Never underestimate a group of queers with a cause. Throughout history, LGBTQ communities at home and abroad have fought epidemics and violence with activism — from ACT UP to Stonewall Inn and everything in between. Today, as we brace for the international impact anti-gay politician Mike Pompeo’s confirmation as Secretary of State, we also recognize the one year anniversary of the human rights crises facing LGBTQ people in Chechnya.
Last April, Novaya Gazeta released a report detailing the purges, wrongful detention, and torture of that LGBTQ Chechens. It was this crisis that sparked the birth of Voices4, a New York-based non-violent and direct action advocacy group. Despite the thousands of miles between themselves and the crisis, Voices4 members began to lay the groundwork to lend their voice to the community there facing untold violence.
As founder Adam Eli is quick to remind everyone, “We believe that queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere. If the queer community doesn't stand up for its most marginalized members then nobody else will.”
In that spirit, Voices4 has spent a year organizing protests, marches, and kiss-ins to raise awareness for LGBTQ Chechens abroad. Tomorrow, their fiery commitment to achieving justice will take the form of a one-year anniversary protest at Columbus Circle on Saturday, April 28th from 12 to 1PM.
Ahead of the rally, we caught up with some of the group’s members to talk about Mike Pompeo, progress, and the inspiration in activism. Here’s what Vinnie Amendolare, Voices4 head of research; Elly Brinkley, activist at PEN America and Voices4; Daniel VIrga, Voices4 research committee member; and Luca Piccin, Chief Operating Officer of Voices4 had to say.
OUT: With Mike Pompeo sworn in today as Secretary of State, the plight of LGBTQ people around the world is more important than ever. What would you say to queers around the world about this development?
Vinnie Amendolare: Pompeo does not speak for our values, our people, and our country. We are fighting against this influence every day and will not stop. We see you as our family.
Elly Brinkley: Pompeo's confirmation is a major blow to human rights around the world. Without a state department that recognizes the humanity of LGBTQIA+ individuals, the United States cannot be a strong advocate on a diplomatic level for queer people who are oppressed around the world. However, I think that the Trump presidency has galvanized activists to think more intersectionally about political issues and that the American activist community and NGOs that support our rights at home and abroad are prepared to step in where our government will not.
Luca Piccin: This administration already has a horrendous track record advocating for, or even acknowledging, the LGBTQ community, so Pompeo is nothing new. Our goal is to create a global network of queer activist’s and to raise the voices of the global queer community.
What progress have you seen in the past year with Chechnya?
VA: The global community and people with power to take swift action to protect queer people know about the ongoing situation. Their statements and incremental actions, like U.S Treasury sanctions and Canada’s resettling of people affected, are progress. But this situation is not being tackled systemically or at scale, and this alone is not enough.
The most progress we have seen is thanks to activists and journalist on the ground who have put together a report one year after the first reports of the purge, including many firsthand testimonies, which is meaningful progress given the attempts by the Chechen government to deny this situation and the existence of queer people altogether. On the backs of activists and journalists, progress will continue.
EB: A little over a year ago, what was happening in Chechnya was happening in secret and with impunity. Novaya Gazeta and Elena Milashina have delivered truly heroic reporting that has made waves in the international community — and it is directly responsible for dozens of lives being saved. The Russian LGBT Network has been an amazing lifeline, successfully evacuating at least 119 people. The bravery and temerity of these journalists and activists is nothing short of astounding.
Daniel Virga: Progress is a difficult thing to evaluate in situations like these. Ultimately, progress looks like two things. First, it’s full liberation of queer Chechens from continued or further persecution, and second, it’s having those people responsible for these horrific events held accountable in a court of law. If we measure success as these things — liberation and justice — then we have failed. People are still being persecuted and those responsible haven’t been held accountable. There have been several internal “pre-investigations” that have failed, and the results of the only international investigation conducted by the Council of Europe’s CPT, is being withheld by the Kremlin. The international community is fully aware of the atrocities occurring, but seems to be only watching until something is done. Fortunately, activists at the Russian LGBT Network and Novaya Gazetta have been tirelessly gathering testimony from those directly impacted in order to move progress in the proper direction.
In your time since starting Voices4, what has been the most inspiring thing you've seen?
VA: When you learn about and see and begin to understand this problem, you cannot unsee it. That has been the most inspiring thing to me. We are a community unwilling to look away and unsatisfied with inaction. We’re in this for life because queer liberation must cross all borders.
EB: With a near daily assault on the rights of all Americans under this administration that demand an inordinate amount of attention, agility, and emotional labor from the activist community, I would not necessarily have expected such a dedicated group in the fight for global queer liberation. But the number of people who consistently show up and the passion with which they do so has been the most inspiring thing to me since I began working with Voices4.
It’s a testament to the fact that the queer community feels an obligation to our queer family around the world. We are not born into our community. The genealogy and kinship networks of queer communities are actively forged, often through activism, and it has been beautiful and inspiring to see my community actively trying to foster these networks across borders, especially in the shadow of an isolationist administration.
It’s been inspiring for me to be able to mobilize people around causes I care about on a scale that I didn't think was possible. I know some of the reporters at Novaya Gazeta who have been doing work on Chechnya and, before joining Voices4, I felt impotent in the United States to help amplify their work. I had spent time in Moscow with Ali Feruz, one of Novaya's reporters who was threatened with a likely-deadly deportation to Uzbekistan.
After my first meeting, I was able to mobilize the impassioned Voices4 community to launch a full-fledged campaign for his freedom. Seeing Ali be allowed to freely travel to Germany when, just a few months earlier, his imprisonment seemed to be an inevitability was astonishing. Watching the Voices4 community's investment in that fight was truly heartening.
LP: Receiving messages from queer youth all around the world who say that seeing what we do gives them hope is incredible.