To understand just how lucky we are in the U.S. — to be able to click on The Advocate and peruse this site without retribution, for example — is to also be horrified by how the LGBTQ community is viewed, treated and condemned in other parts of the world.
Recently, I wrote about the president’s speech at the United Nations, where he pushed nationalism — minding your own business — to other countries, while claiming to have the backs of victimized LGBTQ people around the world. That is not only dichotomous but disingenuous, particularly when it affects how our community is suffering in Chechnya.
For some background, Chechnya is a republic in southwestern Russia and has long been in conflict — and cahoots — with Moscow. The country offers no protection for its LGBTQ citizens. In fact, Chechen authorities go so far as to deny gay people even exist. It is an Islamic, ultra-conservative country that is heatedly homophobic.
ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman spent a year researching a story about the antigay crisis in Chechnya, including traveling to the country and other parts of the world, and speaking with victims of the terror campaigns carried out by Chechnya’s security services. He also talked directly with the some of the men allegedly responsible for the odious oppression. Longman’s work will be featured on ABC News' Nightline special tonight.
“We’ve been hearing for some time that while the headlines died down about LGBT persecution in Chechnya in recent years, the abuse was continuing,” explained Longman during a phone conversation with me from Iraq where he is currently covering the Syrian/Turkey crisis. “We decided to put the spotlight back on this issue. Our journey to tell this story was incredibly eye-opening.”
Longman said that he and his crew had the opportunity to speak with three men who had personally experienced Chechen maltreatment. One man featured Ricky, is in his early 20s, now lives in another part of Europe, and tried to kill himself while enduring extreme torture in an underground prison in Chechnya. “Ricky started a relationship with a guy he reacquainted with from his teenage years,” Longman described. “So perhaps most deplorable to Ricky was the moment when his alleged boyfriend walked into his cell in full army uniform. He had obviously been set-up.”
Another man escaped to a different part of Europe and had the same story, with humiliation inflicted on his family because he was gay. The same goes for a third man, Amin Dzhabrailov, who now lives in North America.
“One day, while at work, three large men stormed in, grabbed Amin, and put him in the trunk of a car,” Longman held. “He was thrown into that underground prison, beaten, given intense electric shock on sensitive parts of his arms and fingers. “
Longman explicated that while in captivity, the authorities wanted names of other gay men, and Amin refused to cooperate. “He remained silent, wrote messages on the walls with his blood, endured phony mock executions with a sack over his head. And in a traumatizingly typical method, Amin was also shamed in front of his family. The police summoned his parents to the prison so that they could witness the punishment of their son. He repeatedly thought he was going to die.”
Thankfully, Amin was able to make contact with a gay man in Russia through the Rainbow Railroad, a group that helps LGBTQ people in crisis. The organization sent him money and helped him escape the brutalization by flying him to Moscow first. According to Longman, Moscow was still dangerous for Amin as Chechens are known to follow escapees.
Amin’s struggle has a tenuously happy ending. “He and the man who helped him are now boyfriends, and they reside in North America. Once they were off the plane, in their new country, Amin finally felt safe,” said Longman. “However, they still are tormented by other Chechens, and receive threats daily. It’s very difficult to escape not only the memory of the appalling imprisonment, but the guilt imposed by Chechens.”
Once Longman and his crew entered Chechnya they suspected that they were being followed while they waited to speak to someone in the government about the abuses.
“One evening a mysterious woman appeared telling us we were going to meet someone high-up in authority who would fill us in on what was ‘being said about gay people,’” Longman retells. “At this point the top general that leads over 10,000 police troops in the country showed up and invited the crew and I to dinner.”
Longman said that during the meal the General acted the role of a benevolent dictator, bragging about the new, improved and modern Chechnya. Then at one point he abruptly stopped the conversation and asked who among the group was gay? There was stunned silence according to Longman. “I was the only gay person, so I just stayed silent.” Longman said. The General piercingly responded, “If none of you are gay, why do you care about this story?”
After dinner, the group took a walk through the streets of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, while the general stopped strangers on the street coaxing them to relay how safe and wonderful life was in the country. Their evening ended with a visit to the police station.
“We showed up and were greeted by these huge Chechen police officers,” recollected Longman. “The general curiously questioned us, asking while there are allegations about abuse with his police force. He challenged us to name a police force in the world has that hasn’t been accused of abuses.” They were left to wonder why the general seemed to be admitting to wrongdoing, when all evening long he continually denied it.
The general, his entourage, and the crew ended up in a prison cell, but not one underground. It was here that Longman revealed his secret. “Standing in the cell with about 20 of these big burly police officers nearby, I told the general I was gay,” Longman intoned.
After telling the general his secret, a very nervous Longman put the general’s hand on his racing heart. The general just laughed. “I suppose I had some vague hope that his perceptions of gay people could change,” Longman revealed. “But in telling him, I learned that he feels there’s one rule for Chechens and one for everyone else — that my homosexuality is proof of depraved Western culture, and the superiority of Chechnya’s culture.”
As Longman’s program is set to air, he has no doubt that the antigay abuses in country are ongoing, and that overwhelming pain continues to be inflicted upon the LGBT community. “Among so many things, what we learned is that machoism is paramount for a gay man in Chechnya and that Chechens are firm in the idea that it’s impossible to be gay and Chechen at the same time,” he thought. “It’s just so tragic to lose your identity, and it was shocking to hear the horror endured by the witnesses we met and spoke with and the stories of atrocities we heard about.”
When I brought up Trump’s UN comments about protecting LGBTQ victims around the world, and how the administration might help those suffering in Chechnya, Longman had a pointed answer. “Russia’s antigay propaganda gave the green light to what’s happening in Chechnya. If Donald Trump has a good relationship with Vladimir Putin, perhaps it would be a good idea to use that influence to help LGBT people by convincing him to rescind this destructive and deplorable antigay Russian doctrine.”