“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 traumatized,” 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 fueled 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.
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