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.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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