The phone call that would change M.’s life came one spring evening in 2018. “You’re on the list,” the baritone voice on the other end of the line said.
The caller identified himself as a member of the military and accused M. of indecent behavior. “We need to cleanse our republic of these people,” the voice said. The man didn’t say the word — he didn’t have to. M. knew the voice on the phone was implying he was both a woman and a lesbian.
M. walked over to the window of his apartment, tugging the curtain closed against the dark outside, and asked, “Where is your evidence?”
“We don’t need evidence,” the man replied. “The fact that you’re on the list already counts against you.”
With those words, the nightmare for M. — a trans man — began. For more than two years, the Russian republic of Chechnya has been rounding up gay and bisexual men, torturing them, forcing them to give up the names of other men, and killing them — or ordering their families to — as it launched a brutal anti-LGBTQ campaign. At least 150 people have fled the region. M. knew now it was not just gay men being targeted but trans people and queer women as well.
M. is among a number of LGBTQ people from Chechnya hiding in other parts of Russia, although this offers little sense of security. The country adopted an ”anti-gay propaganda” law in 2013, which launched a new wave of vigilante attacks against LGBTQ people — the activist Yelena Grigoryeva was killed in St. Petersburg just last week — and nowhere is that more true than in Chechnya, a majority-Muslim republic ruled by a thuggish leader given free rein by the Kremlin to crack down as he wishes.
M. worries that if he is not granted asylum abroad soon, he could be found and forced to return home. While some LGBTQ people risk falling into the hands of the authorities, others face punishment from their own families. That could mean violence, forced marriages, or so-called honor killings.
BuzzFeed News is identifying M. with only an initial because of concerns about his safety. He is believed to be the first Chechen trans man to publicly share his story in detail since the anti-LGBTQ purges began.
Four queer women from the North Caucasus also agreed to share their stories, via phone and video calls, on the condition that they are identified only by pseudonyms assigned to them by LGBTQ activists.
Their plight has received much less international attention despite the additional gender-based discrimination they face. They all hope, by speaking out, to raise awareness of their situation.
M. knew he was a boy from a young age, although it would be years before he understood what that meant. He recalls being 5 years old and wishing he could cut off his hair, and praying to God to make him a man. As a teenager, he asked for forgiveness for his “sins.”
M.’s mother and grandmother, who raised him, brushed off his talk of being a boy as childhood games. They wanted him to grow up to become a traditional Chechen woman.
By the time he was in the fourth or fifth grade, his family had banned him from wearing pants, instead forcing him to dress in pink sweaters and long skirts and, later, a headscarf.
“It was the sport pants that we’d wear for physical education that saved me,” M., now in his late 20s, told BuzzFeed News in a series of video calls. “I wore them in secret when everyone went to bed. It was important for me just to wear them and walk around in them.”
M. was attracting attention, however. One day, when he was in his late teens, a local mullah accused him of having a “jinn,” or a demon, inside him.
“He said that a male jinn was sitting inside me and trying to seduce my brain,” M. said. The mullah told M.’s mother, “There’s something not right” with him.
M. later went to university in Chechnya, and it was in his third year there that he was approached by another student. “She said I looked like a lesbian,” M. said. “I said, ‘I’m not like that and don’t approach me about this again.’” But he couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation. Eventually, M. decided to speak to the other student again. It marked the first time M. told anyone about his gender identity outside of his family.
“I asked her about transgender people,” he said. “She promised to introduce me to other transgender people, other influential people who were part of Chechnya’s secret LGBT community, and I agreed.”
The woman invited M. to her apartment, but shortly after he arrived, men in military uniforms walked through the door, and the woman told M. to wait in her bedroom. She spoke to the men for about 15 minutes before they left.
“This woman was speaking to them like a man would speak to a man,” M. said. “Women can’t talk to men in Chechnya like that.”
M. asked her what the men had wanted, but she said they were friends of her brother. M. told her he had to get to class and left. Outside the apartment, he saw a parked car with men in military uniforms inside.
M. thinks the men’s arrival was no coincidence, and he broke off all contact with the woman, who he thought had helped set him up. He believes it was this incident that years later would turn him into a target for the Chechen authorities.
After the LGBTQ purge in Chechnya started in late 2016, survivors began sharing harrowing accounts, almost all anonymously, of beatings, electric shocks, and starvation. But the Russian LGBT Network has collected testimonies of gay men being hunted and blackmailed in the republic since the late 2000s.
