In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, homosexuality is still a crime punishable by a prison sentence. It’s not against the law in Tajikistan, but LGBT people have no legal protections and are sometimes subjected to psychiatric treatment. Gay people in those countries often choose to move overseas if they can, live in secrecy at their own risk of exposure, or live double lives. Voicing any support for them is dangerous, too.
In two other countries, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the climate for LGBT people is less repressive. There are strong grassroots advocacy organizations, and there are safe spaces where people can gather and socialize. Some openly speak out about their identities and rally for their rights, but social stigma, homophobia, and harassment are widespread in these conservative, predominantly Muslim societies.
In a live discussion on June 9 hosted by RFE/RL, I spoke with Amir Mukambetov, former head of community empowerment at the LGBT rights organization Kyrgyz Indigo, and Sultana Kali, a trans activist from Kazakhstan, about their personal experiences of growing up feeling different, finding their path to activism, and the woes and achievements of their communities.
We also heard Dastan Kasmamytov, a gay activist from Kyrgyzstan, talk about his campaign to increase the visibility of queer people in Central Asia by raising a rainbow flag on the world’s highest peaks.
Amir Mukambetov (Kyrgyzstan): “I don’t really see hatred toward LGBT people because we know that there are words in Kyrgyz [language] for queer people like, for example, ‘kumsa.’ So it means that queer people always existed in our history. That’s why I never felt, especially in my childhood, any hatred from adults. It was mostly from my peers. Other children bullied me. So it makes me think that the society in general is neutral. It is more of a taboo than hate. What I can say is that those in power have been exploiting the LGBT topic, politicizing it, and using it to distract the attention from real problems: economic, political, social.”
Sultana Kali (Kazakhstan): “The problem is that you can only change your ID after having gender confirmation surgery, which includes sterilization. We are trying to communicate and share the experience of those countries where surgery is not necessary for changing your ID. Not all trans people want to have surgeries. Not all trans people want to have hormone replacement therapy. It’s one of the biggest issues in Kazakhstan because people can’t afford a surgery, they can’t afford spending 30 days in a psychiatric institution, and as a consequence can’t get their documents. They can’t really work. They face a lot of struggles within any social area where you need services.”
Dastan Kasmamytov (Kyrgyzstan): “I was doing a lot of activist work, in a traditional sense. But I felt it was not enough for our movement. I felt like we focused a lot on the problems we have. It reflected our lives full of violence, hate, and discrimination. But despite all of this, I wanted to show that we as communities can achieve something and do cool things. That’s how I came up with an idea of Pink Summits. We are queer mountaineers and we are now trying to ascend the highest mountains in each country with LGBT symbols. We’ve climbed several mountains already, including Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain of Europe and Russia, in the Caucasus. You can imagine how difficult the situation is for LGBT there. So symbolically, for me it was very important to wave a rainbow flag in the most homophobic part of homophobic Russia.”
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