Brighton Beach Pride in Its Second Year

(Photo by Nikita Burukhin via Forum Daily)

On a sunny Sunday afternoon on May 20, over the famous boardwalk where “our people” both young and old, enjoy sitting and watching the ocean, one could see the rainbow flags fluttering in the breeze and hear unusual statements shouted aloud. The Russian-speaking immigrants from all parts of the post-Soviet empire blended with Americans into a single crowd crying: “Homophobia is terror” and “This is what democracy looks like.”

The already familiar and humorous slogan, “There is enough kielbasa [sausage] for everyone” [referencing the shortage of food during the fall of the Soviet Union and emphasizing inclusiveness], became iconic for the Brighton Beach Pride event, organized with the efforts of the initiative of a group of refugees and immigrants called RUSA LGBT [Russian-Speaking American LGBT Association]. Around 500 people came out to show support of Pride’s idea in the Russian neighborhood. Why was the Brighton Beach Pride event needed and was it needed at all, we asked the organizers, participants, friends of the community and random passersby.

Lyosha (Aleksei) Gorshkov, the co-president of RUSA LGBT, and organizer and inspirer of the Brighton Beach Pride, has noted that this year’s Pride was larger and more dynamic. He was glad to see that the number of Russian-speaking LGBT participants has grown [in comparison to last year].

“We haven’t felt negativity from our surroundings,” said Aleksei, who was also marching in the forefront. “Many were greeting us while dancing to the rhythm. Brighton’s residents have already heard a lot about Pride, hence the doorway to communication is open! And that is exactly what the main goal of Pride is – to get through to the local residents and let them know that we have come with peace, not a sword!”

Pride began at noon on Coney Island Avenue, near Luna Park; people walking around with their children were passing by the rainbow flags and those with the letter “Q” in colorful circle stickers on their clothing. For the first half-hour everyone was gathering, meeting and greeting each other, which looked to the passersby like an absolutely ordinary group of people doing their own thing.

For A., a transgender person from a small Russian town, this Pride was the first one:

“A year ago, I couldn’t even imagine that I could be in the center of a Pride parade, especially a Russian-speaking Pride. Brighton Beach Pride was the first one in my life, and I’m very happy that I have become a part of it, which also means to be part of the fight for liberty, self-expression, and being who you want to be without hiding it from others,” A. said. “I think that this Pride did not operate on this principle though: ‘To show ourselves means to change their opinions.’ Instead, Pride asserts that we are here, we are living among you, and you going to have to accept it, even if you don’t agree with it.

“As a matter of fact, the majority of the Russian-speaking community doesn’t believe that they and the LGBT people are coexisting in the same community. I think that this Pride turned out to be useful for everyone.

“It was useful for the representatives of the community in a sense of proving and expressing themselves, and for the audience, it was an opportunity to draw at least the smallest conclusions of what they have seen and heard. I hope that Pride on Brighton will become an annual event, and be positively received by the local community.”

As a graduate student, Sasha came to America in 2012; for her, Brighton Beach Pride is ultimately an event with the goal of uniting people and bringing them together. The first thing she did after she arrived in the U.S. was to look for the Russian-speaking LGBT community in New York.

In the beginning, her pursuit proved fruitless:

“I found a RUSA LGBT Meetup, but there were only about 50 people in it, and as a result, I didn’t even attend the gathering because it almost didn’t have any activities or meetings. Everything stayed still for a while, but then more people started coming over, the numbers grew more and more… I became acquainted with one person, then another, and finally became so happy that everything was beginning to change, and we have our own community now! That is why when Lyosha (Aleksei) announced last year that we were going to have our own Pride on Brighton, straight away I thought: I’m going! And so I went last year and this year too, and I’m so glad that I did.”

Kirill who came from Kyrgyzstan could not make it to Brighton Beach Pride last year, but managed to come this year:

“Every single person participating in this Pride is a part of its genesis. This is only the second Pride here and we are making nothing else but history! And that is amazing! I promised myself that I would come because I’m also a part of the community and a part of this story.” Kirill absolutely loves the meetings of the Russian-speaking LGBT community, however, interactions with the “regular” community didn’t quite work out for Kirill.

“Many times I had encounters with narrow-minded Russian-speaking people; they were very aggressive and lacked human empathy. They all think that LGBT is something bad, some foreign, inhuman substance. They go out of their way to annoy you. By bringing such Prides to Brighton, we will be able to prove to these people that we are the same as they are.”

An American resident of New York, Vernon has been supporting the Russian LGBT community since 2013, the time when Russia passed the so-called law against [gay] propaganda:

“Brighton Beach Pride for me is resistance to the hypocrisy, homophobia and transphobia that are still prevailing over the residents of Brighton Beach. That was a wonderful experience to walk next to the other allies of Pride and support my LGBT brothers and sisters.”

