Become an OC Media Member

Support independent journalism in the Caucasus: Join today

Become a member

Voice | Growing up queer in the North Caucasus

2 July 2024
Composite image. Tamar Shvelidze/OC Media, using Midjourney

Eric was born and raised in the North Caucasus, but moved abroad after failing to find a sense of safety as a queer person in his home republic. Despite the challenges he faced there, he still dreams of returning home. 

I was born in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, and grew up there. As the first and favourite child, I was always cared for by relatives and family friends, but a lot of care also meant excessive control. 

I was raised strictly and at home I always felt unsafe or even in danger, because I was physically and emotionally abused. Most people’s reaction is to say ‘it’s no big deal — we were all beaten’. I used to think so too, but not any more. I will never allow people to think of domestic violence as something insignificant, and I now can’t stand any signs of control. 

As a small child, I was very active; I was interested in everything, and I began to walk and talk at nine months. But after a while in kindergarten and school, I became quiet and a loner. 

I didn’t want to play with cars, and told my kindergarten teacher that I wanted to play with dolls instead. 

‘Dolls are for girls’, she replied. 

This was the first such framework imposed on me. From then on, I played alone.


‘You need to become more masculine’

During my school years, I was socially anxious, which my family tried to address by sending me to different sports classes. 

‘You need to become more physically developed and masculine’, they told me, transferring me to another class, but I never attended any of them for long. 

I liked to play chess, and I did that. I liked music, and I learned to read music and enrolled in music school.

But the comments continued. At school, my peers often bullied me, and called me ‘faggot’ or ‘poof’. Sometimes they were joking, but at some point I couldn’t tell the difference between the jokes and harassment. At home, they told me I needed to be braver. Some close friends would say I was ‘like a woman’. One of them even told me that I needed testosterone injections to become more masculine. 

It was very frustrating, and I never understood why it made such a difference to them. Why should one distinguish between what is ‘like a woman’ or ‘like a man’?

I realised that I was in some way different when I was around 13 or 14 years old, but I didn’t have the terms for it or immediately understand what to do about it: in the 2000s the internet and social networks were much less developed.

I remember feeling very afraid. The most frightening thing was the fear of loneliness, as it became clear to me early on that all queer people were hiding, and I might never know any allies of mine. 

In North Ossetia, that remained true for the entire time I lived there — almost everyone led a hidden or double life.

Over time, I found some communities on social networks, but even there, everyone was anonymous. People only shared their photos if you had been communicating for a very long time, and even in those cases, you couldn’t rule out that you were being set up for violence or a trap of some kind. 

During that period, I regularly received anonymous messages demanding that I ‘turn in’ other homosexual people and asking about specific people I knew.

Once, I agreed to meet such a blackmailer to unmask him, with my brother on guard around the corner. The person either didn’t come, or noticed my ‘cover’ and didn’t approach me. I never found out who all these people were, but they knew who I was communicating with.

I was always tense, afraid of the possibility of someone getting into my phone or laptop. I still have the habit of constantly keeping my phone with me, and feeling triggered if someone touches it. 

Erased from society

When I finished school at 17, I wanted to go somewhere that felt safe. I still haven’t found such a place.

First, I went to Moscow, where I continued to face intimidation; someone periodically tracked me on dating apps using the geolocation feature and wrote to me anonymously.

They threatened to find me, ‘cause trouble’, and hand me over to my relatives. A friend of mine once also started receiving such messages about me as we were sitting in a cafe together. I told her that their threats were baseless, but you still find you’re constantly on guard as you’re walking around. 

Once, I was visiting my uncle in Moscow, and it turned out that he’d found out about my sexual orientation. He works as a psychiatrist and said that I needed to be treated. I got up and left because I felt unsafe.

At university, I wanted to write my thesis on queer people, but no one agreed to be my supervisor, so I had to choose a different topic. 

Shortly after, I was forced to drop out after two months of training as a director, because I was forbidden to speak, discuss, and document problems that queer people faced. These subjects are of great importance to me as a queer person who grew up in the hostile conditions of the Caucasus.

For me, it was clear that I was already being officially excluded and erased from society, even before the adoption of Russia’s expanded anti-gay law. I realised that very soon, I would not have any rights in this country, be it to education, work, self-expression, or speech. 

Two weeks later, I packed my things and left. I searched for tickets using the query ‘anywhere’ and bought the cheapest one from  Russia. Two days later, Putin began the 2022 war with Ukraine.

Helping others while searching for a home

After my departure, I was part of a project to help refugees from Ukraine who had to escape through Russia. This community has no name, and the organisational structure is horizontal for safety.

