When faced with the kind of brutality currently being shown to gay and bi men in Chechnya, the natural impulse is to look for something—anything—that we can do to stand against it. But for a situation so remote and opaque, it’s hard to know where to begin. OutRight Action International has one easy suggestion: Tag Chechnya’s strong-man president on Instagram.
Yes, the Chechen leader overseeing a country where kidnappings, detentions, tortures, and killings of innocent queer men have become startlingly frequent in recent months has an active Instagram! Ramzan Kadyrov (@kadyrov_95) uses the social media platform to share pictures of uniformed schoolboys, ribbon cuttings, and pictures of himself smiling, giving thumbs up to the camera, and speaking into microphones. He does not, however, share pictures from the facilities where suspected queer men are reportedly being held and tortured with electrodes until they implicate others, in a campaign of terror that shows no signs of abating.
So OutRight is urging people to share pictures on the site expressing their condemnation of state-sponsored violence and tag Kadyrov to let him know the world is watching. "We're in an age where leaders use social media, so we've asked [actor] Alan Cumming to record a video, and we're asking other celebs to do them, and we're asking people to go on Instagram and post a picture or a video, and tag the Chechen leader," explained Maria Sjödin, Deputy Executive Director for the organization.
In addition to calling for selfies for social justice, OutRight has also drafted an open letter to the CEOs of oil companies Exxon, BP, and Shell. Each of these companies have official policies that tout support for their LGBTQ employees, and each has substantial business dealings with Russia. (Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation, and President Kadyrov is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.) Sjödin explains: "As human rights organizations we're used to working with governments and the U.N., but as this may not be working, we want to explore all the options. Money talks. We're calling for the big oil companies take a stand, because they already do business with Russia and have connections with the Russian state, and they should use their influence to make the torture and killings stop." There's also an online petition you can sign to support the open letter.
Any effort to find new avenues for pressuring Russian and Chechen authorities to stop abuses of innocent men deserves support. The stories of the desperation, pain, and terror slowly leaking out from the Chechen prison cells and torture chambers shock the conscience and demand a direct response. Other, more conventional responses include getting the word out by writing and sharing articles like this one; contacting our representatives in congress to put pressure on President Trump and the State Department to more strongly condemn the violence; and donating to advocacy groups that work on international LGBTQ issues. We should be doing all these things, because without attention and public interest there is no hope at all for the Chechens caught up in this vicious, state-sanctioned, anti-queer violence.
That said, we inhabit a world where political pressure was unable to prevent Russia from militarily annexing Crimea and parts of Ukraine. I'd love to see the U.S. president stand up for American values by loudly condemning human rights abuses in Chechnya; but even if we had a leader who cared about the fate of queer Chechen men, there may not have been much she could have done to stop the Chechen government from torturing them. This disheartening fact should not be the end of the discussion on what we can do to help persecuted Chechens, however. If we accept that there's a limit to how much we can do to help queer men within Chechnya, we must move on to helping them escape and supporting those who manage to do so.
According to Neil Grungas, Executive Director of Organization for Refuge, Asylum, & Migration, which advocates for LGBTQ refugees, the outsized American belief in our own influence abroad gets in the way of efforts to help those fleeing persecution.
"In Russia, the number of people who think homosexuality is very wrong and should be punished is over 90 percent. We just don't have that kind of power [to change attitudes], and it's hard for us as Americans to understand that limitation," Grungas explained during a far-ranging conversation, which touched on his frustration with advocacy groups whose messages play mainly to a Western audience, how we can reach out to queer Chechens, and the anguish he feels about having lost LGBTQ clients who were murdered in refugee camps at the hands of fellow refugees.
ORAM works directly with LGBTQ refugees, helping them to understand the process of seeking asylum and to find representation for their cases with migration authorities. They also work with mainstream refugee organizations, training groups that want to improve their work with sexual and gender minorities and pressuring mainstream organizations that resist helping queer refugees to protect every refugee equally. To address the situation in Chechnya, specifically, Grungas explained that there's a need for materials translated into the Chechen language, to give those facing persecution hope that there is help for them and information on how to seek asylum. He also suggested that funding could go to set up a hotline that Chechens could call to be connected to resources for LGBTQ refugees.
There are also Russian LGBTQ groups that are on the ground, working to get Chechens out of immediate danger and provide for them when they reach Russia. The Russian LGBT Network has opened a refuge center in Moscow, as reported by the Russian language news site Meduza. While Russia itself is not a safe place for sexual and gender minorities, it's certainly safer than Chechnya, and by far the easiest place to reach for those in immediate danger. Westerners can donate to Russian LGBTQ organizations and follow them to find out what else is needed.
American refugee policy, which was always stingy and contentious, is stingier and more contentious than ever under President Trump—but unlike in Chechnya, at least in the U.S. we can directly impact our own country's policy through political pressure. Making room for Chechen refugees fleeing pogroms would be the least that we can do, but we won't be doing it unless our political leaders hear from us. So put pressure the U.S. government to accept more refugees, and specifically to open up more slots for LGBTQ people fleeing from persecution. In the words of Grungas, "We need to own our own helplessness and humility, and say: ‘The only thing I can do is help one person escape. Get a roof over one person's head. It's up to me to make a difference to help my brothers.’”