I had a nightmare that a man kidnapped me from my home, held me captive, and threatened to kill me because of my sexuality. I woke up, went into work, and learned that was exactly what was happening to gay men in Chechnya.
Horrific tales have surfaced of kidnapping, torture, and murder in de facto concentration camps. A Chechen spokesman denied the allegations, saying, "You cannot arrest or repress people who just don't exist in the republic." Reading that statement was more surreal than any moment in my dream.
As I sipped my tea in our penthouse office, I could hardly swallow the disconnect between my safety and their persecution. I felt life-threatening fear in my sleep, but never while awake. Is that accurate? I wracked my brain. With a chill, I remembered the verbal assault I experienced near my college apartment. I had just returned from the queer oasis of A-Camp, and my girlfriend and I were kissing outside my front gate. "Stop! That's disgusting! Children live here!" shouted my neighbor from his balcony across the street. My cool bliss flipped into fiery fear and I screamed back, "I'm on my own property! Let the children watch! I'm expressing my love!" My adrenaline boiled over into tears.
That experience taught me safety is but a dream.
I've been extremely privileged to never have been bullied, beaten, or attacked. As a queer person, I'm the exception. LGBT youth are twice as likely to experience physical assault.
"It's difficult to describe this type of fear. The first thing that comes to mind is uncertainty and vulnerability. The absence of security and well-being. A perpetual state of paranoia," Sean Anthony Shepard, a transgender man who lives in Detroit, tells me.
When I was coming out I experienced this. I began to internalize the homophobia, which swiftly led to a semester of depression in college. I was struggling to love myself and accept my sexuality. Thankfully, I had the surrounding support systems and education to grow and thrive.
"If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return," Chechen government spokesman Alvi Karimov has said. I think of parents who disown their queer children, leading to outsize numbers of LGBT youth being homeless. I think of the parents sending their children to "conversion therapy" camps like the ones that Mike Pence once championed and likely still does. In both Chechnya and conversion camps, electric shocks have been employed. From both places, LGBT people are returned to their families supposedly "cured."
"Having been raped by someone I trusted, I now realize that good people can do evil things. As a society we need to question our institutionalized prejudices. The same goes for what is happening in Chechnya ... I think it's all about conversation. We need to talk about everything, all our lived experiences, to normalize and educate. I believe the more we talk about consent, the less rapes will happen. I also think the more we talk about gender and sexuality, the less brutality will befall gay and trans people,"filmmaker Erica M. Hart says.
The vast majority of women and queer people I know and love have been attacked by men. Realizing that, a surprising feeling surfaced. I felt guilty about my privilege and safety. I felt guilty that I hadn't been attacked when so many had. Last year was the deadliest for transgender people.
"It is difficult to overstate just how vulnerable LGBT people are in Chechnya, where homophobia is intense and rampant," said Tanya Lokshina, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch. "Gay men have now begun deleting their social networking accounts, while some have posted harrowing stories -- one of a 16-year-old boy who disappeared from a Chechnyan village and was beaten to death, with his bones returned in a bag."
A false sense of safety may be the biggest threat for all LGBT people.
"We thrive under an invisible blanket of freedom while the persecuted lurk under a shroud of fear that their sexuality or religion could instantly get them kidnapped, tortured, or killed. We must support their human rights in all ways possible while vehemently denouncing their persecution with steel will and compassionate soul," says Debra Tate, a writer-director based in Florida.
I'm grateful that I live in a country where I can legally walk down the street holding hands with my girlfriend, but that doesn't mean I can't be attacked for it. Freedom does not equal safety.
We have freedom to celebrate in Pride parades and freedom to buy machine guns. Staying in our "bubbles" will not protect us. We are all equally at risk until we are all truly equal.
"What you can do with your privilege is be vocal about trans people having the same rights as any other human being, along with empowering trans people to use their own voices to advocate for the needs of the community. Opening the minds of people takes a lot of work, but being a good ally is pretty easy," says Chandi Moore, an African-American trans actress.
I have the freedom to choose courage in the face of fear and use my voice, with less chance of being targeted than my peers in Chechnya. I know there are specific actions I can take to help the gay men in Chechnya, but I still struggle with feeling helpless about the situation.
I can't imagine what the men in Chechnya or sexual assault survivors or trans people have experienced and live with every day. What I can imagine is the world in which I want to live. What I can do is examine myself, my relationships, and ask if I am silently perpetuating fear or loudly encouraging courage. I can take responsibility in my life and community to build safe spaces and have uncomfortable conversations that lead to a greater understanding.
I will continue to use my privilege and relative safety to speak up and fight for the freedom of gay men in Chechnya, women everywhere, and my LGBT neighbors. As fiercely as they attack us, let's love more fiercely. Let's visualize and build a world where everyone can have sweet dreams. Let's live like our lives depend on it. Because they do.