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The Stress of Minority: LGBTQ+ Migrants Fleeing Persecution

A person facing away from the camera is standing at the pride picnic with a rainbow House of Helsinki flag

Migrants who identify as LGBTQ+ face a unique set of challenges that heavily impact their mental health and overall well-being. This article delves into the specific stressors experienced by LGBTQ+ migrants from countries where their identities are not only heavily stigmatized but also criminalized, using Russia as an example.


Minority Stress Theory


The Minority Stress Theory suggests that individuals belonging to minority groups face unique stressors due to experiences of stigma and discrimination. These stressors significantly increase the risk of various negative physical and mental health outcomes. LGBTQ+ individuals encounter common stressors such as discrimination, anticipated rejection, and prejudice-related incidents like hate crimes. Additionally, they face unique challenges such as having to conceal their identity and dealing with internalized homophobia. (Frost, Lehavot, & Meyer, 2013.)


For LGBTQ+ migrants, these stressors are often compounded by their vulnerable residence status and migration-related stresses as well as racism, placing them at higher risk for adverse health consequences. This intersectional stress underscores the need for comprehensive studies to better understand and address the compounded effects of multiple forms of discrimination on health and well-being outcomes. 


Socio-political Context: LGBTQ+ Rights in Russia


To understand the underlying life-long stressors of migrants arriving from countries with heavy stigmatization and criminalization of LGBTQ+ identities, we are going to examine the current socio-political situation in Russia. Even though homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, the state continues to restrict LGBTQ+ rights and foster homophobic and transphobic attitudes in society. As of 2024, transgender medical and legal transition is fully outlawed and any expression of LGBTQ+ identities is effectively criminalised again.


In Russia, state policies and actions amplify homo- and transphobia, using them as strategic tools in both domestic politics and international relations . These attitudes are not purely traditional but are systematically promoted by the government to stigmatize the Russian democratic opposition and Western countries, justify the invasion and occupation of Ukraine, and function as a form of "soft power" in international politics (e.g. Central Asia). The derogatory term "Gayropa" (Gay Europe), employed by conservatives and state officials, reflects the disdain for perceived Western liberalism and the association of Europe with LGBTQ+ rights, further stigmatizing those who identify as LGBTQ+. (Glutz, 2023.)



The correlation between legislative actions and increasing homophobic attitudes is evident from research conducted by Sergey Katsuba on hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community. The introduction of the "Federal Law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values" in 2013 marked the beginning of a rise in reported hate crimes. Although these incidents declined gradually from 2019, there was a noticeable resurgence in 2023. This recent increase can be attributed to intensified state propaganda and legislative changes, including the broadening of the 2013 "Gay Propaganda Law" to all age groups in 2022, the prohibition of gender reassignment, and the Supreme Court's designation of the "international LGBT movement" as an extremist organization in 2023. These developments underscore the state's role in exacerbating discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals. (Katsuba, 2022; Nikolayeva, 2023.)


In Russia, laws have been recently used to penalize expressions of LGBTQ+ identity, including public displays of affection, wearing rainbow earrings, and operating gay clubs. These legal actions, coupled with an environment of prejudice and the threat of hate crimes, impact the mental health of LGBTQ+ individuals. According to a 2023 survey by the Russian LGBTQ+ group Coming Out and the Sphere Foundation, the escalation of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation alongside the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has led to increased anxiety, depression, and substance abuse within the LGBTQ+ community. Many are forced into the closet or avoid outward expressions of their individuality through personal style or accessories to ensure their safety. The hostile socio-political environment also forced a significant number of Russian LGBTQ+ people to seek asylum abroad over recent years. 


While other countries may offer better legal protections for the LGBTQ+ rights of migrants, the deep-seated trauma from the home country often persists. The emotional and psychological scars from such environments can linger for years without adequate support and understanding in the host country. 


Challenges Faced by LGBTQ+ Migrants


The integration journey for LGBTQ+ migrants is particularly difficult. They often lack a supportive community and face double marginalization — discrimination from both their diaspora communities and the local population. LGBTQ+ migrants from Russia, in particular, endure additional discrimination based on their nationality, face language barriers, and receive no support from their home country. They are often labeled as "traitors to the motherland" and may experience a lack of family support due to their sexual orientation.


The process of adapting to a new cultural landscape while managing the trauma from homophobic and transphobic environments back home adds to the complexity. These circumstances can foster a deep-seated distrust of others, prompting many to conceal their identities and live in constant apprehension of further discrimination. The stress of adapting to a new environment is magnified by habitual feelings of underlying background stress, ingrained by years of living under threat.


