Issues of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) rights have been much in the news in the former Soviet Union over the past year. In Russia and Ukraine, proposed legislation criminalizing "homosexual propaganda," or just about any discussion of homosexuality in front of minors, threatens to roll back the boundaries of tolerance for the LGBT community. Will similar measures soon reach Central Asia? EurasiaNet.org spoke to LGBT rights activist Anna Kirey about the situation for LGBT communities in the region.
Eurasianet: Can you please set the scene for what life is like for people who identify as LGBT in Kyrgyzstan, where you started your advocacy work? Hoes does it compare to other countries in Central Asia?
Anna Kirey: Kyrgyzstan is sort of the best practices for a lot of NGO’s dealing with LGBT rights and in general. It’s unstable politically, but through this instability, there’s a lot of room for opportunities. Kyrgyzstan has pretty good legislation on violence against women. Just recently the bride kidnapping sentences have gone up.
I think a lot of it depends on the status that people have. Muslims have a harder time coming out than Christians, we know. Cities are better for LGBT people than rural areas, because you’re more anonymous and the community watches you less.
With regard to other countries, in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan it is criminal for men to have sex with men, so it’s even harder for people there, and there’s even further hiding. […] In Tajikistan it’s much harder to be visible because it’s a more conservative culture. In Kazakhstan, LGBT groups face the same kind of pressure as other civil society groups.
Eurasianet: You have recently counted 12 LGBT or LGBT-related organizations in Kyrgyzstan. What are the issues they are working on?
AK: Some organizations take safer routes: the safest is HIV/AIDS prevention because they provide services not just for LGBT people, but for other groups, so they cannot be targeted. We have some of these providing MSM [men who have sex with men –ed.] services in the [more conservative] south, in Osh.
[At Labrys], from the beginning, we’ve been kind of a service provision organization […], providing people help getting away in cases where their families found out they were LGBT. People have faced beatings, locking up, in some cases lesbian women and transgender folks were raped by family members.
Gay men are also beaten up, but they have more room to leave or move out on their own because they are not expected to live with their families until they are married.
What’s difficult is that in situations of family violence, people won’t want to report it. […] The legislation is really good, but it’s hard for people to do what they see as harm to their families.
Eurasianet: Can you talk about the project you are working on specifically about gay and bisexual men and police violence? You mentioned this is an even greater problem in southern Kyrgyzstan.
AK: In summer and fall 2012 I interviewed 34 gay and bisexual men in four different cities. I heard about everything: extortion, arbitrary detention, beatings, even gang rape sometimes.
[…]Police target gay men who aren’t out because it is very easy to extort money from them. The first thing they’ll ask when they bring someone in is “do your parents know?” For some interviewees [they were stopped] not just once, but repeatedly, in different parts of the city. Police are looking for signs of somebody being gay: it can be a bright shirt, or an earring.
Police are [also] using dating website to create ads. They put a picture of young man, try get as many letters as possible, then once they’ve established a scheme, they’ll ask for money ranging from 500 soms ($12), or $1,000, or even $10,000 in some caes. They really try to get as much as they can.
In terms of what’s happening in the south, in Osh I saw some of very, very recent cases, - like, you could tell that the gay men I interviewed were still in pain - so it seemed to me that there it’s a lot more systematic abuse. Some of my contacts are ethnic Uzbek, and generally the police violence there is rampant and has been well-documented. It’s like a double bind if you are gay and Uzbek.
Eurasianet: What about efforts in Russia and Ukraine to ban so-called “propaganda of homosexuality”? Is something similar happening in Kyrgyzstan?
AK: Some LGBT activists in Kyrgyzstan are very worried that similar legislation will be passed, but I think Kyrgyzstan is too susceptible to international pressure. […] In Kyrgyzstan, even if there was something in the works, it would succumb really quickly to international criticism.
Kyrgyz courts did ban a documentary about gay Muslims in Morocco for being screened on the territory of Kyrgyzstan which is a violation of freedom of assembly. But I think something similar [to Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” law] has higher chances in Kazakhstan, just because Kazakhstan is closer right now to Russia, with the customs union. So we expected it, but it doesn’t seem to be happening [in Kyrgyzstan.]
One thing I am worried about is that as we’re becoming more visible, radical groups will start to take LGBT organizing more seriously, as it happened in Russia and in Ukraine. Though in Ukraine and Russia you have neo-Nazi and nationalist groups, but it’s different in Kyrgyzstan. Nationalism is on the rise in Kyrgyzstan, but I don’t think it could happen in Bishkek because of the ethnic diversity there.
Katya Kumkova is a EurasiaNet staff reporter.