By Will Duncan
On April 1st 2017, the Russian newspaper Noyava Gozeta published a report telling of a concerted effort by the Chechen government to detain and torture people suspected of homosexuality. In the days that followed, institutions ranging from the United States Department of State (State Department) to Human Rights Watch corroborated reports of intentional killings of homosexuals, particularly gay men. The stories are horrifying, and I will not repeat them here. While the international community took steps to understand the situation and respond, the Russian and Chechen government took steps to deny and obfuscate. Indeed, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, even insisted that people of ‘non-traditional sexual orientation’ do not exist in Chechnya.
The report by Noyava Gozeta came as an increase in violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals was prompted by the passage of the ‘Gay Propaganda Law’ in June of 2013. That law, authored by Yelena Mizulina, a woman with a substantial record legislating against gay rights, has been said to grant what seems tantamount to immunity to individuals across Russia who attack LGBTQ people, particularly gays and lesbians. This is no different in Chechnya, where a dramatic increase in violence against gays and lesbians was seen in 2014. That violence has continued in 2015, 2016, and 2017 at an alarming rate. Today it seems these attacks are no longer the sole propriety of vigilantes, but also coordinated by the government, which has an established facility for holding suspected homosexuals as they are tortured.
While it seems difficult to process the immense cruelty of this latest atrocity against LGBTQ people, it does not feel surprising. Amidst the toxic stew of stories in the last few years about corrective rape in Uganda, death squads in Iraq, both vigilante and government-sponsored, ‘Anti-Romeo’ killing groups in India, and too many others, this is yet another instance in a common theme of culture, religion, and bigotry attempting to exterminate the folks of ‘non-traditional sexual orientation’. If that were not enough to set your kettle alight, the State Department is reportedly denying visas to gay Chechens attempting to find safety outside of Russia. Not only must gay people the world over undergo immense heartbreak at the hands of their fellow citizens, but countries that should champion human rights refuse to provide welcome to the “tempest-tost, yearning to breathe free” (Emma Lazarus). Heavens almighty, where is Eleanor Roosevelt when you need her!
I encourage anyone reading this article to look a bit further into some of the reports of atrocities against LGBTQ individuals. Often, it might seem as though we are caught up in a wave of progress to protect sexual minorities. While some may be ready to believe that, it seems less apparent to me. The United Nations Human Rights Council report is an excellent resource that documents both progress and difficulties. Human Rights Watch also provides links to important stories. One uplifting development comes from Canada, where the government has taken measures to screen asylum seekers who are fleeing their country for reasons of sexual orientation, gender identify, or gender expression. Yet, lest we hope for too much, as of this time of writing, Canada is still not accepting the gay men trying to flee Chechnya.
Indeed, none of this will be of any apparent help to the people suffering in Chechnya. A friend once told me, explaining the basis of conservatism, that conservatives are not inherently opposed to progress, they simply want to see it implemented slowly and with due process. In a similar vein, I suppose discussion of LGBTQ rights at a macro level, reports from the United Nations, and articles in leading newspapers all have the potential to lead to a more open and accepting world in due course. I cannot help thinking, though, of all the people who will be needlessly harmed in the meantime. We should not accept slow progress simply to appease someone’s comfort level. People are suffering. We are already too late to help the lesbian ‘correctively-raped’ yesterday. We are already too late to support the life of the 17 year old boy thrown from a seventh-story window for being gay. We are years too late to bring safety to the lives of LGBTQ people in Chechnya. Come on governments – do something! In the meantime, if you are interested in finding organizations supporting the LGBTQ people in Chechnya, Rainbow Railroad, AllOut, and the Russian LGBT Network are doing courageous and commendable work.