My trip took me to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and to central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and I’m now in Kyrgyzstan.
Homosexuality was legalized in 1998 in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, then followed Georgia and Azerbaijan in 2000, but is still illegal in Uzbekistan. To be more specific, what the law from the former Soviet Union mentions is anal sexual act between men. Women are not concerned. Today, Only Georgia has a law specificaly banning discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation.
I haven’t visited Turkmenistan nor Tadjikistan, but on the paper the situation is similar to Uzbekistan. I had the chance to meet and chat with local gays in each country I visited and learnt a lot about how things are happening here. To respect their privacy I’ve changed their names here.
In this article, I’m summarizing the current situation in Central Asia,
What are the implications of the law?
In fact people are rarely prosecuted for being homosexual. The police and authorities use the legislation to – at best – keep people silent on the subject, and – at worst – harrass and blackmail individuals, journalists and bloggers.
In countries where freedom of expression is amoung the worst in the world (all lower than 150 in the 2010 Press Freedom index of Reporters Sans Frontieres, except Georgia at rank 99), current legislation is another way to censor and threaten journalists and bloggers. In 2007 Ulugbek Khaidarov, an openly gay Uzbek journalist prosecuted in his country for criticizing the regime on his blog, was granted political asylum in Canada.
The law also prevents any LGBT organization from forming. Nevertheless, the UK website GayTimes reported that a gay group was created in 1993 in Uzbekistan and a website created in 2005, but I could find no trace of such group or website.
Still in Uzbekistan, and according to my gay friend Ruslan in Tashkent, there is a gay club, and men can meet on the main central square at night. He says it’s all pretty safe.
So despite the law gays benefit from a form of tolerance, or indifference, or oblivion… depends how you see it. Ruslan confirms that as long as you are discreet and don’t behave in a way that could be seen provocative or offensive, you can live a perfectly normal life as a gay in Uzbekistan.
I interviewed a senior executive working for an NGO in Kyrgyzstan< He has a long experience and a good knowledge of central Asia qnd told me it’s roughly the same situation in Iran despite the impressive radical death penalty. And the same applies all around the region.
On another hand, despite legilization in Azerbaijan there is no group nor any social place or business. So it’s not just about legislation, but there is something else barring LGBT rights in the region…
What is everyday gay life like?
What is common to all central Asian countries is a social, political, cultural, and religious (mostly muslim) background. The people are not ready to accept homosexuality, and this is no subject for conversation. These societies are very conservative and attached to their traditions and to the concept of family. Mentalities are not about to change. From what I’ve been told, even the young are mostly homophobic. Taunting and bullying of homosexuals if not harrassing is common practice at school.
It’s unthinkable for a man not to marry and raise a family. Even Bahruz, the 26-year old guy I met in Baku, Azerbaijan, says he is going to marry and make a family at some point. This way of thinking was confirmed by Ruslan in Tashkent, who says homosexual men marry and have kids, but have a double life. They also have gay sex as a side dish but sometimes a full-on relationship on the side. The wife knows it, but as long as she has a home, money and is provided for, she ignores it. Homosexuality is just an underground thing.
Sometimes gays live together in a relationship. It’s just to guys sharing a house to the eyes of neighbours and relatives.
I’ve met Arman and Serik, a gay couple in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. They have been together for 15 years, and they recently moved into a new house they bought together. Their parents know about their relationship, and regularly visit the house. During my short stay I had the opportunity to meet Arman’s parents! In appearance, they accept the relationship, and the atmosphere was pretty relaxed. The mum was cooking with her son and son ‘in-law’(!), but the father stayed in the lounge watching TV. Arman says his mum doesn’t really mention homosexuality, and regards Serik just as a friend. Again, somewhere between tolerance and oblivion. Homosexuality remains a serious taboo.
The Wikipedia article on the situation in Kazakhstan sums it up nicely, and is also worth in the rest of central Asia: “The majority regard it as necessary to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity from people in the workplace in order to retain their jobs and avoid hostility from bosses and co-workers. Attempts to report homophobic and transphobic violence to police are often met with resistance and even hostility on the part of law enforcement officers.”
How do gays meet ?
Even if some countries have bars and social places, the Internet remains the main gateway to the underground local gay life… Dating websites such as Planet Romeo are pretty popular. The good side is people have a safe and efficient way to meet, groups can form on Facebook. But the downside, as it is the case in western countries, is that the Internet substitutes real life social places hence preventing their development or even strangling them where they exist.
I visited Mayak, the gay club in Bishkek. It’s located on the central bright and crowded main square, making it a safe place. But there were just a handful of people, and locals say it hardly gets any busier. It’s spacious, has a very decent dancefloor, and very good sound system. The toilets are smelly and repelent, but the whole place is acceptable, and has a great potential. The only thing missing are the gays!
What’s the perpective?
Countries where homosexuality is still illegal, governments and politics are pretty happy with the matter off their hands. They are not ready to put it on the political agenda, also being a major moral embarassement. Moreover these countries are governed by hereditary dictatorships with a practicaly single party political scene. So there’s hardly any chance of evolution in a near future.
But the international community is urging central Asian countries to take a step forward on human rights. On the occasion of the day against homophobia and transphobia in 2012, the US embassy in Bishkek release a statement aknowledging and praising all efforts made for LGBT and humain rights in Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours, and pointing efficiently at other defects, underlining their duties regarding their commitments in the OSCE (Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe).
Such a statement is crucial and should be saluted and supported by more foreign country officials and organizations. These countries want the dollars of help for development (Donors directory website), and all donating organizations have an important role to play by exercising pressure on them.
The starting document is the Statement on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity released by the United Nations Refugee Agency on December 2008 (available here).
In Kyrgyzstan, the LGBT group Labrys formed in 2004 and was officialy registered in February 2006, and here’s their statement: “To improve the quality of life for LGBT people and to achieve visible results in realizing their basic human rights and freedoms through empowerment and development of LGBT communities“. They are the only official and active-looking group I could find in the region. They have a facebook page and profile but their official website seemed to have been abandoned (the labrys.kg domain name just expired in July 2012). At time of writing, I was still waiting for them to grant me an interview.
I made friend with a British expat in Bishkek established here 15 years ago. He had reported on the situation on his blog in 2010, and I’m very much counting on him to follow up on the evolution.
I interviewed Ruslan in Tashkent. This is not his real name, as this 23-year old lad wished to remain anonymous. He was very nice to explain how is life is as a gay in Uzbekistan. Here’s an edited version of our conversation, while we were having tea in his home…