Masha Gessen is a Moscow-based writer, journalist and activist who's been speaking out in recent months on Russia's anti-gay propaganda law. Though she's an American citizen, she's from Russia and has lived in Russia for many years, raising three children with her lesbian partner, a Russian citizen. Gessen hoped Western pressure in recent months would help change the course of Russia's crackdown on its LGBT citizens, but now she believes that that's not going to happen, and that it's time for Russian LGBT people to flee the country to escape what she says has now become "all-out war" against LGBT people in Russia. And she's calling on the United States to allow political asylum for LGBT Russians, and for LGBT activists here to focus on making that happen.
Yesterday, after months of rumors, a bill was introduced in the Russian Duma that compares LGBT people to alcoholics and drug abusers and would deny LGBT Russians custody of their own biological or adopted children.
Gessen had already sent her oldest son overseas, fearful that he'd be snatched by the government.
"My situation is that my partner and I are raising three kids, one of whom is adopted and two of whom are biological," Gessen explained to me yesterday on my radio program in an interview from Moscow. (Listen to clips of the interview below.) "In June the Russian parliament banned adoption by same-sex couples. It was a fair assumption that the law could be used to annul the adoption of our oldest son, so we made the decision to send our oldest son out of the country immediately."
But now, if the new law passes -- the adoption law passed in four days -- Gessen's biological children could be taken too.
"I had a horrible conversation with my daughter this morning," Gessen said. "I got the news of this bill while I was sending her off to school. I said, 'They've finally filed the bill.' Obviously we've talked about this at length in the family, and we expected something like this would show up. And she's 11. She sat there thinking. After about 15 minutes she said, 'Can I stay with my other mom if they take me away from you?' She can't grasp this, that they're trying to outlaw our whole family, that there isn't the option of going with one or the other."
Gessen said the crackdown on LGBT people in Russia has intensified, despite international outcry, and that LGBT Russians are "living through an all-out hatred campaign that's been unleashed by the Kremlin."
"You turn on the television, you see somebody highly placed," she explained, "talking about whether the homosexual 'propaganda' law is enough, or if we need to take it further. That sounds like a call to violence. It's taken as a call to violence, sometimes operating in many cities, in the very center of Moscow, in the trendiest of bars, where people have been getting beaten up, and the police do not interfere. Anti-gay violence is seen as par for the course, and if you don't want violence, remove the gays, not the perpetrators."
It's a situation in which even longtime LGBT activists may be corrupted or coerced through old Soviet tactics designed to destroy their reputations and diminish their influence. In recent weeks activists in Russia and the West have been discussing the bizarre behavior of the well-known Russian gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev, who had what was called a Twitter meltdown, sending out tweets attacking other activists and making ugly anti-Semitic remarks, among other strange pronouncements (including that he was quitting activism). At the same time, his home had been raided by the police.
"I have great respect for some of the work Nikolai Alexeyev has done in the past," Gessen said, offering her beliefs on what might have happened to him. "And I have had disagreements with him on many occasions in the past. What I do know is that he's given every sign of working for the Kremlin right now. Whether he was coerced or blackmailed into doing that through threat of arrest, which exists, through the search of his apartment, which occurred, or seduced by money, at this point he's being used as a spokesperson for the Kremlin." (Alexeyev declined a request for an interview.)
Gessen believes that the events of recent days, and Putin's interview with the Associated Press this week, in which he claimed that the charges of homophobia were blown up and that Russia can't be homophobic because "Tchaikovsky was gay" and "we all loved his music," show that criticism from outside is not going to change anything inside Russia.
"At this point, with the fact that they're proposing this law during the G20 Summit, it shows that no Western pressure is going to keep Russia from passing anti-gay laws, from endangering the lives of lesbian and gay people, from endangering our families," she said. Gessen is fortunate that, as an American citizen, with the Defense of Marriage Act now struck down, she can move to the U.S. with her partner, whom she can sponsor for a green card. But she knows that that's not the case for the vast majority of LGBT Russians.
"It's high time to talk about asylum," she said. "The only way at this point that the U.S. can help Russian gays and lesbians is get us the hell out of here."