Kyrgyzstan’s Anti-Gay Law Will Likely Pass Next Month, But Has Already Led to Violence

Although most Americans couldn’t locate Kyrgyzstan on a map, life for LGBT people there is no joke—and is about to get worse.

Next month, the Kyrgyz parliament will vote on a homophobic bill modeled after—but even harsher than—Russia’s infamous “anti-propaganda” law. If it passes, it will virtually outlaw public LGBT life in Kyrgyzstan, creating calamitous effects on the already besieged LGBT population of this country of just under 6 million.

It’s likely that the bill will pass, as it breezed through its first reading on a vote of 79 to 7, and its second on a vote of 90 to 2. (According to Kyrgyz law, a bill must pass three readings before it goes to the president for signature.) President Almazbek Atrambayev is likely to sign the bill, given that increasingly close relations with Russia have been a hallmark of Kyrgyz politics in recent years.

According to international human-rights watchdog Human Rights First, the bill would “ban the existence of LGBT organizations, shutter gay clubs, and most notably, could result in one-year prison sentences for those found guilty of propagating non-traditional sexual relations.”

Here, the Kyrgyz bill has one-upped its Russian antecedent, which didn’t include the possibility of jail time. Indeed, the Kyrgyz bill would criminalize all “public expression and events that contain information about ‘non-traditional sexual relations.’” Effectively, the law would curtail all public LGBT life in Kyrgyzstan.

The bill is so draconian that this past June, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Justice went so far as to recommend that it be withdrawn from Parliament, as it violates the Kyrgyz Constitution, which protects freedom of expression and assembly.

The Parliament, however, disregarded this recommendation. One MP, Baktybek Kalmamatov, was quoted as saying, “I loathe [LGBTQ people], they should not eat in the same places we eat at, [or] sit where we rest.”

Aizhan Kadralieva is an advocate with Labrys, a Kyrgyz LGBT-rights organization. She says this law, which classifies all gay life and organizing as “propaganda,” is but the most recent attempt by emerging “pseudo-nationalist groups” to portray LGBT people as being intrinsically against Kyrgyz traditions, and (in a throwback to 1970s America) as recruiting citizens to take part.

The proposed law, however, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Even before the bill was introduced, state-sanctioned violence against LGBT people was widespread. Kyrgyzstan decriminalized homosexuality in 1998, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and today, it remains the only democracy in Central Asia. Yet that hasn’t meant much for its queer community. Needless to say, there are no anti-discrimination laws or officially recognized same-sex relationships, and there is no way to change your sex or gender on official records.

More importantly, violence and anti-LGBT animus is longstanding and ubiquitous. Seven years ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on Kyrgystan, entitled “These Everyday Humiliations,” which chronicled violence against lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender men. The report found that “violence, rape, psychological abuse, confinement and stigmatization” were widespread and rarely reported or prosecuted. It quoted an official with the Ministry of the Interior saying that he too would beat his son were he gay, and that “you will have to keep hiding in basements with all your business.”

Jessica Stern, the author of that report, is now the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). Stern told The Daily Beast that, in the subsequent years, “the state has continued to abdicate its responsibility to protect” its LGBT citizens, despite “years of data that present a very compelling case that law and policy need to change.”

Last year, HRW followed up its previous report with a new one, entitled “They Said We Deserved This,” which found a “range of abuses by police, including physical, sexual, and psychological violence, as well as extortion and arbitrary detention.” This abuse included “rape, group rape, [and] attempts to insert a stick, hammer, or electric shock device inside the victim’s anus.” As of the time of the report, HRW was unaware of a single case in which an officer had been held accountable for their actions.

Recently, the proposed new law seems to have driven an increase in the already high level of anti-LGBT violence. Kyle Knight, a researcher in the LGBT-rights program at HRW, said that “despite the courageous work by human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan, the situation for LGBT people continues to come under regular threat.”

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In April of this year, Labrys had their offices firebombed, an event they saw as directly linked to the introduction of the proposed law. Kadralieva, the advocate at Labrys, said they hadn’t reported the incident because they were afraid the police would use it as an excuse to “check everyone who was in our office,” which would expose the Labrys’ membership to further police harassment, abuse and extortion.

One month later, Labrys was attacked again during a public event recognizing the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. When police arrived on the scene, they detained Labrys members for over five hours, during which time they were abused, denied food, water or medicine, and (in some cases) had the police demand to see their genitals.

The new anti-propaganda bill would only make matters worse. Should it pass, Kyrgyz LGBT people will be denied the chance to speak publicly about the violence they experience—let alone advocate for human rights.

Moreover, even more than the legal provisions themselves, the state will place its imprimatur on the view that LGBT people are “other” and present a threat to Kyrgyz values. This will likely encourage more violence, which, thanks to the new law, cannot be reported or organized against.

Activists in Kyrgyzstan have called on the international community to bring pressure on both the Kyrgyz government and governments around the world that are allied with, trade with, enable, or support Kyrgyzstan.

While most Americans probably couldn’t locate Kyrgyzstan on a map, it is already closely interwoven with Western and U.S. interests.

For example, Knight, of Human Rights Watch, pointed out that the U.S. works with a wide range of international organizations that could pressure the Kyrgyz government on LGBT issues. The World Bank, for example, ”has donated nearly $350 million to Kyrgyzstan” over the years, and should be urged to “be consistent with its past condemnation of anti-LGBT laws in other parts of the world.”

At the very least, Kyrgyzstan’s human-rights activists, now living under constant threat of personal violence, have urged that we in the West get over our ignorance (and occasional mockery) of Central Asian republics and pay attention to their struggle. If nothing else, such attention can help keep them safe.

The question is, as Kyrgyzstan’s LGBT community gets firebombed, attacked, and abused, will anyone outside the country be watching?