TBILISI — Beka Gabadadze’s cell phone rang again: another gay teenager was in big trouble. A 16-year-old from the Zugdidi region of Georgia was begging Gabadadze, an LGBT activist and human rights advocate, to rescue him.
The boy’s family members were determined to drag him to a doctor for hormone treatment against homosexuality; when he was at home his older brother severely beat him. The teenager, who we are not naming to protect his identity, escaped home and is now hiding at a friend’s house in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, terrified to return home.
Coming out of the closet is an act of heroism for LGBT people all over the Caucasus, a region dominated by deep homophobia. The LGBT population of the Caucasus suffer from increasingly horrifying hate crimes.
A particularly vicious crackdown is reportedly underway in the Republic of Chechnya, where authorities have initiated the most violent anti-gay campaign since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Daily Mail reported that Chechen authorities had set up what it called “concentration camps” near the town of Argun where gay men are “being tortured with electric shocks and beaten to death.”
While the presence or not of the “camps” has yet to be independently verified, Tatiana Lokshina, program director for Human Rights Watch in Moscow, told the Daily Beast: “Chechen authorities did not build special 'LGBT concentration camps'--this information is misleading. But dozens of presumed gay men have been rounded up by local security officials and tortured in holding facilities, which are apparently maintained by Chechen authorities in several districts of Chechnya. People detained arbitrarily, abduction style, are generally taken there for interrogation, which practically always involves torture and cruel, degrading treatment."
According to a report published in Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, several gay men have been killed in the past few weeks and dozens have been arrested and tortured.
To all media requests for clarification and comment, Chechen authorities responded that there were no gay men in Chechnya.
According to Russian LGBT activists, “the cleansing campaign” was provoked in March by series of requests from GayRussia.ru addressed to local authorities to allow LGBT Pride demonstrations in four regions of the Northern Caucasus.
This current wave of persecution followed, sweeping through all regions of Chechnya. “There are special rooms at police stations in every Chechen district, where ‘unwanted’ prisoners get tortured and Russian authorities do nothing to stop this unlawful massacre,” a Chechen advocate for LGBT rights told The Daily Beast. “Then police bring the victims back to their families and welcome the executions of ‘not worthy’ men,” the activist added.
Chechen authorities dismissed Novaya Gazeta’s report.
“If there were such people in Chechnya, law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning,” Alvi Karimov, an official spokesman for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, told reporters.
Elena Milashina, the Novaya Gazeta journalist who broke the story about the anti-gay crackdown has been forced into hiding, she told the BBC.
On Tuesday, advocacy group GLAAD called on Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations, “to speak up against the reported #LGBTQ concentration camps in Chechnya.”
In a statement released to Buzzfeed News, the State Department has asked the Russian government to “conduct an independent and credible investigation into the alleged killings and mass arrests, and hold the perpetrators responsible.”
A demonstration to support those targeted was held outside the Russian Embassy in London on Wednesday night.
In 1933 Soviet authorities criminalized homosexuality, with the penalty of up to five years of hard labor in prison (lesbians were not mentioned in the law). Russian authorities scrapped the criminal law in 1993 after the Soviet Union fell apart, and for several years Caucasus gay men lived quietly, mostly in the closet and out of the focus of public attention.
The Daily Beast spoke with LGBT people in Northern Caucasus of Russia, in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan about the nature of Caucasus homophobia that inspires the violent and terrifying attacks on, and executions of, gay people.
Alongside the official persecution they suffer, family members in the region hunt LGBT relations, who they believe bring shame to the entire clan.
“My job is to connect the victims with state social workers, who are authorized to help underage LGBT in trouble; but often officials do not understand that homosexuality is not a disease, not a disorder—and that is according to the World Health Organization,” Gabadadze said.
Georgian LGBT activists are presently helping an ethnic Chechen gay man from Pankisi Gorge, an extremely conservative Muslim region.
The man was desperately trying to escape the country, as his life was in serious danger. “The Chechen ethnic population of Pankisi region is extremely homophobic and violent towards the tiny LGBT community living discreetly in the mountain gorge,” Gabadadze told The Daily Beast.
The Georgian teen victim from Zugdidi was threatened with eviction from his family. He was the 27th LGBT victim of violence Gabadadze was trying to help in the last few weeks.
The recent reports about violence in Chechnya has deeply traumatized LGBT communities all over Caucasus.
“What a barbarian society they have in Russia, even in our Muslim country gay men feel much safer,” a gay hairdresser in Baku told The Daily Beast. “We have a club; our gay youth, even transgender people find jobs at state companies,” said the hairdresser, who still did not want The Daily Beast to use his name.
Activists from Pink Armenia, one of several Armenian NGOs fighting for the rights of LGBT people, were also upset by the alarming reports coming from Chechnya.
Armenian LGBT people live deep in the closet, too. “The main reason for such overwhelming homophobia in the Caucasus is not religion but scapegoating: instead of talking about corruption and failing policy, local authorities choose us as their target--it does not matter whether they are Muslims or Christians,” Nvard Margaryan, chairperson of Pink Armenia, told The Daily Beast. “The more we fight for our rights, the more society is aware of our struggle, the more they blame ‘Gayropa’ or the homosexual West for the bad influence and oppress us even more.”
Not long ago five gay and transgender people got attacked and beaten by radical activists in the center of Armenian capital of Yerevan. In 2012 Yerevan’s only gay bar “DIY” was attacked and burnt with a homemade bomb.
Georgia is the only country in the Caucasus that has welcomed LGBT parties for hundreds of people from all over traditionally homophobic region.
In the past year, Tbilisi’s LGBT activists organized 12 thematic parties at Bassiani, a basement club, where LGBT men and women of all ages coming from Azerbaijan, Iran, Armenia and Russia could meet and feel safe.
The organizers invited their guests, so no stranger could sneak into Bassiani. The club’s managers and LGBT organizers made sure that nationalist radicals did not attack their guests. To get in the visitors had to fill in a special form and present an ID.
But there are still many issues Georgian LGBT are facing. “Since I came out of the closet and spoke about LGBT rights on TV in 2012, I have been constantly scanning the space around me, aware of danger and risks,” LGBT activist Levan Berianidze told The Daily Beast at the gay-friendly Gallery club in Tbilisi.
Christian fanatics and nationalist radicals attacked gay pride activists and beat dozens in 2012 and 2013. “Some nationalists beat me right in downtown Tbilisi last year,” Berianidze told The Daily Beast.
This month authorities considered a change in the Constitution that would restrict same-sex marriage. Berianidze, a 26-year-old leader of LGBT movement said that Georgian homophobic policies were inspired by Moscow.
“Our leadership follow the homophobic road paved by Russia, where gay propaganda is banned by law, where gay men are being killed,” Barianidze said. “We would like to call on our authorities to stay human and give shelter to Chechen LGBT people.”