"We want to give a voice to those, who are not heard, whose voice has been taken," Ali Feruz says. "Because the story of every human is at the same time the story of humankind."
Ali experienced this himself. As a gay man, but also as a reporter for the Russian independent media site Novaya Gazeta and as a human rights activist. He was born in Uzbekistan and spent most of his life in Russia. As a journalist he covered the struggles of minorities, such as migrants and queer people. One year ago, Ali received asylum in Germany, after he had been kept in a deportation prison by the Russian authorities for half a year.
And exactly one year later, Ali's new project -- Unit -- is ready to launch: a network of journalists and human rights defenders working to increase the quality of reporting on marginalized people that focuses particularly on LGBTQ issues in the countries of the former Soviet Union. At the moment, Unit's reporters work in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. In many of these countries public attention on such topics is still largely lacking and homophobia and anti-LGBTQ attitudes are widely spread.
The goal of the network is to advance the debate about these topics, to give a face to the people who are confronted with discrimination and persecution and to tell the stories of their struggles. Unit is based on membership and encourages the members of its community to become involved in the discussion as well as the editorial process. You can become Unit's member via this page.
As part of the journalist network n-ost, Unit aims to connect media with human rights activists in order to create a platform for exchange and cooperation on LGBTQ issues.
With all his experience, Unit is a personal matter for Ali. He hopes that the network can contribute to a rise of awareness of LGBTQ issues in the post-Soviet space as well as in the rest of the world. For this story, Unit collected the testimonies of 10 LGBTQ activists from Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. These people have left their countries, their families, and their friends due to constant pressure and the inability to feel at home in their own homelands.
Our protagonists explain how their lives have changed and why they emigrated, perhaps for good. --Introduction by Paul Toetzke
"We can't fight for freedom if we keep it from ourselves" My departure from Georgia came with an anxiety disorder, nervous twitching, and my desire to finally give up activism. In 2013, during a rally against homophobia, I came close to being torn apart by the crowd. In my nine years of activism, I didn't just have to face homophobia and violence from others. Sometimes conflicts arose within our group, so I had to extract knives from my own back, so to speak. I was emotionally burnt out, and I knew the choice was to leave or to die [from exhaustion.] During my first lecture at the University of Malmo, I felt a hitherto unknown freedom: I was just one of many students in the lecture hall, and nobody cared about my story. All of a sudden life was a blank sheet of paper again, and it was up to me to fill it. After half a year of hibernation and immersion in my studies, I felt the desire to get involved in activism again. I had grown up; I managed to distance myself and rethink my experiences. So I applied for a vacancy at RFSL [the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Rights] and started working on the issue of LGBT rights in my native post-Soviet region. I know that people are muttering behind my back about how I "gave up and left." Sometimes I feel guilty. But now I am striving to create a good working environment for activist groups and to learn to value my life and my health. When we are busy taking care of others and face constant attacks, there is the risk of becoming depressed. We cannot fight for freedom if we keep it from ourselves. --Natia Gvianishvili, interviewed by Nina Soloveva
"Prejudices against people living with HIV still persist" I've always been an activist, first in Georgia, then in Armenia. I wrote an article for a Russian-language newspaper about the explosion at the DIY Pub, a club in Yerevan where gays and lesbians met. Immediately afterwards came the speculation about the context of the attack and attempts to use the incident for political gain.
I came to Kyiv for work. Now I help people who live with HIV. The situation is similar across Central Asia and Eastern Europe: the bigger the city, the easier life is for LGBT people. Ukrainian society is cosmopolitan, so one often finds more tolerant attitudes than in Armenia. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, but that's not how things are in reality. Although many people claim they treat everybody equally, some are more equal than others. You hear words like: "We don't speak for gays and lesbians, we are only responsible for normal men and women."
Last March, I came out and openly declared that I live with HIV. So far only one other man has done the same. The rest are silent. Prejudices against people living with HIV persist. Even within the LGBT community, the issue is not completely understood or accepted: every gay man knows about the dangers of infection, but protecting oneself is another question. --Armen Aghajanov, interviewed by Armine Agaronyan
"Secrecy is a matter of life and death" When I came to Europe from Tajikistan, I was able to walk the streets without fear for the first time. In my country, the police take a special interest in gay people. They can frame them for others' crimes or blackmail them by threatening to tell their families or colleagues about their orientation.
