'People who just don’t exist': 6 things to keep in mind as gay men disappear in Chechnya.

More than 100 gay men have quietly been "rounded up" by law enforcement in Chechnya, a semi-independent state of southern Russia, according to Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta. At least three men are believed to have been killed.

This atrocity may be happening on the other side of the globe, but the message it's sending to the world hits very close to home.


Here are six facts to keep in mind as this story develops:

1. The move to round up men suspected of being gay began with gay pride parades — an irrational threat to any homophobe.

GayRussia.ru, a gay rights group, had begun applying for permits in order to hold LGBTQ pride parades in many cities across Russia. The group didn't expect any of the applications to be accepted under President Vladimir Putin's notoriously anti-gay policies, of course (and, in fact, none of them were), but GayRussia.ru was planning to use the permit denials to build a civil rights case to take to the European Court of Human Rights in France.

Russian police detain an LGBTQ rights activist in Moscow in 2015. Photo by Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images.

Tragically, even talk of gay pride parades emboldened anti-LGBTQ law enforcement, and the move by GayRussia.ru galvanized authorities to push back against even an attempt at pursuing equality.

“In Chechnya, the command was given for a ‘prophylactic sweep,’" Novaya Gazeta reported. "And it went as far as real murders."

Confirming the exact number of men affected by the "sweep," however, is near-impossible at the moment.

2. Hard facts have been difficult to verify because the subject of gay rights is taboo in that region of the world.

Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, an International Crisis Group worker, told The Guardian that she'd been hearing concerning information about law enforcement targeting gay men in and around Grozny, Chechnya's capital, for nearly two weeks prior to widespread news reports on the matter.

But proving any connections between missing persons and the authorities allegedly responsible for their disappearances has been difficult. The topic of gay rights is so taboo and frowned upon in Chechnya that people refuse to speak up — Sokirianskaia was only getting information from second- or third-hand accounts.

Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images.

Still, Sokirianskaia knows the arrests and murders aren't imaginary: "The number of signals I’m receiving from different people makes it hard not to believe detentions and violence are indeed happening," she told The Guardian.

It doesn't help that officials cannot be trusted with the truth either.

3. Often, gay people conveniently don't "exist" in the very places they're oppressed (or so we're told to believe). That same myth is being sold in Chechnya.

Confronted with the alarming revelation that the government may be behind these disappearances, Alvi Karimov, a spokesperson for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, suggested the report by Novaya Gazeta is a fallacy, claiming gay people simply don't exist in that region of Russia.

And even if they did, he claimed, their own families would have fixed the issue.

“You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic,” Karimov said in a statement, according to Radio Free Europe. “If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn't need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning."

Police arrest an LGBTQ rights activist in Moscow in 2013. Photo by Alexander Nemeno/AFP/Getty Images.

If this specific tactic of deflecting reality seems familiar, it may be because former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously told an audience at Columbia University in 2007 that Iran doesn't "have homosexuals, like in your country," when asked about Iran's crackdown on LGBTQ rights. Kadyrov's lie has been told before.

Considering who one of the Chechen leader's dear friends is, however, this news maybe isn't quite as shocking as it should be. Which brings us to...

4. Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, is a close ally and friend of Putin, who has a heinous track record on LGBTQ rights.

Photo by Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images.

While Chechnya is technically part of Russia, it operates independently in some ways under Kadyrov, a "vulgar, vicious, and very rich" ally to — and political instrument used by — Putin, The Guardian explained. Kadyrov is like a son to Putin, and Putin is one of Kadyrov's idols.

In 2013, Russia passed vague but far-reaching legislation that banned "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" — a major step backward for LGBTQ rights advocates. According to Human Rights Watch, the law legalized discrimination against queer Russians and encouraged violence spurred by homophobia. Anti-LGBTQ hate crimes spiked in the lead-up to and aftermath of the bill's passing.

Vladimir Putin (left) and Ramzan Kadyrov. Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images.

It makes sense that Kadyrov may try to replicate Putin's disturbing crackdown on gay rights in his own territory.

But one thing he hasn't been able to vanquish is hope.

5. Although the work has been difficult, there is some hope to be found: A Russian LGBTQ rights organization is helping gay men in Chechnya.

Fighting for equality in Chechnya has proven to be nearly impossible, so one civil rights group is trying to aid LGBTQ people in finding refuge elsewhere. It may be a small glimmer of light in very dark circumstances, but an organization based in St. Petersburg has reportedly set up an anonymous hotline for Chechens to call to find help in escaping the region to find a more tolerant place.

LGBTQ rights activists march in St. Petersburg in 2013. Photo by Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images.

6. While this problem may seem oceans away to many of us, news travels fast when the world is as small as it is today. That's a good thing.

That means people can help make a difference, even from miles away. To make a difference, you can help the news travel even faster.

Share this story with friends and family online and keep track of developments in the days and weeks ahead. Demand your leaders — including our own president with questionable ties to Russia — speak out on the atrocities happening in Chechnya. Do your part in spreading the truth.

We can't let these gay men be forgotten.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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