Saturday, 15 April 2017

Russia's Appalling LGBTQIA+ Rights Record Means Putin Will Do Nowt To Stop Rad Kadyrov.

On Wednesday April 12th, in the evening, a protest organised by LGBT London Pride and attended by representatives of numerous LGBT+ organisations including Amnesty International LGBTI and LGBT Labour happened outside the Russian Embassy in London. The protest was designed to highlight recent developments in Chechnya which indicate that concentration camps  have been opened to illegally detain and torture gay and bi men in response to a request by GayRussia.ru to hold a Pride parade in Grozny. Estimates suggest that over 100 gay and bi men "between the ages of 16 and 50" have been detained on the orders of Chechnya's radical Islamic adherent President, Ramzan Kadyrov (who happened to have been initially nominated and installed as President of the Chechen Republic by Putin on 15th February 2007 and then again by President Medvedev in 2011 as Chechnya is a Russian federal territory). We now know of at least 3 and as many as 20 gay and bi men having been murdered as of Thursday April 13th (coming from reporting by Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta). The personal story of Adam revealed in The Guardian on Thursday(https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/13/they-called-us-animals-chechens-prison-beatings-electric-shocks-anti-gay-purge) was horrifying to read, with references to electric shock torture, stick beatings and verbal homophobic abuse being used as an attempt to extract information from Adam about fellow gay and bi men from his area. Akhmed talked about the tactics being used by Kadyrov's regime to capture gay men (fake meetups/fake dates etc) with police blackmailing gay men into working for them to out others in exchange for anonymity. At least Akhmed managed to escape Chechnya and is now seeking asylum in Europe. I believe wholeheartedly that Akhmed and any LGBTQIA+ person who flees Chechnya and Russia should be granted asylum, given the harrowing experiences being revealed in newspaper columns. Kadyrov and his spokespeople deny the very existence of LGBTQIA+ Muslims in Chechnya, let alone the detention and torture of gay and bi men in concentration camps. Kadyrov is so determined to eradicate homosexuality in Chechnya that it's been alleged that his law enforcement is allowing family members to carry out honour killings; the regime has even released gay prisoners early so these honour killings can take place. Such wanton disrespect for human beings is sadistic, brutal and entirely unconscionable to a trans non-binary person of faith like myself and to many people of faith who identify as LGBTQIA+ around the world.

Kadyrov is no stranger to human rights violations. In 2007, soon after becoming President, Kadyrov called for the liquidation of refugee camps in Chechnya, accusing refugees of being "international spies" working to destabilise the growing relationship between Chechnya and Russia. Kadyrov claimed in March 2007 that human rights abuses "were a thing of the past" yet he has been consistently accused of ordering the murders of dissidents in an attempt to consolidate his power. These include Natalia Estemirova, who as a member of Memorial society, investigated abuses committed by government- backed militia during and after the Second Chechen War (she was abducted and shot to death on the 15th July 2009, soon after Kadyrov personally threatened her in public) and the family of a man who had to flee to Dagestan after he made a YouTube appeal to Putin criticising Kadyrov in May 2016 (the family were dragged into a car which was thrown under a bridge). The man publically apologised to Kadyrov but fled again in November 2016 after threats were made against his life by the deputy Interior Minister Apti Alaudinov.

Russia's LGBTQIA+ Laws:

Despite these and numerous other documented acts, Putin has not lifted one finger to criticise Kadyrov. So why should we expect him to intervene now? Putin's own human rights record towards LGBTQIA+ people is repressive:
  • Same sex relationships may have been decriminalised in Russia in 1993 but same-sex couples still do not have the same legal protections as heterosexual couples. Same-sex marriage is not recognised or conducted (Article 12 of Russia's "Family Code" states that marriage is de facto between a man and woman).
  • Homosexuality may have been depathologised in 1999 (i.e. no longer seen as a mental illness) but psychiatrists still view homosexuality as an illness: a 2014 survey in the Psychiatric Times  found that 62.5% of 450 surveyed psychiatrists thought homosexuality needed to be treated.
  • LGBTQIA+ people cannot openly serve in the armed forces. 
  • Trans Russians can change their legal gender following Gender Reassignment Surgery (since 1997) but there are no laws which prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in the workplace.
  • Since 2006, several regional governments have enacted laws akin to the UK Thatcherite Government's "Section 28", with LGBT people's stories not being allowed to be told to minors. Then in June 2013, the federal law was changed so that any "propaganda" that supports or is deemed to support "non traditional relationships" to minors became a criminal offence. Children are being taught by Putin's regime that homosexuality is unnatural by restricting LGBTQIA+ people's representation in the mainstream on the grounds that any child might accidentally come into contact with their blog, vlog, TV programme or newspaper article. No wonder eminent Russian historian Lyudmila Alexeyeva has called the federal propaganda law "a step towards the Middle Ages" (quoted in Miriam Elin's June 2013 Article for The Guardian "Russia passes law banning gay "propaganda").
It's important to see the Chechnya situation within this wider Russian context. Chechnya may indeed be 95% Muslim but Putin gave Chechnya and other federal semi-autonomous republics powers which now allow local leaders like Kadyrov to "enforce their interpretation of traditional Muslim values" on their people. Putin claims such devolved powers are designed to help drive Islamic extremism underground (Chan Sewell "UN experts Condemn Killing and Torture of Gay Men in Chechnya" New York Times April 13 2017). It's clear that Putin allowing Kadyrov to use the "freedom of religious expression" principle in order to control dissident voices has ultimately led to blatant discrimination against those who "do not conform" to traditional gender stereotypes. Sounds pretty familiar to me...