I cannot forget all the torture, humiliation, and threats while there are still thousands of LGBT people back in Tajikistan whose lives are hell. Together with my partner and our friends, I help LGBT people in Tajikistan get asylum abroad. We've managed to save five people over the past few years. Tajik NGOs do not always succeed in keeping their information about LGBT people secret; secrecy is a matter of life and death for a gay man in my country. Tajik "human rights activists" even told me to shut up, saying "you left, you got what you wanted, so sit down and be quiet."
I also took part in Berlin's pride parade last year, which was a first for me. I'm proud of that. We made costumes from all Tajikistan's regions to demonstrate that gay people are present in all parts of the country; people just don't want to admit it. The pride parade was even mentioned by Tajik media outlets, to which readers reacted with hateful and threatening comments. Some of them recognized me in the photos and threatened my family who still live back in my homeland. Even gay people from Tajikistan have reproached me for wearing national costumes at the pride parade. It's not a pleasant thing to hear, but I have given my word to never be silent again. --Islom Alizoda (pseudonym), interviewed by Liliya Gaysina
"The Uzbek authorities also monitor the lives of their citizens abroad" Activism isn't very well developed in Uzbekistan. I always wanted to defend LGBT rights but found no support. My friends held homophobic and patriarchal views. Even my parents betrayed me. I left because there was nobody left to fight for.
I mainly came to Kyrgyzstan to study, but I also wanted to leave my homeland, which I had learnt to hate. In Bishkek I found a new community; we believed that we could make a difference and demonstrated for women's rights and against homophobic legislation.
I kept my face hidden behind a scarf at all public events like that, because the photos could have appeared in the media. The Uzbek authorities also monitor the lives of their citizens abroad. Anybody could recognize you, follow you, and deliver you to them. When crossing the border, you may be asked to show your social media profile and private messages. If you're an activist fighting for LGBT rights, you might find yourself in trouble. As homosexuality is punishable by law in Uzbekistan, I can't talk openly about my experiences as a lesbian.
After graduation I moved to Russia; there's a resettlement program for ethnic Russians and Tatars from across the former Soviet Union. There are also dangers here, such as prosecution for likes or reposts on social media, which can sometimes be interpreted by the authorities as advocating "extremism." However, here there is a support network of people who are ready to fight. As soon as I get citizenship, I'll return to activism. --Ksenia Korneeva, interviewed by Regina Im
"Everybody thought Poroshenko would help the LGBT community, but the government dropped the issue" I grew up in Poltava. In the early 1990s, there was absolutely no information about LGBT people in Ukraine. The sole magazine was called One of Us. Its pages contained personal ads which read something like "M. seeking M. without M.P.," which means "man seeking man without material problems." That's how I met my partner.
I was kicked out of home when my family found out I was gay, and I faced problems at work. I moved to Kyiv, worked in an LGBT community center and once was even featured on the cover of One of Us. In Kyiv the idea arose to found Tochka Opory, a non-profit organization to support LGBT people. In 2014, I came out before members of parliament.
Things seemed to have changed. But under [President Viktor] Yanukovych, pro-Russian MPs publicly opposed LGBT rights. We were threatened. Our office and various LGBT clubs were attacked. When the war with Russia began, the nationalist patriots rallied to the cause of the "traditional family" again. Everybody thought that [the new President Petro] Poroshenko would help the LGBT community, but the government dropped the issue.
One day I was invited to speak in the USA, and when I arrived, I applied for political asylum. Here in New York I'm still committed to activism; our organization ProudUkraine is assists LGBT Ukrainians who have emigrated to America or Canada. Everything comes from our own resources.
It's hard if you can't return home. But here I feel secure; I'm not afraid to kiss my partner or hold hands with him. Of course, there are also problems: Americans don't recognize our university diplomas, medical care is very expensive, and attitudes towards migrants are deteriorating. Still, things are easier for the LGBT community. --Bogdan Globa, interviewed by Nika Voyzkaya
"It's not easy to live in Europe and fight for LGBT rights in Azerbaijan" I'm 29 years old. For seven years now I've been fighting for equality and justice for LGBT people. In Azerbaijan, my neighbors threatened to murder me and the police humiliated me. The Azerbaijani media orchestrated a hate campaign, publishing private photos of me and my fiance. One journalist learnt his name and wrote a provocative story about our engagement, denouncing it as "shameful and a threat to society." That homophobic society took my partner away from me.
Since around 2014 activists and journalists in Azerbaijan have faced increasing persecution. I decided to escape. I had to spend four years in Georgia and Turkey waiting for a German year. Those were four years of depression and desperation. The refugee camp in Germany was also a humiliating place. But I knew that I had to help myself first in order to stand up for the rights of others.
