By Levi Jackman
“They told me I wasn’t a human being and deserved to be murdered.”
This is what one Chechen man told a reporter in 2017 after being kidnapped and brutalized for being gay.
I first learned about the Chechen government’s horrific anti-LGBTI crimes against humanity after hearing this man’s story on NPR. This quote in particular stopped me in my tracks.
And then I learned that he was just one of many survivors of such harassment and violence.
Since the Russian republic of Chechnya began its purge of queer people in 2017, hundreds of LGBTI refugees are seeking safety in more LGBTI-friendly countries, but not without consequence. Even when granted asylum in new countries, these refugees continue to live in hiding and fear for their loved ones living back home being identified, held, or executed in the very detention facilities they fled in Chechnya.
Inspired by their stories of survival, I’ve joined protests and demonstrations organized by Rusa LGBT and Voices 4 Chechnya as well as fundraisers for The Rainbow Railroad, a non-profit that protects LGBTI individuals across the globe.
Through these organizations, I was introduced to people who connected me to queer Chechen refugees living in Montreal, Amsterdam, and other undisclosed locations.
As an artist and activist, I felt it necessary to help share these people’s stories, but also felt conflicted by the idea of my primary medium — photography — revealing their identity and possibly putting them or their loved ones in harm’s way. Safety and anonymity had to remain a top priority in my decision-making.
After deliberating between different styles of composition, I decided that the back of a subject’s head said what the photos needed to say. The hiding of one’s face denies the human instinct and privilege of analyzing someone’s face. It makes us ask, “What is being hidden?” and hopefully causes the viewer to take the time to learn why.
The subjects in these photos were photographed in a manner to maintain their anonymity to remind us that the international community is failing queer Chechen people, and because they are now forced to live anonymous lives. We don’t get to see their faces and too few of us hear their stories.
In February, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a public condemnation of the persecution and called on Russian authorities to investigate the situation, which includes two reported deaths as a result of torture. UN experts noted that “abuse inflicted on victims has allegedly become more cruel and violent compared with reports from 2017. It is no longer only gay men in Chechnya who are being targeted, but women also.”
The following month, 30 UN member states delivered a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that expressed “deep concern about recent reports concerning the renewed persecution of LGBTI persons in Chechnya.”
Yet the identity-driven hate and trauma they’ve endured continues without real consequences in Chechnya. In fact, when the Chechen government was questioned on the matter, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov claimed there are no gay men in Chechnya, saying: “We don’t have those kinds of people here.”
While Canada and the Netherlands have stepped up to offer asylum to these refugees, the U.S. government has not. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that the U.S. had not welcomed a single queer refugee from the region as a result of these persecutions.
And it’s not just LGBTI refugees from Chechnya. According to the International Rescue Committee, the U.S. has cut its refugee admissions to historic lows.
Because of the grace and generosity of these subjects, we are given a small glimpse of the gravity of international inaction. Lives displaced, lost, and erased.
This Pride Month, may we not just contemplate what we could do to help, but what we will do to help — for the faces we will never know, for the uncounted ones who have been murdered, and for the hundreds more seeking safety and peace.
Visit these organizations below to learn more about how you can support LGBTI Chechen refugees:
Levi Jackman is an artist and activist who uses provocative portraiture and imagery to bring attention to — and raise funds for — environmental and social issues, including LGBTI rights. Through social media, he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities and reached more than 20 million people with his most recent social responsibility campaign. He was a 2017 member of the Courageous Class of Kenneth Cole, which supports the UN’s Free & Equal campaign.
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