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Mourners huddled near Stonewall National Monument in New York City on January 24 to remember a beloved Russian pop star taken too soon.

Believed to have been gay, Zelimkhan Bakaev became the face of a horrifying, state-sanctioned crackdown on gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, a semi-independent state in southern Russia. His name may be unfamiliar to most Americans, but Bakaev's heartbreaking story is one worth sharing.

Photo by Aaron Hooper, courtesy of RUSA LGBT.

Upworthy reported on the mystery of Bakaev's whereabouts in October 2017. The last anyone had seen him was in Gronzy, Chechnya, where he'd attended his sister's wedding. Shortly after the ceremony, his social media activity came to a halt. His Instagram account was deactivated.

Suspicions began to swirl: How could such a high-profile figure simply vanish? Fans were alarmed. His mother begged the Chechen government for answers.

The more we learned, the more it seemed Bakaev had been caught up in Chechnya's "gay purge."

Chechnya was, and may still be, arresting, torturing, and even killing men suspected to be gay or bisexual. In April 2017 — more than four months before Bakaev vanished — The New York Times reported at least 100 gay men had gone missing in Chechnya. The outlet cited a report from Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which claimed Chechen police were detaining men "in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such."

Officials at the Russian LGBT Network, a Moscow-based advocacy group, feared the worst: that Bakaev had been swept up in the purge and may have been killed.

Now, they say, their suspicions have been confirmed.

Photo by Aaron Hooper, courtesy of RUSA LGBT.

Chechen leader Ramazan Kadyrov gave eyebrow-raising comments on Bakaev that aired on state TV on January 17.

Addressing other Chechen officials, Kadyrov publicly acknowledged Bakaev's disappearance for the first time. Shockingly, he accused the singer's own family of murdering the 25-year-old.

"[Bakaev's] relatives, who didn't keep an eye on him and were ashamed that he was one of them, now say that Kadyrov took him," Kadyrov explained, according to Radio Free Europe. "His family couldn't stop him [from being gay], and then called him back home. And his brothers, it seems, accused him of being one of those."

"Isn't there anyone in the village, any man in the family, who can admit: 'We did this'?" Kadyrov continued. "They know full well who their relative was."

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images.

Bakaev's father told local media the accusation from Kadyrov is simply false.

The Russian LGBT Network sees Kadyrov's unprompted comments as a confession to Bakaev's murder.

Through testimonials given from other victims of the purge, the Russian LGBT Network claims to have evidence Bakaev was, in fact, detained by Chechen authorities. So Kadyrov's accusation seems to further confirm the group's worst fears, according to the network's founder, Igor Kochetkov.

"Kadyrov has essentially admitted that Bakaev was killed," Kochetkov noted to RFE/RL's Russian Service. "What's more, he is justifying and encouraging these actions."

Kochetkov believes a new petition by the Russian LGBT Network calling on Russian officials to investigate Bakaev's disappearance may have motivated the Chechen leader to shift blame onto the singer's family.

Russian officials arrest a pro-LGBTQ rights demonstrator in Moscow in 2015. Photo by Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP Getty Images.

Bakaev's disappearance and alleged murder is getting more attention because of his fame. But the singer's story is just one of many.

What's happened in Chechnya is truly frightening.

After Novaya Gazeta's initial report on Chechnya's gay purge published last April, more and more horrifying details began to surface. Sir Alan Duncan, Britain's minister of state for the foreign office, told parliament a few weeks later he'd learned Chechen officials planned to "eliminate" the region's LGBTQ population by the end of May 2017, according to The Guardian.  

Secretive "modern day concentration camps" had been set up to house detainees. Victims who've been released have recounted terrifying abuse during their detentions, including beatings and torture via electric shock. Their captors would pry about the identities of others suspected to be gay or bisexual so that officials could target more men.

Kadyrov, a close ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, blasted these reports leaking out of the region. "We don't have those kinds of people here; we don't have any gays," he said in an interview with HBO last July. "If there are any, take them to Canada."

Photo by Curto de la Torre/AFP/Getty Images.

But activists didn't believe Kadyrov's denial due to the overwhelming amount of evidence and testimonials from victims collected on the ground from human rights groups.

The Chechen leader has proven himself to be liar — why would the world trust him when it comes to Bakaev's situation?

Now that it's pretty clear to many that Bakaev was murdered, his disappearance carries more political weight than ever.

Mourners at Stonewall hope the singer's tragic death can fuel more urgency for the world to take a stand against Chechnya's institutionalized homophobia.

Photo by Aaron Hooper, courtesy of RUSA LGBT.

"Too many [LGBTQ] people have been killed just for existing," tweeted Voices 4, an LGBTQ advocacy group that organized the vigil alongside RUSA LGBT. "We gathered in solemnity and silence tonight. We raise our voices and our fists again tomorrow."

Photo by Aaron Hooper, courtesy of RUSA LGBT.

Since Bakeyev's disappearance, some steps have been taken to address Chechnya's human rights abuses.

It's not nearly enough, though.

A handful of world leaders have slammed Chechnya's gay purge, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. France and Canada began accepting Chechen refugees at risk of harm due to their sexual orientation.

