Ticket to heaven: activists pluck LGBT people from danger
LONDON: Bullied and beaten, analysed and abused, Justin Romanov finally accepted his life in Russia was over. Being gay was a dance with death.
"I felt like I had two options: I'm going to live as I am, or I'm going to die. Nothing else is possible ... I cannot hide it. I cannot pretend to be straight," he said.
Aged 18, he escaped to Canada, where he joined a crack team helping lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people flee from countries where homosexuality is banned or violently repressed.
Earlier this year he was involved in the Toronto-based group's successful effort to bring to safety more than 30 Chechens, amid reports of mass arrests and torture of LGBT people in the deeply conservative Russian region.
As a volunteer for the group, Romanov helped them adapt to their new reality, assisting with accommodation, paperwork and bank accounts, as many did not speak English.
"I want to do as much as I can in my power to help other people, particularly from Russia," Romanov, now 22, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
Advocacy group Rainbow Railroad covertly brought the Chechens, most aged between 19 and 25, out of Russia through a network of safehouses after news of mass detention of LGBT people first emerged in April.
Most had to leave in haste, bringing with them nothing more than a backpack or what they were wearing, said Rainbow Railroad's executive director, Kimahli Powell.
"Some people...had never left their home and all of a sudden were leaving for good, so they were pretty traumatised," he said.
The Chechens were among more than 150 LGBT people that the group helped resettle in 2017.
This year was a record year for the group, named in homage to a 19th-century network of safe houses and secret paths used by slaves to escape bondage in the United States, said Powell.
It has so far received more than 1,000 requests for help, twice as many as in 2016.
The boom was fuelled by Chechnya and anti-gay crackdowns in Azerbaijan, Egypt and Indonesia, adding to its traditional work in hotspots such as Jamaica and Uganda, said Powell.
"Unfortunately there seems to be a wave of homophobic backlash," he said during an interview in London.
Homosexuality is outlawed in more than 70 nations and punishable with death in eight, including Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, according to ILGA, an international LGBT rights group.
"Sometimes people are facing imminent danger and need to leave the country," Powell said ahead of speaking at the Thomson Reuters Foundation's annual two-day Trust Conference.
Rainbow Railroad helps them find the best way out, taking care of visas and travel, including a plane ticket.
A TICKET TO HEAVEN
Romanov knows what it means to leave everything behind.
Born in Ulyanovsk, a city 800 kilometres east of Moscow, he came out as gay at the age of 14 - meeting a chilling reception from the local community and his own family.
His father accused him of bringing shame to his house, while his aunt took him to a psychologist to be "cured".
At school he was beaten up and bullied.
Tired of the abuse, he wrote for help to his then-idol: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The letter went unanswered but three months later his parents were called in by local police and told it was in their son's best interest to keep his sexuality under wraps.
Homosexuality is not a crime in Russia but activists say homophobia is rife and a law banning the dissemination of information on LGBT issues to young people has fuelled anti-gay abuse, discrimination and violence.
The government says the legislation is solely designed "to defend morality and children's health" and does not amount to a ban of homosexuality.
Russia ranked as the second worst country in Europe for LGBT people in a 2017 survey by ILGA.
By the time he turned 16, Romanov felt his hometown was no longer safe.
"When I walked on the street with my mum, random people would stop their car and call me 'faggot'," he said.
But leaving home and moving to the capital of Moscow brought no respite from the endless barrage of threats and violence.
Even walking down the street with his boyfriend gave bystanders enough reason to beat them until they drew blood.
The wake-up call came when a gay friend was attacked and died in front of him - Romanov knew the same fate awaited him.
Supported by his mother, who came to accept her son's sexual orientation, Romanov fled to Canada in 2013.
"It felt like I died and went to heaven. I thought it wasn't real," he said, referring to his new life in Toronto.
"Everyone accepts me the way I am. No one cares if I'm gay or straight," he said.
He is now studying to become a human rights lawyer.
"I don't want young Russian people ever to experience what I experienced," he said.