Queer people in the Caucasus face a number of challenges — discrimination, physical and sexual abuse, and blackmail. For months, activists have watched in horror the persecution of gay men in Chechnya; however, their lives had already been in danger for some time. OC Media spoke to a transgender woman from Grozny, who shared some of her experiences and talked with us about what is happening in the republic.
Queer rights in Chechnya were thrust into the global spotlight several months ago, after reports emerged of the abduction, torture, and murder of queer men in the republic. The story was broken by Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina, who revealed how the Chechen authorities were rounding up suspected queer men, and sending them to the secret prisons of Argun.
‘You gave birth to a freak’
Sabrina (not her real name), a transgender woman, was born and grew up in Grozny. She has felt that she was a woman since childhood. Once she reached adulthood, she realised that it wasn’t safe for her in Chechnya and moved to Moscow. After a group of Chechens learned of their compatriot who had changed sex, a hunt began for Sabrina. In the end, in fear for her life, Sabrina moved to the US.
Sabrina: I worked as a volunteer at a human rights organisation. Once I was told that that someone needed my help. It was an acquaintance from Daghestan, a transgender woman. She had problems; she was in danger. I immediately took her in, because she didn’t have any money. While I was trying to help her, someone I considered a friend made copies of my documents and posted them all over the internet along with my phone number and photo, sending them to his Chechen affiliates with a following note: ‘So there are no men left in Chechnya that could remove this shame?’ After that, photos of my documents were spread over WhatsApp.
On 10 October 2015 I was attacked. I was taking shopping bags from the backseat of my car. I heard a man’s voice: ‘This is a gift to you from your uncle’. When I looked around I felt something in my body, but there was no pain. Then I heard another sentence, but in Chechen: ‘How long are you going to disgrace the family, scum?’ I don’t know this person. I remember that it was a young man, under 30. Then I lost consciousness. I woke up in the hospital. Apparently some women saw everything and began yelling. The man ran away. The women called an ambulance. I learned at the hospital that I had two stab wounds in my right lung.
OC Media: Which room were you put in: the men’s or women’s?
Sabrina: I have old documents with my male name, but the doctor understood everything and put me in the women’s room. I am very thankful to him for this. When I first saw his name on the door, I was crazily afraid — a Muslim name, Caucasian. But he turned out to be a decent man. I am grateful for his attitude towards me.
I spent more than a month in hospital. Last February I received threats. They called me, relatives wrote to me, strangers, some unknown people. A nightmare began. Neighbours and some distant relatives were coming to my family. They were demanding that I move back to Chechnya to prove that this [the sex change] was all a lie. There were crazy demands. Some people said that I had to prove it by walking through the streets topless. Some people said that I had to speak on the official Grozny TV and say that I hadn’t changed my sex, that it was all slander and photoshop. How could I speak on TV with C-cup breasts?
OC Media: How did your family cope with this pressure?
Sabrina: They still cope with it. Some elderly people from the street approached my mum once. They told her: ‘You gave birth to a freak who disgraced not only your family, but the entire republic. We cannot touch you, because you are a pious woman, but you must leave’. Mum couldn’t take any more and put a noose around her neck. Luckily, neighbours came and saved her.
During that time I had to switch flats several times a day. I would move into one flat and in a few hours a car would park under my windows with the number 95 the plate, from the region [Chechnya], and tinted windows. After the third time I understood that something was wrong. My friends, human rights activists, checked the numberplates; it turned out that they were looking for me.
[Read on OC Media: ‘It would be better if you died’: queer Daghestanis on coming out]
OC Media: How did you leave the country?
Sabrina: Activists helped me. I don't’ want to say their names, for safety reasons, but I want to say that I remember everyone, they really helped me.
With their help I left the country, but something unbelievable happened. I still cannot understand how it was possible.
Right before my departure from Moscow, I purchased a new sim card in order to call my mother once I arrived. I bought it without registration, without documents, without anything. I broke my previous sim card and put it in the bin. I arrived and checked into my hotel. The number was registered to a stranger. I put the sim card in my phone. I tried to call my mother through WhatsApp and at the same moment I received a message: ‘Do you think you are safe because you left the country? We have our people there who have already been notified which hotel you are in, and even about your room number. To assure you that we know, your room number is 115’. Can you imagine?! This was indeed my room number.
OC Media: Do you keep in touch with your relatives?
Sabrina: Only with my mother and sisters. However we don’t discuss the sex change — this is a taboo. Traditional Caucasian moments are still inside me. No matter how strongly I want to, I cannot ignore this psychological barrier. I always say that while my mum is alive, I will do my best to do everything not to upset her. If we have a video chat, I do try to look like the person she remembers I was in the past, I mean in the male form. However it is very hard to do.
To wash the disgrace with blood?
