A warm, motherly 51-year-old Soviet Jewish émigré with a penchant for floral patterns and pearl earrings, Yelena Goltsman never imagined she would become a political activist. But as the founder and co-president of RUSA LGBT, the Russian-speaking U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Association, she has found herself at the forefront of the international resistance against Russia’s infamous “gay propaganda” law. “We’re all activists now,” she told me recently, drinking tea on the living room couch of the home she shares with her wife in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. “It is impossible to tolerate this.”
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi have attracted international attention for more than just sports and athletes. Six months ago, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” In Russia, “nontraditional sexual relations” means anything LGBT. And the loosely defined “propaganda” encompasses “the distribution of information” that could precipitate “the attractiveness of nontraditional sexual relations” and “the erroneous perception” of their “social equivalence.” In other words, everything from public displays of affection to the distribution of educational pamphlets, gathering in a support group to providing information about LGBT identity, could be grounds for prosecution. So far, there have been few instances of actual enforcement, but the official disapproval of LGBT relationships—the government says the law is meant to “protect” minors—has led to a spike in the suicides of LGBT teenagers, as well as open and largely unpunished violence against the LGBT community. The Olympics, Goltsman said, have provided the world with “an unbelievable focal point to the LGBT struggle in Russia.” She should know: RUSA LGBT, which she founded in 2008 after years of urging from her rabbi, was the first and one of the loudest voices to call for a boycott of the Sochi Winter Games.
“The law silences people,” said Goltsman. “But it takes years and years to get over prejudices. Even in America, a free country, we are still far away from gaining true equality. In Russia, where there is no dissemination of information, it is impossible to change minds.”
Raised in the Soviet Union, where homosexuality was a criminal offense for men and a ticket to the psychiatric ward for women, Goltsman had always known she was gay but “had absolutely zero information on the subject.” Unsure how to act, she married a man and bore two children. But even without being openly gay, she faced persecution as a Jew—including repeated rejections from university despite her qualifications (on her third attempt, she was admitted into a mechanical engineering program unpopular due to its strenuousness) and discrimination in the job market. Six years after the birth of her oldest child, she was fed up and convinced her family to move to the United States. It was 1990, a year and a half before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Shortly after her arrival in New York, when she was 28 and living with her husband and kids in an apartment in Gravesend, a south-central Brooklyn neighborhood, Goltsman developed a deep emotional connection with another woman. The feelings brought back everything she had suppressed in the U.S.S.R. But, at the time, finding a Russian-speaking openly gay person was extremely rare, and she had no one to talk with about her situation. “You’re in America, you’re surrounded by this openness, by these parades, and you’re still sitting in the closet,” she said. Late one night, she saw a television segment about Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue in Manhattan’s West Village. “I had always pictured synagogue as these older men sitting in their hats and reading huge books in a strange language,” Goltsman said. “But here was this woman, this lesbian rabbi, someone I could relate to.” She found CBST in the Yellow Pages and made an appointment.
Kleinbaum, it turned out, had always been fascinated by Russia, and she ran an inclusive program at CBST that incorporated an array of cultures. Goltsman found her intelligent and funny—“I always joke that if she wasn’t a rabbi she’d be a standup comedian”—and started attending Friday night services. Soon she learned that CBST had received calls like hers before, mainly from gay Orthodox Jews repressing their feelings and identity.
Kleinbaum urged Goltsman to start a Russian-speaking LGBT support group. “When I met Yelena, I knew that she was the person to make this happen,” said Kleinbaum. “She had the personal experience of life under oppression, of immigrating to freedom. She appreciated how the wisdom of Jewish tradition at its best teaches responsibility to the stranger and the exile. And she has the fire inside, the drive, to make things happen.”
But Goltsman remained in the closet, primarily out of fear of losing her kids. The community where she and her family lived was “very homophobic,” she said, and her son Slavik was a masculine boy who played football and adored his father: “I was really scared for Slavik’s mental state.”
The first person to discover the truth was Goltsman’s husband. He thought she was going through a phase and wanted her to stay. “I was under some illusion that it could work both ways,” she said, and so she stayed.
When her daughter was a young teenager, she asked Goltsman point-blank if she was gay. “It was a horrible moment, and everything inside of me just dropped,” said Goltsman. Instead of responding, she burst into tears.
“Why are you crying, Mom?” her daughter asked. “I love you and that’s it.”
Eventually, Goltsman summoned the courage to move out. But she still couldn’t bring herself to tell her son the reason she separated from his father. She waited until he turned 18, in 2005. “By that time, he understood everything,” she said. He was supportive and told her that he had been waiting for the confession. That same year, after having dated her share of mostly closeted women, Goltsman began a relationship with Barbara, an American from her congregation. (Rabbi Kleinbaum later married the couple in August 2011, soon after gay marriage was legalized in New York State—in the first legal ceremony she performed.)
Despite her children’s support, Goltsman grappled with guilt for years. “I don’t feel guilty today—I went to therapy for a long time—but I really regret the pain I caused my husband. I always wanted and want the best for him.”
In October 2007, Goltsman was at a crowded Yom Kippur celebration at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, when Kleinbaum introduced her to an older Russian couple and their gay, late-twentysomething son, Misha. The mother gripped Goltsman and said, “Please tell me what I did in my life that was so terrible, that this happened to my son.” Goltsman talked with her for a while and invited the family to dinner. “Even though I am ‘one of those lesbians,’ I am also a mother, and I speak Russian,” she said. It was after this meeting that Goltsman, feeling indebted for all the support she’d received from CBST, decided to start a group. “I said, ‘Rabbi Kleinbaum, I’m ready, I’m gonna do something.’ ” But, she stipulated, the group would have to include all Russian speakers, not just Russian Jews. “We all need support,” she said.
