Artyom Korotayev via Getty Images
Back in January, on Holocaust Memorial Day, we rightly remembered and commemorated the darkest chapter in Europe’s history. It’s now more than seventy years since troops entered concentration camps in Germany, the Baltic states and Poland, liberating Jews, the disabled, homosexuals and other groups the Nazis wanted dead. But today, on the fringes of Europe, concentration camps are back.
According to Novaya Gazeta newspaper, hundreds of gay men in the Russian republic of Chechnya have been rounded up and three have been killed by police or other security forces. Then over the weekend, news emerged of a ‘concentration camp’ for gay men in the town of Argun. Gay men are being beaten, electrocuted, and forced to sit on bottles, according to reports.
The LGBT+ community is understandably concerned and angry, and has been calling for action. The Co-Chairs of Pride in London wrote to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, demanding that the British government acts against these atrocities. Amnesty and AllOUT have started online actions. And that’s why I organised the protest taking place outside the Russian Embassy in London tonight.
We cannot stand by, watch and do nothing as gay men are rounded up and interned, or worse. Each of us fails in our common humanity if we don’t act and make it clear that this is not right. Gay men in Chechnya are as much our responsibility as gay men in Chelsea or Chorley or Cheltenham: we wouldn’t stand for people being ‘rounded up’ at home, and we must not stand for it abroad.
It’s clear that there is a veil of secrecy over the whole affair. A spokesperson for Chechen leader Kadyrov said that gay men can’t be being rounded up and killed, as there aren’t any gay men in Chechnya. And if there were, the state wouldn’t need to ‘deal with them’ as their families would do it themselves.
We could laugh that comment off, but it’s actually rather chilling. The leader of a country of more than 1.2 million people is saying that gay men don’t exist. It’s erasure. And if they’re saying that about gay men, what would they say about people of other identities like bisexuals and trans people? And how would they treat them if they start rounding them up?
There are some activists on the ground in Russia and in Chechnya trying to establish what is going on. The bravery of the team at the Russian LGBT Network, who have been supporting victims of the Chechen regime, is inspiring and remarkable. But as we saw in eastern Ukraine a few weeks ago, being an LGBT activist in Russia or some former Soviet states is not a safe occupation. Reports of disappearances are not uncommon. It is for all these incredible people too that we protest tonight.
Since planning this protest 36 hours ago, I’ve been subjected to the usual online tyranny of idiots. Why aren’t I organising a protest outside the Chechen Parliament? (Because I live in London.) Do I realise that Chechnya is autonomous from Russia? (It’s really not: Chechen leader Kadyrov was installed by Putin.) Am I just a keyboard warrior, virtue signalling from my mummy’s spare bedroom? (Yawn.)
And there’s been the ever-tiresome Islamophobes, asking why we’re not protesting outside the Islamic State Embassy (yes, really) or against the countries who still maintain the death penalty against LGBT+ people. The fact is that Pride in London highlights those countries in its Parade each summer, and will do so again this year. There are regular protests at various Embassies and High Commissions, that many of us join.
The reason we’re protesting tonight is because London – and the UK – must show that it will not sit back while human rights abuses are perpetrated on our European doorstep. We can’t celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of decriminalisation of homosexuality if we ignore the persecution of LGBT+ people today. If we want to be a beacon in the world – and my goodness we’re going to need every opportunity after Brexit – then we need to take action and stand up for what we believe.
We’re asking those coming tonight to bring pink flowers, so that we can create a pink triangle – the symbol used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals in camps, a symbol now claimed by our community to remind us that we must rise up, and take a stand so that it never can happen again.
What’s happening in Chechnya must concern us all. We must not let it continue. Remember, as Solomon Burke sang, ‘None of us are free, if one of us are chained’.
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