The Brighton Beach boardwalk in southern Brooklyn erupted in celebration on Sunday morning, as more than 300 people gathered for a Russian-speaking pride parade on American soil, the first of its kind. The neighborhood known as “Little Odessa” and once largely populated by Soviet Jews is experiencing a significant demographic shift, upsetting many longtime residents who are notably conservative (nearly 60 percent of Brighton Beach residents voted for Trump).
Organized by the New York-based organization RUSA LGBT, Brighton Beach Pride was the brainchild of Lyosha Gorshkov, a 32-year-old gay immigrant from Russia and former professor of LGBT and gender studies. Gorhskov said he chose to hold the parade in the enclave of Brighton Beach in order “to break through the silence and taboo of the Russian-speaking community” and demand equal rights for its minorities, who are rapidly increasing in number as a new wave of Russian-speaking immigrants flock to Brighton’s shores, including Muslims and gay asylum seekers. “Brighton Beach and other neighborhoods attracting Russian-speaking émigrés remain very homophobic and transphobic,” Gorshkov claims in a release. “Every day LGBTIQ individuals face discrimination in their homes, workplaces, and medical facilities. Many of our members even encounter physical and verbal abuse.”
The idea for the parade came about two years ago, and it crystallized last winter. Indeed, the catalyst for the Brighton Pride parade took place last January when a gay man, Alexander Smirnov, was physically and verbally assaulted by his coworker at a local Russian supermarket. When store management neglected to take action, Smirnov felt the need to resign, compelling Gorshkov and his cohort to take a stand against bigotry on a larger scale.
Leading Sunday’s march were Gorshkov and RUSA LGBT founder Yelena Goltsman, a Soviet Jewish immigrant who launched the organization in 2008 with the support of Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the spiritual leader of the LGBT Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan where Goltsman is a member. “[Rabbi Kleinbaum] encouraged me to be open and start a group for Russian-speakers who, at the time, did not have an outlet of being at once Russian-speaking, Jewish, and gay,” recalled Goltsman. “I was closeted myself for a long time and couldn’t do it. And then in 2008, I felt like, OK—this is the time to start organizing.”
According to Goltsman, Brighton Beach Pride is an opportunity for LGBT Russian speakers to “collectively come out of the closet” in the face of their immigrant community’s rampant homophobia. “It’s time for us to show our colors and say, ‘We’re queer and we’re here,’” she said. “We are your brothers, sisters, and customers. We’re part of the fabric of NYC life and Brighton as well.’”
At the parade, colorful signs in Russian and English peppered the crowd, championing a variety of causes like visas for persecuted LGBT people in Chechnya, universal health care, and putting a stop to Islamophobia. One poster displayed the historical flag of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region—a rainbow stripe—and beneath it written in in Yiddish, “Make Birobidzhan Gay Again.” In the crowd, a trio of drag queens marched wearing the traditional costumes of Russian and Kazakh women. Masha Gessen, a Jewish and Russian-American journalist who wrote a book about Birobidzhan’s Jews, was also present, standing to make a short statement at the parade’s end on how “pride is political.”
Though the event’s spirit was overwhelmingly positive, there were a number of naysayers observing from the sidelines, as expected. One man attracted a crowd with an outburst in Russian: “They shouldn’t be allowed to do this! If they’re doing this today, tomorrow it will be even worse… Live at home, hang out where you want, do whatever you want. But don’t let other people see it! What that idiot Obama did, allowing them to adopt children—who can grow up being raised by gays? Of course only other gays! This is foolish and very wrong.”
As reporters egged him on, two women attempted to reason, insisting that gays are people “just like everybody else.”
“That’s why what we did today is important,” said Goltsman in response to this interaction. “The movable middle will start moving. People start talking and I believe in a progress—although I do not expect a quick one.”