Anton, 29, who came to the USA from Belarus, did not go to Brighton Beach Pride. Why? He thinks such an approach is inconvenient and uninteresting:

“Prior to last year, I had never participated in Prides and therefore decided to attend Brighton Beach Pride [the first one, in 2017], and the New York one [it usually takes place in June] –  just to see how it worked,” Anton commented. “As a result, I got so tired after New York Pride, that I didn’t even go to the after-party. Honestly, I don’t really get it, what it is all for. It’s not like I’m against the idea itself, but I wouldn’t willingly go to either. The idea of simply walking without any particular goal is not my cup of tea; I prefer hanging out and partying.”

It is worth noting that many members of the LGBT community were expecting a harsher reaction to the march.

“We are going to be beaten up,” people were saying to each other. Of course, every Pride has a mandatory police escort; moreover, on the eve of the event, the marshals in charge of the convoy had received special instructions on how to act in case of attacks or provocations.

The first provocation took place while lining up, right at the beginning of the parade: a man passing by tried to pick on a marshal, who was standing at the end of the row. Without any hesitation, the marshal resolved the issue…but the whole incident left a rather unpleasant residue. Nevertheless, it was the first and last incident during the event: Instead of angry comments, we heard people’s laughter while marching; many were waving to us from the windows, smiling and recording videos on their cellphones. In contrast to the last Pride, when it was drizzling and no one was about, this year, the weather was nice; in spite of the many people on the boardwalk, there was no aggressive behavior directed toward us.

It was noticeable that the general atmosphere has also changed for the better: near the restaurant Tatiana where last year a customer expressed his negative attitude toward Pride, this year, the crowds of spectators seemed if not amused, then at least interested in the event taking place.

(Photo by Nikita Burukhin via Forum Daily)

Well, not everyone truly understood that it was a gay pride parade and not just some colorful and lively event. For instance, senior citizen Alena Yevgenyevna who was relaxing on a bench said that it didn’t really matter to her what was happening around her: “I prefer a quiet walk so I can enjoy the ocean in silence. Yet there are always some activities going on here and a lot of cyclists – especially in the summertime it gets really crowded. In addition, too many tourists come here…I would prefer for them not to be here at all,” the woman concluded.

A middle-aged man pushing a stroller refused to give his name but asserted that he “has heard about what’s happening right now” and added that “Trump should stop this outrage somehow.” Nearby, a group of men were sitting on the bench; one of them, Ivan, expressed his opinion: “Let them walk; they don’t bother anyone and I don’t mind them. I don’t consider them sick or abnormal. Anyway, we are all human at the end of the day.”

When the marching stopped, everyone surrounded a bench, which became an improvised podium. Speakers climbed on it one after another to make an announcement or a short speech.

Among those who came out to support the Russian participants were Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi of the liberal synagogue CBST [Congregation Beit Simchat Torah], as well as Civil Court judges Elena Baron [who was sworn in this year as the first Russian-born Brooklyn Civil Court judge] and Odessa Kennedy, and Matthew McMorrow from the NYC Mayor’s Office.

While the invited guests were talking about freedom and equality, an elderly man walked around the group of demonstrators, announcing in a relatively friendly fashion that he was not against gay people in particular. Nevertheless, the old man added that same-sex marriages shouldn’t be allowed!

(Photo by Nikita Burukhin via Forum Daily)

A journalist and activist from Russia, Elena Kostyuchenko has noted that percentagewise, Russians and Americans were approximately the same, 50/50, or maybe there were a bit fewer Russians than Americans:

“It is great that Americans are offering their solidarity,” Elena began. “When I attend various meetings of the activists and community leaders, I notice a lot being said about Russia and that is great! I’m glad that judges, the rabbi, and others have come to Brighton. It is so important! The participants are very cool people; for many of them it was the first of this kind of event that they have attended and I think it is crucial to have such an experience, and without the risk of being physically hurt.”

Yet not everything seemed perfect to Elena:

“I didn’t like the fact that the speeches were not translated into Russian. Brighton Beach is a Russian-speaking community and the main goal of the event was to conduct outreach to the locals. Many of the people who I interviewed, however, did not understand all that was being said and done, because all the slogans were in English and the rainbow flags did not associate with anything for the older generation. Some don’t even understand the meaning of the words ‘queer’ and ‘LGBT’; in addition, all the speeches were in English too. So it is not really clear who the intended audience of this event was. Moreover, I’ve found it interesting that the majority of the participants of Pride have never even lived in Brighton.”

At the very end, an adorable cat on a leash intruded the crowd and became the center of everyone’s attention: a few of the demonstrators were petting her together at once. Its owner Elena, after walking through the rainbow flags and posters for a while with a smile on her face said that she was sure that everything happening at that moment at Brighton Beach was meant to be. “People have the right of expression on how they want to identify themselves in the world,” she added at the end.

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