A Russian-American queer activist is receiving death threats after being harassed by a Trump supporter and former Republican political candidate.
Supporters of former New York State Assembly candidate Malka Shahar began threatening RUSA LGBTQ President Lyosha Gorshkov last month after he called out Shahar’s racist remarks on Russian television. On July 13, the two appeared on RTVi for a heated discussion on “social assistance to the poor,” during which she claimed black people abuse U.S. social programs.
“Every time I go to the government offices I feel like I am in Africa,” claimed Shahar, who incidentally works as a care coordinator for The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City.
After Gorshkov posted video of the segment on Facebook two weeks later, he received 25 pages of threats from Shahar’s followers.
The harassment began when the 54-year-old called Gorshkov a “freak” who is “possessed by the devil,” while claiming that he had been “hunting” her online due to her “support of President Trump.” Calling LGBTQ people pedophiles who lure children to Pride parades to molest them, Shahar further warned Gorshkov that her “American friends” are “well-armed.”
“If my gang got involved, the war couldn’t be avoided,” she said.
That’s when Gorshkov claimed the avalanche of hate started. Shahar’s supporters sent him messages claiming he was a “faggot bastard” and “fucking bitch… who takes it in the ass.” Trolls threatened to “tear apart [his] pink ass” and “break [his] scalp.”
“When we take you by the throat, you will remember… cock faggot… that everything is real!” one of Gorshkov’s more persistent harassers claimed.
Many of Shahar’s more inflammatory comments were flagged as hate speech and removed by Facebook moderators, but the menace nonetheless continued to escalate. Trolls posted open calls to dig up information on Gorshkov, including a request for his home address.
When Gorshkov went to the local police station for help, officers claimed there was nothing he could do.
“They just instructed me to block her,” he told INTO, adding with a mocking tone: “So I block her and, of course, I’m not going to be killed? It’s not a very good solution for me. They called other officers because I was insistent to see a supervisor, but they told me basically there was no direct threat.”
“We cannot open any claim,” he said. “We cannot get her arrested.”
Until 2014, the state of New York prosecuted crimes like cyberstalking and online threats as “aggravated harassment,” but that law was struck down by its Court of Appeals as “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.” As in many states, individuals like Gorshkov have nowhere to go when their lives are threatened online.
Adam Eli Werner, founder of the New York-based activist group Voices 4, claimed what authorities don’t understand is the persecution Gorshkov has experienced is not merely an “empty threat.”
“When they say things like, ‘We’re going to smash your skull in,’ they’re serious,” he told INTO. “We have the proof to back that up.”
In a profile of Brighton Beach’s Pride parade last year, the New York Times reported LGBTQ people face “constant danger” and “nonstop abuse” in the Russian-speaking enclave. Known alternatively as “Little Moscow” or “Little Odessa,” an estimated 84 percent of residents voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election — despite the fact that many are first-generation immigrants targeted by his policies.
One queer interviewee who spoke to the Times claimed he was beaten in Brighton Beach for wearing pink socks. Gorshkov said the harassment he experiences is pervasive: from “women in [his] building, men outside of bars, even children.”
Shakar herself embodies the tensions between Brighton Beach’s queerness and its old-world conservatism. An immigrant from the Georgia-adjacent southwestern territory of Dagestan, she ran as a Republican in New York’s 47th Assembly District six years after receiving her green card in the United States.
Although she allegedly came to the country fleeing political persecution under Russian President Vladimir Putin, Shahar strongly aligned herself with Trump during her failed run for the General Assembly. When asked about the two dozen sexual assault allegations against the president, she managed to spin the accusations as a positive thing: “To me that says he has some sexual energy.”
Following the attacks on Gorshkov, Shahar claimed the real issue is the persecution she has faced because of her support for the Commander-in-Chief. In a post which has been since removed, she wrote on Facebook she has “been terrorized by the gay community for [her] support of President Trump.”
“Please protect me,” Shahar pleaded with followers, the irony clearly lost on her. “My health won’t handle these attacks. I do not want gays to interfere with my life and turn my life into a nightmare.”
After pressure from local activist groups, the NYPD finally accepted Gorshkov’s harassment claim and the matter is under investigation. But as Gorshkov weighs legal action against Shahar on the basis of hate speech, LGBTQ activists found a novel way to fight back.
Over the past week, Werner led a campaign to bomb Gorshkov’s social media accounts with positive comments. Hundreds of people from all over the world have written to the influential LGBTQ activist, who has been nicknamed the “mother of Russian asylum seekers” for his critical support of queer and trans immigrants in the greater New York City area.
“You are loved and supported,” one commenter posted on Instagram. “The work you do is important. Thank you for all you do.”
“We hold love and care in our hearts as your queer family,” another claimed. “You are loved, your story is known and we are not without action. Thank you for how you continue to speak out through homophobia and violence, even though you have no responsibility to do so.”
Immigrants make easy targets from people like Shahar because they “don’t have strong roots” or communities in the U.S. to support them, Werner claimed. He hoped to show Gorshkov’s tormentors his case is different.
“If they’re seriously considering hurting him, I imagine they would look at his Facebook,” Werner said. “We wanted to let them know there are a lot of people that really, really care about him. This is a way of saying that god forbid, if something should happen to him, a lot of people would care about it — including a lot of American people.”
But as LGBTQ Russians continue to face the old specter of homophobia in their new home, their allies also hope to show that there will be others with them fighting to make America a safer place to seek shelter.
“By showing that Lyosha is loved,” Werner claimed, “we’re showing the entire community is loved.”