The trauma from their home countries doesn't simply vanish upon relocation and the constant vigilance they've had to maintain can persist, making adaptation slow and psychologically taxing. Establishing trust in a new community is a gradual process for LGBTQ+ migrants. The cumulative impact of distrust, hiding, and continuous background stress makes it difficult for them to feel secure and accepted. This social isolation can severely impact their mental health, underscoring the critical importance of support networks that provide a sense of belonging and acceptance​.


Sensitivity and Adaptivity in Navigating Spaces


LGBTQ+ individuals sometimes develop heightened sensitivity and awareness as an adaptivity mechanism, allowing them to better navigate in different environments. This enhanced sensitivity helps them read social and physical spaces accurately, enabling them to avoid potential threats and seek out safer areas. This skill is particularly crucial for LGBTQ+ migrants who must constantly assess their surroundings to ensure their safety and well-being. Their heightened concern for personal and others' boundaries is a form of resilience that contributes to their ability to cope with and adapt to stressful situations.


Support for LGBTQ+ migrants


In Finland, various organizations and initiatives, such as Helsinki Pride and Seta ry, play a crucial role in supporting LGBTQ+ migrants. They offer legal counseling, support groups, and educational resources to help LGBTQ+ migrants navigate the challenges they face in a new country. 


Additionally, there is an effort to research and spread awareness about the dire situation of LGBTQ+ rights in Russia, thereby informing Finnish immigration decisions regarding asylum. Academic research, such as that conducted by Professor Richard Mole from University College London, has been instrumental in supporting asylum cases for LGBTQ+ individuals. His research has been used to support asylum claims in both the U.S. and Canada, helping many Russian LGBTQ+ individuals gain refugee status​.


There is a need for increased awareness and education about the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ migrants. This includes training for immigration officials, social workers, and healthcare providers to ensure culturally competent and sensitive support. Strengthening legal protections for LGBTQ+ individuals through robust anti-discrimination laws and policies is essential. Moreover, expanding access to mental health services, legal aid, and social support networks specifically tailored to LGBTQ+ migrants can help mitigate the negative impacts of minority stress. Additionally, creating inclusive community programs and spaces that promote integration and acceptance of LGBTQ+ migrants is vital for their well-being and social cohesion. To provide the most effective services and ensure a low threshold for accessing them, a collaboration between governmental institutions, researchers, NGOs, community organizers, and migrants themselves is important. 


Conclusion


The stress experienced by LGBTQ+ migrants from countries like Russia is multifaceted and deeply rooted in the intersection of their identities, the socio-political context of their home country, and the current situation in their country of residence. Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach that includes legal protection, mental health support, and social integration programs tailored to their unique needs. Support systems should evolve based on ongoing feedback from LGBTQ+ migrants to ensure these systems remain relevant and effective in meeting their changing needs. Moreover, recognizing and utilizing the unique skills many LGBTQ+ migrants develop to navigate hostile environments, such as enhanced spatial awareness, can be a vital part of support strategies, enhancing their resilience and integration success.


While Finland is among the safer countries for sexual minorities, it is imperative to acknowledge that true safety extends beyond mere physical security. Comprehensive support and open discussions about the persisting challenges are crucial for fostering a society where all individuals, particularly those from marginalized groups, can freely and safely express themselves. Even in Finland, there are challenging realities that need to be talked about and addressed. If we don't know where we are, we don't know how to move forward. We must be committed to ongoing improvement and learning to create a truly inclusive community.


Nikolay Gofman, REFUFIN Project Coordinator, and Yuno Tikhomirov, House of Helsinki Communications Assistant.


Sources:

Coming Out & Sphere Foundation. 2024. Report on the Life of LGBTQ+ People in Russia in 2023.

David M. Frost, Keren Lehavot & Ilan H. Meyer. 2013. Minority stress and physical health among sexual minority individuals.

Olya Glutz. 2023. Second-class citizenship. (in Russian)

Richard Mole. 2022. Providing expertise to support claims from queer Russian asylum seekers.

Rina Nikolayeva. 2023. The number of victims of anti-LGBT crimes in Russia increased one and a half times in 2023. (in Russian)

Sergey Katsuba. 2023. The Decade of Violence: A Comprehensive Analysis of Hate Crimes Against LGBTQ in Russia in the Era of the “Gay Propaganda Law”. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/368308631_The_Decade_of_Violence_A_Comprehensive_Analysis_of_Hate_Crimes_Against_LGBTQ_in_Russia_in_the_Era_of_the_Gay_Propaganda_Law




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