Some people want to organize the world according to their own longing for order and their own definition of purity, as if there is only one way of expressing love, one way to live, one single way of forming a family - just one way of being human. Some people assume it to be their right to be violent towards others, believing that only one right exists, only one thought is acceptable, only one opinion, one belief, and only one sexual identity. This is inhumane. It is cruel, it is unintelligent and it is also contrary to universal human rights. In this edition of PEN/Opp, Swedish PEN touches upon this painful reality.
We are proud to present some of today’s courageous, angry and loving voices such as Max Lobe, a celebrated writer from Cameroon, living in Switzerland; Romeos Oriogun, a much loved award-winning poet from Nigeria; Dr Iman Al-Ghafari, from Syria but who sees her homeland in the heart of a woman. We have collaborated with the Jordanian online magazine "My.Kali", which defines its profile as "LGTBQIA-inclusive". A magazine that is constantly blocked by the Jordanian authorities. Through this collaboration we are gaining insight into what it's like to be queer and Arabic at the same time. And we publish texts by Algerian author Anouar Rahmani. He is threatened with imprisonment for insulting Islam in his novel Jibril's Hallucination - a crime that can incarcerate him for five years.
Earlier this year, the Russian filmmaker Anton Yarush´s film "Closeness" was selected to compete at the Cannes Film Festival. On November 15th, on Imprisoned Writer's Day, he came to Stockholm to speak in front of a large audience about his work and the situation for LGBT issues in Russia and in the former Soviet Union. He cried when he held the speech and so did we who listened to it.
It has now been four years since Russia approved the law prohibiting so-called ‘propaganda’ aimed at minors concerning "non-traditional sexual relations". This law has sanctioned hatred, threats and discrimination against homosexuals and made it very difficult to live openly with an LGBT identity.
In Chechnya, not only are gay men persecuted by the police - placed under surveillance, arrested, and beaten because of their sexual identity - they are also held for a long time in secret prisons where they are tortured for information on other gays. They are also systematically exposed to honour killings. The official position is that there are no gay men in Chechnya.
Leila, who calls herself “Chechnya's first transsexual woman”, has survived to testify to the persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya. In an interview published in The Moscow Times from May 2017, she tells the story of how her parents were visited by a man who informed them that unless they killed her to save their family honour, someone else would. Her uncle then hired a hitman who tracked her down in Moscow and stabbed her twice in the chest. She survived, but when she contacted the police they only threatened to bring her back to her parents. With the help of human rights activists, she managed to get to the United States, where she is currently living.
The number of so-called honour killings in Chechnya is impossible to calculate, but there are fifteen documented cases where prisoners who were returned by the police to their families disappeared without a trace. In his speech in Stockholm, the filmmaker Anton Yarush described a case where a lesbian woman repeatedly failed to flee the country. She was first forcibly placed in a psychiatric clinic, then confined in her parents' home, where she was systematically beaten by her brother. She made another attempt to leave the country but failed again and was returned to her parents. A week later she was dead, probably by poison. Anton Yarush told us that the situation in the Caucasus is extremely difficult for women in general, and for gay women in particular:
“They have no voice and, due to the traditions and cultural specifics of the region, no means of making themselves heard. Many things are forbidden to them, and they are more frequently the victims of 'honour killings'. Reports have surfaced of the female genital mutilation of girls in Dagestan, a practice that is widespread in the region."
This edition of PEN/Opp contains a lot of pain but also desire, love, longing and lust. It's about being human. About being a loving and beloved person. It is about human rights: International PEN as well as Swedish PEN, and many of the PEN centres around the world, wholeheartedly support all people's right to choose their sexual identity, their right to love who they want without hatred, discrimination, threats or death.
The purpose of PEN/Opp is to provide a platform for texts and images that are otherwise silenced, in order to spread them throughout the world. However, this particular edition probably stands out also because of everything we cannot publish and aren´t able to spread, voices that cannot be heard. Many of the writers we asked to contribute simply haven´t felt safe enough to write or publish - not even anonymously. Persecution because of sexual identity is unbearable and it goes on all over the world. Those who come forward are easily identified. Malevolence - people who hate, and people who denounce others - exist everywhere. We in Swedish PEN pay tribute to all of you who work in seclusion, fighting for your existence and trying to live and survive under very difficult circumstances.
I sometimes quote the Italian writer Primo Levi, who survived a year as a slave in Auschwitz. His words are a constant guide in my work with PEN, and in this case his objective observations seem more acute than ever. He wrote that the human race is capable of constructing an infinite amount of pain, and that “pain is the only force created from nothing, without cost and without effort. It is enough not to see, not to listen, not to act.”
Therefore, we will see. We will listen. We will act.