New Yorkers Rally to Gay Chechen Cause

The messages carried in the June 11 march to bring attention to the repression and killings of gay men in Chechnya. Photo by Christian Miles.

BY ANDY HUMM | Fifty demonstrators drawn from the ranks of Rise and Resist – a group largely focused on protesting right-wing assaults by the Trump administration on American democratic institutions and ideals – and their allies took to the sunny streets of Greenwich Village and Chelsea on June 11 to call attention to the plight of gay people in Chechnya who are being interned in concentration camps and murdered by their government or their families.

The marchers gathered on the Christopher Street pier at noon on Sunday and marched through the West Village and Chelsea – past lots of sympathetic Sunday brunchers, among others – before rallying in Union Square.

“Stop the Torture! Stop the Murder!” their signs read.

Branden Hayward, the demonstration’s lead organizer from Rise and Resist. Photo by Christian Miles.

The group was under no illusions that it could have much impact on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who enacted anti-LGBTQ “propaganda” laws in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, or his anti-gay puppet — not Trump, in this case, but rather President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, a federal republic within Russia —both of whom deny the murderous crackdown on gay people is taking place, though it has been documented by Human Rights Watch. When French President Emmanuel Macron publicly confronted Putin about the Chechen crisis during their first meeting two weeks ago in Paris, all the Russian strong man would pledge to do was to look into it.

Rise and Resist’s lead organizer on the demonstration, Branden Hayward, who said he is new to this kind of street protest, explained, “My sights are set in the immediate future on getting chief level executives at BP, Exxon, Shell, and Chevron that have enormous investments in Russia and claim to support LGBT rights to take action.”

Lyosha Gorshkov, co-president of RUSA-LGBT. Photo by Christian Miles.

OutRight Action International has an online petition addressed to oil executives demanding they speak up about the detention, torture, and killing of gay men in Chechnya.

“If Russia will not listen to other governments or even the United Nations, it is time to see if we can get money to talk in a language that they will listen to,” reads the OutRight petition at iglhrc.nonprofitsoapbox.com/demand-stop-to-detentions-in-chechnya.

Lyosha Gorshkov, co-president of RUSA-LGBT, a group for Russian-speaking LGBTQ émigrés, told the crowd, “We’re trying to save lives. More than 300 have been detained and more than 20 killed by the government. We cannot do anything with Putin and Kadyrov, but we can pressure the government here in the US to issue special visas” so that the crackdown’s victims can find refuge here.

Jim Fouratt, an LGBTQ activist going back to the Gay Liberation Front formed in 1969 during the Stonewall Rebellion. Photo by Christian Miles.

However, “Even here and in Europe,” Gorshkov added, “they are not safe from the brutal and violent Chechen diaspora,” noting the dangers gay men may face even if they manage to escape Chechnya – and Russia altogether.

On May 23, US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, introduced House Resolution 351 to condemn the violence and persecution, but the activists hope to pressure Congress to go further and offer emergency visas to the fleeing Chechen gays — which, so far, the US has not. They urge New Yorkers to focus on co-sponsors of Ros-Lehtinen’s resolution from the Empire State, including Democrats Jerry Nadler, Sean Patrick Maloney, Adriano Espaillat, Joe Crowley, Eliot Engel, Nita Lowey, and Brian Higgins and Republicans Dan Donovan, Claudia Tenney, and John Katko.

Rise and Resist’s Ken Kidd, a veteran of the 2013-2014 Queer Nation protests against Russia’s so-called gay “propaganda” laws. Photo by Christian Miles.

Rise and Resist’s Ken Kidd, a veteran of the Queer Nation anti-Putin protests in 2013 and 2014, said, “Not enough people know about this. This is genocide, and our country is not doing enough.”

Veteran gay activist Rick Landman – a son of Holocaust survivors who noted that even amidst the dire climate in Nazi Germany prior to World War II his grandfather “kicked Julius Streicher in the ass” while Streicher was still the regime’s leading anti-Semitic propagandist – talked about how the treatment of gay people in Chechnya is based in the classic political tool of “scapegoating.”

“When they need someone to pick on and dehumanize, they pick on us now,” Landman said.

Faye Kilburn, 29, of Rise and Resist said, “The biggest injustice in the world is being persecuted for who you are. While we were marching, someone yelled at us, ‘There are bigger problems at home!’ Because this is happening in a different country, it is easy to feel helpless.”

The activists, however, believe their efforts could help bring the plight of the Chechen gay men to the fore in global politics. Hayward said that their demonstration “was an amazing combination of gay rights movement vets from groups like ACT UP and people in their 20s and 30s. It was history and the future.”

Among those marching were Jim Fouratt, a veteran of the Gay Liberation Front formed in 1969 during the Stonewall Rebellion, and Mark Milano who has been with ACT UP since the 1980s.

The activists encouraged donations to Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian group working to get victimized gay men out of Chechnya with emergency visas. That effort can be supported at RainbowRailroad.ca/donate.

The treatment of gay men in Chechnya should remind the world of its indifference as the Nazis began their reign of terror on Europe’s Jews, gays, and other minorities 80 years ago. Photo by Christian Miles.
Longtime ACT UP member Mark Milano. Photo by Christian Miles.
Many of the signs carried messages from gay men who have been incarcerated and tortured in Chechnya. Photo by Christian Miles.
One simple sign carried the essence of what the anti-gay authorities in Chechnya are unwilling to acknowledge. Photo by Christian Miles.