The Kyrgyz capital was long a liberal beacon in Central Asia until a ban on LGBT propaganda. With attacks and rapes on the rise, the community is scared
Anara had never been in love before. Pacing nervously outside the house of the girl she’d just started seeing, overwhelmed by emotions, she forgot the need for caution.
Dating a member of the same sex can be dangerous in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek. Their budding relationship was already the subject of whisper and rumour.
Anara waited on that crisp winter’s afternoon for what felt like hours, but her date never emerged from the dour apartment block. A group of men who had been watching Anara from a neighbouring building invited the teenager inside for a cup of tea.
“They waited for me to finish my drink, then all eight of the men raped me,” she says, avoiding all eye contact. “It was a corrective gang rape – they were trying to fix me.”
Anara is not the only gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person to fall victim of hate crime in Kyrgyzstan.
A recent survey by the LGBT organisation Kyrgyz Indigo found that 84% of respondents had experienced physical violence, while 35% had been victims of sexual violence.
This was not always the case in Bishkek. With its dedicated gay clubs and largely indifferent population, the capital once served as a relatively safe haven for Kyrgyzstan’s LGBT community.
But in 2014, the government launched a series of legal reforms that marked a dramatic shift away from the western values that had earned Bishkek a reputation as Central Asia’s most socially liberal city.
In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, homosexual conduct is criminalised, carrying a maximum prison sentence of two and three years respectively. With it goes widespread and deep-rooted homophobia and discrimination, including among law enforcement officials and medical personnel. Turkmen people detained and charged with sodomy are forced to undergo examinations with the purported objective of finding “proof” of homosexual activity.
The situation is not much better in Kazakhstan, where many LGBT people choose to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity for fear of reprisal. In order to change their listed gender on identity documents, transgender people are forced to undergo invasive procedures, including coerced sterilisation.
Bishkek’s liberal attitudes are now under threat. In April last year the law, order and crime-fighting parliamentary committee returned Kyrgyzstan’s anti-LGBT bill for a second reading. Its proposed ban of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” appeared aimed at suppressing information about same-sex relations in Kyrgyzstan.
The bill is still awaiting its third and final reading before being enacted into law, but it emboldened radical nationalist movements such as Kalys and Kyrk Choro, who have adopted violent means to defend an ultraconservative concept of Kyrgyz values.
According to activists at the LGBT organisation Labrys, the political shift and proposed legislation led to a near 300% increase in attacks against LGBT people in the city and forced Bishkek’s gay community into the shadows.
“[This legislation] was the biggest propaganda of them all,” says one activist who, like most of the people interviewed by Guardian Cities, has asked to remain anonymous for fear of attack.
“You could be on public transport and talk about LGBT stuff and nobody would notice because they did not really know what it was,” he adds. “But since the legislation was introduced, a lot of the population knows what the LGBT community is. There is a lot of aggression toward us and we cannot be open in public any more.”