Life in the Chechen closet

Umar is 25 and from Gudermes in Chechnya. He is gay. What can the future hold for him in the macho, dzhigit, society he inhabits? He talked to Kseniya Leonova, the first time he has told anyone his story.

Ksenia Leonova
21 June 2013

*All names have been changed*

I got to know Umar by chance in a restaurant where he worked as a waiter. With his gruff voice and black clothes he passed for a real dzhigit [Turkic, brave horseman, macho man]. It was only the Timberland shoes that gave him away, because not many people wear them in Chechnya; and his look of cunning. I asked if there was anywhere I could smoke, because in Chechnya women don’t smoke, and he took me to the basement. He lit up, and was drawing on his cigarette with pleasure, when he suddenly unbuttoned his black shirt to reveal a brightly-coloured hipster T-shirt with some silly drawing on it. From a baritone his voice suddenly became a soprano, and he started acting very camp.

I have friends in Chechnya who are gay, so I knew that his behaving in this fashion was a sign of great trust. We saw each other a few more times, but I never asked him outright if he was gay or not, because that’s not done in Chechnya. All my friends had by this time refused to talk to me for this article. On the day before I left I brought Umar a special, gay edition of Afisha magazine and put it on the table without saying anything. ‘I’ve looked on the Internet’ said Umar suddenly, ‘and seen your articles there. Do you want to interview me?’ After that he talked without ceasing for 6 hours, telling me things he had never ever told anyone. - K.L.


“I first felt strange at about 5 or 6, probably at the time my sexuality was starting to develop. We used to play mummies and daddies with the girls, touching each other everywhere, and I remember I was always more interested in their asses than any other orifices. But I found boys of about 13-14 much more interesting than girls; they were really beautiful to me. I didn’t know much about beauty – except that. I didn’t realise I was gay, I didn’t even know the word, but I didn’t talk to anyone about my strange feelings.

I realised I was gay at the age of 15. It was the summer and I was staying with my relatives in a village. I fell in love with our neighbour, Zakhid. He was tall and very thin with curly black hair. Nature had given him a beautiful dusky body, which looked as thought it had been sculpted by a great artist. He was 23, older than me. I first felt strongly attracted to him when I saw him in a simple white T-shirt over his sunbrowned body.

Of course, I didn’t immediately understand that this was love. We became friends and started spending a lot of time together. He had untold quantities of cousins, including relatives of mine, but he abandoned all of them so as to spend more time with me. When he asked for my advice in front of everyone, it seemed that only my opinion mattered. Just the sound of his voice made me ecstatically happy. When Zakhid went to work on the building site, he would bring me his most treasured possessions – his telephone or money. I didn’t simply look after them, but about 2 hours before he was due back, I would go out to meet him, looking in the direction from which he would be coming. His affection for me was so obvious that his cousins were jealous of me.

Without really understanding what we were doing, we were both searching for the boundaries of what was permitted. When we played football or fooled around, he used to let me sit on him. We only did this if there were plenty of people around; and better if they were girls because we instinctively understood that this was safer. It all looked like playing with a nephew, and nothing more. Everyone loved me and everyone loved him and we both spent plenty of time with girls, always together.

One time, Zakhid was standing in the doorway of his house, and for some reason there was no one else around. He was chewing gum. I went up to him and asked if he had any for me. Zakhid suddenly said ‘Here you are, take it!’ and showed me the gum on his lips. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Zakhid was so pure, you can’t imagine: he was 23, didn’t smoke or drink – he hadn’t even tried alcohol – and was a real believer. I took the chewing gum from his lips and the contact nearly knocked me off my feet. I had the gum and wasn’t touching his lips, but my face was very close to his. I stared into his eyes and he stared into mine. It was probably only a few seconds, but they felt like an eternity. Then he pushed me away, his facial expression changed and he went into the house without saying anything.

We didn’t see each other for several days. It felt like a very, very long time. Then he came and said that in a week he was going away to join the men with beards i.e. the fighters, in the mountains.

How I got through that week I don’t know. But I do remember the last night very well. At that time I didn’t have my own room, so I slept in one bed with my brother. Zakhid too, slept in a room with his brothers. One day he came to us, saying that he wanted to rest, and his brothers were disturbing him, so my brother offered him his room. Zakhid went to sleep. At night, my brother went off to sleep somewhere else for some reason, so I went to our room to go to bed. I saw Zakhid, lying dressed on my bed, in that same white T-shirt which I had so liked. He was curled up, because the quilt wasn’t big enough, and I could tell from his breathing that he was asleep. Quietly, I lay down beside him, holding my pillow under me in such a way as to be able to see his face. I lay there for several hours, just looking at him as he slept. He didn’t move at all, but when the alarm clock went off, he opened his eyes. He did this so quickly that I suddenly thought he hadn’t been asleep all that time. For a minute we looked at each other, then he got up without saying anything, and left. I never saw him again. A year later I was told that he’d been killed in the mountains during one of the purges. He was buried like an Arab. He was so dark.

