World

This Gay Russian Couple Is Helping Other LGBT Immigrants Find Their Way In New York

When Oleg Dusaev, a pianist and journalist, and Dmitriy Stepanov, a psychologist, booked tickets from Moscow to New York last October, they planned on taking a vacation. But instead they found themselves starting their lives over in the U.S.

This is their story in their own words, as told to Susie Armitage.

We were in such a fog when we came to New York. Only a few days earlier we had buried Dima’s beloved grandmother. Oleg had just lost his job as a television producer after coming out. In Moscow we were constantly threatened and attacked on the street.

We’ve been together for more than six years. We decided to get away and go to New York to get married. In New York we quickly made new friends.

We posted photos of our wedding on Facebook.

Dmitriy Stepanov (left) and Oleg Dusaev on their wedding day. Photograph by Roman Mamonov, courtesy of Oleg Dusaev and Dmitriy Stepanov

The celebration quickly became front-page news in Dmitriy’s hometown, Saransk. But the coverage was a far cry from the typical wedding announcement.

The headline reads “SODOM AND RIDICULE,” a play on a Russian word that rhymes with Gomorrah. “A resident of Saransk ‘got married’ to a man from Kazan, amusing their friends and shocking their relatives.” Stolitsa S

We had tickets to come back to Russia on Oct. 29. The night before our flight, Dima’s godmother sent us the scanned article. That was the last straw. Oleg called the airline immediately to cancel our tickets.

The local paper in Saransk ran a second attack piece a few weeks later.

It quotes Dmitriy’s former teacher: “I thought that he will be a good husband to some lucky girl. I did not expect him to end up with a guy from Kazan! I can’t believe it!” Stolitsa S

Oleg laughs now and says, “Look, we’re like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, on the front page of the paper.” But when it happened it was certainly no laughing matter. We had the sense that our lives in Russia were over, that we couldn’t go back. We worried the harassment might not be limited to newspaper articles.

Our happy day was hopelessly ruined. Our honeymoon was poisoned by anger and hatred. Dmitriy was accused of ruining his school’s reputation, of disgracing his teachers and parents. He still worries about his parents. They have to live in a stifling, small city where people think the marriage of two men is a moral insult and a personal affront.

We had been to visit his parents many times. They had treated Oleg well. Of Dima’s whole family, only his mother talks to us now. Imagine how great the level of homophobia is in Russia, if educated people are ready to break off contact with their son and their brother after his wedding. It’s like the Middle Ages.

Photograph by Roman Mamonov, courtesy of Oleg Dusaev and Dmitriy Stepanov

When we decided to stay, we had a lot of mixed feelings. On one hand, we saw that in America there were good people ready to help us. But we also understood that we were starting our lives over completely. You have no experience, you feel like an infant. You don’t know the language, you don’t have a job, you are very confused, and at the same time you have the feeling that it is impossible to go back.

Russia is our home country and we still love it. But unfortunately we are most proud of its past. The present is troubled, and the future is cloudy. Russia is our friends and relatives, the places we grew up, our favorite writers, scientists, composers, and colleagues. We fear and don’t trust the Russian government.

It’s such a shame that as talented and successful people, we have become outcasts in our home country, where we could contribute quite a lot. Oleg was a volunteer at a children’s hospital and always tried to be a truthful journalist, even when he was pressured. Dima helped many people through his work as a psychologist. But if you are gay, then that is the defining factor. Not what kind of person you are, but what you do in bed — whether it’s with a woman or a man.

The best, talented, educated people are leaving Russia. But it seems that suits everyone.

Dmitriy and Oleg at the May 6, 2012, anti-government protest at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. Courtesy of Oleg Dusaev and Dmitriy Stepanov

America and other Western countries can do one real thing to help Russian LGBT people: Accept those seeking refuge. We get a lot of calls from battered, frightened LGBT people in Russia who don’t know how to move to America. It would be great if Russian LGBT asylum-seekers could be treated as Soviet Jews were — as a persecuted minority group — so it will be easier for individual people to receive asylum. The U.S. should find some kind of new mechanism to accept gay people from Russia. For instance, to create a special type of visa.

Recently we got involved with RUSA-LGBT. It’s a fantastic organization. We take part in a support group for Russian-speaking LGBT people in New York. We show people around the city and explain how to buy a MetroCard, how to find your way around, where to find good English courses, how to request medical and legal help, how to rent an apartment, how to register a marriage. In our community there have already been three weddings!

A few months after they married in New York, Oleg and Dmitriy attended the wedding of a young couple from Siberia. Photograph by Aleksandr Bergan, courtesy of Oleg Dusaev and Dmitriy Stepanov

Many of the people who’ve arrived recently had to leave Russia in a hurry, without managing to make all the material preparations, or even collect all their things. When they land in America they face reality: They cannot work.

People are practically on the street and it’s not a figure of speech. Only a few days ago we worked with a young man who spent the night at McDonald’s. Without local documents — a Social Security number, a credit history — it’s very difficult to rent a place to live. Ideally, a person would get the right to work as soon as he submits his documents to apply for asylum. And then the U.S. would have a new taxpayer.

Life in Russia is very difficult psychologically now. People there have a feeling of hopelessness, that nothing will ever change. We dream of building a successful new life here — that Oleg will be successful as a musician and that Dmitriy can practice again as a psychologist. We are already free and happy because we are together, so now we want to help other people who are in need.

We also dream that Dmitriy’s family will remember that what unites us is much greater than what divides us, and that they will be in contact with him again. His love and respect for them and hope for their understanding gives him the strength to start again in America.

We are grateful to the people who are helping us get by now and we know that their investments in us won’t be wasted. Not long ago our new friend Alyona said, “You aren’t on your feet yet, but you’re helping others. Help yourselves first.” But we are happy helping others and we are going to keep helping even more. Just give us that chance.

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