Russia as a whole is a melting-pot of religious identities. However, The Russian Academy of Science 2013 Survey found that 79% of Russians who responded to the survey identified themselves as Russian Orthodox Christians, whilst only 4% identified themselves as Muslim. It's abundantly clear that in spite of religious differences, the majority of the Russian population still support laws discriminating against LGBTQIA+ people. A 2013 survey conducted by The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project found that 73% of Russians didn't want Russian society to accept homosexuality, 87% opposed gay pride parades, (Moscow Pride got banned for 100 years (yes 100 years) in 2012), 22% said that homosexuality should be reclassified as a mental illness and 5% said gay people "should be liquidated"! 90% of Russians surveyed by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center said they were in favour of the 2013 propaganda law. Putin and the Duma may not go so far as to fight to make homosexuality itself a criminal offence or mental illness again (the Duma rejected a proposal put forward by the Communist Party in January 2016 that would have seen openly LGBTQIA+ people fined or arrested for breaking the propaganda law) but they still fundamentally believe LGBTQIA+ people should be treated differently on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. Their homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discriminatory attitudes align with those of Kadyrov in Chechnya.

Chechnya isn't the only area in Russia where anti LGBT+ acts of violence and forced detention have taken place in 2017:
  • A Washington Blade article by Michael K. Lavers detailed the disappearance of trans LGBT+ advocate Grey Violet in the self-identifying "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) region of Eastern Ukraine on 31st January 2017. Violet and her friend Victoria Miroshnichenko decided to go to the DNR to organise a public performance designed to highlight LGBTQIA+ rights issues in the DNR. Violet and Miroshnichenko were eventually freed by the 22nd February 2017 but only after being interrogated by security officials during their detention at the DNR National Security building in Donetsk. Violet told of being hit with a police baton on the head and body and being "hit in the ribs" by interrogators several times. Violet was also forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation in which she was asked to justify her gender identity and sexual orientation. You can read more about Violet's experience, recorded by her friend, Tanya Cooper, researcher on Ukraine and Belarus, here: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/22/lgbt-activists-freed-after-being-held-eastern-ukraine.
  • According to a Towleroad article by Andy Towle from 10 March 2017 (http://www.towleroad.com/2017/03/sergey-davydov/), Mayor Sergey Davydov declared his town of Svetogorsk (15,000 people) a "gay-free zone", expelling two LGBTQIA+ activists, Boris Kanakov and Andrei Potapov because he didn't want any gay people in his town. Kanakov and Potapov were then forcibly detained by authorities.  
The rub between "freedom of religious expression" and LGBTQIA+ discrimination:
Those on the conservative right often talk of defending "freedom of religious expression" to the hilt. This includes the ability to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people by denying their existence or identity, denying them access to public services or even petty acts like denying gay people the right to enter business premises or refuse to serve them because doing so would "dishonour God". What a strange form of rationale, given that Jesus helped out everyone, even those considered "foreigners" by his own people. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-27) is the obvious example that comes to mind but there are numerous references to Jesus going out of his way to help others, without openly discriminating against them.

As a Lutheran Christian, I firmly believe that freedom of religious expression should never mean being able to enact acts of discrimination, violence and murder in the name of religious purity. The Church and State should be entirely separate, with the state legislating to protect all groups at risk of discrimination. Businesses in the UK for example are considered public spaces and come under the jurisdiction of British Equality law. That means it is discriminatory to refuse to serve someone on the basis of their gender identity or sexuality unless there is a specific reason to do so-e.g. single sex changing facilities.