In her free time, while working a busy full-time job managing computer programmers, Goltsman posted flyers in bars and community centers. The first meeting took place in a West Village coffee shop; one person came. Over the next five years, as she started posting the events to Meetup.com, the group garnered around 100 members, but still only a fraction actually showed up for the events.
That changed in June 2012, when St. Petersburg passed an anti-LGBT “propaganda” law. For the previous six years, the law had operated at a regional level; now it was in Russia’s second-most populated and influential city. Anxiety increased in the Russian LGBT community. “We knew it was the beginning of something horrible,” Goltsman said. In New York, she and Nina Long, a Belarusian woman who had become active in the organization in 2011 and is now its co-president, coordinated a group to march in New York’s 2012 Pride Parade, sending out press releases and making signs with slogans like “First They Came for the Gays” and “Back to the U.S.S.R., Putin.”
The effort was costly and time-consuming; it attracted some publicity—including write-ups in Russian BBC and Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty—but was ignored by major media outlets in both Russia and the United States. However, the march exceeded both Long and Goltsman’s expectations. At that point, said Long, Russia was not yet on the radar for LGBT-rights abuses—the international community was paying attention to places like Uganda and Iran. “We were worried that only 10 people would show up to march with us, as Russians tend to shy away from civil rights actions,” Long said. About 60 people came, and they felt ecstatic. Meanwhile, the situation in Russia was deteriorating at a phenomenal rate; Goltsman and Long knew they would need to make a lot more noise to get a reaction from the international community. “There was no choice but to keep speaking up, to get creative, reach out for help, and work harder,” said Long.
A year later, the “propaganda” law was about to pass on a federal level in Russia. Kleinbaum called Goltsman asking what the activist community, particularly CBST, should do. Goltsman and Long already had a plan: They wanted to “raise hell”—their hope was to garner enough attention to dissuade Putin from signing the law. In June 2013, two weeks before the Pride Parade in New York, Long gave an interview to RIA Novosti, then Russia’s largest state-owned Russian media conglomerate, and made the most provocative statement she could think of: RUSA LGBT was calling for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics. “We were really trying to act out,” said Long. The article went viral. But at this point, U.S. LGBT groups were distracted by good news: On June 26, 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down a section of the Defense of Marriage Act, and New York’s Pride Parade turned into a huge celebration. By coincidence, it took place the same day that Putin signed the Russian law, undeterred. For Goltsman and RUSA LGBT, which now had over 200 members, the day was bittersweet. They showed up with signs saying “Boycott Sochi,” but their message was largely lost in the day’s festivities.
Soon after, however, everyone was paying attention to the issues facing the Russian LGBT population. Groups like Queer Nation, a seasoned LGBT activist organization, put forth calls to boycott Russian vodka and organized a protest to dump it on the sidewalk in front of the Russian Consulate in New York. Goltsman admits that, initially, RUSA LGBT was put off by the idea: “We’re all Russian-speaking people, why are we going to dump vodka on the ground?” But very quickly they realized that throwing away Russia’s national symbol would be the perfect way to make a statement. “That these actions really need to have a bang to them,” said Goltsman. So, she called and introduced herself to Queer Nation, and the two groups began to collaborate, later staging a protest to pour Coca-Cola into a Times Square sewer in efforts to derail the company’s Olympics sponsorship.
“In my opinion, we have had nothing but success,” said Queer Nation member Andrew Miller, noting that companies like Coca-Cola have been much lower-key about their sponsorship than they had in previous Olympics years. “What’s been amazing about RUSA LGBT, and Yelena in particular, is that they are very open and very savvy about the kinds of direct action tactics that Queer Nation advocates.” Ross Murray, director of news at GLAAD, an LGBT media monitoring organization, particularly admires RUSA for their work as liaison between the LGBT community here and in Russia. “When there was no one else, they were the experts on what it’s like to be LGBT in Russia,” he said.
As the Olympics open Friday night, Goltsman vows to continue fighting. Disappointed in the Obama Administration for not making a bigger statement to the Russian government, and upset with companies like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola for sponsoring the Olympics “in a country that considers gay people second-class citizens,” she firmly believes that protests can make a difference. “We want the Russian government to know the world is watching. They say they don’t care about Western influence, but believe me, this is just rhetoric. Putin is a very attention-driven person.”
Her long-term strategy, though, is education, and she just had a minor victory. In November, in compliance with the “propaganda” law, the Swedish furniture company IKEA removed a story featuring a lesbian couple from the Russian version of its magazine. RUSA LGBT, with help from Spectrum Human Rights Alliance and GetEqual, drove a campaign to get the story reinstated. They staged protests and “kiss-ins” in IKEA stores and garnered more than 46,000 signatures on Change.org. IKEA responded by publishing its anti-discrimination policy, which states that the company treats its employees equally, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. Initially, Goltsman was disappointed with the outcome: “I wanted the couple back in the magazine.” But lately she has come to see it as a positive solution and hopes that other international companies doing business in Russia will publish their discrimination policies, too. “The Russian people will read the policy, and it will make them think,” said Goltsman. “We have to find ways to penetrate the silence.”
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