“When we take these kinds of actions, it [applies] international pressure and the government is aware and will heed the purges for a couple of weeks or even a day or so, which gives people the chance to escape,” says Adam Eli, co-founder of Voices 4, a nonviolent direct action activist group, on their recent protest outside the Russian Consulate in New York City. The demonstration, held on November 7, was to draw attention to, and demand an investigation of, the disappearance of Chechen gay pop star Zelimkhan Bakaev.
This past April, an independent Russian newspaper, the Novaya Gazeta, published a thorough report of anti-gay crackdowns in Chechnya, a hyper conservative federalist territory of Russia. Further reporting corroborated the accounts of gay men in the region being rounded up (often baited by gay dating apps), tortured, and, in some cases, murdered. In a Vice news documentary, Chechen prison warden and head of internal affairs Ayub Kataev flatly denied the accusations, insisting that the reports could not be true because there are no gay men even living in Chechnya. Despite a congressional resolution condemning the anti-LGBT actions, the Kremlin maintains that there is still no evidence to support the “anonymous claims,” and the U.S. is still not issuing humanitarian visas to gay men fleeing Chechnya. Zelimkhan Bakaev is still missing.
“This [most recent protest], we didn’t have a permit because you’re legally allowed to protest on the street as long as you don't have amplified sound,” explains Marc Sebastian, head of action logistics for Voices 4. “Usually, getting a sound permit doesn't take that long—five days turnover, but for this action it took a little bit more time, so we decided to forgo the permit, and just use our voices.”
The group was eager to protest, specifically, on November 7. “The significance [of that day] was that its a Russian holiday. It was originally the anniversary of the [communist] October Revolution, which was changed by Putin to Unity Day.” Political history aside, to demonstrate on a Russian holiday celebrating unity is to send a clear message to the Russian government the members of Voices 4 stand in unity with their Chechen brothers, “to say that as queer-American people we do care about what is happening to queer people abroad and we’re not gonna stand for it,” Eli puts it succinctly.
Voices 4 is modeled after ACT UP, the AIDS advocacy group founded in the ‘80s, but it has something their predecessor did not: social media. In fact, without it the group wouldn’t exist at all: “I made a speech during [our first] rally and I said, ‘If you are here because of Instagram raise your hand,’ and almost every single person raised their hand,” said Eli, adding, “It is my inherent deep belief that people do care and want to show up, they just don’t really know how. So my goal is to find simple, direct, and constructive ways for people to show up, and then use social media to broadcast those [ways].”
The amplification of Voices 4’s message through social platforms has, since inception, proven invaluable to its momentum. “We had people like drag queens with a million followers and outlets like Logo TV all plugging the same information. It totally flooded, we ended up trending on Twitter,” recalls Eli on the group’s first initiative. And while the support is encouraging, Voices 4’s head of internal affairs, Luca Picin, is cautious about growing too big too quickly: “I think we have rally established a voice and a brand and made our mission and demands really clear, and that’s amazing. Now, we’re looking inward and making sure we have all of the structure and all of the tools in place to really back that up and push it forward.”
So, what does the group have planned for the immediate future? “Right now, we are working on some internal organization because our group has expanded so rapidly. Our outreach team is trying to coalition build with more middle eastern groups in response to the Egyptian parliament drafting a law that would criminalize homosexuality. Our research team is planning our next action and the event’s committee is discussing a holiday party fundraiser,” says event head Kingsley.
For those looking to join Voices 4 in New York City, but aren’t sure they’re qualified, every member interviewed shared the same advice: “No activism experience needed.”
Photos courtesy of Hunter Abrams