What's happened in Chechnya makes me believe the concept of separation between Church and State has to be fully expressed and enacted further in Western countries such as the UK. In practice, in the UK this means supporting House of Lords reform, which would see Bishops (in addition to hereditary peers) being removed from the House of Lords so they are not able to help inform state legislative decisions. The Church of England may be perceived by some as our state religion but I don't understand how it can be right that Anglican bishops can use their position to influence government decision on issues such as the Brexit Bill or legal gender recognition but Imams, Rabbis and other religious leaders, even Catholic archbishops cannot. It's an archaic form of governance that needs to be reformed.

More generally, it makes sense that politicians should not be able to use their religious worldview to dictatorially legislate against LGBTQIA+ people. In the UK, we are fortunate to live in a Parliamentary democracy, where there has to be a consensus decision made before laws are enacted. The mechanism has recently led to the creation of the Gender Recognition Act, Equality Act, hate crime legislation etc that has led to increased rights for LGBTQIA+ people. The UK is far from perfect but at least discrimination is being openly challenged. We realise that a Christian or Muslim  disagreeing with two people of the same-sex getting married does not mean they should have a privileged right to legislate against them marrying and that just because a Christian or Muslim doesn't like a non-binary person wanting to be referred to by different pronouns does not mean they'd have the right to imprison them, call them mentally ill or call for family members to murder them. So in the UK, US and democracies across the world, we must continue to ensure that freedom of religious expression does not lead to any increase in discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people. That means calling out forced marriages, domestic abuse and violence, honour violence that occurs in the UK, regardless of how uncomfortable those perpetuating acts of discrimination and violence may happen to find it and regardless of what religious practice they adhere to.

What can we do to really help gay and bi men in Chechnya and LGBTQIA+ people in Russia?

I understand concerns that the protest held at the Russian embassy on Wednesday and subsequent protests held around the world since then will not make a real difference to Chechnya's gay and bi men when they are being systematically singled out for discrimination, torture and in some cases, murder. It's true that whilst Putin remains in power and continues to allow Kadyrov to do what the hell he likes in the name of religious freedom, Chechnya's gay and bi men will probably continue to be imprisoned, tortured and murdered in their hundreds and all of it done in the name of purity. Yet LGBTQIA+ activists like Grey Violet, Boris Kanakov and Andrei Potapov are not giving up. They want to try and change the hearts and minds of Russians, including in Chechnya to be more of gender identity and sexuality differences. After all, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia stem from ideological assumptions about gender identity and sexuality. Are we born with an innate propensity to hate people on the basis of gender identity or sexuality? No. Those who have grown to hate LGBTQIA+ people play on fear to foster a sense of hate in young people whilst in their adolescence. Such habituation may take place at home, with the father and mother reinforcing intolerant attitudes and/or it may happen at school with their teacher pushing homophobic attitudes, and/or it may happen in church or at a mosque, when visiting with their parents. Russian kids are being indoctrinated to fear those who may be deemed to differ "from the norm". Groupthink fear has
has enveloped the Russian people. So that's why it's important that in spite of this national level of indoctrination, LGBTQIA+ activists have, are and will continue to speak out against draconian legislation, discriminatory attitudes and forced detentions and acts of torture. Political parties, such as Yabloko and The Libertarian Party of Russia have publically demonstrated against intolerance and the propaganda law, with The Libertarian Party specifically referring to the law as "a violation of people's right to free speech". Gay and bi men are trying to enter Russian politics to help fight against Putin. 2 openly gay men, Bulat Barantayev and Aleksei Korolyvov ran for Duma seats in September 2016, on the liberal Parnas ticket to show their opposition to the 2013 propaganda law. (Darina Schevchenko and Robert Coalson "Openly Gay Candidates Push Back In Russia's Duma Elections " 12 September 2016 http://www.rferl.org/a/russia-lgbt-duma-elections-barantayev-korolyov/27981994.html). Whilst they were not elected, they still have faith that the political system in Russia can change. It's extremely heartening to read their stories and to hear of their determination to enter politics in order to enact social change, in order to show that gay people can be successful in business and in family life despite having been the victims of homophobic hate crime in the past.

Our key responsibility as Western activists, is to stand shoulder to shoulder with Violet, Barantayev, Korolyvov and other Russian LGBTQIA+ activists and groups like:
  • The Russian LGBT network, (formed in 2006 and led by Igor Kochetkov) who are fighting hard against the discrimination of people on the basis of gender identity and/or sexuality by working with lawyers, psychologists, activist groups and local LGBT+ organisations. It was reported in The Guardian  that The Russian LGBT network has "created an emergency contact centre" to help gay people in Chechnya escape; they've had "dozens" of gay people in hiding get in touch with them. It's extremely brave of them to operate a scheme in the gaze of Putin as well as Kadyrov.
  • Memorial, the civil rights society which helps LGBT+ victims of criminal persecution during the Soviet era to get recognition of their plight from Putin's Duma.
  • GayRussia.ru who has organised several Moscow Pride events from 2005 to 2009 despite activists being arrested at every event. No event has been authorised by any city authority in Russia since July 2009 but GayRussia.ru continues to campaign for freedom of assembly in addition to campaigning on same sex marriage and an end to a ban on gay and bi men giving blood. GayRussia.ru have also monitored homophobic utterances and acts of key Russian politicians in the past.
Organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also help to draw our attention to acts of barbarity against LGBTQIA+ people in Russia and we should praise the courage of activists who risk their lives to inform these organisations.

