Image by Jhem Quintana based on screenshots from the short film #EyesOnChechnya by Human Rights First
Author’s Note: The word “queer” in the article is used in order to encompass the identities of both gay and bisexual men subjected to the abuses taking place in Chechnya.
Queer men do not exist in Chechnya.
On April 5, 2017, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a story exposing the existence of gay pogroms in Chechnya, a small, federal republic of Russia. According to the report, over 100 gay and bisexual men were kidnapped and tortured in secret prisons by police. Three men have reportedly died because of the frequent abuse, though it is believed that as many as 20 men have been killed. Countless others remain in detention, facing daily physical beatings and electric-shock treatment.
Response to these reports has been swift, with condemnation for these brutalities appearing from several LGBTQ+ activist groups and world leaders from varying parts of the globe. Sarah Kate Ellis, the President and CEO of the former Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (currently known as GLAAD), has reached out to the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, imploring Haley to condemn the tortures and abuses facing queer men in Chechnya. Human Rights First, an international human rights organization, released a video where men who have escaped the pogrom give their haunting firsthand accounts of the tortures taking place. The Russian LGBT Network has created a crisis hotline, working to evacuate men from the region who believe that their lives are in danger.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has spoken out against the crisis in Chechnya, calling the tortures “crimes of hate and humanity.” Experts from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have called for the thorough investigation of the “abductions, unlawful detentions, torture, beatings, and killings of men perceived to be gay or bisexual.” In a rare meeting with President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised concerns and asked Putin to investigate and protect the rights of Russia’s minorities.
President Putin has stated he will support an investigation into the torture of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, working with human rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova to help those he says have a “non-traditional orientation.” However, given Putin’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights and his relationship with Chechnya’s President, Ramzan Kadyrov, any reinforcement or reprimand seems doubtful.
Kadyrov is unquestionably loyal to Putin, and Putin, in turn, does not condemn the activities of Kadyrov. In exchange for keeping Chechnya’s militancy under control — given the history of armed conflict that has occurred between Chechnya and Russia — Putin has freely and begrudgingly given Kadyrov freedom to do as Kadyrov pleases. This freedom allows for the mass honor killings of women and the assassinations of reporters and political opponents.
In this case, freedom equates to the kidnapping and torture of queer men in Chechnya.
A spokesman for Kadyrov, Alvi Karimov, has denied the allegations regarding the existence of gay pogroms. His most haunting response thus far is his claim that one “cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic [Chechnya].” According to him, if such people did exist, “Their relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”
Chechnya is a strict, conservative country based on patriarchal ideals. According to one Chechen, hypermasculinity is deeply ingrained in the country, and being gay ranks as the gravest sin.
Honor killings are accepted and encouraged in Chechnya when it comes to women and queer individuals. Reports regarding the “honor killings” of queer men after returning home “barely alive” have come out of the country, with several other survivors discussing their newly strained relationships with their families.
Chechnya’s police force has previously issued a warning to the families of queer men, ordering members to kill their children — “Either you do it, or we will.” Some men have left to protect their families from backlash associated with having a queer relative. Many others have reported fleeing from home following murder threats from their relatives who sought to kill them because they wished to “clean [the family’s] honor with blood.” One man escaped the country after a religious leader discovered his sexual orientation and said it was “the most disgusting thing you can find out.”
On May 5, a 17-year-old teen was reportedly killed after being pushed off the ninth-floor balcony by his uncle when the teen was outed to his family.
Queer men cannot exist in Chechnya.
They can die for doing so.