Every so often, life has a funny way of smacking us upside the head and reminding us of what really matters. For me, one such moment came at the beginning of this month, with the arrival of Andrey and Igor.

Andrey, 25, and Igor, 31, hail from Voronezh, Russia — a city of over half a million people not far from the Ukrainian border. A same-sex couple for four years, they lived under the shadow of Vladimir Putin’s infamous crackdown on LGBT rights (which the government calls “gay propaganda”) for as long as they could, but soon the situation became intolerable. They fled Russia to seek asylum in the United States, and are living with my husband Michael and me in Washington, D.C. while they adjust to their new life.

The day after their arrival, Michael and I took them on a tour of the neighborhood. As is our custom, the two of us held hands as we walked down the street. As soon as Andrey saw that, though, he stopped dead in his tracks. Pointing at our joined hands, he asked incredulously and in halting English: “This is okay? You will not get into trouble?”

“No,” I answered, “we will not get into trouble.” I then explained that while homophobia remains a major problem in many parts of the country, especially in rural and conservative areas, they would generally not be harassed by other people — and certainly not by the police or the government — for holding hands with another man. “Wow,” Andrey replied with a mixture of astonishment and disbelief. He smiled and shook his head in wonder, amazed by what he’d just heard.

We resumed walking and the conversation soon resumed as well; Andrey and Igor chatted back and forth in Russian about the interesting landmarks we encountered, and then switched into English whenever they had a question to ask us. But I couldn’t get that conversation of my head. And then it dawned on me: the simple freedom to hold hands in relative safety and without fear was a freedom they’d never known before. As we walked down the sidewalk, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that they are here and safe. Tears streamed down my face.

Given what Andrey and Igor had been through in Russia, they had every reason to worry about how people would react to an openly affectionate same-sex couple. Andrey is a journalist and high-profile equality activist who’s suffered several vicious attacks at the hands of homophobic thugs, especially at pro-LGBT demonstrations he’s organized. Once they beat him so savagely that his doctor ordered extensive brain scans, worried that their repeated kicks to his head may have caused permanent damage. Local extremist groups routinely distributed flyers with pictures of his face on them alongside anti-gay epithets, and he frequently received death threats in person, over the phone, and online. A gang of thugs even showed up at Andrey's workplace looking for him. 

When their relationship was discovered, Igor was fired from the teaching job he'd held for ten years, because Russian anti-gay propaganda falsely labels gays as pedophiles and his presence was deemed a threat to children. And perhaps most ominously, Andrey was detained by police and interrogated for hours on a trumped-up charge. They locked him in a basement room, denied him access to his lawyer, and refused to allow him to call Igor to let him know what was happening. If Andrey told anyone, they said, they'd exact retribution not just on him, but on his family and friends; if he tried to flee, they vowed to put him on the federal most-wanted list and find him. It was after that harrowing experience that they decided to flee.

Back in Washington, it wasn’t until several days after seeing Michael and I hold hands in public that Igor and Andrey decided to try it themselves. It was the Fourth of July — Independence Day — and they were on the National Mall, watching the famous fireworks display. "Shyly and timidly I took Igor’s hand,” Andrey said. "He smiled, but we looked at the people around us with fear. But there was no hatred in their eyes; everyone was smiling and enjoying the holiday."

Holding hands in public for the first time, they wept with joy. On their first Independence Day, they finally felt free.

Message received, universe.