In early April, reports of atrocities being committed against LGBTQ people began to emerge out of Chechnya, a small, independent republic of the Russian Federation that is predominantly Muslim. Novaya Gazeta — an independent Russian newspaper — broke the story that Chechen authorities had detained and tortured over 100 gay and bisexual men aged 16-50 over the previous few months as part of a “prophylactic purge.” At least four men are reported to have been killed, including a 17-year-old who was allegedly thrown from a building after his family was told to “wash the shame” away.
One man who managed to escape said, “They kill people. They do what they want. They know that nobody will come after them because the order has come from above to ‘cleanse the nation’ of people like us.” The man went on to reveal that the families of those imprisoned are eventually summoned to the prison and tasked with carrying out their own relative’s execution.
Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for Chechnya’s pro-Putin leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, denied the original reports, calling the article “absolute lies and disinformation.”
“You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” Karimov insisted. He reiterated this sentiment in a subsequent interview with The New York Times: “I said before, and I repeat now, in Chechnya we just don’t have this problem.”
Heda Saratova, a human rights official with the local government, agreed with Karimov’s assessment: “I never saw them with my own eyes,” she said of gay men. “And I never heard of them. I never thought of them. In my 50 years, I have never seen a gay man.”
Emphasizing her point, she said, “I see flies, I see mosquitoes, but I have never seen a gay man.”
Of course, we know without a doubt that LGBTQ people exist in Chechnya, as they do everywhere. Queer erasure, however, has a long historic precedent, and serves as a form of violence in its own right, functioning to further isolate, alienate, and silence an already marginalized community.
Using rhetoric almost identical to Karimov in response to a journalist’s question about LGBTQ rights in Rwanda, President Paul Kagame recently said, “It hasn’t been our problem, and we don’t intend to make it a problem.”
In 2007, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University said, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.”
Throughout history, homosexuality and gender nonconformity have been stigmatized and are often deemed to be punishable transgressions. In order to escape detection and persecution in hostile environments, many LGBTQ people are forced into closeted existences. Depending on factors such as one’s race, class, or geography, the act of “coming out” and living openly as an LGBTQ person can carry varying levels of risk.
In the United States, sodomy was classified as a felony in every state prior to 1962, with punishments including lengthy terms of imprisonment and/or hard labor. Prior to the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003, 14 states still had anti-sodomy laws. Meanwhile, LGBTQ people are still criminalized in over 70 countries worldwide. In many cases, the anti-LGBTQ laws in these nations are actually relics of the colonial era, during which England’s first civil sodomy law, the Buggery Act of 1533, was imposed upon colonized territories.
In Chechnya, it’s reported that security agents have lured in victims by posing online as gay men looking for dates. Following the passage of Russia’s notorious Anti-Propaganda Law in 2013, which banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors,” similar tactics were used by a Russian right-wing vigilante group, “Occupy Pedophilia.” The group used social media to “ambush” gay people by luring them into meetings and then assaulting them on camera; online footage of these attacks quickly went viral.
Even when individuals avoid arrest or persecution, Russia’s Anti-Propaganda Law is akin to a slow death sentence as it effectively isolates LGBTQ people from one another, restricting access to any evidence that there are others in the world who share their identities. Under the law, the only information regarding LGBTQ people made available to young people is condemnatory, and activist efforts to offer positive, affirming visibility have been squelched (often with violence).
To erase core parts of a person’s identity is to dehumanize them. Under current international human rights law, however, the humanity of LGBTQ people is not protected. Despite decades of advocacy, sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) remain unprotected statuses. This, in large part, is due to aggressively organized opposition efforts at the United Nations and the Organization of American States led by Religious Right groups, including many American organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Watch International, United Families International, C-Fam, Family Research Council, and the International Organization for the Family.
Later this month, from May 25-28, representatives of these same groups will be convening for the 11th World Congress Families (WCF) in Budapest, Hungary, alongside thousands of other religious leaders, elected officials, scientists, and scholars from around the world. From its headquarters in Rockford, Illinois, WCF promotes conservative ideas regarding the traditional nuclear family, and serves as an umbrella organization for a network of groups and individuals that make up a who’s who list of right-wing power players leading the charge against LGBTQ people and reproductive justice around the world.
The vision for what would eventually become WCF was first formulated by its future president, Allan Carlson, on a trip to Russia in 1995. The organization remains deeply connected to some of the most influential religious and political leaders in Russia, and through these relationships WCF has played a key role in formulating and promoting anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion legislation there.
Nonetheless, in a recent interview, WCF Managing Director Larry Jacobs insisted, “We are not anti-gay. Homosexuals are the people that need a natural family the most. We are the ones that want to help the victims of the sexual revolution, the victims of divorce, the victims of people who have lived a promiscuous lifestyle. I think the question about homosexuality is ‘how do we deal with brokenness?’”
However, the organization has yet to condemn the attacks on LGBTQ people in Chechnya, and following Russia’s passage of the Anti-Propaganda Law, Jacobs described the developments as “very exciting.” Now, similar laws are cropping up elsewhere. Human Rights First reports that “legislators from Eastern Europe to Central Asia have emulated the Russian Duma by introducing nearly identical versions of the law in their legislative bodies.”
Natalia Antelava, an investigative journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia, says of Putin: “He has very much positioned himself as a protector of family values, not just in Russia but the region and the world. As a result, this entire region has become much more dangerous to be gay.” (Only after being pressured by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, last week did Putin reluctantly agree to pursue an investigation into the reports coming out of Chechnya.)
In the press release announcing Budapest as the host city for its next international gathering, WCF declared Hungary to be “one of the most family-friendly countries in Europe,” pointing to the nation’s adoption of new constitutional provisions in 2011 that restricted the rights of LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, and severely undermined sexual and reproductive health and rights. This, according to WCF, made Hungary’s government “the hero of pro-family and pro-life leaders from all over the world.”
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is scheduled to address WCF XI, has introduced some limited improvements with respect to freedom of assembly and the annual Budapest LGBTQ Pride march. However, Orbán has also warned LGBTQ communities against exhibiting overly “provocative behavior,” and in March 2016, Hungary blocked a Europe-wide agreement aimed at tackling LGBTQ discrimination.
As WCF’s brand of “family-friendly” continues to expand its global influence, the threat to LGBTQ people and reproductive justice grows along with it, and as the horrific reports coming out of Chechnya make clear, the “pro-family and pro-life” movement can, in fact, be deadly.