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Russian LGBTQ asylum seekers stranded in Guam

Lesbian, ex-wife arrived in U.S. territory in 2015

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Egor in Guam (Courtesy photo)

HAGATNA, Guam — Egor is a gay man who grew up in a village near Russia’s Ural Mountains.

Military service in Russia is compulsory, and Egor was studying in the city of Nizhny Novgorod in 2019 when recruiters told him to enlist. Egor, who asked the Blade not to publish his last name, said officials sent him to a mental hospital after he failed a psychological exam.

“They realized I was gay because I dyed my hair, I wear makeup and stuff like that, plus I have earrings,” said Egor.

Egor told the Blade he did not go to the hospital, and the military began to look for him after he fled the city. Egor flew to Guam in May 2019 and asked for asylum at the island’s Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport.

“I knew I could go here and apply for asylum at the international airport in Guam,” Egor told the Blade during a telephone interview from Guam. “That’s what I did pretty much.”

Guam is a U.S. territory in the western Pacific Ocean that is at the southern end of the Mariana Islands.

Egor is one of the upwards of 300 Russian asylum seekers in Guam. They cannot leave the island until their cases are decided.

Russian citizens until 2020 were able to travel to Guam without a visa. Egor and other Russian LGBTQ asylum seekers with whom the Blade has spoken took advantage of this visa-free travel to flee their homeland.

Marina, who also asked the Blade not to publish her last name, and her then-girlfriend, Julia Mavrodieva, arrived in Guam on Nov. 21, 2015, with their child.

Marina on March 24 told the Blade during a telephone interview that harassment and threats prompted her and Mavrodieva to leave their home in Ufa near the Ural Mountains. Marina said she and Mavrodieva decided to flee the country over concerns that officials would take their child away from them because they are lesbians.

“LGBT is not good there and also it’s the law in Russia that I cannot show my daughter our relationship,” said Marina. “If the government knows that I have an LGBT family, like two women and a child, they can take my daughter away.”

Marina fled Russia with her child and now ex-wife in 2015. (Courtesy photo)

Mavrodieva echoed Marina in a separate telephone interview.

“That’s when we thought if we’re not going to leave now, they’re just going to take the child away for sure,” said Mavrodieva. “It’s just a matter of time when they decide to do this.”

Mavrodieva and Marina applied for asylum as a family after they legally married in Guam on Dec. 4, 2015.

The women worked with a Russian-speaking paralegal in California who helped them with their Form I-589, a formal application for asylum.  Mavrodieva said they did not speak with him for seven months, but he told them in July 2016 that U.S. Customs and Immigration Services had accepted and processed it.

The women divorced in July 2019. Marina and her child had their asylum interview a month later, but Mavrodieva is still awaiting hers because she had to file her own asylum application after the divorce.

Julia Mavrodieva (Courtesy photo)

Sergey and Ivan are a gay couple from Yakutsk in Siberia.

Ivan told the Blade on March 23 during a telephone interview that Sergey was attacked in 2011 “because he had earrings.” Ivan said he and Sergey decided to move to St. Petersburg “because we thought it was a different place, but it turned out to be pretty much the same experience.”

Ivan said a friend was beaten at a subway station after they attended an event at a gay nightclub. Sergey told the Blade he was harassed at work after he and Ivan moved to Moscow.

“They kind of made me come out as gay,” he said, speaking through a friend who interpreted for him and Ivan. “It wasn’t voluntary.”

The couple arrived in Guam in April 2017.

Ivan and Sergey said Immigration Equality told them to apply for asylum in the U.S. by mail, and they did so 45 days after they arrived in Guam. The couple married on the island in December 2017, and soon began to receive threats because Russian media reported on their wedding.

“People in Russia basically learned about this,” said Ivan. “It got public and I started getting threats and stuff. It wasn’t very nice.”

Ivan and Sergey said a USCIS asylum officer in California interviewed them in August 2019.

“Our status is still pending,” said Ivan. “We haven’t received the decision of our application.”

