in the summer.

Homosexuality is punishable by death in Sudan, Mauritania, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In Europe, the only country that criminalises same-sex relations is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. That looks set to change soon. However, heading in the other direction is Russia where a strict law was passed banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”, which activists say has led to a simultaneous surge in homophobic attacks from vigilante groups. Indeed, non-state persecution can often be the biggest threat, such as in Cameroon where the prominent gay rights activist Eric Lembembe was tortured and murdered in July of this year.

Originally published in issue #121, November 2013.