There is little understanding in Chechnya of sexual orientation, and even less of gender identity. That has been reinforced by the brutal rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, who was accused by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in a 2011 report of exploiting Islam and “distorting Chechen Sufi traditions to serve his own ambitions and justify his arbitrary rule.” He has forced women to wear traditional dress and employed vigilantes, known as Kadyrovtsy, as a morality police to make sure women stay in line. Kadyrov has brushed off criticism of the LGBTQ purges and insists there are no LGBTQ people in Chechnya.
Much of the attention has focused on gay and bisexual men, but queer women and trans people have been persecuted too. A report by the Queer Women of the North Caucasus Project, a group dedicated to helping queer women and trans people from the region, states that the “first piece of information about so-called 'lists of lesbians’ surfaced in the autumn of 2017.”
For some queer women, it was possible to build a life in Chechnya — albeit a secret one — before authorities began their violent campaign.
When Kamilla was at university, her brother gave her a mobile phone — a small, colorful thing that she used to find an online chatroom for queer people from the North Caucasus. That was where she befriended another lesbian, and the two decided to rent a flat together. It’s rare for two women — two lesbians at that — to have their own space, so it soon became a meeting point for a growing LGBTQ collective.
“Someone would be dating, someone would be going through a breakup, someone would be crying,” Kamilla, who left Chechnya in mid-2017 and now lives in Europe, told BuzzFeed News. “It was our world, closed off from everything.”
In January, the Russian LGBT Network reported that another “wave of persecutions” was underway in Chechnya, with around 40 people detained and at least two dying as a result of torture. And it wasn’t just gay and bisexual men being targeted.
Chechen women have been especially vulnerable, since their families often control every aspect of their lives: where they go, whom they speak to, and what they wear. Even if they are permitted their own phones and social media accounts, they are frequently monitored by their families, giving them fewer opportunities to independently seek out help. That makes it harder to evacuate women from the region safely.
“Even a gay man — not an openly gay man — can tell his family he found a great job in Moscow and he’s going to go there,” said an activist from the Queer Women of the North Caucasus Project who asked to remain anonymous because of security concerns. “A woman can’t say that.”
Sometimes a woman can run away, but this brings perceived dishonor onto the family, so relatives often go to great lengths to bring her home and punish her.
“It’s like a stolen car,” the activist said. “Women are searched for in the same way … and it doesn’t stop until the girl is returned to the republic.”
The situation is the same for trans men because their gender identity is not recognized in the North Caucasus.
M. was lucky. Despite being regarded as a woman by his family, he was allowed to choose what he studied, to graduate, and, eventually, to leave the North Caucasus in 2015, but on the condition that he return every six months. He moved to a major Russian city outside the republic and got a job in health care.
There, he found a certain freedom. “I was able to cut my hair above the shoulders,” he said. “About three or four months later, I bought [men’s] pants.”
At first M. was afraid of being spotted by a relative or an acquaintance from home, so he bought a cap to partially cover his face. Later, when it sank in that he was afforded a certain amount of anonymity by living in a big city, he started enjoying the freedom of it all.
Not long after that, he found love.
M. and his partner, Zhenya, were introduced by a mutual friend about a year after M. moved to the Russian city. They bonded over a shared fondness for Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche.
“It was love at first sight,” Zhenya, who identifies as pansexual, said. Zhenya, also in her 20s, grew up in Dagestan, a republic bordering Chechnya that is also majority Muslim and deeply traditional, though not ruled by a leader like Kadyrov. In her teens, Zhenya had identified as a lesbian and struggled to come to terms with her sexual orientation. When she finished her education, she reached an agreement with her mother to move to a bigger city if she sent money back home, which is how she and M. met.
M. and Zhenya made a comfortable life for themselves, far from home. But then, on the spring evening last year, that one phone call changed everything.
M. was terrified. He was due to take a trip home soon to visit his family — a condition of their allowing him to leave Chechnya in the first place.
M. remembered how the caller turned his threat into an attempt at blackmail.
“I respect you and I want to help you,” M. remembered the man telling him. He then demanded 200,000 rubles (around $3,200), a huge sum for M., who agreed anyway in order to make the threat go away.
M. spent the following weeks trying to raise the money — the sum was several times his monthly salary. During this time, the man kept ringing. But fearing that it would only lead to him being extorted more and more, M. ultimately decided against paying the man off.
He and Zhenya changed numbers and moved apartments. For two months they heard nothing.
In July, despite the threats, M. went to visit his family in Chechnya, while Zhenya went to see hers in Dagestan. In Chechnya, M. kept a low profile, only leaving the house once, to help a sick neighbor. But that was enough to alert people to his presence. Later that day, a group of men dressed in black uniforms came to the house, asking M. for the 200,000 rubles. They appeared to be wearing the uniforms of a special police unit that was reportedly “particularly involved” in the detention of LGBTQ people, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) published in December.
