I’d never seen anything like it.
Nothing but people for blocks ― miles on end. People of all ages waving rainbow flags, holding posters and wearing shirts with messages of Pride. “Love is love,” one poster said. “Stop killing us,” read another. That one reminded me of home.
It was my first time in New York City. I had come for World Pride, the first Pride march I’d ever attended. I fled my hometown in Chechnya just a few years earlier, barely escaping with my life. I could not have imagined then that I would one day be on a float, traveling down Fifth Avenue, dancing to Lady Gaga and just being myself alongside millions of other out and proud LGBTQI people.
Growing up in Chechnya, there were two of me. There was “straight” me, whom my parents, brothers and most other people knew. And then there was “secret” me, whom only a few close friends had met. “Secret” me used fake names and met up with other gay people in hidden places. If anyone found out about “secret” me, I knew my family would disown me, I would be shamed out of town, beaten or worse ― killed because of who I am. Coming out was impossible. Coming out almost certainly meant death.
In 2017, “secret” me was outed to state authorities. I still don’t know how or by whom. I can only guess that the police tortured someone I knew until they gave me up. I believe this because I, too, was tortured. Kidnapped from my place of work. Beaten. Electrocuted. Starved. Held with a gun to my head and told to give up other “secret” people. I refused, ready to die.
The police brought my family to the place I was being held captive and told them I was gay. 'You should take away your shame,' the officials told my family. What they meant was that my family should kill me, their son and sibling.
To my surprise, I wasn’t killed that day. At least, not in body. Instead, the police brought my family to the place I was being held captive and told them I was gay. “You should take away your shame,” the officials told my family. What they meant was that my family should kill me, their son and sibling. “Honor killings” were common in Chechnya. Families would rather live with the grief of a dead child than the shame of having a gay son and brother.
I wasn’t killed in body, but part of me died that day.
After being outed, I had no choice but to leave Chechnya. If my family wouldn’t kill me, it was only a matter of time before someone else would. Through networks, I found temporary refuge with the Russian LGBT Network before finally meeting the group that would help me escape to safety, Rainbow Railroad. Finally, there was a way forward. A way out.
Two years later, I joined Rainbow Railroad at World Pride and marched alongside other LGBTQI people whose lives the organization helped to save. For each of us, Pride was something we had never experienced ― we couldn’t believe what we were seeing as the sea of people lining the streets cheered and openly celebrated who they are. In that moment, I finally knew what it really meant to feel proud.
But I felt something else, too. I felt guilty. Guilty that I had survived and gotten out when so many others hadn’t. Guilty that as I danced, others still suffered in silence. Others still lived in the constant fear that, one day, their “secret” self would be exposed to the world.
So I decided to do something to help others out and make sure LGBTQI people in Chechnya and places like it aren’t forgotten ― to make sure that Pride isn’t something I just enjoy for myself but something I help make a reality for others, for those who can’t come out because they live in places where being LGBTQI is dangerous or a death sentence.
That’s why for National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, I am joining Rainbow Railroad to remind others that for countless LGBTQI people in nearly 70 countries around the world, coming out comes with grave danger.
Of course, that’s not to say coming out isn’t important or shouldn’t be celebrated. In fact, it’s the coming-out stories of LGBTQI people from all around the world that transcend borders and ultimately lead to the culture shifts necessary to change laws in countries that are still unaccepting. It’s those stories that lead to understanding and create public pressure to demand something different.
But as we celebrate, we must also remember ― remember those still forced to live in the darkness of danger.
Their lives depend on it.
Amin Dzhabrailov is a Chechen refugee who, with the help of the international nonprofit Rainbow Railroad, fled the region’s “anti-gay purge” in 2017. Learn more about his story and take action to #HelpOthersOut at RainbowRailroad.org.