From left: Sergey and Ivan in Guam (Courtesy photo)

Victoria Palmer, a USCIS spokesperson, in an email to the Blade on March 30 declined to comment on specific asylum cases in Guam “due to privacy restrictions.”

Palmer noted “USCIS asylum officers have been unable to travel to Guam to conduct interviews of those who have applied for affirmative asylum” because of “pandemic-related travel restrictions.”

“USCIS asylum officers also conduct credible fear screenings for individuals subject to an expedited removal order who wish to apply for asylum, fear persecution or torture or fear returning to their home country,” Palmer told the Blade. “Because credible fear interviews may be conducted by telephone, the Los Angeles Asylum Office has forged an arrangement with the USCIS Guam Field Office to assist asylum officers conduct credible fear interviews telephonically. As currently planned, this effort is fairly close to being completed. Individuals found to have a credible fear of persecution then go before an immigration judge who has the authority to grant them any form of protection for which they qualify.”

Palmer referred the Blade to U.S. Customs and Border Protection in response to questions about travel restrictions for asylum seekers in Guam. The agency has yet to respond to a request for comment.

Joshua Tenorio, Guam’s openly gay lieutenant governor, noted to the Blade during a March 9 telephone interview that travelers must clear CBP on the island before they can fly to Hawaii, South Korea or Japan in order to travel to the mainland U.S.

“What they’re saying is had they been in any of the states, they would be able to file their asylum papers and be able to travel within the United States,” Tenorio told the Blade. “But because they did it in Guam, they are not being able to do that because they couldn’t clear the immigration check, even though you’re not clearing immigration.”

“It’s a strange reality for us because we are a territory,” he added.

Guam Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

‘You’re in limbo’

Egor is the only asylum seeker with whom the Blade spoke who was detained upon arrival in Guam.

He said he spent five days in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody before his release on a $5,000 bond. Egor said a prisoner at the facility where he was held assaulted him.

Egor received his work authorization in June 2020. The other asylum seekers with whom the Blade has spoken say they are also able to legally work in Guam as they await the outcome of their cases.

Mavrodieva owns a construction company where Marina currently works. Ivan and Sergey have begun a woodworking and pet care business.

“I like Guam and stuff, but the thing is you’re in limbo,” Mavrodieva told the Blade. “It’s been years.”

Some of the Russian asylum seekers in Guam earlier this year staged a hunger strike in front of the official seat of the island’s government to highlight their plight.

Tenorio on March 12 met with Mavrodieva, Marina, Egor, Ivan, Sergey and other Russian LGBTQ asylum seekers. Melissa Taitano, board chair of Equality Guam, an LGBTQ rights group on the island, also attended the meeting.

“It was painful to hear why they left Russia and the kind of injustices and indignities and beatings, really, physical beatings, that they underwent and then to find out that they were in Guam and they were a part of community, even as refugees,” Tatiano told the Blade on April 6 during a telephone interview.

“Our reaction was to want to help,” she added.

Marina works for her ex-wife’s construction company in Guam. (Courtesy photo)

Tatiano — a professor at the University of Guam who has a background in archival studies, indigenous issues and cultural memory — said she decided to document the asylum seekers’ stories in a short film that is slated for release in early June. Tenorio’s office is also working to provide them with legal assistance in an attempt to expedite their cases.

“After I met with them, I really, really have just been thinking so much about them,” Tenorio told the Blade. “I’m just putting myself in their shoes and think to myself, gosh, how can you just abruptly leave, start all over.”

‘We need to travel somewhere’

Ivan, Sergey, Mavrodieva and Marina all told the Blade they would consider staying in Guam if they were to win their asylum cases.

“Guam is a good island,” said Marina. “I have a job and I have an apartment and everything. I already know Guam. I know everything here, but I want to travel of course.”

Marina and Mavrodieva said their child has come out as transgender and has begun to transition. Marina told the Blade one of the reasons she wants to be able to leave Guam is because there is no doctor on the island who performs sex-reassignment surgery.

