Lyosha Gorshkov, a Brooklyn-based LGBTQ+ activist, has quickly become one of the most outspoken and influential voices in queer politics today. Despite being profiled by outlets such as LogoTV and Vice News, he dismisses fame and media exposure as entirely beside the point. “I don’t care what people say about me … I’m too busy doing the work no one else wants to do.”
What interests Gorshkov is on the-ground community organizing, a foundational component of affecting meaningful change. In the first half of Fall 2019, he brought that same energizing work to IU as a visiting scholar at the Collins Living-Learning Center, where he taught “Queer Russian Politics and Gender Outlaws: Revolution or Devolution?” Cross-listed with REEI, the course investigated how LGBTQ+ Russians have searched for identity and claimed political and social visibility from the time of Perestroika, through the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and on up to the current state of affairs under Vladimir Putin.
In October 2013, Gorshkov, then a professor of political science and gender studies at Perm State University (Russia), was summoned to a meeting in the unmarked office of the school’s new, ominously-named, “security director.” The director, a known agent of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the Russian security agency, was installed by the government in a thinly-veiled attempt to surveil faculty members suspected to be sympathetic to “non-traditional” values. Immediately, it was clear that the officer wanted names. Gorshkov was pressured to disclose any information he had on his colleagues, specifically those suspected to be “subversives”, or “Western spies,”—carefully deployed shorthand for LGBTQ+ people in Russia.
Gorshkov grew up believing that he was the only person like himself in the world – a hallmark of LGBTQ+ kids everywhere. With no LGBTQ+ people represented in the media and no visible role models in his community to speak of, this intense feeling of isolation followed him until he arrived at university. How could he be expected to betray a community he fought so hard to find? He did not comply, and it was only a matter of time before he realized he was being followed. The security director appeared in the hallway and around every corner, seemingly anticipating Gorshkov’s every move. Soon after, even his home was under near constant surveillance.
Gorshkov was the only academic in Russia drawing substantial attention to LGBTQ+ issues. He had also launched a queer support group on campus named Rainbow World that was shut down in 2011. Between the increased surveillance, scrutiny, and draining of available resources, it was quite clear that things were getting more dangerous for LGBTQ+ people in Russia. Earlier that summer, the Russian government unanimously approved the infamous gay propaganda law or, more officially, “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.” The name, much like its content, is intentionally vague. The ambiguous wording gives the Russian government a wide berth to execute the law’s intended purpose: to persecute and scapegoat the LGBTQ+ community. Under the guise of protecting children from exposure to non-traditional values, the Russian government was able to name a common enemy of the state and redirect the simmering animosity away from a corrupt government and towards a specific class of people.
There is one obvious flaw. “The propaganda law is ridiculous. Russia was never traditional to begin with,” Gorshkov explains. In pre-Soviet Russia, people we would now consider to be LGBTQ+ were largely tolerated and left to their own devices. What’s more, the sharp rise of homophobic violence and anti-gay rhetoric in Russia is not directly proportional to a rise in religious observance, despite Russian government claims to the contrary. Between 2005 and 2019, the percentage of Russian citizens against gay marriage rose from 59% to 80%. Meanwhile, Eastern Orthodoxy, the most widely practiced religion in Russia, lost 7.7% of its followers, a total of about 13 million people.
Gorshkov describes a chilling process commonly referred to as “safaris,” where anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups use social media to connect with gay men, pose as potential love interests, and lure them into situations where they are humiliated and sometimes brutally attacked. Emboldened by the government, hate groups such as Saw—a name stolen from the horror-film franchise—ramped up campaigns where they routinely dox LGBTQ+ Russians and plan such attacks. Most recently, Saw is suspected of murdering LGBTQ+ campaigner Yelena Grigoryeva on July 21, 2019.
In the months following the passage of the gay propaganda law, Goshkov became increasingly subject to public ridicule, physical harassment, and death threats. The university itself began underwent rapid change. In January of 2014, Perm State University shut down its LGBTQ+ center on campus. Soon after, the university received a letter that served as a warning and a directive, stating that the university curriculum should follow a “traditional approach to gender studies.” It also outed several faculty members.
The time had come. Without telling anyone, Gorshkov fled to the US and sought political asylum.
He settled in Brighton Beach, a Brooklyn neighborhood well-known for its high concentration of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants. Unfortunately, he was met again with a community shaped by rampant homophobia, transphobia, and racism. That’s when Gorshkov got involved with RUSA LGBT.
RUSA LGBT launched in 2008 to provide language and cultural resources for LGBTQ+ Russians new to Brighton Beach. After joining, Gorshkov revamped their social media presence and launched a number of initiatives. He also created support groups, organized protests and demonstrations, and increased the availability of resources, such as immigration lawyers, available to asylum seekers living in Brighton Beach or those working to get there. In December 2016, Gorshkov became co-president of RUSA LGBT and began working on his crowning achievement: Brighton Beach’s first ever Pride Parade. They knew it would be no easy feat. Despite being in New York City, life for LGBTQ+ people in Brighton Beach was closer to what he left behind in Russia than the culture of the West Village.
For months, Gorshkov lobbied city council representatives relentlessly, just as he had done on behalf of RUSA LGBT. In the end, their hard work and dedication paid off. In May 2017—several months after both Donald Trump’s election and the first reports from Chechnya detailing the detention and torture of gay men in state-run concentration camps—Brighton Beach celebrated Pride for the first time. Participants marched through their neighborhood, chanting and hoisting signs—in Russian and English, in affirmation of their visibility in a community that had long denied their existence.
The event was a runaway success. It was profiled by the New York Times and was attended by Letitia James, then the New York City Public Advocate, who would later go on in 2018 to become the first African-American and first woman elected as Attorney General of New York. For Gorshkov, it was a watershed moment for the LGBTQ+ Russian-speaking community because it was one of the first times that Americans began to pay serious attention to the challenges and dangers faced by LGBTQ+ Russians.
This past summer, on May 19, 2019, Brighton Beach celebrated its third annual Pride. Continuing their original mission, the marchers demanded the City of New York take substantive steps to address and end all forms of bigotry and intolerance in the Russian-speaking community. They also drew attention to the continued persecution and genocide of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya and other post-Soviet countries. But as Gorshkov notes, the event is also about bringing the community together—to assert their presence, to speak truth to power, and to emphasize their ability to thrive through it all.
In addition to his course, Gorshkov generously shared his experience and insights with the greater IU and Bloomington community in a variety of public events. On Monday, September 9, his “Dancing in the Dark: Russian Queer Politics Then and Now” kicked off REEI’s Russian-language colloquium (On Russia in Russian) for the current academic year. On September 16 at noon he delivered a luncheon talk on “The Exiled Queer: Land of Hope, Land of Tears” in the IMU Dogwood Room, an event organized by the IU LGBTQ+ Center. Gorshkov also presented “Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda,” a documentary film directed by Scott Stern and Michael Lucas and released in 2014, on Wednesday, September 18 at 7pm in the IMU Maple Room. And shortly before his departure from IU, he joined Steve Sanders, Associate Professor of Law, in a public discussion about LGBT issues and persecution in Russian and Eastern Europe on Thursday, October 10 at 7pm at the Maurer School of Law.
Gorshkov understands that the work he does is an absolute necessity. He believes in using his voice and loudly because it is only when enough people talk about an issue that others start talking too. When enough people start talking, they take action, and when there is action, there can be change.
“Get your hands dirty and do the work,” he says. “But if no one else will, I will.”