06/14/2013 06:16 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Discrimination Makes Me Russian

Since so many people who live in New York are not originally from here, one of the initial topics of discussion when meeting anyone new unavoidably turns to origins. After engaging in another inescapable staple of first New York conversations -- discovering what we do for a living -- a typical exchange with a new acquaintance usually goes something like this:

Stranger: So where do you live?

Me: I live in the city, in [name of my neighborhood].

Stranger: Oh, so you're from New York?

Me: No, I grew up in Miami. I was born in Russia, though. And I've been here for eight years. How about you?

Stranger: Oh, that's awesome. I'm from [usually Florida, California or a Midwestern state]. Where in Russia?

Me: Uzbekistan.

Stranger: But that's not Russia, right? You're Uzbeki?

Me: It was part of the Soviet Union. I'm not a native Uzbeki. My heritage is Russian.

Stranger: Oh, OK. Well, that's really cool!

Being Russian is really cool.

I suppose.

I enjoy the fact that I can fluently speak the language, and I am grateful to have an expanded cultural experience as a consequence of my heritage.

But most of the time, I do not think of myself as Russian. Rather, I think of myself as an immigrant-American. My Russian heritage has certainly influenced my worldview in some powerful ways, but I attribute most of my worldview to the experience of being an immigrant to America -- yet not necessarily to the experience of being a Russian immigrant to America. (I tell people I am Russian more to highlight my immigrant status than signal a specific ethnic background.) Despite a childhood in which I was, for years, teased and told by my classmates to go back to Russia, I often feel little connection to my country of origin.

So, after reading the latest news to come out of Russia this week, I thought my disconnect from the country would deepen. To my surprise, I am discovering that just the opposite is true.

On Tuesday, June 11, 2013, Russia took the boldest steps yet in its unrelenting quest to quash free speech for all and persecute its LGBT citizens in particular. The lower parliament voted unanimously, 436 to 0 (with only one abstention), to pass a bill that bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations."

The legislation, expected to pass the upper parliament and be signed into law by Dictator President Vladimir Putin, will impose sizable fines for providing minors with any information about the LGBT community. This includes holding gay pride rallies of any kind, anywhere, even exclusively for people of adult age. Breaching the law will carry a fine of up to 5,000 rubles ($156) for an individual and up to 1 million rubles ($31,000) for media organizations.

This national law follows in the wake of local laws that began criminalizing "homosexual propaganda" at the start of the decade. Early in 2012, St. Petersburg became the fourth Russian city to pass legislation that criminalizes "public action aimed at propagandising sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, and transgenderism among minors."

This anti-gay law also follows the recent imprisonment of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, two members of the band Pussy Riot, who took "public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed [them] with the goal of offending religious feelings of the faithful." Though already in prison for actions they took in 2012, the law that makes Ms. Tolokonnikova's and Ms. Alyokhina's behavior illegal was passed on the same day as the anti-LGBT law: Tuesday, June 11, 2013, by a vote of 308 to 2 (though the law was proposed and passed by the upper house in 2012).

The imprisonment and subsequent law on which it is based signal that Russia is adamant about widely suppressing free speech well beyond just the LGBT community.

As a result of this news, I suddenly feel very connected to Russia, and the Russian in me is screaming. My heritage may not always be at the forefront of how I choose to identify, but it is an undeniable part of me, especially in light of these events.

As a Russian, as an American, and as a human being, I cannot respect a country that insists on regressing into an ever more oppressive state, but I can feel for and reach out to its people. I can say, "I am Russian, and I do not support the destruction of free speech or the persecution of any groups or individuals," and I can implore the Russian people, my distant countrymen, to do the same.

Today and from now on, I choose to identify as a Russian-American and say to my brothers and sisters, "You are not alone. The Russian community in America and around the world hears your cries, and this latest assault against your freedom and dignity will not go unchallenged!"