Speaking to our Editor-in-Chief Darren Burn, James Longman from ABC News told Travel Gay about his time as a foreign correspondent, which included his award-winning trip to Chechnya in which he exposed atrocities against gay man whilst also coming out as gay himself to the head of Chechen Police. He also reflects on his time in Beirut and the nuances of being gay in homophobic places. More recently, James has covered the COVID-19 pandemic.
James was in Italy in March 2020, when twelve towns in Lombardy were under lockdown. Naively, we all seemed to think the virus could be contained within one region of Northern Italy. “I was stood on a motorway, live on Good Morning America. If I stood over the line I’d be in the red zone and if I went into the red zone I’d be in quarantine.” Clearly, the highly transmissible virus had already spread far beyond Lombardy.
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In May 2020, James was in Brazil and the impact of COVID was far more visible. “I was standing in a cemetery in Manaus in the Amazon. They were burying people one on top of the other – they didn’t have space to bury all their bodies. I met families that had lost six or seven members.”
Photo: James Longman with his boyfriend Alex Brannan
James has always been relatively open about being gay. “I don’t go everywhere waving a gay flag, but if you look me up on Instagram you’d see that I was gay.” He hopes to marry his long term partner Alex soon, though did say that their original plans for a wedding in Mykonos probably won’t be going ahead because of the cost. “I’ve realised that I would have to sell a kidney to get married in Mykonos!”
James’ experiences in Chechnya are quite well documented. The persecution of gay people under President Ramzan Kadyrov has shocked the world. It’s not that easy to get into Chechnya but he was determined to cover the story. When he managed to gain access to the country, things got heated very quickly. “We met the head of the police force who is under US government sanctions. He has a force of about ten thousand men that are rumored to have carried out acts of torture [against gay men]. We went to his prison one night on the outskirts of Grozny.”
“We’re driving for about 40-minutes to this prison. I wasn’t sure it was a brilliant idea.” James told us that the police chief was full of bravado and had his men lined up outside with guns. When asked about the persecution of LGBT+ people, the head of the police said, “We don’t have gay people in Chechnya.” This is the government line – Kadyrov has said the same thing many times.
James found himself being shown a cell by the head of police. “If they had been holding gay people, they could very well have held them this in this cell at some stage. I had no plans to tell anyone I was gay. I didn’t want to put myself in danger. You shouldn’t really be making [the story] about you anyway. But in that moment, I decided to tell him as I could sense that he liked me as a person.”
“It took a while for him to register through the translator and then he just burst out laughing. I was terrified. My heart was racing so hard I instinctively took his hand and put it on my chest. So I had this weirdly intimate moment with the Chechen police force… touching my chest in a cell in Grozny.” That night, James slept with a chair against the door of his hotel room. The next day, they headed straight back to Moscow.
Photo: James Longman in Chechnya
As a foreign correspondent, James has found himself in many extreme places. He was the BBC’s Beirut correspondent and he covered the war in Syria for ABC. The Middle East is a part of the world he’s long been drawn to: he did his degree in Arabic. The degree led to him living in Syria – Damascus became his favorite city.
We told James not many people would have Damascus at the top of the list, to which he replied: “I think people of our generation think of places like Iraq or Afghanistan [as dangerous] because all you’ve ever known for most of your conscious life is of there being war.”
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But if you take the time I think you’ll find that Damascus is one of the most extraordinary places. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. It has basically every single civilization that has walked the planet [leaving a] mark in some way in that city. It’s amazing.”
As a gay man, it’s clearly tricky living in a country that criminalises homosexuality. That being said, it’s far easier as a foreigner, James says. In many countries, homophobic laws remain on the statute books but they are rarely implemented. Foreign nationals have the advantage of being able to leave at any point. Clearly, if you spend your whole life in a homophobic country, you can’t really hide unless you repress your identity.
James said: “I took Alex – my boyfriend – to Beirut a couple of years ago. He absolutely loved it, but there’s no way I’m going to stand on a street corner and touch his arse or lick his face.” Tying this in with his experience in Grozny and the Chechen policeman: “If in meeting him, in some tiny way I shifted his perception of what it means to be a gay person, who knows! Five or six years from now, he may remember that random journalist who said he was gay. It’s a case of leading by example rather than forcing anything.”
And James is doing just that. In his job he has to visit some of the world’s most dangerous places and recognizes that being gay in those places can be tricky for locals. His advice for those who know they’re gay but are stuck living in some of these countries?
“Safety first, but often the internet is your friend. Reach out to people online because in my experience it’s this online community that helps people immeasurably. Find people online and make friends. The possibilities are endless when you do that.”