At the GALAS ceremony in Dublin’s Mansion House, as Managing Editor of GCN, Lisa Connell, stood on stage and began to read the introduction to the Person of the Year Award, I scanned the crowds, trying to find Evgeny Shtorn’s table.
Working for GCN, I obviously had insider knowledge on who the recipients of the awards would be before the results were read aloud by the glittering co-hosts, Anne Doyle and James Kavanagh. But while the vast majority of nominees assembled had advance warning to get gussied-up and spend some time preparing a little speech just in case they would be taking a trip to the podium, the Person of the Year didn’t have a clue.
There were no nominees announced before the big night. The recipient would find out in the moment, along with everyone else assembled, and Evgeny, the activist, advocate and beloved member of the LGBT+ community, was about to hear his name read out for an award in tribute to his determined and unyielding battle for equal rights for all.
Speaking to Evgeny after the GALAS, he shared his complete innocence of what was to come. One of the NXF board members, Steve Jacques, had, in advance of the ceremony, checked with Evgeny quite a few times to make sure he was coming to the GALAS. “I thought he was just being nice,” shared Evgeny charmingly. It was only at the midway point of Connell’s introduction that the reality of what was happening hit Evgeny in a weird mixture of shock and gratitude.
It would be a shame not to include that wonderful and concise introduction. You can imagine for yourself, as you read, the point where Shtorn began to realise it was speaking about him.
Here are Lisa Connell’s words: “The Person of the Year award exists to honour an LGBT+ individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the Irish LGBT+ community in the last 24 months. Their contribution has enhanced understanding, provoked thought and reflection about where we are as a community and has deepened our understanding of the experiences of LGBT+ people who have been forced to leave their own countries and claim asylum in Ireland.
“Shamefully when they reach our shores, they are forced into a coercive and dehumanising process called Direct Provision. People in this situation wait years for their asylum application to be processed while losing their professional skills and essentially being institutionalised, alienated and segregated from the rest of Irish society.
“Our Person of the Year this year is an LGBT+ activist, organiser, and researcher from Russia. In 2018, he was forced to leave Russia and claim international protection here in Ireland. Before he was forced to leave, he worked at the Centre for Independent Social Research, a think tank which provides sociological research in areas that are not covered by official Russian academia, like LGBT+ studies or studies of racism.
“Since he arrived in Ireland 18 months ago, he has used his voice and lived experience in the Direct Provision system to shine a light on the degrading and shameful process, calling for its abolition and highlighting the additional barriers that LGBT+ asylum seekers face.
“I’ve heard our Person of the Year describe to the New Yorker that as a stateless person with a nullified belonging, his only diaspora is his queer diaspora.
“Well, my friend, we welcome you to our Irish LGBT+ community and thank you for all you do to make the world better for queer people. I’m honoured and proud to announce Evgeny Shtorn as the GALAS Person of the Year.”
The room erupted.
Fantastic to see brilliant activist & researcher Evgeny Shtorn receive ‘Person of the Year’ award @TheGalas with a rafter-lifting speech! #EndDirectProvision @GCNmag #LGBT @nxfie pic.twitter.com/3EBUl1HRMJ
— Ailbhe Smyth (@ailbhes) February 9, 2020
The cheers that filled the Mansion House were a clear reflection of the high regard and affection Evgeny is held in by our community. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, or for anyone who was in any doubt of how deserved the award was, Evgeny’s impassioned acceptance speech would soon put paid to dissent.
Obviously stunned and understandably emotional, he made his way to the stage. He embraced Connell and then approached the microphone. One would be forgiven for fumbling words or mumbling a few quick thank-yous in light of accepting an award you didn’t even know you were in the running for, but that’s not what happened here. If you haven’t seen it already, I encourage you to visit the GCN website and see the recorded speech to understand its power.
Shtorn began to speak, and, midway through, his passion took over, his thanks evolving into a demand for change. He shared, “I think I wouldn’t be here without acknowledging it’s not even the beginning. We will arrive to the beginning hopefully soon, but there are thousands of people in this small island who right now need our support, need our help, need our consciousness.
