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Activists Predict Rise In Gay Asylum Claims Amid 'Propaganda' Ban

A gay-rights activist holds a placard displaying the image of 19th-century composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky during an unsanctioned protest rally to defend the rights of Russian gays and lesbians in St. Petersburg on April 7.
In 2010, 26-year-old Artem Pavlov was followed by thugs as he left a cafe in his hometown of Ufa, Russia. The group had overheard him talking about being gay.

He was thrown to the ground and beaten before his friends could call for help. When police arrived and learned that Pavlov was attacked because of his homosexuality, they told him that he was, in fact, lucky -- lucky that the policemen themselves had not been there to join in the beating.

The details of the incident, pieced together through personal accounts in the absence of an official police report, were the foundation for Pavlov's request for asylum in the United States. The request was approved by a New York judge last year.

"I was in danger physically and emotionally from other civilians and would be in danger from the government itself, which is the definition of persecution," Pavlov says. "I would never be able to have a family. I would never be able to have kids. I would never be able to live openly. I want to live. I want to be happy."

Russia has long been a dangerous place for gays and lesbians. However, rights advocates warn that conditions are quickly worsening with a newly approved law they say not only promotes, but institutionalizes, homophobia. While the coming months will tell how the law will be applied, activists and lawyers are already predicting that more LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) Russians will be pushed to seek asylum in the West.

Those like Pavlov, who have already fled, foresee the same trend.

"By the end of the year, probably, the number will surge. Now there is a law that can be interpreted by the powers that be to arrest you [and] to assault you -- just for living your life," Pavlov says. "Thanks to that, you can you apply for asylum like it was still Soviet Russia, when it was illegal to be gay. It's basically the same thing."

Troubling New Laws

In March, St. Petersburg instituted a ban on "homosexual propaganda." Individuals convicted of promoting homosexuality to minors could be fined up to 5,000 rubles ($172) and organizations could be fined up to 500,000 rubles ($17,200). The legislation also appears to equate homosexuality with pedophilia -- a long-standing stereotype -- by levying the same fines for pedophilic "propaganda."

The first arrests were made on April 5 of two gay-rights activists who were holding placards reading, "It's normal to be gay."

Similar laws have been instituted in Russia's Arkhangelsk, Kostroma, and Ryazan regions.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Fight For Gay Rights In Russia

The St. Petersburg measures, however, are being viewed as more troubling because the city is not only the country's second-largest but also among its more tolerant. At asylum hearings, Western judges sometimes suggest that Russians from smaller towns or rural areas should relocate to cities like St. Petersburg -- an argument that has apparently lost its validity.

A number of Moscow-based lawmakers are now pushing for similar bans in the capital city and on a federal level.

Olga Lenkova of the St. Petersburg-based Coming Out, the largest grassroots homosexual organization in Russia, says community members are concerned that the initial arrests are "just the beginning." She says the prospect of fleeing Russia is "now in the minds of many."

The topic, which Lenkova says is appearing on Russian gay blogs and social media, now features in discussion groups organized by Coming Out. Gay and lesbian families with children, she adds, appear to be most seriously considering asylum.

"They do not know whether they will be considered as promoting homosexuality to their own children, or to the friends of their children, or to the schoolmates of their children -- just [in] being open as a family," Lenkova says. "This is of special concern to the families where the children are adopted -- that the authorities that are supervising such families might decide that they are not safe for the children to grow up [with] and might take the children away."

Lenkova predicts that not only will gay asylum claims rise, but that the trend will have a multiplier effect, causing the number of Russians who are aware of the option to grow.

Numbers On The Rise

In 2010, 548 Russians were granted asylum in the United States, accounting for less than 3 percent of the total number of immigrants. The United States has allowed sexual-orientation-based asylum claims since 1994 but doesn't report the type of claims it receives in its public statistics.

Olga Bychok, a Soviet-born lawyer living in New York, is well-known among gay Russian asylum seekers who make it to the city. She says that since last year, when the St. Petersburg measures were first introduced, she has been contacted by two to three gay or lesbian Russians every week, up from the usual single inquiry a week.

Not all requests are granted, but Bychok says the vast majority are. She expects her client list to increase and says she is already referencing the legislation in arguing her cases.

Joel Le Deroff, an asylum expert at the Brussels-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), which brings together rights groups from around the world, says an increase in European requests "will happen."

European Union-wide legislation has allowed for sexual orientation-based asylum since 2004. But Le Deroff adds that the new Russian measures may also have a more quiet effect -- the silencing of people who were considering coming out and declaring their homosexuality.

Then again, at least among some, he says, the laws could provide new motivation to fight.

"You may also have people who may join movements that did not exist before," Le Deroff says. "You have today a lot more LGBT organizations compared to five years ago. People have more national organizations to join and more visible ones."