Justin Romanov was only 14 when he came out to his family and friends as gay. But in his traditional Russian community such a revelation was alienating.
His classmates bullied him. His teachers gave him failing grades. And his father beat him.
With nowhere to turn he naively wrote a letter to President Vladimir Putin asking for help. Three months later the police came to his apartment.
“They said I shouldn’t send any letter,” Romanov said. “They said that I was gay because I was raped and [brainwashed] by American propaganda.”
At 16 he moved to Moscow where he became active in the LGBT community. After attending protests against homophobia and Putin he was arrested and beaten by police. Afterwards he faced increasing discrimination and was kicked out of school.
“I decided to move, I decided to leave Russia because I realized that I will be arrested for my LGBT activism or even killed,” Romanov said.
Three years ago when he turned 19 he was fortunate to be able to get a visa to come to Canada. But as he told told a crowd of protesters, for most of his gay brothers and sisters in Russia it’s not that easy.
The protesters had gathered on Saturday in Barbara Hall Park outside of The 519, an LGBTQ community centre, to protest against the rounding up and killing of gay men in Chechnya.
Responding to calls for support from the Russian LGBT Network they marched north on Church Street to the site of the former Russian consulate where they set up a makeshift memorial for the victims who had died and those who are still being detained.
Chechnya’s anti-gay campaign
First reported by the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, police and security officials have been arresting suspected gay and bisexual men in Chechnya as a part of an anti-gay campaign that began in February.
According to Novaya Gazeta’s reporting, once arrested the men are held in unofficial detention facilities where they are kept in brutal conditions and tortured.
The men are then released to their families who are told about their sexual orientation. The families are shamed and encouraged to commit “honour killings.”
Homosexuality has always been a taboo subject in the ultra-conservative region. But the recent crackdown began after Gayrussia.ru requested permits to hold several pride parades in several cities in the North Caucuses. This resulted in a breakout of protests by religious groups.
Homosexuality was legalized in Russia in 1993. However, in 1996 former Chechnen President Aslan Maskhadov reintroduced laws against sodomy.
Although Chechnya returned to Russian rule in 2000, it has maintained some autonomy in its legal system.
According to Human Rights Watch, the current campaign against homosexuality is a part of a much broader crackdown undertaken by Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic.
The Kadyrov regime has asserted control over many aspects of Chechen society and any sign of dissent has been severely punished.
While speaking to the Russian newspaper Interfax, Kadyrov’s press secretary, Alvi Karimov, said the reports by Novaya Gazeta were “absolute lies and disinformation.”
He also denied that there were any gay people in Chechnya according to a Google translation.
“The publication appeared is an absolute lie – you can not detain and oppress someone who simply does not exist.”
Homosexuality in Russia
Although nominally legal in the Russian Federation same sex couples do not have any legal protection from discrimination and many regions have enacted laws that discriminate against the LGBT community.
In 2013 Putin enacted the Russian gay propaganda law to curtail the normalizing of same-sex relationships within Russian society.
It specifically bans the distribution of material defending non-traditional relationships to minors.
But as Human Rights Watch reports, the law has been used as the basis for increased discrimination and harassment against LGBT people in Russia.
The situation in Chechnya has provoked widespread concern from the international community. The U.S. state department and the U.N. have demanded that Russia put an end to the arrests of gay men in Chechnya.
On Saturday the Canadian minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland released a statement in which she called the situation in Chechnya “reprehensible” and called for immediate action.
“We call on the Russian authorities to thoroughly investigate these reports and to immediately ensure the safety of all persons in Chechnya who may be at risk due to their sexual orientation,” Freeland said.
“We deplore acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Activists at Saturday’s protest were demanding that the Canadian government do more. They would like the government to make it easier for gay men fleeing Chechnya to come to Canada.
Martha Singh Jennings is the program manager at Rainbow Railroad, a Toronto-based charity that helps those experiencing anti-LGBT persecution move to safety.
In collaboration with the Russian LGBT Network she has been petitioning the government to help those fleeing from Chechnya to come to Canada.
“It’s very difficult for individuals, particularly the people who are not wealthy, when they are trying to escape persecution to actually leave their countries and then reach somewhere that is relatively safe like Canada,” Jennings said.
She would like the Canadian government “to provide safer roots to people, to actually get people to places where they don’t have to suffer this sort of extreme awful torment throughout their lives.”
Give them a chance
Romanov knows how difficult it is to get a visa to come to Canada if you’re gay.
“If you’re Russian citizen and you apply for a visa to come to Canada you can not write it down [that you’re gay] . . . you’re going to be refused,” Romanov said. “Either they’re going to find out that you have HIV or that you’re gay.”
It’s also difficult for gay Russians to meet the financial burden to come to Canada.
“It’s very hard for gay young people or for gay people who are openly gay in Russia, who have no work . . . to come to Canada.”
Romanov was fortunate. His mother sold their house and moved into an apartment in Russia which allowed him to afford to come to Canada.
“I just thought that I’m in heaven . . . it’s so much different between Canada and Russia,” Romanov said.
“Here in Canada people don’t care how you dress, they don’t care how you speak. They look at your personality not at your sexual orientation.”
Romanov moved to Toronto where he has become a prominent activist in the LGBT community and was featured in the documentary Children 404 about gay and lesbian youth in Russia.
Now he want his gay brothers in Chechnya to have the same opportunity that he had.