Take Me to Church: On Chechnya, Gay Men and Art
Chechen law enforcement and security officials have recently been unlawfully detaining, torturing and, in some cases, forcibly disappearing gay men. As a gay man, this terrifies me. As a human being, I am moved by a piece of art by Hozier who unknowingly and eerily foretold a version of this story 3 years before.
Every so often, a piece of art kicks you in the balls, pushes you out of complacency and demands that you take action.
For me, that is part of the magic of art: the medium itself doesn’t really matter- it could be street art, music, film, photography, whatever speaks to you- so long as it inspires you to think, to speak out, to be a better human, to do your part to create the world you want to live in and leave a better one for the next generation.
This short film (for it’s so much more than a music video) by Hozier for his song, “Take Me To Church”, is one of those moments for me.
How It Happened
“I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your life.”
I’ve loved this song since I first heard it a few years back. As a writer, I’m drawn to the lyrics of a song, which I need more than a good beat.
This is a very lyric-driven track so, in the past, I’ve always slipped on my HeadBeats, pushed the volume up somewhere near full-tilt, pressed play, closed my eyes and got lost this song.
Quite by chance, I stumbled across the video for the song a few nights ago and realized that I had never seen it, so I hit play. Thirty-five seconds in, I knew this was going in an unexpected direction.
There was no She; there never was.
At 0:45, I felt a pang in my gut.; it was fear, panic and rage. For all the progress gay men have made, this world is still a very dangerous place for many of us, and the physical and emotional abuse I experienced as a gay adolescent in small town America still haunts me as I speed ever faster towards my 50s.
At 0:58, I knew this was as much about gay men in a particular time and place as much as it was an exploration of the universal gay experience Like all meaningful art, this short film sucker-punched me in unexpected ways. (God, I fucking love art!)
It made me angry. It made me afraid. it made me feel something with a sense of great urgency. I must’ve replayed this video a dozen times that night and have since replayed it dozens more.
It isn’t just the story being told on film, though that is compelling enough to warrant loop-watching to be sure. No, it is much more than that.
After watching it repeatedly, each time simultaneously more horrified and inspired, I knew that I needed to share it somehow in some meaningful way, hoping to do it justice and hoping to do some good.
Considering the current conditions in which Chechen gay men are desperately trying to stay alive, this video is compelling, heartbreaking and unexpectedly relevant- even if the short film is almost three years old, but more on that in a minute.
I also think this video is meaningful when viewed from a different perch.
With the two main subjects of this video being two gay men, their story being told against a backdrop of heterosexual pronouns, I think it communicates in a powerful yet subtle way what happens when gay people listen to lyrics. We automatically change gender-specific pronouns to fit our lives and experiences. Without conscious thought, She becomes He and He becomes She.
And what this video truly means to me and why I’m sharing it with you.
Though the song and video is from 2013, the video content and story is even more compelling because of what is happening in Chechnya right now.
“I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.”
Gay men in Chechnya are currently being rounded up, detained, tortured and in some cases, forcibly disappeared by Chechen authorities. Those that are not disappeared by security forces are returned home to their families where they, and their families, are publicly shamed. In turn, these gay men often become victims of “honor killings” at the hands of their kin.
According to Tanya Lokshina, the Russia Program Director for the Human Rights Watch,
“Since the end of February, Chechen law enforcement and security officials under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen republic who’s been running Chechnya for about a decade now like his own private fiefdom with the blessing of the Kremlin, have been rounding up gay men as part of an apparent anti-gay purge. A purge which was sanctioned by the Chechen leadership.
Their victims are taken to unlawful detention centers. In those unlawful detention centers, they are are beaten, they are electrocuted and under torture they are forced to provide names of other gay individuals. And that’s how dozens and dozens, presumably over 100 men, were detained. And some of those individuals forcibly disappeared.”
An honor killing, if you aren’t familiar, is the killing of a person by family members, usually due to the belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family, or has violated the principles of a community or a religion, usually for reasons such as refusing to enter an arranged marriage, being in a relationship that is disapproved by their family, having sex outside marriage, becoming the victim of rape, dressing in ways which are deemed inappropriate, engaging in non-heterosexual relations or renouncing a faith.
Reports first surfaced in the spring of 2017 and were first reported by by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and subsequently corroborated by the Human Rights Watch among others. These actions are purely illegal and, in any context that I can think of, immoral.
The torture methods include duct tape, blindfolds, electric shock and forcing the detainees to beat each other hundreds of times. While being held captive, officials are demanding names of other gay men. Many are finding unimaginable courage and refusing to cooperate, despite the escalating torture that is sure to follow. Others, unable to withstand the physical and emotional abuse and what must be a paralyzing fear, succumb and provide names, any name, to make it stop.
Neither decision by tortured detainees should be praised nor judged harshly, for these men are all victims living in an extreme survival mode. I’ve lived in survival mode for most of my adult life, and one of the lessons I’ve learned is that you make powerful decisions just trying to survive. To the outsider or someone who has never lived in survival mode, some decisions by survivors may be questionable, but fuck them. They aren’t living your nightmare.
The Chechen government officially denies these reports because, well, they deny the very existence of gay men in Chechnya in the first place. How can you round up, detain, torture and disappear people who don’t exist in the first place?
So What Now?
“Only then am I human. Only then am I clean.”
I honestly don’t know. There are no easy solutions.
Writ large, the mainstream American press is not covering this torture and extermination of Chechen gay men. The queer press is covering the story but some decent national coverage by the larger mainstream media would certainly be a good starting point.
Am I surprised by this lack of interest by American media. No, not even for a second.
For fuck sake, this wouldn’t be the first time that the American press, and the general public for that matter, didn’t think the decimation of gay men was newsworthy or important enough to warrant, in the most socially progressive circles, a casual aside, tossed between sips of Chardonnay at smart dinner parties. Remember the AIDS crisis in the 80s and early 90s when gay men were dying in scores and no one said or did anything?
No? That’s ok. Gay men and their lesbian sisters-in-arms do.
Sharing this post may go a long way towards increasing awareness among good people who do care but who do not know about these atrocities. Reading this may inspire them to learn more and begin a conversation, whether on social media or in person with other like-minded (or not) people.
Share news articles on social media. Again, awareness is key.
Personally, I’ll keep finding inspiration in art, specifically street art, and my deaf dog Edison. You can follow along here or on social media to see what we find and how street art and graffiti motivate us everyday.
Now it’s Your Turn! Share your feelings of thoughts about the Hozier video in a comment below!
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