“We need to travel somewhere: The U.S., Thailand or somewhere,” she said.

Ivan told the Blade that “life here is safer than in Russia, but there is trouble in terms that we cannot plan anything, like a job or anything at all.” Ivan said he and Sergey would like to visit LGBTQ-friendly cities in the mainland U.S. once they are able.

“We just want to be free and to have this ability to move freely within the United States,” said Ivan.

Egor admitted he doesn’t know what he will do if the U.S. grants him asylum.

“I can’t really think about that,” he said. “It’s been so long for me.”

Egor told the Blade he suffers from depression. He also said he is “afraid to go back to Russia.”

“This immigration is just like hanging over my head just like an axe,” said Egor. “I don’t know … if I get rejected for asylum I’ll probably commit suicide at this point. I don’t really know, but I’m really hopeful that the judge will understand my situation better and I hope America is the right place that I went to, right, in terms of seeking help.”

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VP Harris and Second Gentleman join Pride walk to rally at Freedom Plaza

The Capital Pride Alliance, the organization which produces the annual event organized the intersectional LGBTQ+ walk and celebration.

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Screenshot of coverage from WJLA 7 Washington DC

WASHINGTON – To the shock of on-lookers who then burst into cheers Saturday afternoon, Vice-President Kamala Harris and her husband, the Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, joined in walking with the Pride marchers on 13th Street NW in the District by the Warner Theatre headed to Freedom Plaza.

Accompanying the Vice-President, White House Pool reporter Eugene Daniels noted the Vice President and second gentleman walked with crowd down 13th and stopped at the Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street NW intersection at the corner of the Freedom Plaza where she talked to the crowd for a bit. Daniels could not hear much but reported that she did say: 

“We still have so much to do. We celebrate all the accomplishments. Finally marriage is the law of the land. We need to make sure that our transgender community are all protected.”

“There is so much more work to do and I know we are committed.”

The crowd chanted her name over and over. She stayed for about ten minutes waving and talking. 

The Capital Pride Alliance, the organization which produces the annual event in the nation’s capital, because of the pandemic as the District was reopening, had set-up and organized the intersectional Pride Walk and Rally at Freedom Plaza, LGBTQ+ walk and celebration.

At around 12:30, the march departed down P Street NW and traveled to Logan Circle and then headed south on 13th Street to Freedom Plaza. The march ended at Freedom Plaza where a 1:30 p.m. rally was held and where D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser was one of those who spoke.

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Orlando marks the fifth anniversary of the Pulse massacre

“I echo our mayor to say to the survivors and family members of Pulse: it’s okay to not be okay. This was a tragedy.”

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Pulse Nightclub (Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

ORLANDO, FL – On that morning five summers ago this date, survivors gathered, stunned and grieving over the horror that had been visited upon them and others frantically calling phones that would never be answered again while a community took stock of the mass murder that had claimed the lives of forty-nine innocents. June, 12, 2016 joined a litany of dates of death and suffering in American history this time impacting the LGBTQ community and beyond.

Saturday, survivors and community leaders gather in Orlando, Florida to commemorate and honor those 49 American lives lost in that act of senseless gun violence.

“Orlando was called to action on June 12, 2016. Our city was asked to find in ourselves the strength to respond with empathy when faced with an unthinkable act of violence. We are still working every day to honor the 49 angels and every person impacted by the Pulse tragedy with action. Together, we continue to make Orlando a more inclusive, welcoming and equitable community for all,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. ““Orlando United” was our call to action five years ago, but it is up to us all to ensure that this isn’t simply a slogan that we bring out annually as we mark the time that’s passed since the tragedy. Instead, it must be part of our core commitment to real change.”

“We’re still very much in the healing phase and trying to find our way,” Pulse owner Barbara Poma told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview.

The massacre at the time was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Nearly half of the victims were LGBTQ Puerto Ricans. The massacre also sparked renewed calls for gun control.