I recently worked on an exhibition titled ‘There are no such people here’, dedicated to victims of the Chechen anti-gay purges. It was organised by the North Caucasus SOS Crisis Group and EQUAL PostOst, organisations which help queer people from the Caucasus and the post-Soviet space, respectively. One exhibit was a video of three hours of parliamentary hearings on the 2023 anti-LGBT laws, which I subtitled. When I finished, after two months of rewatching this hatred, I didn’t leave the house for three days and found myself in floods of tears periodically.

I now work as an English teacher at an online school called ‘Engaylish’. At the moment, this is the only openly gay-friendly school in Russia; the name speaks for itself. Since the adoption of recent laws banning gay propaganda and declaring the ‘international LGBT movement’ an extremist organisation, both the school itself and its employees have been targeted by security forces. There have been attacks on the school, denunciations from a high-ranking official, and threats on social networks.

I’m currently also studying online to become a screenwriter. The course is taught by Anton Yarush, who, in my opinion, is the best screenwriter in Russia  and also a queer activist. I’m grateful for this opportunity to be creative without censorship or feeling vulnerable. At the same time, I’m taking a film course with the support of an organisation that allows people forced to leave Russia due to the war in Ukraine and are at risk of political persecution to continue their studies.

Right now, I don’t have a home. I have a lot of friends in Germany and work with some German NGOs. I’m in the process of receiving residence on humanitarian grounds, so I can continue my education and activism there.

‘We don’t need people like this’

In the summer of 2022, I returned to Russia because I no longer had the financial means to travel to other countries and stay with friends.

A couple of months later, the partial mobilisation was announced, and I flew from Moscow to Chechnya with one backpack. A friend met me and took me to the Russian-Georgian border. Stuck in traffic stretching for kilometres, I ended up spending the night there in the car. It was one of the most stressful moments of my life, and I was constantly on the verge of turning around.

Once I reached the border, the border guards interrogated me for several hours, took photographs of my passports, and took them away. I don’t know what they knew about me, but they told me to cut off my long hair and take out my earrings, that I was not worthy of being called an Ossetian, and that ‘we don’t need people like this’. In the end, I worked out how to answer a few of their questions in Ossetian, and they let me through. A little longer, and I might not have been able to leave.

[Read more: ‘A humiliating experience’: 4 days in limbo on the Georgian–Russian border]

Exactly a month later, trouble began. First I got a summons to the army, then charged with ‘discrediting the army’, for which I was tried in absentia. 

Around the same time, a friend called me after urgently going to Russia to see his family. He said ‘Eric, they beat me at the border and asked me for information about how I helped Ukraine. Don’t even think about coming’. I still haven’t seen reports of such incidents in any media.

For the last two years, I have been moving between the countries that are accessible to me with a Russian passport, but many of them are also unsafe for queer people. 

Recently, in Serbia, some big guy started shouting and shaking his fist simply because my friend and I had painted rainbows on our cheeks for Pride. Attacks on and even murders of queer people are also not uncommon here.

I do think about going back. Sometimes I fall into a sense of despair. A week ago, I bought tickets to Vladikavkaz, because I hadn’t seen my brothers and relatives for over a year. In the end, I didn’t fly; my friends talked me out of it. 

The future of the queer community in North Ossetia

It is still unsafe to be a queer person in North Ossetia and throughout the North Caucasus — people are being persecuted, and there are times when human rights organisations cannot help.

In these cases, you have to act ‘quietly’. 

Once, an 18-year-old gay guy from Ingushetia was forcibly placed in a psychiatric hospital in the Moscow region by his mother. They tried to ‘treat’ him, illegally detained him, tied him to a bed with belts, and forced him to take medication against his will. I contacted several organisations. Only one answered, and they said they couldn’t help without his written consent.

I went there myself. At the security post, I improvised something to get to the chief doctor. I named all the laws that she was violating, but she said she didn’t care and kicked me out. She was sure that she would face no consequences, that the police would be on her side.

In the end, a friend from Chechnya who was helping me with this case talked to a police officer, who demanded money in exchange for his help. We had to pay, but he got him out of there. You can draw your own conclusions.

There were similar cases in a neighbouring republic; a friend in Vladikavkaz had a flat, and we decided to offer it as a shelter to a couple who needed help, but they were eventually too afraid to leave.

The future is very uncertain, I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. It hurts a lot, but if it weren’t for all of this, I would definitely want to live in Ossetia; I consider it the best place on Earth.

My experience of growing up there was, among other things, traumatic, and it will probably stay with me. It’s hard to run away from it. But I don’t necessarily want to do that; after all, this part of us also drives us to help others and create. 

Right now, online media in Georgia is in dire need of safety equipment, legal support, and technology as we cover increasingly challenging circumstances. Support small, independent media outlets in Georgia via our collective fundraiser.

Interested in directly assisting OC Media? Consider becoming a member.