An increasing number of gay Russians are applying for asylum in the US. Many feel threatened in their home country and have experienced physical attacks. Russia's new "anti-propaganda" laws have worsened the situation.
"It was a terrible accident," recalls Alex Kovkov during a DW interview. The car crash he is referring to left him so badly injured that he could hardly say his name, but the hospital employees refused him treatment. Nobody even offered him a glass of water.
While this scenario may sound like a bad dream, for the 33-year-old Russian lawyer it was a real-life experience. After driving his Mercedes-Benz into a wall at high speed, he was taken to the renowned Sklifosovsky Institute of Emergency Care with head injuries and deep cuts - but no emergency care was provided to him.
No help for gays
"We don't need HIV-infected people in our hospital," Kovkov was told after informing hospital staff of his condition as a precautionary measure. He only still heard the words "go home" and then woke up in the hospital's psychiatric ward. No treatment was given to him there either. Left alone and bleeding for a few hours, he eventually mustered up the strength to leave the hospital and take a taxi home.
In March 2013, several months before his car accident, Kovkov and his boyfriend were beaten up on a Moscow subway train by two strangers, who had figured out from their conversation that they were gay. "You are impostors and a disgrace to our country! Die!" yelled the attackers as they pointed the nozzle of a fire extinguisher towards Kovkov's eye and attempted to activate it. But Kovkov was lucky: the extinguisher did not work. "So then they decided to hit us with it," says Kovkov with a bitter smile.
While his boyfriend received heavy blows, bleeding from the mouth and sustaining a neck injury, Kovkov attempted to prevent the worst.
"There were about 20 people in the metro car, but they didn't do anything," he says. "They just observed how two gays were being beaten up."
After managing to escape from the metro, they reported the incident to police. But the officers refused to associate the attack with homophobia. The statement that such a crime does not exist in Russian law came across as scornful mockery to the two men. After being put under pressure for an extended period of time, they finally signed a report stating that they had been attacked for no apparent reason.
Tanya Cooper from Human Rights Watch (HRW) sees Kovkov's ordeal as a typical case of its kind. The so-called propaganda law passed in July 2013, which makes speaking about homosexuality in front of children punishable, has only worsened the already precarious situation of gays and lesbians in Russia.
"They are increasingly exposed to violence," said Cooper, who works for HRW in Moscow. "The police essentially show them that they are not interested in investigating attacks against gay people because they feel gay people brought it on themselves by exposing their homosexuality."
This lack of support from Russian authorities has prompted many Russian homosexuals and gay-rights activists to leave the country and seek refuge in more tolerant societies.
After years of fear and violence, Kovkov traveled to the US on March 5, shortly before his 33rd birthday. He is receiving support in his asylum application process by human-rights organization Spectrum.
Being a certified lawyer, Kovkov documented both violent incidents according to protocol, but received no response from Russian authorities. In February 2014 he also lost his well-paid job at Gazprom subsidiary GPB EnergoEffect, for which he started working in December 2011 after being headhunted. He endured increasing bullying in the office and wrote complaint letters about it to the managing director and other company managers. These may now come in useful in the asylum application process, since they act as proof of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
There are no official figures indicating how many Russian homosexuals are currently seeking asylum in the US. But organizations such as Spectrum, Human Rights Watch and Immigration Equality have confirmed to DW that interest in information and support has more than doubled since the introduction of the "propaganda law" in Russia. Spectrum currently has 16 cases on its books and Immigration Equality has 44. And while these numbers may sound low, according to legal advisor Aaron Morris from Immigration Equality only the most serious cases can be taken up due to capacity limitations. "We haven't lost a single case yet," he added.
Various Russian asylum seekers in the US have been trying to draw attention to their situation. A group of them recently demonstrated in front of the White House, telling passers-by about the threats and violence they experienced in Russia. They also felt uncertain about the future, not knowing if they would be able to remain in the US.
Kovkov also does not know at this stage whether his application will be successful. He is sure of one thing, though: he never wants to return to Russia.