Poma told the Blade that she expects construction will begin on a “Survivor’s Walk” at the site by the end of the year. A museum — which she described as an “education center” that will “talk about the history of the LGBT community and its struggles and stripes for the last century or so … about why safe spaces were important to this community” and what happened at Pulse and the global response to it — will be built a third of a mile away.

“We really feel it is important to never forget what happened at Pulse and to tell the story of that,” said Poma.

Poma noted the onePULSE Foundation of which she is the executive director met with representatives of the 9/11 Tribute Museum and the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to discuss the memorial. Poma when she spoke with the Blade acknowledged the plans have been criticized.

“This kind of opposition is not unique to these kind of projects,” she said. “It’s just important to know that really what we’re trying to do is make sure what happened is never forgotten and those lives were never forgotten,” added Poma.

In a rare bipartisan move, a bill that designates the former Pulse nightclub a national memorial was passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate this past Wednesday.

“The tragedy at Pulse rocked our community and served as a reminder of the work we have to do to uproot hate and bigotry. We’re proud of the bipartisan coalition of Florida Congressional leaders for leading the effort to recognize this hallowed ground as a national memorial site.,” Brandon J. Wolf, the Development Officer and Media Relations Manager for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida and a Pulse survivor told the Blade. “Our visibility matters. May the 49 lives stolen never be forgotten. And may we always honor them with action.”

Wolf was inside the club at the time of the shooting and lost his two best friends, Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher Andrew (Drew) Leinonen, who were among the 49 murdered during the rampage. Wolf had managed to escape but the event has forever left him scarred.

Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden hugging Brandon J. Wolf a survivor as Biden and President Obama meet with family members of the victims and other survivors in the June 12th mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
Then U.S. President Barack Obama embracing Brandon J. Wolf a survivor as he and Joe Biden meet with family members of the victims and other survivors in the June 12th mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Since that terrible night Wolf has been a force for advocacy in gun control and LGBTQ equality rights and is a nationally recognized leader in those endeavors to include by President Joe Biden.

“Pulse is hallowed ground and what happened on June 12, 2016 must never be forgotten. ” Wolf added.

“I echo our mayor to say to the survivors and family members of Pulse: it’s okay to not be okay. This was a tragedy. The nation may have watched and grieved with us, but the pain that you may be feeling is personal. I want you to know that we embrace you with love, not as symbols but as yourselves. If you are struggling, there is help available, and I encourage you to reach out,” said U.S. House Representative Val Demings (D-FL)

“It can be hard to find the words, because the truth is that no words can make this right for the survivors and families of those we lost. That’s why five years ago we promised to ‘honor them with action,’ not just with words. As we move forward from this anniversary, it is my prayer that all of us will recommit ourselves to that mission, to ensure that every Pulse survivor—and every American—can live in a nation where each person is safe to go out to a nightclub or any other place, where our LGBTQ community is protected, where the highest-quality mental health support is available to those who need it, and where we treat gun violence as the threat that it is to our loved ones. I know that we can do better, and as we commemorate this sorrowful anniversary, I believe that we must do better.”

In Washington, California U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, co-sponsor of legislation to make Pulse a National Memorial reflected,

“It is my hope that this memorial will serve as an enduring reminder of the pain and loss felt in Orlando five years ago and as a testament to the resilience and strength of the LGBTQ+ community. It is also an important reminder of the need recommit ourselves to end the senseless cycle of gun violence that has touched too many families across the country and taken too many of our loved ones,” Padilla told the Blade in an emailed statement.

“It’s an epidemic that has claimed far too many LGBTQ+ lives, particularly in Black and Latino communities. We will never let the memory of the victims of the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting fade away– and this memorial is an important part of their enduring legacy,” he added.

The White House on Saturday released a statement from President Biden who had traveled and met with survivors and the families of the victims 5 days after the massacre while he was the vice-president of the United States under President Barack Obama.

“Five years ago today in Orlando in the middle of Pride Month, our nation suffered the deadliest attack affecting the LGBTQ+ community in American history, and at the time, the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman.

