On Thursday, a federal judge in Chicago granted a transgender Chechen woman in her mid-30s asylum after she escaped persecution from her relatives and other anti-LGBTQ forces in Russia.
The Washington Post calls her “Leyla” and her story illustrates how Chechnya’s ongoing anti-LGBTQ campaign of kidnapping, torture and murder not only affects men, but also women, trans people and queer people living elsewhere in Russia.
Growing up transgender in Chechnya
Leyla grew up in Chechnya when the region was still part of the Soviet Union. As a young child, she sometimes wore dresses in public because the republic was so influenced by Soviet secular culture, and thus people were more tolerant.
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya fought two wars for independence against Russia. During the wars and after, Chechens became much more conservative and culturally Islamic.
Leyla left Chechnya in 2002 and began to understand her gender identity more so in college. After college, she moved to Moscow and began living as a woman.
Chechnya’s reach extends to Moscow
Once in Russia she faced harassment over the fact that her official passport still listed her gender as male. Police officers accused her of being a Chechen militant disguised as a woman and threatened to confiscate her passport and share pictures of it online, effectively making her a target for violent vigilantes.
In 2004, Chechnya’s current leader Ramzan Kadyrov came to power and began ruling the region with his brutal military police. Together they instated a rigid and homophobic interpretation of Islamic cultural values through routine policing, torture and state-run media.
Although Leyla stopped visiting Chechnya and kept minimal contact with her relatives there, one day in 2015 her relatives began harassing her in Moscow. An angry cousin showed up on her doorstep, and when she ran to police, they told her, “Go to gay Europe.”
Barely a week later, an assailant stabbed her in the back while she was removing groceries from her car. The attacker said, “We are so tired of you and your shame,” as she lost consciousness. She suffered a collapsed lung.
When she considered pressing charges, a policeman told her that doing so would require her to return to Chechnya, a place where the judge or police might try to kill her.
A few months later, she claims images of her passport got posted on social media, and Chechnya’s leader allegedly posted her phone number on his Instagram account. She started receiving death threats.
Leyla’s escape to the United States
Finally, she and a friend decided to flee to Mexico City with the hopes of flying to Argentina, but they couldn’t afford the flight. So they had a smuggler drop them off near the United States border.
Soon after crossing the border, they were picked up by a U.S. Border Patrol agent and Leyla said the only English she knew: “Asylum.”
She was sent to an immigration detainment facility with a transgender housing unit in Santa Ana, California. The National Immigrant Justice Center helped her get paroled for a few months. She moved to Chicago and applied for asylum.
While Leyla’s story has a happy ending, she is still dismayed that the United States has done or said little to stop the anti-LGBTQ violence in Chechnya. It’s notable that she has been approved for asylum in the U.S. seeing as the U.S. State Department has reportedly refused to accept other Chechen refugees.
The friend she travelled with is still waiting to hear about their own asylum status.
Featured image by Tonygers via iStock