In December, the U.S. imposed new sanctions on a handful of Chechen officials, forbidding Americans from doing business with them and blocking certain financial transactions. The move increases pressure on Russia to act, The New York Times noted.

Still, Kadyrov has suffered few ramifications for the government's gay purge — which may still be happening. Putin has largely shrugged off accusations of the state-sanctioned abuse, unconcerned with any potential political backlash. President Donald Trump has yet to publicly address the atrocities.

What will it take for the world to care about men like Bakaev?

Here's how you can act. For updates on Chechnya's gay purge, follow and support Voices 4, RUSA LGBT, and the Russian LGBT Network, which is helping Chechen men at risk of the purge escape the region. Sign and share the Russian LGBT Network's petition urging Russia to investigate Bakaev. And contact your U.S. representatives to demand that they speak up on the matter.

What's happening in Chechnya right now is horrifying.

Since April, reports from a Moscow-based newspaper have trickled out detailing a quiet crackdown on men in Chechnya — a semi-independent state within the Russian Republic — based on their perceived sexual orientations.

The details are more than alarming.

Russian police arrest activists at an LGBTQ rights protest in Moscow in 2015. Photo by Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images.

At least 100 gay and bisexual men with "nontraditional" sexual practices have been rounded up, tortured, and even killed in undisclosed facilities that activists have compared to modern-day concentration camps. While some men have been fortunate enough to get visas and escape in recent days, the situation remains dire.

Chechen officials have denied it's happening despite independent reports from news outlets and human rights groups on the ground in the region. They've even denied LGBTQ people exist in Chechnya.

To the newly elected president of France, Emmanuel Macron, enough is enough.

France has officially opened its doors to the gay and bisexual Chechen refugees whose lives are at risk.

Speaking to news outlet France Info on May 29, Joel Deumier, the head of gay rights group SOS Homophobie, confirmed the first of many expected LGBTQ refugees from Chechnya had arrived in France.

To many French groups trying to shed a light on the atrocities in Chechnya, this is a critical step forward.

Activists with Amnesty International hold a sign that reads "Stop homophobia in Chechnya" in Paris. Photo by Geoffrey Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images.

Although it's progress worth celebrating, the news isn't all that surprising given Macron's stances on refugee and immigration policy.  

As a candidate, the president called for France to take in its fair share of Syrian refugees, proposed state-run language classes to help integrate new arrivals, and spoke openly about mending relations between the French government and the country's Muslim population, Al Jazeera reported.

The same day France began welcoming Chechen refugees, Macron blasted Russia's lack of action on the matter — with Vladimir Putin right at his side.

The two leaders were in Versailles, France, to discuss world matters. But even as things turned tense during a joint press conference, the French president decided he wasn't about to play nice just because he was hosting the Russian leader.

Photo by Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images.

"I emphasized to President Putin ... how important it is for France to respect all people, all minorities," Macron told reporters. "We spoke about the cases of LGBT people in Chechnya. ... I told President Putin what France is expecting regarding this issue, and we agreed to regularly check on this subject."

With his pointed remarks, Macron joins the growing list of world leaders speaking out against Chechnya and Russia.

Notably absent from that list? President Donald Trump.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

While heads of state like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have publicly and strongly condemned Chechnya's crackdown on gay and bisexual men, Trump has remained silent.

But just because Trump is failing men in Chechnya doesn't mean Americans are standing idly by.

Here's how you can help:

  • Support the Russian LGBT Network. They're a Moscow-based group providing vital relief to Chechen men trying to escape persecution.
  • Call your representatives in Washington. Few senators or members of Congress have spoken out on the issue, and even fewer have taken concrete steps forward to do something about it.
  • Sign and share this petition by OutRight. The group is pressuring energy companies with lots of influence in Russian politics — like Exxon, BP, and Shell — to speak up about the injustice unfolding behind closed doors.
  • Tweet. A lot. Tweet at Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump, @POTUS, and @WhiteHouse) and the State Department (@StateDept) to demand that our country act.
  • Refuse to stay silent. Men in Chechnya are being silenced. They need you to be their voice now more than ever.

Russia, the plans to build a wall, Russia, North Korea, travel bans, Russia ... there's a lot happening around the world right now.

Amid the chaos, Joe Biden doesn't want us to forget about protecting and expanding LGBTQ rights — at home and overseas.

Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images.

In a powerful op-ed in The Washington Post published May 16, 2017, Biden pleads with Americans to stay informed on the perils faced by LGBTQ people abroad.

In the article, written in recognition of International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, Biden notes the progress celebrated (and setbacks faced) by LGBTQ Americans. But the former vice president chose to focus the piece on the persecution of LGBTQ people in places like Syria, Uganda, and — most notably — Chechnya.

Biden wrote:

"In Syria and Iraq, LGBT individuals face terror and torture, often at the hands of the Islamic State. Countries such as Russia — where appalling reports recently surfaced that authorities in Chechnya were imprisoning and torturing individuals believed to be gay or bisexual — Uganda and Tanzania continue to be openly hostile to LGBT people, and their political leaders have used anti-American sentiment to fuel anti-LGBT hate. And in many parts of the world, the horrific assault of 'corrective rape' is used as an extreme form of conversion therapy to try to turn women straight."