"It's easy to be an activist when you're safe over there in Germany," I often hear from activists in my homeland. Actually, it's not easy to live in Europe and fight for LGBT rights in Azerbaijan. But I won't stop. Here I have access to international LGBT organizations, the European Union, and the United Nations. So now, activists from around the whole world are helping to draw attention to human rights violations in Azerbaijan. --Javid Nabiyev, interviewed by Samad Ismayilov
"In these organizations, your team becomes your second family" I was an LGBT activist in Kyrgyzstan for five years. One day I went to Kyiv to relax as part of a program for activists. I fell in love with a girl and decided to change my life.
The move to Kyiv shocked my colleagues back in Bishkek. They were very offended; in these organizations, your team becomes your second family. To them, it was as if I had just broken off a relationship rather than just quit a job.
But I was just exhausted from the ceaseless fighting. LGBT activists have a hard time; I admire them and feel for them. With a temporary residence permit, all I can do is work as a volunteer and take part in marches and pride parades. Living abroad, I don't have my own flat nor a circle of friends. Without such securities, activism becomes a privilege. If something were to happen to me, there would be nobody to help me. I don't find it easy to give up activism, even if I desperately want to live without the sense of being in a constant state of war. But can it ever be possible to live a normal life at all, when everybody only looks out for themselves? I hope that I manage to adapt my experiences to a new place and new surroundings. I just need time and a clear idea of how to do it. It took me a long time to understand that you don't just start from scratch after moving country. --Galya Sokoleva, interviewed by Regina Im
"Just be glad that you're still alive!" I'm from Pervouralsk, a small town near Yekaterinburg. I once protested against the law prohibiting "homosexual propaganda" when it was being discussed in the State Duma. Journalists asked me whether I was scared. I answered that I was, but that to be silent was even more frightening. When the law was passed, I couldn't believe that such a thing was possible in the 21st century. That was the moment when I truly realized what was happening to human rights in this country.
Attacks against me became more common. After one of them, I showed signs of a heart attack. The police refused to accept my statements, telling me: "Faggots should be killed. Just be glad that you're still alive!" As an LGBT activist I had trouble finding a job, even in Moscow.
On the opening day of the Olympic Games in Sochi in February 2014, a group of friends and I tried to sing the Russian national anthem on Red Square and hoist a rainbow flag. We were arrested. One of the policemen brutally shoved me down to the ground. We were threatened with jail sentences, so I left for the USA two weeks later. Since I arrived, I've supported the Magnitsky Act, protested against Russia Today, and demonstrated outside the Russian Embassy during the presidential elections. I also founded RUSA LGBT DC, an organization which assists Russian-speaking LGBT people in America.
I will continue to fight. I believe that some day Russia, too, will be free. --Gleb Latnik, interviewed by Vladan Rains
"Sometimes I just want to be back home with my family" I left Moldova six years ago. Back in April 2013, I preferred a quiet life to the pain and humiliation I experienced in my homeland, where I was persecuted for my sexual orientation. Belgium granted me political asylum and became my second home.
As a student, I didn't know how to respond to attacks nor how to defend myself. I was even teased by university professors. Passersby turned and laughed, shouting insults at me. My bright and ostentatious clothes and my stylish hairstyle probably attracted attention. My worked helped me build up confidence. I helped out at GENDERDOK-M events and demanded that the rights of LGBT people be respected. I participated in social experiments to demonstrate how people react to homosexual couples in public. I've also appeared on television several times, for which my classmates and relatives were harassed. Nevertheless, I was confident that all that would improve the situation in my country.
I never hid my sexual orientation, but it wasn't until very late that my parents realized I was gay. My mother eventually came to terms with it, but not my dad. He didn't find out about it until a year after I moved to Belgium. An acquaintance told him he'd seen me on TV. He said that he didn't want a son like me. We haven't spoken since. It hurts when your own father says you bring shame to the family. Relatives recently reached out and told me that he wanted to meet with me. But I'm not ready to forgive him; I don't know if I ever can.
Sometimes I really want to be back home with my family. My grandmother passed away four years ago and I couldn't come to her funeral. My grandfather is very sick now, maybe I'll never see him again. But if I come to Moldova I wouldn't be allowed to return to Belgium.
But I don't regret anything. Here in Belgium, I've never been attacked, insulted, or laughed at. Nobody has said terrible things about me to my face. --Andrey Revin, interviewed by Doina Ipati