Within minutes, the Pulse nightclub that had long been a place of acceptance and joy turned into a place of unspeakable pain and loss. Forty-nine people were there celebrating Latin night were murdered, even more injured, and countless others scarred forever – the victims were family members, partners and friends, veterans and students, young, Black, Asian and Latino – our fellow Americans.

A few days later, I traveled with President Obama to pay respects to them and their families, to thank the brave first responders and the community who found strength and compassion in each other, and to pledge that what happened would not be forgotten. 

Over the years, I have stayed in touch with families of the victims and with the survivors who have turned their pain into purpose, and who remind us that we must do more than remember victims of gun violence and all of the survivors, family members, and friends left behind; we must act.

In the coming days, I will sign a bill designating Pulse Nightclub as a national memorial, enshrining in law what has been true since that terrible day five years ago: Pulse Nightclub is hallowed ground.

But there is more we must do to address the public health epidemic of gun violence in all of its forms – mass shootings and daily acts of gun violence that don’t make national headlines.

It is long past time we close the loopholes that allow gun buyers to bypass background checks in this country, and the Senate should start by passing the three House-passed bills which would do exactly that. It is long past time we ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, establish extreme risk protection orders, also known as “red flag” laws, and eliminate gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability.

We must also acknowledge gun violence’s particular impact on LGBTQ+ communities across our nation. We must drive out hate and inequities that contribute to the epidemic of violence and murder against transgender women – especially transgender women of color. We must create a world in which our LGBTQ+ young people are loved, accepted, and feel safe in living their truth. And the Senate must swiftly pass the Equality Act, legislation that will ensure LGBTQ+ Americans finally have equal protection under law.

In the memory of all of those lost at the Pulse nightclub five years ago, let us continue the work to be a nation at our best – one that recognizes and protects the dignity and safety of every American.”

Additional reporting by Michael K. Lavers

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Wal-Mart founder’s family sets up $1M fund for LGBTQ groups in Arkansas

“Our state is in a moment of reflection where each of us must send a message of acceptance to the LGBTQ community- ‘you belong here.’”

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Typical Wal-Mart storefront via Wal-Mart Twitter

BENTONVILLE, AR. – In an announcement made Thursday by the Alice L. Walton Foundation, named for the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam and his wife Helen Walton, family members working through the foundation are launching a $1 million fund for groups assisting LGBTQ people in the retail giant’s home state of Arkansas.

“Organizations from across our state are leading the efforts needed to build a sense of community,” said Alice Walton. “Let’s support this important work that ensures everyone in Arkansas can live their lives with equity and dignity.”

The $1 million fund will distribute grants of $25,000 and above for Arkansas-based organizations that provide critical services to the LGBTQ community. National entities with a local presence, established in-state partnerships and strong community relationships will also qualify.

“Our state is in a moment of reflection where each of us must send a message of acceptance to the LGBTQ community that says – ‘you belong here,’” said Olivia and Tom Walton in a statement. “It is also a time for action by recognizing LGBTQ Arkansans face growing challenges that need community-driven solutions.”

“This fund will allow LGBTQ-serving nonprofits in our state to expand their impact on communities and help Arkansans pull together to build a more welcoming and supportive environment for us all,” said Heather Larkin, president of Arkansas Community Foundation.

The initiative was launched following a legislative session in Arkansas that was marked by new laws restricting the rights of transgender people. The state is being sued over one of those measures, which bans gender confirming treatments for transgender youth. Unless blocked by a federal judge, the ban will take effect July 28, The Associated Press reported.

Reacting to the announcement Adrienne Collins from Central Arkansas Pride said,

“There are many organizations eager to stand up for a more inclusive, accepting environment for all who live in and visit our state. We are committed to showing up every day to ensure Arkansas’ LGBTQ community has the support needed to thrive.”

The grant selection committee will include leadership and representation from the LGBTQ community. Organizations interested in learning more about the fund can visit arcf.org/lgbtq.

 

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