I drove to work crying the other morning. It wasn’t the stress of being a solo mom of three kids under ten, or dealing with chronic health issues and economic challenges. It wasn’t the video of the passenger being dragged off the United flight, or the military posturing in the waters near North Korea, or the families being broken by deportation, or the mother of all bombs dropped in Afghanistan. I could have cried about any of those things, gripped by a deep anguish and fear for where we are headed as a country and culture. What I was crying about that grey morning as the windshield wipers streaked raindrops across my line of sight was Chechnya. More specifically, reports by the respected newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, of the establishment of the first gay concentration camp, and the round-ups, torture, and interrogation of gay men in what appears to be the beginning of an attempt to exterminate queer existence there.
Since the election last November, I have tread a line each day between staying aware and engaged, and trying to keep my sanity by withdrawing and indulging in enough denial to keep me functioning without falling apart. But I cannot ever ignore the fact that in the southernmost tip of Eastern Europe, 60 miles from the Caspian Sea, the Chechen Republic, or Chechnya, is replicating the process of elimination that was used on Jews in Germany. The strategies and rhetoric are similar. Round up innocent people, torture them for information on others like them, tell them to leave the country while at the same time building camps to imprison and kill them. Local journalists report that additional camps have been discovered, bringing the total known number of Chechnyan gay concentration camps to six.
One divergent strain is that while Hitler clearly stated his goals for deporting and exterminating Jews in Germany, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his press secretary, Alvi Karimov, claim the reports of gay concentration camps are libelous and untrue because they assert that there are no gay people in Chechnya. And further, that if there were gay people in Chechnya, that their families would have eliminated them through honor killings.
Hitler asserted his intention to separate Jews from Aryan society and to abolish their civil, legal, and political rights as early as 1920, and by 1935 Jews were stripped of German citizenship and the first concentration camps were established. The persecuted in Nazi Germany also included queer people who were forced to wear pink triangles to identify themselves, the counterpart to the yellow Star of David Jews were forced to wear. In the past I’ve often wondered, How could people have let it happen? How could six million people be exterminated during the Holocaust while others looked on? At that time even esteemed media outlets such as The New York Times refused to report on the Holocaust, believing little could or should be done. Between the enforced censorship in Nazi Germany, and the negligence on the part of the press to report on the widespread genocide taking place, and perhaps an overwhelming sense of denial and helplessness, the Holocaust was allowed to take deadly hold.
A similar question could be asked about the AIDS epidemic. In the U.S. there are approximately 1.2 million people living with HIV, and 700,000 have died of AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic, and 35 million have died globally. Then President Ronald Reagan remained silent from the first reported case of HIV in 1981 until he finally spoke about the disease toward the end of his second term in office in 1987 after over 20,000 people had died. Bolstered by the support of the religious right and a new political action group the Moral Majority founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell, who claimed that “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals,” Reagan was emboldened to remain silent and let people die.
In the 1970s, the pink triangle was reclaimed from the Holocaust and inverted as a symbol of queer resistance and solidarity. And in 1987, six gay activists in New York formed the Silence = Death Project, plastering posters around the city featuring the pink triangle on a black background and the words “Silence = Death” in a push for visibility and action against the silence. At the bottom of the poster were words that are still relevant and powerful today, “Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable...Use your power...Vote...Boycott...Defend yourselves...Turn anger, fear, grief into action.”
The Russian LGBT Network, headed by Igor Kochetkov, is doing all of these things. They have formed an underground railroad for gay men in Chechnya. The network has arranged travel to evacuate gay men out of the region, found safe houses, and provided medical care for those who are badly injured. But don’t let that put you at ease. As of April 21, they only had funding to evacuate 25 men. They have 30 more waiting to leave, and they receive five new requests for help each day. That number will only escalate. You can donate here to help.
Here is another article that lists ways that we can take action.
Crying in my car on the way to work won’t change anything, but it does take me out of my denial and puts me in touch with the emotions necessary to fuel a fight. We have to look at our history and learn from it so that it never repeats. We have to be fierce, loving, and defiant, and never, ever silent. Remember those words from 1987 and make them ours for today.
Why is our government silent about these gay concentration camps? What is really going on in our governmental and religious institutions? The LGBTQ+ community is not expendable. Use your power…Vote…Boycott…Defend yourselves…Turn anger, fear, grief into action.
What the bigots and homophobes and transphobes and sexists and racists don’t seem to realize is that we will never be eliminated, even if they try to pick us off one by one. We will continue to rise up in resistance. Because we have learned all too well that Silence = Death and Action = Life. Rise up!