Dante Matero (MARS-REERS ’20) is studying diaspora and identity formation. He’s writing his thesis on LGBT asylum seekers from Russian-speaking countries.
I spoke with Dante at the Harriman Institute on Wednesday, December 11, 2019. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
What has surprised you most about the Harriman Institute?
Probably the sense of community in the cohort. I’d heard so much about Ivy League schools being a bastion of competition, that you’ll be elbowing your way through the degree. But all of us here at Harriman are working on such different things, such fascinating and cool things, and people are really supportive of one another. It doesn’t feel like we’re competing, it’s awesome.
What professors have inspired you and why?
Professor Alexander Motyl inspired me last year when I took his “Ukraine in New York” class. I study diaspora and identity formation. On the first day of class, Professor Motyl brought out a scrapbook with his family history and told us about how his family came to New York. It was so endearing. During the course we took field trips to the Lower East Side and really get immersed in the history of Ukraine in New York.
How did you get the idea for your thesis?
After I finished my BA at UCLA in 2016, I got a Fulbright and went to Kaliningrad to teach English. I was very lonely in Kaliningrad, so after a few months I decided to head out into the world and go to the only gay club in town. It was there that I started to meet LGBT Russians for the first time and made a lot of amazing friends who told me their stories.
All of them told me that they want to go to America, that they desperately wish to live in New York, and wish they could follow me back and apply for asylum. After the Fulbright I moved to New York and wanted to help asylum seekers somehow.
Halfway through last year I started volunteering with RUSA LGBT and the New Sanctuary Coalition, assisting LGBT Russian-speaking asylum speakers prepare affidavits, find lawyers, and untangle the crazy asylum process. I decided to make it my thesis project.
What questions are you exploring in your research?
My central question is: What makes a successful asylum application in New York City for a Russian LGBT person, and how has that changed since Trump’s election?
Acceptance rates vary by city and I’ve found that New York is one of the best places in the country to be an asylum seeker. Trump, however, has inculcated fear within the community because he has changed the rules so quickly. At the drop of a dime things could be different and people are terrified that the process is going to change and they’ll be left out in the cold. They are worried that they will get something wrong in the application and be deported.
The asylum schedule changes so quickly these days, and there aren’t enough asylum officers. It’s a very opaque process. If you get something wrong, or miss a date, you could be deported. Before Trump, immigration was a bit easier to understand and people weren’t afraid things were going to change the next day.
What resources have you received from the Harriman?
Harriman covered my full tuition both years. And last summer I went to Moscow on a Harriman PepsiCo fellowship. I used that for my thesis research, mainly to do interviews with LGBT activists and journalists there. My biggest interview was with Elena Kostyuchenko of Novaya Gazeta.
What’s the biggest misconception you’ve heard about Russian LGBTQ diaspora?
For the last five years there has been so much about the Russian LGBT community in the news, which makes us conceptualize them as victims. I have yet to meet a single Russian LGBT asylum seeker who isn’t a thousand times braver and more courageous than I am. They are so strong. Not that you can’t be a strong victim, but I think we underestimate them.
What’s your advice to people considering an M.A. in regional studies?
I was deciding between Ph.D. and M.A. programs but hadn’t fully understood what I wanted to delve into. This has been a great program for me to get a survey of the region and understand what I want to pursue in my research later on.
What do you want to do next?
I’m going to take a year off of from academia. I hope to get some real-world experience in a refugee camp setting. Then I want to get a Ph.D. in anthropology to continue studying identity formation and diasporas. I want to work on a big ethnography project, but I don’t know what that will be yet. I’m going to take a soul-searching year and figure it out.