M. told the men he had the money but he would have to wait until he was back in the big Russian city to deliver it, and promised they would get it within a few days. The men seemed to accept that but warned him not to shut off his phone during that time. They also said they would send someone to accompany him.
M. fled Chechnya the following morning, jumping on a minibus for Dagestan, where he reunited with Zhenya so they could consider their options. At first they thought of traveling to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, thinking they could then cross the border into Ukraine. Finally, a friend suggested they contact an LGBTQ organization in a major Russian city.
M. and Zhenya have been in hiding since, unable to work officially, as activists work to find a country that will give the couple asylum.
But they are running out of time. M. has already missed one visit home, and his family calls him constantly. M. believes that if he goes back to Chechnya, it’s likely he will be detained by the men he’s now dodged twice. He fears he could then become the next victim of Chechnya’s LGBTQ purge.
More than 100 of the 150 Chechens helped by Russian LGBTQ activists to flee since the start of the purges have found asylum in Western countries, including Canada, Germany, and France.
But in the two years since Chechnya’s LGBTQ purge first received media attention in the West, activists say that help from other countries is less forthcoming now.
Olga Baranova, a human rights activist with the Queer Women of North Caucasus Project, was forced to flee Russia herself after becoming a target for Chechen authorities while evacuating a queer woman from the republic. She’s now seeking asylum in the US while helping activists back in Russia from a distance.
“Embassies don’t see this as such a critical situation anymore,” Baranova said.
But even when there is political will, an application for asylum takes time. During this process, the family could file a missing persons report, which would mean a queer woman or trans man would be stopped if they tried to cross the border.
“For me and you, that’s nothing,” Baranova said. “You can go to the police and say, ‘I don’t want them to look for me.’ They’d say, ‘OK, let us call the people who are looking for you and you can tell them that you don’t want to be found.’
“But [queer women and trans men] are not in a condition to say, ‘I don’t want anything to do with them.’ Dad, mum, relatives come, and they just go with them, without saying anything.”
Sometimes activists have less than 24 hours to get a woman out of the country, but that often means traveling to another unsafe location.
Zarema, who’s in her early 20s, was among those evacuated in this way. She is currently in a country that BuzzFeed News can’t name for her safety.
When she was 17, she started dating a girl from her neighborhood in Chechnya. But because she was only allowed to leave the house to go to school, they mostly texted each other. One afternoon, Zarema had left her phone charging on a table when she got a text from her girlfriend. Her sister saw the message and outed Zarema to the rest of the family.
“They beat me so bad … I couldn’t get out of bed,” she told BuzzFeed News via the secure messaging app Telegram. Her girlfriend’s family moved away then and Zarema, after finishing her exams, was barred from leaving the house for a year. Then her parents forced her to go to an Islamic school in neighboring Dagestan.
“They taught us there was no other religion except Islam,” she said. “There was a lot of propaganda.
"It was like a prison," she added.
Zarema started thinking about an escape plan and began saving what little remained from the small monthly allowance her family gave her in order to buy a passport. Then she started searching for a way out of Chechnya. But she didn’t get far — her family found the passport, confiscated it, and beat her again.
Zarema was determined to leave and found a contact for LGBTQ activists in a different Russian city while doing research online. They helped put her plan into action.
In late April, she got into a taxi in the dead of the night and headed for the airport in Chechnya, where she caught a flight to Moscow and then flew to what was meant to be a transit country. This secret location has been her home for the past three months. But it’s dangerous for her to remain there — Russians don’t need visas to travel to the country where she is now, so if her family discovers her whereabouts, they can come after her. And there is little doubt they would. Zarema is currently on Russia’s missing persons list.
Zarema’s escape was timely. She said in the days leading up to her departure, she found out her family planned to marry her to a Chechen man.
“So that I would have no freedom,” she said.
Every person from the North Caucasus who spoke to BuzzFeed News said their relatives have at some point attempted to force them into marriage or set them up with men.
“I met him once and the next time I saw him, I was his wife,” said Marina, a 23-year-old lesbian from Chechnya. Her husband was abusive, 11 years older, and had a drug habit. She made several attempts to leave, but her brother brought her back to her husband every time.
When the marriage ended about six months later, Marina’s family confined her to the family home.
Her only salvation was sneaking access to her mother’s mobile phone. She found a group for LGBTQ people online, made a blank profile, and wrote a post about how awful it was having to suppress her identity.
She eventually met someone who put her in touch with activists from the Queer Women of the North Caucasus Project, who then helped her flee the region.
“When I was [leaving], I thought it was some kind of setup, that someone would just kill me,” Marina said. “But I didn't care at that point because if I would have stayed there or if they’d given me to another husband, it would have been worse than death.” ●