Gay men who fled Russia seeking refuge in Vancouver

VANCOUVER – Russia’s hostile attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people has prompted two men to flee the country and seek refuge in Vancouver.

Andrey Samstov arrived in Canada last week.

Samstov, who is deaf and spoke to Global News with the assistance of a translator, said he has suffered abuse in Russia because of his orientation and, after taking part in a 2011 protest for deaf and gay rights, he was arrested by police.

Although he had not come out as gay, it was after his arrest that Samstov’s father tried to force him to admit his sexuality and threatened his life.

“He threatened to kill me many, many times,” Samstov said. “I met a police officer to talk about my father, but because of my deaf issue and my gay issue, they completely ignored my request for help.”

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Samstov said the conditions in Russia are only getting worse, and many people who were open about their orientation are now going back into hiding.

“It’s not a very good feeling,” he said.

“My friends have tried to leave Russia, but most of them can’t. I’m the only one of all of my friends [that could],” Samstov said.

He was invited to visit Canada, but he said at the last minute he decided to use the opportunity to escape the country.

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In June, the Russian government passed a law which bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”

It allows Russian police to fine, detain for up to 14 days anyone suspected of being gay or disseminating pro-gay “propaganda.”

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Despite sexual acts between people of the same sex being decriminalized in 1993, the situation for LGBT people has never been one where they are accepted in society.

Gay rights activist Maxim Zhuravlev knew when he came out, in 1996, he probably wouldn’t be able to call his country home.

He said he had to remain closeted to his family – a common scenario in Russia, he said — and he began planning to move to a western country. That wasn’t possible at the time, so he stayed and put his efforts into activism.

That was until he was attacked by thugs.

“After I confessed to a very good friend of mine… a friend of many years, that I was in love with him, he just turned me over to homophobic thugs,” he explained. He said he was ambushed by a group of eight men.

Although he got treatment for his injuries, there was no attempt to find his assailants, he says.

After that he sought the advice of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which told him he should seek asylum in another country. That eventually led him to Canada, in March of this year.

Now he’s staying in a homeless shelter, hoping to get a work permit so he can support himself and start a new life.

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“It’s created a climate of fear in the LGBT community and it’s giving the message that it’s okay to bash gay people,” said immigration lawyer Rob Hughes, who is assisting both men with their claims.

Despite the fact Canada does accept refugees who have been persecuted because of their orientation, Hughes points out there are no guarantees a claim will be approved.

“Each case is looked at on its own merits. So, regardless of how many there have been, where refugee claimants have been successful… there has to be an individual assessment,” he explained.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, speaking at a Canadian citizenship ceremony in Surrey, B.C., said he was aware of the refugee claims and said, “it will be looked at by our system.”

He said the Conservative government has made its position known and will continue to stand by it.

“This is a rights issue and Canadian values… require us to speak up when those rights are violated in gross ways,” Alexander told Global News. “We are going to speak out about Russia’s inappropriate actions in this area until the situation improves.”

The minister, who previously worked in Russia for six years, said there are many challenges in other countries, noting specifically Uganda — a country that has been criticized by western governments after proposing legislation that could mean harsh punishment or imprisonment for known lesbian or gay people.

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“Russia should not be taking a step back,” Alexander said. “They will find many other voices, not just Canada’s voice, joining the chorus of international condemnation of what they’ve done so far.”

Both Samstov and Zhuravlev say they’re happy with how free they can be now that they’re in Canada.

Zhuravlev was here for Vancouver’s Pride parade on Aug. 4, and said he was moved by the level of acceptance.

“People who are straight were voicing their support, whereas in Russia 80 per cent of the population say homosexuals should be rejected,” he said. “I was so happy to see so many allies of LGBT people.”

*With files from Jennifer Palma and Robin Gill

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