what politicians' silence on chechnya's 'gay camps' says about lgbtq oppression

Following reports of gay men being rounded up into torture camps in Chechnya, there has been a deafening silence from politicians. i-D considers the consequences of this silence, and speaks with protesters at the Queer Solidarity demonstration outside...

by Louis Staples
13 April 2017, 3:45pm

Like countless others who were born in the 90s, I'm not old enough to remember the second Chechen war. So, it's rather embarrassing to admit that, until this week, I owed most of my knowledge of the region to a pop culture reference. That's right, I'm talking about the 2001 classic Bridget Jones's Diary. In the early stages of the film, we see Bridget hastily swatting up on current affairs in preparation for a work function. While doing the vacuuming and puffing on a cigarette, she recites, "Chechnyaaa, Chechnyaaa" aloud to herself. On her first date with lothario Daniel Cleaver, Bridget decides to put her studies into practice, asking, "So what do you think of the situation in Chechnya, isn't it a nightmare?" Cleaver, played by Hugh Grant, looks beyond his dreamy 90s curtains and responds, "I couldn't give a fuck, Jones."

Over 15 years later, it appears that history is repeating itself. There is once again a situation in Chechnya and many, including world leaders, are turning a blind eye, just like Mr Cleaver.

This week, harrowing reports have emerged of a violent and systematic campaign in the region, targeted specifically towards gay and bisexual men. Russian activists and Amnesty International warn that Chechen authorities are rounding up "undesirable" men and subjecting them to detention, torture and, in the very worst cases, death at the hands of the police. At least 100 men are reportedly held inside this makeshift prison, where they are routinely electrocuted and forced to sit on glass bottles. Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, an advocate of honor killings and polygamy, denies the accusations, insisting that gay men do not exist in his country.

Despite the story first breaking several days ago, Prime Minister Theresa May has yet to speak out, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has only just done so. The silence has been so deafening that MEPs from Labour, Conservatives, and the Green Party have now written to May requesting she call an immediate meeting with the Russian ambassador over the situation. While it's certainly true that the British Empire played a large role in exporting homophobic values around the world — especially in the commonwealth, where 36 out of 52 nations still criminalize homosexuality — this doesn't give any UK Prime Minister a get-out-of-condemning-state-sponsored-brutality card.

Since the news broke, protests and demonstrations have been organized across the UK and beyond. At a protest in London outside the Russian Embassy, demonstrators were dismayed at the lack of comment from the Prime Minister. "This has become a recurring theme with Theresa May," says Lauren Flynn, 20. "When bad things happen, sit back and say nothing."

When it comes to responding to discrimination against LGBT+ people, it seems that there is always a bigger story to focus on. We saw this in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, when the Daily Mail opted to flog a picture of the Queen and a free pair of fake pearl earrings instead of featuring the deadliest shooting in US history on its cover.

Read: Orlando proves we need pride more than ever.

Whether it's instances like this in the media, or the complicit silence of politicians, ignoring the suffering of LGBT+ people enforces a narrative that we are worth less than heterosexual people. This is a storyline that most of us know well. In the UK, for the most part, it is rare for LGBT+ people to be blatantly told that they are inferior. The message is instead relayed to us through subtle signals on a daily basis. In the playground, 96% of us hear the words 'gay' and 'queer' being used to describe things that are broken, defective, or unwanted. When we enter the classroom, 56% of us never hear LGBT+ people mentioned by teachers in an educational setting. As a gay man, I can't even donate blood in the UK because the rules imply that the blood running through my veins is impure.

Growing up in this oppressive environment has a corrosive effect on self-worth. So much so, that when LGBT+ people hear of these atrocities, our instant reaction is often to retreat behind personal barriers and be grateful that it's not happening to us. Years of being treated as lesser people — sometimes by our own families — has taught us to expect poor treatment, so when LGBT+ people are executed in Nigeria, thrown off buildings in Iraq or tortured in Russian prisons it's almost as if we accept it. The silence from May rings so loudly because it confirms a narrative that LGBT+ people are accustomed to hearing: that we don't matter.

At the protests outside the Russian Embassy, it was heartening to see long-time allies of the queer community in attendance. "As a product of the 1970s, vast swathes of my queer and gay friends aren't here anymore," explains performer Eve Ferret. "So many of my friends were chased down the street and attacked just for being who they are. I'm here to represent them as we continue the fight."

To the straight people who perhaps weren't alive when Eve and her friends were first fighting for equality, this is a perfect example of the kind of solidarity that we need. The hatred that is fueling the current situation in Chechnya exists in every society. It's the same mindless prejudice that fueled Orlando, or the brutal homophobic attack that recently led Dutch male politicians to hold hands as a show of public support. While Chechnya may not be on our doorstep, there are still 20 homophobic hate crimes a day in England and Wales.

Yet what makes these Chechen torture prisons different is that they aren't questioning whether two women can adopt a child or if two men can get married. This isn't a debate about which bathroom a trans person should use. This systematic campaign of violence is questioning our right to breath air through our lungs. It questions whether we are worthy of life, something that sadly too many LGBT+ people already ask themselves.

Rising from the ashes of despair, the next generation of queer activists are being galvanized. Outside the Russian Embassy, blogger Jamie Windust was attending his first-ever protest. I asked him what motivated him to attend, to which he simply replied, "If one of us isn't free, then none of us are."

Read: Decoding the secret gay language of Polari.


Text Louis Staples

gay camps
queer solidarity