Photo by Craig Ruttle/AP.

As Biden mentioned, more than a hundred Chechen men suspected of "nontraditional" sexual practices have quietly been arrested and held in what some reports describe as modern-day concentration camps.

Weeks have gone by since news of the atrocities began trickling out of Chechnya, a semi-independent state of Russia. Yet many world leaders, including President Donald Trump, have not publicly condemned the actions. On May 17, 2017, BuzzFeed News reported the U.S. is denying visas for Chechen men escaping persecution.

Biden went on to note cultural differences are never an excuse for human rights violations:

"Many times, this kind of discrimination, harassment and violence is justified in the name of 'culture.' This offensive argument ignores the fundamental truth that LGBT rights are human rights. Prejudice is prejudice; inhumanity is inhumanity. Using religion or culture to license discrimination and demonizing LGBT individuals to score political points are no more justifiable around the world than they are here at home."

Biden was a longtime proponent of LGBTQ rights as a senator and vice president. Now that he's out of office, he clearly doesn't want us becoming complacent.

Here's what you can you can do to keep progress pushing onward:

  1. If you're concerned about what's happening in Chechnya, check out the Russian LGBT Network — a Moscow-based group helping gay and bisexual men escape persecution.
  2. If you want to help LGBTQ refugees from countries like Syria and Iraq, the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration is a terrific group doing important work.
  3. And if you want to help push progress forward in the U.S., organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality — and many others — are doing just that.

"Together, we will work to defend and advance the human rights of all people, and we will not rest until equality, at home and around the world, is fully realized," Biden wrote.

"Until then, to all those suffering discrimination and violence simply because of who they are or whom they love, know this: The American people are on your side."

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.


Trump's been silent; Putin's shrugged it off. But you should care about Chechnya.

Chechnya wants to 'eliminate' its gay population by the end of May. We can't sit back and watch.

If you've found it difficult to engage with the horrifying news coming out of Chechnya regarding the arrests and abuses of queer men there, you're not alone.

When the reports first began surfacing, it seemed too awful to be true — we're in the era of "fake news," after all. Was this actually happening?

A rally in Paris was held in support of gay and bisexual Chechen men on April 20, 2017. Photo by Sipa/AP.

Some of us found ourselves hoping the reports were false or greatly exaggerated, designed to press our outrage buttons. But these were stories coming out of outlets like The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post — all reporting that men in Chechnya are quietly being round up like cattle and starved, beaten, and tortured in facilities comparable to Nazi concentration camps. It quickly became clear that these ongoing atrocities were not fake.

Feelings of helplessness started creeping in. This wasn't a story propped up by bombastic headlines begging for sympathetic clicks from bleeding heart liberals.

This news was — and is — terrifyingly real.

Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. Photo by Said Tzarnaev/Sputnik/AP.

Feeling outraged comes easily. Feeling helpless, however, makes it hard to know the best way to channel that energy.

We know there have been at least six prisons created in Chechnya, which is a republic of Russia, to secretly detain men with "nontraditional" sexual practices. We also know that Chechnya allegedly plans to "eliminate" its gay community by the start of Ramadan on May 26 — just one month away.

This isn't normal. It's terrifying. And unfortunately, it seems like it's become more difficult to rely on world leaders to step up to the plate on their own volition. Rather than speak out against what’s happening in Chechnya, President Donald Trump tweeted about Hillary Clinton's hypothetical polling numbers. Russia's President Vladimir Putin shrugged off the allegations of mass arrests and abuse while he posed for a photo with Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov on April 19.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Chechnya's Ramzan Kadyrov in Moscow on April 19, 2017. Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP.

With so many people in power ignoring these blatant crimes against humanity, the feelings of helplessness are hard to shake.

But if Kadyrov seriously believes that simply denying that gay and bisexual men exist in Chechnya means he can carry out these sorts of atrocities without the outside world noticing — with our free press, internet access, and determination to mobilize — he’s got another thing coming.

Photo by Patrizia Cortellessa/Pacific Press/Sipa/AP.

This is what you can do this very moment to help gay and bi men in Chechnya at risk of arrest and abuse.

1. You can sign this petition by advocacy group OutRight calling on energy companies Exxon, BP, and Shell — all of which have huge sway in Russian politics — to speak up about the injustices being committed in Chechnya.

2. You candonate to the Russian LGBT Network, an equality group that's opened a refuge center in Moscow for queer Chechens escaping persecution. While Russia, in general, may be an unwelcoming place for LGBTQ people, Moscow is a much safer place than Chechnya for gay and bi men in the short term.

3. As OutRight's calling on us to do, you can share photos and messages demanding an end to these atrocities on Instagram — and troll Kadyrov by tagging his account (@kadyrov_95) in the captions, further drawing attention to his actions.

4. You can call your representatives in Congress and demand they speak up (as Marco Rubio recently did).

5. Most importantly: You can refuse to stay silent.