In a region widely criticized for its human rights record, a handful of activists in Kyrgyzstan are attempting to enact significant reforms in how the state defends transgender individuals from harassment. Seizing on what they say is a liberal intermission in Kyrgyzstan’s transition from autocracy to parliamentary democracy – before elections this fall – they are fighting for the right to change the gender markers in their government-issued documents.
“Transgender individuals in Kyrgyzstan often struggle to find employment; many are unable to open bank accounts or sign legal documents because their appearances don’t match the gender in their passports,” says Dahn Pak, a transgender man.
Experts on LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) issues say a clear procedural framework to change a person’s gender on paper would be the first step in ending the discrimination.
A Ministry of Health working group composed of legal and medical experts along with LGBT activists has discussed the changes since 2007.
Though, legally, Kyrgyz citizens have the right to change their sexual identification, “there are no mechanisms for implementation of this law. The lack of relevant documents that define this process is a barrier to exercise this right,” says Erik Iriskulbekov, a lawyer at the Adilet Legal Clinic in Bishkek and member of the Ministry of Health’s working group.
Under existing legislation, transgender individuals are required to submit a medical form to their local civil registry certifying them as “transsexuals” in order to change their documents. But the form in question does not exist, activists complain. The process thus leaves their gender ambiguous.
“One person denied the right to change his documents was told in court, ‘No penis, No passport,’ and the judge struck his gavel. They said this in court!” exclaims Akram Kubanychbek, a member of the Ministry of Health’s working group. Kubanychbek is a transgender man who changed his passport’s gender marker with the help of an inexperienced yet compassionate bureaucrat.
At a Geneva meeting in early May, the United Nations Human Rights Council provided recommendations to improve women’s rights, including provisions to end the discrimination of women based on sexual orientation. Kyrgyz government representatives at the meeting, known in UN parlance as a Universal Periodic Review, accepted the recommendations.
The Health Ministry working group is now waiting for the interim government to implement the recommendations. The change is not required to go before a parliamentary vote.
Anna Kirey, an expert on LGBT rights in the former Soviet Union, is hopeful that the interim government’s acceptance of the UN recommendations is a move forward in solidifying the rights of transgender people. She says she is surprised the new government is even considering the modified legislation.
“It’s unusual for a Central Asian country to accept any [recommended approaches] to sexual orientation,” Kirey says. “I feel the new government is going to give us a lot more space for bringing LGBT issues into a more mainstream human rights agenda.” [Anna Kirey formerly worked as a writer for EurasiaNet.org.]
But conservative public perceptions toward the LGBT community may be scaring the new government away from legislating change. The hesitation is fueled by concerns over public backlash and rampant homophobia, says one activist who asked not to be identified. Moreover, activists and legal experts remain skeptical of the interim government’s ability to enact change on such a sensitive political issue given the breadth of other urgent problems facing the country.
The government is too weak, says Iriskulbekov, the human rights lawyer.
“We are kind of lost. That is the general feeling,” says Syinat Sultanalieva, director of Labrys, a Bishkek-based non-profit LGBT advocacy group. “Before, I was sure we would get this done. We had strong mechanisms for influence within the government – basically we knew our so-called enemy. But this time it is very unclear. Even though the interim government is more liberal, it doesn’t mean much because unfortunately they are not the legitimate government,” she said before a June 27 referendum where Kyrgyz voters accepted the government of Roza Otunbayeva. A new parliament is expected to convene in the fall.
Nevertheless, now is the time to press for reform, says Alex Mamytov, a project coordinator at the Youth Human Rights Group and a transgender man.
“One of the rules of advocacy is that if there is change in the government, you have the best shot at lobbying to make positive changes in the first two or three months. That is what we want to do,” Mamytov tells EurasiaNet.org.
Dalton Bennett is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek.