More than 100 gay men have quietly been “rounded up” by law enforcement in Chechnya, a semi-independent state of southern Russia, according to Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta. At least three men are believed to have been killed.
This atrocity may be happening on the other side of the globe, but the message it’s sending to the world hits very close to home.
Here are six facts to keep in mind as this story develops:
1. The move to round up men suspected of being gay began with gay pride parades — an irrational threat to any homophobe.
GayRussia.ru, a gay rights group, had begun applying for permits in order to hold LGBTQ pride parades in many cities across Russia. The group didn’t expect any of the applications to be accepted under President Vladimir Putin’s notoriously anti-gay policies, of course (and, in fact, none of them were), but GayRussia.ru was planning to use the permit denials to build a civil rights case to take to the European Court of Human Rights in France.
Tragically, even talk of gay pride parades emboldened anti-LGBTQ law enforcement, and the move by GayRussia.ru galvanized authorities to push back against even an attempt at pursuing equality.
“In Chechnya, the command was given for a ‘prophylactic sweep,’” Novaya Gazeta reported. “And it went as far as real murders.”
Confirming the exact number of men affected by the “sweep,” however, is near-impossible at the moment.
2. Hard facts have been difficult to verify because the subject of gay rights is taboo in that region of the world.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, an International Crisis Group worker, told The Guardian that she’d been hearing concerning information about law enforcement targeting gay men in and around Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, for nearly two weeks prior to widespread news reports on the matter.
But proving any connections between missing persons and the authorities allegedly responsible for their disappearances has been difficult. The topic of gay rights is so taboo and frowned upon in Chechnya that people refuse to speak up — Sokirianskaia was only getting information from second- or third-hand accounts.
Still, Sokirianskaia knows the arrests and murders aren’t imaginary: “The number of signals I’m receiving from different people makes it hard not to believe detentions and violence are indeed happening,” she told The Guardian.
It doesn’t help that officials cannot be trusted with the truth either.
3. Often, gay people conveniently don’t “exist” in the very places they’re oppressed (or so we’re told to believe). That same myth is being sold in Chechnya.
Confronted with the alarming revelation that the government may be behind these disappearances, Alvi Karimov, a spokesperson for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, suggested the report by Novaya Gazeta is a fallacy, claiming gay people simply don’t exist in that region of Russia.
And even if they did, he claimed, their own families would have fixed the issue.
“You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic,” Karimov said in a statement, according to Radio Free Europe. “If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”
If this specific tactic of deflecting reality seems familiar, it may be because former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously told an audience at Columbia University in 2007 that Iran doesn’t “have homosexuals, like in your country,” when asked about Iran’s crackdown on LGBTQ rights. Kadyrov’s lie has been told before.
Considering who one of the Chechen leader’s dear friends is, however, this news maybe isn’t quite as shocking as it should be. Which brings us to…
4. Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, is a close ally and friend of Putin, who has a heinous track record on LGBTQ rights.
While Chechnya is technically part of Russia, it operates independently in some ways under Kadyrov, a “vulgar, vicious, and very rich” ally to — and political instrument used by — Putin, The Guardian explained. Kadyrov is like a son to Putin, and Putin is one of Kadyrov’s idols.
In 2013, Russia passed vague but far-reaching legislation that banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” — a major step backward for LGBTQ rights advocates. According to Human Rights Watch, the law legalized discrimination against queer Russians and encouraged violence spurred by homophobia. Anti-LGBTQ hate crimes spiked in the lead-up to and aftermath of the bill’s passing.
It makes sense that Kadyrov may try to replicate Putin’s disturbing crackdown on gay rights in his own territory.
But one thing he hasn’t been able to vanquish is hope.
5. Although the work has been difficult, there is some hope to be found: A Russian LGBTQ rights organization is helping gay men in Chechnya.
Fighting for equality in Chechnya has proven to be nearly impossible, so one civil rights group is trying to aid LGBTQ people in finding refuge elsewhere. It may be a small glimmer of light in very dark circumstances, but an organization based in St. Petersburg has reportedly set up an anonymous hotline for Chechens to call to find help in escaping the region to find a more tolerant place.
6. While this problem may seem oceans away to many of us, news travels fast when the world is as small as it is today. That’s a good thing.
That means people can help make a difference, even from miles away. To make a difference, you can help the news travel even faster.
Share this story with friends and family online and keep track of developments in the days and weeks ahead. Demand your leaders — including our own president with questionable ties to Russia — speak out on the atrocities happening in Chechnya. Do your part in spreading the truth.
We can’t let these gay men be forgotten.