I think about him almost every day. I’m sure he loved me, but didn’t know what to do about it, and when Chechen men don’t know what to do, they often go to the fighters in the mountains; and they’re often killed there.

First gay friendships

After that I went back to school and went really wild. In the senior classes and right up to the end of school I went out with girls, kissing, sucking and petting them all over. In year 11 I had a girlfriend, and we were considered an item; we didn’t even hold back from embracing in front of the teachers.

I finished school and got a job. I was 17 and was desperate. If there’d been a girl around, then I could have distracted myself, but our traditions don’t allow that, so I had no distraction. Then I discovered the gay sites and chatrooms. In one of them I met a Chechen man of 27.

You don’t know who it really is in the room; whether they want to shop you.

How our friendship developed is a story in itself. You don’t know who it really is in the room; or whether they want to shop you. Gays in Chechnya had just started being persecuted; previously, you could walk about with long hair and eyeliner, even with painted nails, and there were no problems. Then a couple of men were murdered, someone was beaten up, and everyone started hiding. This young man and I were so afraid of giving ourselves away that we chatted online for more than a month. Then he sent me his photo, or his friend did. I didn’t send mine, but we did actually meet. First, in a place with people, then in an empty flat.

We didn’t make love. Kisses, naked bodies, but no more. I couldn’t go the whole way. Soon he introduced me to his circle of friends - a coterie. When you join the coterie, your boyfriend shows you off to his friends like a jewel. The coterie is very small, there are few new people, and they are the only people with whom you can be yourself. Everyone wants to sleep with the chicken, the fresh meat. We have a joke that in Grozny everyone’s having sex with the same people, third time around; and in provincial Gudermes it’s five!

I could see that there were guys who were younger, or older or more attractive. I started getting proposals from old men; they promised me everything, and wanted to turn me into a kept boy. Refusing these proposals was for me a matter of honour.

I soon dumped the man who had taken me to the coterie, without having slept with him; and moved on to his best friend; then to another, and yet another. At one time I had three of them on the go: frolics in an empty flat with one, then a rendezvous with another, and an evening in a café with the third. I was letting my hair down, but the lack of constancy drove me frantic.

If you fuck someone in the ass, but don’t let anyone do it to you, then you’re still a dzhigit; and not a faggot.

And I was still a virgin. Well, from behind. The dzhigit in me wouldn’t let me go the whole way. For two whole years I didn’t have oral or anal sex, which was a struggle for me. I tried to fuck someone, but it didn’t really work because I’m passive. I wanted to revel in my passiveness, because in everyday life I had to be so strong. It’s interesting that in the Chechen coterie there are few versatile men; lots of active guys, but they never let anyone fuck them in the ass. These are dzhigit matters. If you fuck someone in the ass, but don’t let anyone do it to you, then you’re still a dzhigit; and not a faggot.

Double life

If you only knew how difficult it is to live a double life. I played at being active - calling guys by women’s names, billing and cooing at them to such an extent that I was getting a new reputation for being a real stud. When you leave the safe house of the coterie, you stop acting camp, and make your voice gruff. If you’re with people who are talking about women, then you do the same, though you’re actually remembering boys you’ve been with. You make lewd jokes about queers. As for Sergei Zverev, Oscar Wilde and Pyotr Tchaikovsky – don’t even think of saying that you admire them.

At the same time, I made sure to have a lot of girls around for a kind of screwing. It goes like this: you invite her for a pizza, then another one, then pizza with a drink, then you have a smoke till you get high, and you get a screw. Well, it’s not the real McCoy, but what’s called going in a little way – so you’re fucking, but she keeps her virginity. If a girl is found to be not a virgin on her wedding night, then according to our customs she has to be killed. Mistakes do happen, of course, and those girls are often subsequently killed. But I have a little sister, whom I love very much, and so I behaved like a liberal with girls, and preserved their virginity.

But it was all pretend: you spend your whole life lying, and it’s only at night for a couple of hours that you get to engage in petting with your boyfriend. Even among your own friends you can’t relax. You’re sitting with three gays, and suddenly one of them might feel the dzhigit stirring in him – which is what prevented me from being fucked for a whole two years – and one of your ‘friends’ might suddenly call you a faggot. There’s no point in getting worked up about it, because he can’t really help it. It’s all so ambiguous, you see. The dzhigit in each of us will not let us relax.

I only called a man a faggot once in my life. I was trying to knock some sense into a friend, who is as beautiful as a girl, and will sleep with anyone. I called him a faggot, because if he goes on like this he’ll be killed, and we’ll only find out some months later because his family will tell everyone that he’s gone away and fallen really ill. Only when we haven’t heard from him for months will we understand that he’s dead. I’m afraid for him; his problem is that he doesn’t even try to live a double life.

Back home

Of course I’ve changed. When I went back to Gudermes, my father and brother said I dressed differently and my hair was different too. But they forgave me everything, because I do a lot for the family. Anyway, I always had such a swarm of girls around me that no one would have had a clue that I’m gay.

