Out in Front: Embarking on Providence
Polina Savchenko and Ashland Johnson is are two lesbians who are fighting for their rights.
Cutting Through Red Tape
Once upon a time, her grandmother used to take Polina Savchenko for afternoon strolls through a park adjacent to Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Today, that same park is a popular lesbian meeting spot.
“I take it as a sign of fate,” says Savchenko, who now serves as director of development, board member and projects coordinator for Coming Out, an NGO that lobbies and advocates for the universal recognition of equal rights, hosting educational and cultural events and providing psychological and legal services to the LGBT community in Russia.
Destiny has taken a few strange turns for Savchenko, who grew up in Russia, then immigrated with her parents to America in 1989. After settling in here, Savchenko began down the road to the American dream, attaining a BA in chemistry and French from the University of Illinois and going on to a successful career in information technology at Walgreens.
But something didn’t feel right, she recalls.
“I never really felt I completely left Russia,” she says. “And one day, I said, ‘That’s it! I don’t know what lies ahead—I have no idea what I will do, no plans, no security—but I know I have to take the leap of faith and find out what this calling means.’ So I came back.”
Not only did Savchenko leave the United States in 2007, she also left the world of retail profit-and-loss and dove right into Russian LGBT civil rights activism.
Social and cultural life for lesbians in St. Petersburg is very rich, notes Savchenko, especially since she helped found Coming Out, but there is no protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Homophobia is still state sponsored; national leaders openly describe the gay community as sick, its people as perverted and carriers of disease.
“I do want to live in a free land, with fundamental respect for human rights,” she says, explaining her return to Russia and her strong commitment to civil rights projects. These include establishing a local LGBT community center and heading the Organizing Committee for last year’s very successful International Queer Culture Festival in St. Petersburg. “I do want to live openly as a gay woman. I do want justice and happiness for LGBT people. And I do want to live at home. And if my home country has all these problems, then my place is here, trying to solve them.”
Setting the Bar
It almost sounds like a story from the late ’50s: Black woman is raised in small-town Louisiana, grows up experiencing hate and prejudice, finally secures employment but gets fired simply for being who she is, and loses her case because the law favors discrimination.
The only difference in the scenario is that this time it is 2006: Ashland Johnson is fired from her job when her employers learn she is a lesbian, and because there is no state or federal employment protection for gays, it is legal for her to be fired.
“It was my first real experience with this type of rejection, and I was extremely hurt and angry,” recalls Johnson. “I also felt a strong disappointment in myself for being in that situation. Here I was, a gay woman in the South, and I had no idea that it was entirely legal to fire me for being gay.”
It was just the kick-start Johnson needed to propel her into civil rights and lead her to law school, where she started volunteering with local equal-rights groups. This experience showed her that the people who were in the best position to help bring about advancements were those who had an intimate understanding of the law.
“That’s the kind of difference I ultimately want to make,” she says.
In the past year, Johnson has started the LGBT Law Initiative at the University of Georgia, a program designed to help queer students learn more about the possibilities and potential challenges associated with attending law school. The 28-year-old hopes the LGBT Law Initiative will create a pipeline for young equal-rights advocates to enter law school, noting that many LGBT youth are often deterred from attaining a JD degree because studying law is such a historically conservative program.
Involvement on any level, especially for young people, says Johnson, is imperative.
“No one can champion your cause more truly than you,” she says. “So, regardless of if it’s something small like posting something informative or inspirational on your Facebook page, or encouraging your professors to join the Safe Space Program, the important thing is to act—protect your rights, promote your rights and own your movement in any way you can.”