How do we stand shoulder to shoulder with LGBTQIA+ activists in Chechnya and Russia I hear you cry? Well here's a few suggestions:
  1. LGBTQIA+ activists can help to disseminate stories of  LGBTQIA+ hate crime, acts of torture and murders committed across Russia, including in Chechnya as well as the positive stories of activists attempting to change attitudes towards and laws against LGBTQIA+ people in Russia. This helps fight back against a generalist perception that Russia has completely given into homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate. The situation in Chechnya is dire and the complicity of Putin is abhorrent, but that doesn't mean Russian activists have given up and accepted a future of oppression, torture and murder. Far from it.
  2. LGBTQIA+ activists and allies can join organisations such as Amnesty International LGBTI (help with the Urgent Action on Chechnya by "writing in Russian or your own language to the Chairman of the Investigation Committee and Acting Head of the Investigation Committee for the Chechen Republic" or Human Rights Watch who continue to monitor discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people in Russia and its Federal Republics.  
  3. LGBTQIA+ activists and allies can help fund LGBTQIA+ Russian activists to set up and run local organisations, put on events and help LGBTQIA+ people to access basic healthcare and justice advice. LGBTQIA+ Russian activists can also be encouraged to write about their own experiences of discrimination and be given a forum to publish their account wherever it is possible for them to do so.
  4. LGBTQIA+ activists and allies can stage protests against Kadyrov and Putin's inaction at Russian embassies in their own country, wherever and whenever safe to do so.
  5. Mainstream LGBTQIA+ journalists like Owen Jones can use their media platform to share activist stories as widely as possible with the public.
  6. Politicians in the UK can stand firm against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia by lobbying the UK Government so that Boris Johnson, Theresa May et al keep condemning the  LGBTQIA+ human rights record (and human rights record in general) of Putin, as well as Kadyrov. Politicians in Europe can do the same to encourage their leaders to speak out.
  7. Our UK UN Ambassador, Matthew Rycroft can continue to speak out against human rights abuses against LGBTQIA+ people in Russia and highlight Putin's lack of desire to intervene to prevent the Chechen concentration camp regime from being expanded further.
What is crystal clear to me is that one of the most important actions we must also continue to take is to maintain an intersectional, multifaceted approach to our LGBTQIA+ activism. We cannot see the situation in Chechnya and Russia in isolation. We cannot condemn homophobic, biphobic and transphobic acts based purely on the religious belief of the perpetrator. We must be prepared to call out abuses regardless of the country involved too. Gay men being thrown off buildings by ISIS in Syria is just as abhorrent as gay and bi men being murdered by their family relatives in Chechnya. The murder of trans woman Dandara dos Santos by 6 transphobic men in Fortaleza, Brazil on the 15th February 2017 (when they stripped and beat her before pushing her into a wheelbarrow before being shot) is just as horrific and condemnable as the murder of Pakistani trans woman Meeno at a Riyadh police station in Saudi Arabia in late February 2017 or the murder of trans man William Lound on the 8th February 2016 in Manchester. All acts of violence, torture and murder against the LGBTQIA+ community are vile and unconscionable.

You see the alt-right are extremely vocal when it comes to talking about the murder of gay men in Syria or Orlando but not so vocal about the high LGBT+ murder rate in Brazil. Do they actually know 23 LGBT people were murdered in Brazil by the end of January 2017 alone? Maybe they just don't care because the perpetrators there weren't "radical Muslims." They're prepared to intervene whenever radical Muslims are implicated but not when a Christian or atheist committed an act of violence or murder against a LGBTQIA+ person. Which just goes to show how shallow their concern for LGBTQIA+ peoples' safety happens to be. LGBTQIA+ activists will continue to highlight human rights abuses wherever they happen to have been committed and whatever the religion of the perpetrator happens to be. We will challenge unwarranted oppression and discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community and encourage politicians to speak out against regimes that allow their people to use their prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people to violently attack, torture or murder them. LGBTQIA+ activists will not stop until homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is the exception and not the norm. So yes Putin, the eyes of the world are watching you and how you respond (if you respond) to Kadyrov's concentration camp regime but please do not think that your previous complicity has gone unnoticed.