I was seeing a guy whose boyfriend rang me to say he would come to my house to tell everyone about me. I hid in the bathroom and considered slitting my veins. If it all came out in the open, it’d be such disgrace, and everyone’s afraid of that.

There are gays in Gudermes. I was seeing a guy, who suddenly turned out to have a boyfriend, who rang me and said he worked in law enforcement, and would come to my house to tell everyone about me. I could, of course, have said that I would do the same, but, given where he worked, people would have believed him, not me.

I hid in the bathroom and considered slitting my veins. I can spend up to two hours in the bathroom sometimes, so no one would suspect anything, and I’d have time to die. If it all came out in the open, it’d be such disgrace, and everyone’s afraid of that. Disgrace for my brothers and sisters, who would never be able to make normal marriages or get good jobs; such shame would not even be washed away by my blood.

So there I am in the bathroom, in torment. Then the guy rings me again and says that everything will be OK if I stop seeing his boyfriend. So I took the decision to have nothing more to do with the coterie. Much later on I discovered that the guy is not in law enforcement – he was a student. He worked part-time at the car wash to be able to keep his boyfriend, who was deceiving him with me, and a mass of others, chatting with them all on the social networks.

But I didn’t know that then. I threw away my SIM card and turned into a zombie. I left all the social networks, deciding that I would not have anything to do with anyone, but would try to become a normal guy, and go with girls. I held out for six months without going to the coterie get-togethers; I was sure I was being monitored. All that time I couldn’t even tell anyone about my problems.

After six months I met a guy and fell in love. Not like with Zakhid, but it was very powerful. I realised he was gay; he realised I was gay; and that was when I actually accepted that I was gay. I can fool around with girls as much as I like, but that’s all kindergarten stuff, not the real thing.

A baby

I had found myself, and would have gone on living well, but out of the blue I had a call from a former girlfriend who had left nine months previously for St Petersburg. A Chechen girl; she said she’d just had my baby, that I had a week to decide whether I would take the child or not.

We’d been together during the six months when I was trying not to be gay. She was very beautiful: very slim with small breasts, which I had often caressed. She was not a virgin, but I still considered marrying her because I really liked her. However, I realised she would not be a good housewife, which is very important for me.

So…I hadn’t withdrawn in time and she’d fallen pregnant. She only noticed two or three months later, when she was already in St Petersburg, and it was too late to have an abortion. She didn’t ring me; in fact we’d had no contact at all during the nine months. If I’d told anyone what had happened, she’d have been killed without a second thought. Even in St Petersburg. I would have had my trousers taken down and been sent running through the village, after which the shame would have been such that I would have left for Grozny or one of the neighbouring republics. I might have gone right away altogether.

I subsequently discovered that she had lived in a hostel with Chechens throughout the nine months, shared a room with her brother, and gone to classes at the institute every day. She was saved by wearing very loose clothes and by the fact that she was very thin and didn’t develop a large bump. Everyone simply thought she’d put on weight. She gave birth and went straight to classes – unbelievable! This makes me sure that my child has been sent by God: Allah saved him and it was his destiny to be born.

So she rang me and told me I had a child, and that if I didn’t come within the week, she’d put it in an orphanage. One of her friends had already done this. I didn’t sleep for a day and a night after that call, thinking what to do. I was 20 years old and had never been so far away from home alone. I was scared, but I knew that it was my child and I couldn’t abandon it. I went and collected it; she remained in St Petersburg. Since the birth of my child I have learnt to lie big time.

I took the child to a distant relative who loves me very much. I told her it was my child, that the mother had died and that I wanted him to be brought up properly. She agreed to do this and is bringing him up as one of her nephews. She has cobbled together some kind of story for the family.

After that I had to abandon my studies, and get a job as a waiter. I visit the child every month, but I can’t go more often. I take food, toys and money when I visit. To anyone outside Chechnya this probably sounds awful, but you’ve got to believe me when I say that it’s the best I can do for the child - to hide his existence from everyone.

The future

You’re always in danger of being found out: one guy was dragged into bed, so as to confirm that he was gay. When he was really aroused, he was brutally beaten up and left for dead; and it was all filmed for public viewing.

Of course I’ve thought about starting a family. Here, gays and lesbians often get married, just to shut the relatives up. But I’m not going to do that. What kind of a family is it when you’re cheating on each other, where boys and girls have swapped roles?

You’re always in danger of being found out: one guy was dragged into bed, so as to confirm that he was gay. When he was really aroused, he was brutally beaten up and left for dead; and it was all filmed for public viewing. Another guy was caught in women’s clothes, taken into a house and filmed. One of his friends, a former lover, turned him in – for a joke. Now he’ll either top himself or someone will do him in.

What are the options? Become like those saddos who play in the coterie, and then leave it to get married? Let’s face it, there’s nothing more vicious than a converted queer. Stay in the closet? I don’t know what to do. No, some day I too will have to get married.”

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