It has, unfortunately, been a year marked by homophobia and transphobia, with Donald Trump’s administration undoing many of the LGBT nondiscrimination protections put in force by President Barack Obama. However, there have been some defeats for the phobes too, with Roy Moore failing to win a U.S. Senate seat and Bob Marshall, the most anti-LGBT member of the Virginia legislature, losing his seat to a transgender woman. And outside the U.S., there were the victories for marriage equality in Australia and Germany, and a path to equal marriage rights laid out in Taiwan. The worst example of homophobia also comes from overseas; as bad as the Trump administration is, it’s not (directly) killing people. The Advocate’s 2017 choice for Phobie of the Year is Ramzan Kadyrov, president of the semiautonomous Russian republic of Chechnya, where gay and bisexual men, along with some transgender women, have been incarcerated and tortured in makeshift prisons that amount to concentration camps. An unknown number have been killed.
The independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published reports about the camps in the early spring, after rumors had been circulating among human rights activists for months. The initial article said at least 100 had been rounded up and three killed; later reports put the number killed at 26, and it may be far greater now. Chechen law enforcement authorities have targeted many of the victims through social media sites and apps, arranging “dates” at which the men ended up being arrested. The officials also often forced the men to give up names of their friends under threat of being outed to their families. Homosexuality is deeply frowned upon in Chechnya, where many residents follow a very conservative form of Islam.
Inside the camps, the men have been subjected to beatings and electric shocks. “They turn the knob, electric current hits you, and you start shaking,” a survivor told Human Rights Watch of the electroshock torture. “And they keep turning the hellish machine, and the pain is just insane, you scream, and scream, and you no longer know who you are. ... Finally, you faint, it all goes dark, but when you come to your senses, they start all over again.” Survivors are sometimes released to the custody of their families — with the families receiving instructions to kill their gay and bisexual members.
The U.S. has reportedly visas to survivors of the camps, but some have found refuge in Canada and elsewhere. Congress has passed a bipartisan resolution condemning the persecution in Chechnya, and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has spoken out, as has Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but Trump has remained silent on the situation. His favorite foreign leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin, at first dismissed the reports as “rumors” but eventually agreed to look into the matter. Kadyrov, however, has denied that LGBT people, or “devils,” as he calls them, even exist in Chechnya.
“We don’t have those kinds of people here,” he told an HBO reporter. If there are, they should be exiled to Canada “to purify our blood,” he continued. When the reporter pushed him about reports from survivors, Kadyrov responded, “They are devils. They are for sale. They are not people.”
Finally, in December the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control issued sanctions against Kadyrov and Ayub Katayev, a Chechen law enforcement officer, for “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” including the antigay purge. They will be subjected to financial and travel restrictions. LGBT rights groups praised the move but said it is only one of many necessary actions. Kadyrov, meanwhile, has said he wants to step down as president.
Read on for information about the runners-up to Kadyrov.
Jeff Sessions was one of the most anti-LGBT members of the U.S. Senate, and since he became Trump’s attorney general, he’s been doing most of the dirty work of oppressing LGBT people. Under Sessions, the Department of Justice has rescinded Obama-era guidelines on accommodation of transgender students (a joint action with the Department of Education); reversed the Obama administration’s stance that existing federal civil rights law bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity — and made pro-discrimination arguments in court; also argued in court on behalf of Trump’s plan to reinstate the ban on military service by transgender people (now blocked by three federal courts); and released an infamous “religious freedom” guidance document, providing a broad license for federal contractors and government employees to discriminate against LGBT people or anyone else who offends their religious beliefs. Shortly before Sessions put out that document, he gave a closed-door speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-LGBT legal group that argued in the Supreme Court that client Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, had the right to turn away a same-sex couple because of his Christian beliefs. A Justice Department lawyer argued on Phillips's side as well. Sessions did make a statement denouncing the murders of trans people and sent a DOJ lawyer to help prosecutors in one case, which Lambda Legal called a publicity stunt. When a Justice Department intern confronted him about transgender rights at an event this summer, his halting statement of “You can be sure we’ll protect transgender and all people in their civil rights” rang hollow. The only good news is that Sessions’s term in office may be shortened, due to the fact that he lied under oath about contacts with Russian officials while he was involved in the Trump campaign.