LOS ANGELES -- A 23-year-old gay Russian man, beaten and jailed in his home country because of his sexual orientation, is now a free man living in West Hollywood, thanks to a landmark asylum case won by the Immigration Law Project of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center.
A native of a small town 400-miles northeast of Moscow, Sergey Fedetov was beaten, interrogated and/or jailed by police officials, and threatened by school officials, on as many as 15 occasions.
"They arrested me because they could tell I was gay and they do not think we should be alive or in Russia," said Fedetov, through an interpreter. "Although the Russian government recently repealed the law outlawing homosexuality, this has not changed the mistreatment by the police and other Russian people. If anything, the increasing anarchy in my country has made it worse."
On one occasion, Fedetov and a friend were arrested by three officers because they were "obvious homosexuals." At the police station he was thrown around, slapped in the face, and hit on the back with a "demokratiser" (rubber baton) by an interrogator who ordered him to reveal the names of other gay people. When he refused, he was jailed in a small cell with three other people for more than nine hours without food or water.
Upon his release, Fedetov was interrogated by officials at his high school, who learned he was gay from the police. The school officials threatened to have him registered as a juvenile delinquent if he did not change his behavior.
Of the six times he was taken into custody by police, only once did he avoid a severe beating. On the occasions he was not arrested, he and his friends were taunted by the authorities, who would yell insults and demand the names of other gay people. They would also make a scene, so as to let neighbors and passersby know he was gay. The harassment of gay people was too much for one of his friends, who ended his life by jumping from the ninth floor of a building.
The police also "warned" his mother of his behavior and surprised him at home once a month to intimidate him and demand information about other gay people.
This abuse of gay people was not unique to his hometown. After moving to Moscow in June, 1994, to earn enough money to flee to the United States, he was stopped and detained by police officials on at least five occasions. On these occasions, however, the officers made it clear he could avoid a beating if he agreed to pay a bribe.
"It seemed impossible for me to hide the fact that I am gay," said Fedetov, a dark-haired, dark-eyed, clean cut youth who was also victimized because of his half- Armenian heritage and appearance. "I do not generally tell people I am gay, but they seem to be able to tell from the way I dress in certain American blue jeans and T- shirts, from the way I carry myself and from other gay friends I am often with."
"I had heard that in Los Angeles, gay people can live free from persecution. It was my dream to come to the United States, where I could live freely."
After getting an exit visa for travel to Mexico, and working months to afford a plane ticket out of the country, he flew to Mexico City in December, 1995. From there he rode to Tijuana in a bus. Before he could enter the United States at San Ysidro he was robbed of all his money.
Days later, while attempting to get to Los Angeles, he was captured by officials at the San Clemente checkpoint for entering without a visa and transferred to their detention facility at Terminal Island. Expecting to be deported but looking for support during his confinement, he found a phone book ad for the Gay & Lesbian Center's Youth Talkline. Counselors there, having difficulty communicating with him, referred him to a Russian Gay & Lesbian Support Group which put him in touch with the City of West Hollywood's Russian liaison, Eugene Alper.
Fedetov was unaware that persecution based on one's sexual orientation was grounds for asylum, but Alper suspected he had a good case. He quickly contacted the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Immigration Law Project which took the case on January 22, 1996.
According to attorney Cheryl Gertler, one of two volunteer attorneys who worked on the case, Fedetov was very reluctant to provide details about the extensive abuse he faced in Russia.
"During the course of our questioning him," said Gertler, "I was shocked and saddened to realize that Sergey had accepted as normal the beatings and harassment he had endured simply because he is gay."
As compelling as Fedetov's case was, the Gay & Lesbian Center's Immigration Law Project Coordinator, Jeff Kim, and the Project's two volunteer attorneys, Gertler and John Craig, knew they were facing an uphill battle.
"Sexual orientation-based asylum is extremely difficult to attain," said Kim. "Only 36 have been granted in the entire country and never had a judge awarded asylum to a Russian on this basis. When the judge deported three people prior to Sergey's hearing, we were very nervous."
"We were successful only through the combination of Sergey's compelling account of persecution, the dedicated teamwork of extraordinary volunteer attorneys, top-notch expert testimony, and able assistance from the City of West Hollywood's Russian community liaison and the San Francisco-based International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission."
"Since I fled the country, I know that I would have faced even more severe persecution by governmental authorities if I were returned to Russia," said Fedetov. "I'm very grateful to the Gay & Lesbian Center, my attorneys, Eugene and all those who have been so kind to me. I believe they have saved my life."
Though Fedetov has his freedom now, he has little else. The Gay & Lesbian Center's Immigration Law Project is in the process of getting him a work permit, but meanwhile he is in need of basic items such as clothing, toiletries, shoes, and money. For information on how you can help, call 213-860-7350.
The mission of the Gay & Lesbian Center's Immigration Law Project is to offer legal assistance to lesbian and gay immigrants and immigrants with HIV. Nearly 300 people were helped last year and more than 450 people are expected to be served this year.
The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center, with more than 240 employees and an annual budget of $18 million, is the largest gay and lesbian organization in the world, one of the nation's leading HIV/AIDS care providers and equal rights advocates, and home to an array of free or low cost health, educational, cultural and social programs welcoming 14,000 visits from ethnically diverse youth and adults each month.