OC Media: Do you know what the situation is like in Chechnya now? Do you know what friends are doing, those who are left there?
Sabrina: I introduced a report in Washington last week. I needed fresh information about the situation in Chechnya for the report. I spoke with someone who spent a month and a half in Argun Prison. He said that now, during the month of Ramadan, they are not abducting and torturing people, but that everyone looks forward for the end of Ramadan, and he didn’t rule out that there will be a new wave [of persecutions]. Most likely, they will now bet on people’s relatives. I mean, they will probably summon their relatives [those of suspected queer people]; they will deal with the person, and then [the authorities] will demand proof that so-called ‘honor’ has been satisfied with blood.
[Read on OC Media: Brothers, be careful. don’t meet up in grozny]
OC Media: Are there gays left in these secret prisons?
Sabrina: According to an acquaintance of mine, there are not many now. Mainly those who do not have rich relatives, or whose relatives have abandoned them to face Kadyrov’s trial. From what I understand they are being kept there in order to show them off later as terrorists. I mean, if they murder them, they will show their bodies on TV alleging that they attacked some village or military target. Do you understand? As if they were not just people who disappeared but went underground to become militants.
OC Media: Is this an assumption or do you have a source for this information?
Sabrina: I am quoting this person, who spent a month and half at Agrun Prison. He says that several people who were kept in this prison disappeared after their beard was grown. There has been no news of them. They just took them. And this so-called Lord [Magomed Daudov, the Speaker of the Chechen Parliament, and close ally of Ramzan Kadyrov], this person, personally saw them at the moment they took these people. However, until now they have not been presented as bandits, there were no reports of this, but we suspect that such actions are possible. Otherwise why did they not allow these people to shave?
OC Media: Do you know if there were previously such persecutions, abductions of people with a so-called ‘nontraditional’ orientation in the republic?
Sabrina: I always wore long hair. I had a bob cut when I lived in Chechnya. I think the whole of Grozny knew about me even before 2003, when I lived in Grozny and I didn’t have any problems. Seriously! I never had problems even in 1998–1999, when Shariah Law was in force. On the contrary, it was much safer than now. I mean Russia, which wanted to bring ‘civilisation’ to us, brought a stone age in the end.
OC Media: How is this possible with Sharia Law?
Sabrina: My eyebrows were plucked, I had coloured eyelashes, tube-jeans, I wore short tops. The Ministry of Sharia Security never touched me. There was a spot in front of the Russian theatre in Grozny where every evening, especially on weekends, a whole bunch of people like me gathered. This was a small square with several benches, and the entire city knew about it, why men would come, young people, to meet up. We were never insulted. There is such an expression in Chechen language — Kharda ma Kharda — which means ‘do not laugh at someone else's misfortune’. They often tell this to children if they make fun of sick people.
OC Media: So they would just close their eyes to you, as they thought you were sick?
Sabrina: Yes. They would never insult me, never chase me or beat me.
OC Media: You are destroying some stereotypes in my head right now. How long did it last?
Sabrina: Before Kadyrov came in. In 2005, when he was appointed Prime Minister [of Chechnya], he began to speak on television, talking about morality. He didn’t speak specifically about us, but mainly about the behaviour of women. However, you could feel in the city that people had began to change. Those who used to smile and laugh, began looking at you questioningly. I left Chechnya in those years. But every time I went back home I would feel how the situation was worsening in the republic.
OC Media: What do you do now?
Sabrina: I earn money as a waitress. I am not paid much — $700–800 a month — which is not much for the US. Apart from that I continue being an activist. Now I am responsible for 15 Muslim women. I communicate with them as kind of a psychologist. We organise tea drinking meetings, rallies, I go to the hospital with them, I help them to get food cards. I do all this absolutely free. I found these people myself. I was going through shelters. I am Muslim and I want to help those who need help.
OC Media: Do you wear a hijab?
OC Media: Many people say that there cannot be gays, lesbians or transgender people as Muslim worshipers…
Sabrina: This is silly. This is nature — religion has nothing to do with it. It’s the same thing as Chechens foaming at the mouth to prove that they do not have any gays. Daghestanis have them, Kabardians have them, and Russians have them too, the entire planet has them, but ‘Chechens — they don’t’. I came from there, it is unpleasant for me to hear this.
I meet so many men from the Caucasus here. Many of them — Muslim worshipers, who visit the mosque and fast during Ramadan — live with men.
You know, many people mix transgenderism with men who like men, and they think that people change sex so that they have more intimate opportunities, but this is wrong. This is a different thing, different psychology in fact, different attitudes to things. For me it is important that now I feel in my own shoes and I am not ashamed of my body. It is not important if you have a partner or not. I am sorry for the details, but it’s been more than a year since I had intimate relations with anyone. And I'm absolutely not upset about this — I just know that now I am myself.