Dr. Irina Kosterina
Dr. Irina Kosterina
Gender studies researcher, Program Coordinator at the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Moscow
People Who Do Not Exist: Why the Story of Chechen Gay Men Is Important for Everyone

For Muslim communities, the persecution of homosexuals is not so much a question of religion as of politics and local traditions. For Russian society, the scandal in Chechnya may become sort of a test for homophobia.

On April 1, a symbolic bomb went off in Chechnya: Novaya Gazeta published an article by Elena Milashina on murders, detentions, and torture of gay men in the republic.

Elena Milashina has for many years been covering sensitive topics relating to the life and politics in Chechnya. Thus, among other things, she reported on extrajudicial murders and kidnappings, plots to kill Ramzan Kadyrov, and the attack on the local National Guard unit. Every shocking publication that the Chechen authorities clearly disapproved of was followed by accusations and threats in her address, but it was the story about gay men that seemed to have opened Pandora’s Box.

Faced with harsh reaction of the media and international organizations, representatives of the Chechen authorities first claimed that there were no gays in the republic, then said that no one was treating them ill, and finally Chechnya’s mufti publicly declared that Novaya Gazeta would be held responsible for defamation and insult of the Chechen people and clergy before Allah.

Why is it that the story about gay men has proven to be such a sensitive topic for Chechen officials?

Facade and Bonds

First of all, an “only-good-news-from-Chechnya” approach has been formed in the republic. The situation is reminiscent of news on Russian TV channels that, while ignoring domestic issues, focus extensively on how bad life is in the West.   In the best traditions of Soviet propaganda, news reports claim that life in the Chechen Republic has considerably improved; that Grozny, having been rebuilt after the war, has become a modern metropolitan city that regularly hosts concerts, contests, competitions; and that its residents are happy and content.      Meanwhile, according to statistical data, the unemployment rate in the republic has reached its all-time high and wages have fallen unprecedentedly low.  Human rights activists and journalists report regular human rights violations, kidnappings, and killings of local residents.    There is no reason to expect any good news from Chechnya, and the ever-growing mass emigration of Chechens only proves this point.

Second, after the period of the forcible Soviet modernization came to its end, the North Caucasus–not only Chechnya–has been restoring numerous archaic practices such as honor killings and bride kidnappings.  The sphere of physicality and sexuality has always been one of the most off-limits subjects here: there is neither language nor situations in which topics relating to this sphere could be safely discussed.   During a joint research conducted by the Boell Foundation together with local experts on the life of men and women in the North Caucasus, there were discussions on whether our interviews should include questions about sex, virginity, and contraception.   Local participants in the research were categorically opposed to this idea. According to them, “asking people about sex would be insulting to them and self-deprecating.”

In Chechnya, talk about sex is directly linked with morality and amorality, and even when talking about his wife’s pregnancy, a man would be using euphemisms to avoid any hint at physicality as if any reference to the human body could spark the listener’s imagination and lead to sinful thoughts. Thus, instead of saying “my wife is pregnant,” a man would say “we are waiting for an heir.”      Not being limited to the verbal sphere, chastity and morality permeate the rituals of social interaction. Thus, Vainakh people have long-established rules determining such things as the acceptable physical distance between unacquainted young men and young women, and who should lower the gaze and cross the street on meeting somebody.    Although modern times have considerably modified these rules sometimes even forcing them out (have you ever tried to keep the necessary distance from others on a crowded bus?), this part of the culture that Chechens are especially proud of still exists in their rhetoric.

For example, having divided all Muslims into the “right” and “wrong” ones, the republic’s government that publicly displays its religious commitment subjects the latter to a harsh persecution. The same thing happens with the dress-code: women are not allowed to enter a government building without a headscarf, and a law has been recently adopted allowing girls to wear hijabs in schools where this practice had until recently been forbidden.  Concepts of permitted and forbidden, right and wrong have been eroding.

Question of Faith

Third, homosexuality has been a taboo subject for religious reasons: as other Abrahamic religions, Islam considers it a sin. When it comes to punishment for this sin, opinions vary since Quran does not specifically say what should be done in such cases.  The situation is further complicated by the fact that, just like with adultery, two witnesses are required to prove the commitment of the sin, and such a scenario is hardly imaginable.  Islam also directly forbids manslaughter. However, a number of countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, the authorities of which emphasize their commitment to Islam, punish homosexuality with a death penalty.   Meanwhile, liberal Muslin movements openly call for the decriminalization and demarginalization of homosexuality.  There are also organizations that defend the interests of the Muslim LGBT community.

Thus, we can make a conclusion that persecution for homosexuality is not so much a question of religion as of local politics, the legal system and the established local beliefs and traditions.

The authorities and the population of the Chechen Republic have developed ultraconservative homophobic sentiments. Many people actually believe that there are no gays or lesbians in the Caucasus.    However, such attitudes are not uncommon in other Russian regions as well.  Suffice to remember the funny story with the statement of the Svetogorsk mayor who said that there were and would be no gays in his town, or a similar statement of the Sochi mayor on the eve of the Sochi Olympics.

The adoption of a law banning “gay-propaganda among minors” has encouraged homophobic sentiments in the country.    According to human rights activists’ estimates, there has been an increase in homophobic violence.   Due to the absence of gays and lesbians in the public space ordinary people tend to form grotesque images of effeminate gays wearing makeup and feather boas, and masculine lesbians with shortly cropped hair.     The Chechen government seems to be following the same logic but the visual absence of such gays in the republic is strengthened by the need to “save face” before the Russian authorities.

Unfortunately, the campaign to evacuate gay people from Chechnya initiated by Russian and international human rights groups and LGBT organizations fits into this line of reasoning: there is no place for gays in the republic, and local authorities would be only too happy to get rid of them.

However, the concern this scandal has sparked on the international arena and official calls on the Russian authorities to sort out this situation that could be rightly treated as a crime against humanity could prove to be the beginning of a long and challenging process of curing homophobia throughout Russia–not only in Chechnya.