Each June, the streets of New York City are flooded by a sea of glitter, beads, and boas.
This is the city's famous gay-pride parade -- a raucous procession of floats, dancers, community groups, and tens of thousands of onlookers. Here, flamboyance is offered as a response to hiding and intolerance.
The parade's message has long resonated with Pasha Zalutski, a 31-year-old native of Belarus who won the U.S. green-card lottery in the early 2000s. While attending the parade last year that message, carried on the rhythms of dance music, resonated loudly enough to spur him into action.
He and a group of gay and lesbian friends, all from the former Soviet Union, decided to do something that he says would be "impossible" back home. A year later, they are scrambling to collect the money and finish preparations for what will be the parade's first-ever Russian and ex-Soviet float.
"I just remember my impressions from going to a gay club in Minsk or in Moscow. You'd be passing some industrial buildings [and] trying not to look gay, while in reality, you are going to a gay club -- all that un-freedom, all those feelings of trying to hide who you are when you are in public," Zalutski says.
"This is about being truly who you are in public. This is about getting on the float, putting on a glitzy costume, dancing to great music, greeting the crowds -- just publicly, openly, unashamedly celebrating the fact that you can say to the entire world, 'I'm gay.'"
Zalutski, who works as a translator by day, organizes Soviet-themed gay parties by night. He hopes his connections within the city's gay Russian community -- from assimilated Russian-Americans to asylum-winners
and illegal immigrants -- will help draw a sizable crowd to the parade on June 30.
No Lenin In Drag
The float's website
also extends an invitation to gays from the countries of the former U.S.S.R. to come join the festivities in New York.
The site also solicits donations. According to Zalutski, the project will cost some $5,000 -- and that's without the professional designers employed by other floats. The Russian float also lacks the high-profile sponsorships that some others secure.
"Of course I wish I could tell you that we're going to have this fabulous theme [and] a statue of Lenin dressed up as a drag queen!" he says. "No, we're not having that. Due to budget constraints we're keeping it rather modest."
Modest for the New York gay-pride parade, that is.
"Our motivation is to truly celebrate our freedom here," Zalutski says. "We are not in it to try to transmit some very crafted message outside of the United States."
He concedes, however, that if not for his home country's intolerance he would prefer to live in Minsk.
Belarus's authoritarian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, last year told the press that it was "better to be a dictator than gay."
The float will not be the only opportunity available for gays and lesbians from the former U.S.S.R. to participate in the parade.
Yelena Goltsman, a native of Kyiv, is the founder of RUSA LGBT
, a New York-based community and advocacy organization for Russian-speaking gays. She says participants of a more political bent are expected to join her group, which will be marching for the second year in a row
Goltsman, 50, says the group's goal of raising awareness is more critical than ever.
On June 10, the Russian State Duma voted unanimously to impose fines and jail terms for the distribution of homosexual "propaganda" to minors. Activists claim the law amounts to state-sanctioned homophobia.
"It looks to me and to many of us here that gay people are new targets for the government to channel people's dissatisfaction with their lives," she says. "We're marching for political reasons -- because we want people in New York and way beyond to know that this is happening. [In] this way we hope to bring change, because [the governments of the former Soviet countries] always look out and want to know how [people in other countries] are looking at them."
Goltsman says there is also work to do within the Russian-American community, where she says homophobia remains a problem.
Daria Nuzhdina, originally from Yaroslavl, Russia, wonders what people in her hometown would think if they knew about the Russian presence at the parade and the float she will ride on.
"I think people would be curious, but people are afraid of it," she says. "People are not comfortable with it. I think that [Russia's gays] would be proud. Hopefully they will know that we're here, we're still Russians, and we give our support to them. It's not like you're the only one who's gay and the rest of the world doesn't accept you or care about you."