November 4

‘All of us will be victims at some point’: why Bishkek’s only gay club closed


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.”

An anti-LGBT rally in Bishkek, against the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s call on Kyrgyzstan to withdraw its prohibition of ‘propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations’. Photograph: Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty

Against this backdrop of growing hostility, Bishkek’s LGBT community have struggled to find safe places to meet and socialise, with its younger members among those most affected.

“If you have your own place, or can rent an apartment, then it’s still safe to be gay here,” says one businessman, Kyrgyz and gay himself. “But if you are a teenager or a student, then you have to meet people wherever you can – in parks, forests, car parks. And then it’s not going to be safe.”

For a few months earlier this year, an inconspicuous car wash on the outskirts of the city offered the persecuted minority a rare opportunity for solace.

Every weekend scores of young people would knock on an old wooden door beside the empty forecourt, then disappear into the derelict building.

Occasionally a flash of purple light would break through a gap in the curtains, betraying the presence of Bishkek’s last remaining LGBT club night within.

“We decided to start the gay club as we saw the need for a space where the LGBT community felt safe and could really get to know each other,” says a co-founder of the event, who also requested anonymity.

Entrance to their club was dependent on a personal recommendation from one of the night’s regulars. New faces drew suspicion, and for good reason.

The event was forced to vacate its original venue after a mob of 30 men broke into the club and smashed the furniture, injuring some of the bar staff. On another occasion, an assailant hit one of the founders with a bottle.

Now the club has once again been forced to close its doors after the landlord discovered that his car wash was being used to host LGBT events.

“The problem is that people don’t understand what a gay club is,” says one of the co-founders. “They think we are doing something pornographic. But if they came and saw that it is just a normal club, where people dance and drink, then it would be OK.

“We will continue the night if we can find a safe space where we can run a sustainable business,” she adds. “After all, we have a responsibility – we are like mothers to this community.”

In the meantime, Bishkek’s LGBT community has turned to networking apps such as Grindr and Hornet to meet one another in private. The use of modern technology, though, has not eliminated the risk of attack.

In a worrying new trend, homophobic hate gangs and members of the police are using social networks to locate, film and then bribe members of the LGBT community. A number of YouTube videos featuring the desperate pleas of their early victims prove that their threats are not hollow.

LGBT organisations Labrys and Kyrgyz Indigo have set up a Rapid Response Unit offering immediate assistance to members of the community who fall victim to this form of abuse.

Earlier this year, Adilet – the unit’s only volunteer – attended to a group of transgender sex workers who, at the behest of the local police, were interrogated by a live TV crew while drinking in a local bar.

“Everyone has a smart phone, and because this case was broadcast on state TV, they now know they can make money by filming LGBT people and threatening to give their video to the television channels,” he says.

“But not everyone is after money, sometimes people demand sexual favours or even rape their victims using their footage as collateral.”

Asked for comment on these allegations, the Ministry of Internal Affairs did not respond.

Activists hope that the police will not be able to evade their responsibility to protect the LGBT community for much longer. Alongside the Open Society Foundation, Kyrgyz Indigo will soon be proposing new legislation that will render discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity a criminal offence.

But even if successful, these reforms will be too late for Anara who, like many of Bishkek’s persecuted LGBT minority, will carry the trauma of her attack for the rest of her life.

“The effects of that attack run a lot deeper than I first appreciated, but that’s just something we have to deal with if we are gay or transgender,” she says. “All of us will be a victim of rape or attack at some point.”

Anara’s name has been changed to protect her identity

Do you live in one of the Stans cities, or have you spent time there? We’re eager to hear your thoughts and experiences: follow us on Facebook and share stories and pictures using #SecretStans on Twitter and Instagram


Cities, Kyrgyzstan, LGBT rights, South and Central Asia, World news

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