“Whatever we can do, if we can vote, if we can stand up for them… They need to travel to Poland to do their top surgery, they are living in Direct Provision, enough is enough, we will not be proud of ourselves if we forget about them. We have no right to be proud.
“This is about them, about each single person in Direct Provision who is now ashamed of being gay or lesbian, trying to find support from the country who incarcerated them. End Direct Provision… These people did no harm to anyone, they just asked for help. No one will ever give me back those 19 months that I spent in that system.
“So thank you very much, but I want this to be just the beginning of a struggle for the better Ireland that we all deserve.”
— Gay Community News (@GCNmag) February 12, 2020
If it wasn’t for the passion with which Evgeny delivered his essential message, there would have been a chance it could be drowned out by the cheers from all present. Those cheers weren’t just for him, they were for his message.
Only last month, before the GALAS, Evgeny wrote a piece for GCN on the Direct Provision system in an edition of the magazine which focused on the Past, Present and Future of issues still facing the community. It was a stirring read which pulsed with frustration on the lack of forward movement for change. It is especially timely considering the recent elections.
To quote Evgeny’s piece, “Direct Provision transforms Ireland into a place of traumatic experience for those who came here seeking sanctuary and protection, but received years of indecision, it is a constant headache that never ends. But Direct Provision is not exclusively about those who ended up living in it. From my point of view, it is primarily about public resources and, at the end of the day, a concept of power – politicians facilitate the abuse of the most vulnerable people when they distribute public money to benefit private companies rather than think about how to protect human rights. Protecting people from life-threatening circumstances is not a business and it should not be about money.”
The article continued, “The system is essentially a battle for the future of an Ireland that could either be an island of mutual support, equality and inclusion, or a fortress for those who want to live better than others.”
Soon after arriving in Ireland, Evgeny himself was interviewed by GCN about his own experiences in the wretched system. His words expressed the emotional and mental destruction wrought on those who are living in what many have described as the equivalent of an open-air prison; “I see a lot of young people who are really deteriorating there. They don’t do anything, they can’t study or work, they sleep all day or sit on their phones, they are not allowed to cook for themselves, or wash a dish even. They become completely degraded to just basic needs.”
#GCNmag’s March Issue is out! Inside: #GALAS2020, Person of the Year Evgeny Shtorn on #activism, #politics and #DirectProvision, 40 years of the @nxfie & much more! Cover by Babs Daly. Pick up a copy, download the app or read online: https://t.co/aZV1cen6Ph pic.twitter.com/ct7DNAMhpL
— Gay Community News (@GCNmag) February 21, 2020
Is that something that Ireland would be proud to have continue year after year? One would think with the horrors of innocents institutionalised still rearing out from the murk, with our rage over Bessborough and the laundries and other vile places of similar ilk still necessary, we would be absolutely loathe to allow complacency to attach our national name to Direct Provision. Especially as LGBT+ folk, we know only too well how it feels to be oppressed, if not directly, then by the weight of history.
Having had time to reflect on the award, I asked Evgeny if he would like to add to the message he delivered on the night. With insight and clarity, he pinpointed why we, as a community, should care more about injustice; “Even if I wasn’t ready for the speech, I hope my message was very clear: as LGBT+ people, as LGBT+ communities, we cannot pretend to be not political. It is as a community we are inherently political because we are always on the front line of the human rights struggles. Every conservative regime targets us first of all: whether it is Russia, Poland, Brazil or Brunei. We cannot stay indifferent when our mates are under attack or being neglected by the Government. We cannot pretend that everything is okay if community centres like Teach Solais are denied state support, transgender people have to travel abroad for surgery, our siblings live on the streets or in Direct Provision. We are political because we are not a majority. Let’s never forget it!”
And that is why, if more proof were needed that Evgeny is a fitting GALAS Person of the Year and that he should be celebrated as the force for positive change he is – a person for the ages, not just the year.
This story originally appeared in GCN Issue 363 released March 2020. You can read more here.
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