Homosexuality in Central Asia: A problem of social mentality?

Members of the LGBTQ community throughout Central Asia suffer unimaginable hardships. Each day they are forced to decide between living openly, which could lead to punishment and death under their oppressive regimes or hiding their sexuality and living discreetly. They are ostracized from society and compelled to live in its peripherals should they reveal their sexualities. For most, this is not a difficult choice—they begrudgingly mask their identities and live with their secret. Being relegated to the shadows has many consequences on their personal lives and health. With no social protections from the government, gay individuals are subject to the coercion of corrupt institutions and have limited allies to hear their grievances.

All governments in Central Asia have condemned the gay community, either verbally or legislatively, because they view homosexuality as a perversion of social norms and their country’s mentality. Turkmenistan’s government believes that homosexuality “contradicts Turkmen culture and the Turkmen mindset” and refuses to change Article 135 of its criminal code, which makes homosexuality illegal. Similarly in Uzbekistan, homosexuality is illegal under Article 120 of the criminal code.

There have been many human rights improvements in Uzbekistan, including religious freedoms and reduced forced labor practices due to the initiatives under President Mirziyoyev; however, gay rights are another matter. The gay community has not seen any living improvements or added legal protections, as Uzbekistan continually condemns them. During a state TV broadcast, former President Karimov said homosexuality is “vulgar culture.” In 2018, Deputy Minister for Justice told reporters that LGBTQ rights “are not topical” for Uzbek society, meaning discussing the LGBTQ community is not an important matter for Uzbek government or society.

More recently in 2019, audio leaked from the mayor of Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, where he is heard threatening to make journalists “social outcasts by telling people they are gay” for refusing to cooperate with his demands. This is especially revealing in light of Uzbekistan’s election to the United Nations Human Rights Council for 2021-2023. It is time for Uzbekistan to be held culpable for its lack of rights and protections for its gay community; more broadly, as Central Asia begins to unite regionally, it is imperative that all nations are held accountable and bring better conditions for their gay communities.

The policies of Central Asia closely mirror those of Moscow. After Russia passed legislation outlawing depictions of gay life—any symbols, photos, or information that show gay individuals or couples—Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan both have tried to pass similar laws. Although neither law has officially passed, the political discussions arising from its consideration have reinforced homophobic attitudes in their societies. In Kazakhstan, government officials referred to gay individuals as “criminals against humanity” and against the “national mentality.” In Kyrgyzstan in 2019, activists participated in a gay pride march, but were met with harassment, physical violence, and intimidation by the government and counter protestors alike. Rather than protecting gay citizens, one Kyrgyz government official claimed, “Kyrgyzstan will become a ‘Gayistan.’” This fear reflects the hostility gay people face not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in all Central Asian countries.

One story from Tajikistan exemplifies this hostility. Shuhab, who grew up in Khujand, Tajikistan, vividly recalls the day he knew he was no longer welcome in his country—“I was walking down the street and suddenly, a man pushed me to the ground. I was scared, but also furious. I was completely caught off guard; however, I immediately realized the seriousness of the situation when two other men knelt down and I saw they were law enforcement officers. They picked me off the ground and revealed to me my crime—I had sexual relations with a man.”

“They informed me they had been watching me for a few days and saw me kiss him. This was in 2017, but I vividly remember how one of the law enforcement officers spit on me and told me I was an abomination to our homeland. As I cried, he continued by telling me all the ways I was a shame for my parents and that I was going against the mindset of all Tajiks. It has been a few years since that ordeal, and I now live in Germany. I really want to return to Tajikistan, but the words of that officer have always remained with me—until the mindset of Tajiks can be changed, I will always be an outsider. I miss my country, but I will never change the mindset of my soul.”

Shuhab was one of the hundreds of gay individuals who Tajik law enforcement officers put on a registry monitoring the gay community, purportedly to contain sexually transmitted diseases, which Tajikistan’s government believes the gay community poses the greatest risk of spreading. How the government truly uses this list is yet to be seen. Nonetheless, it is obvious that individuals like Shuhab are targeted because of widespread homophobia, which is instilled in the Tajik mindset because of religious disapproval and the inherited Soviet disdain for the gay community.

Changing a country’s mindset is challenging, let alone an entire region’s. It is evident that homosexuality contradicts and offends the mindset of many Central Asians who are raised on very conservative and traditional values. As such, the only way for the gay community to live freely is for Central Asian governments to accept and offer them the same protections as other citizens. LGBTQ rights do not have to be at odds with the Central Asian mindset—traditional values can still be maintained, while allowing for greater visibility and rights for the gay community. If the leaders are convinced that protecting gay rights is necessary, they will finally be able to leave the shadows.

All reforms in Central Asia start with the government and trickle down to society. Greater visibility is one way to accomplish this. Since the media across Central Asia is largely controlled by its respective government, they should be permitted to broadcast the stories of members of the gay community, as this normalization can help lead to acceptance. In addition, Western democracies should place greater pressure on the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to decriminalize homosexuality, as they are the only two countries in Central Asia where it remains criminalized. These same countries should be held responsible for failing to investigate crimes against the gay community as well. If the government addresses the plight of the gay community, others in society will begin to do the same.

Finally, the governments should offer resources to organizations that provide services to the LGBTQ community in an effort to address their grievances. These suggestions will go a long way in bettering the conditions and acceptance of the gay community, so these individuals can live freely. Changing the mindset of Central Asia does not mean changing the customs and traditions of society; instead, it simply means finding a place for the gay community to live in harmony with the rest of society.

*To read more personal stories, like Shuhab’s above, please check out Homosexuality in Central Asia: Stories of Hardship and Hope, which will be released later this year. The stories in the book are true personal narratives collected from the region. The voices of the gay community in Central Asia are rarely heard, but when they are, they demonstrate the need for greater attention and dedication to help improve their conditions.

The author would like to thank Michael Tannous for his help with grammar editing

Ryan Schweitzer

Ryan Schweitzer is a graduate of Columbia University and an alumni of the Fulbright program in Uzbekistan. His research interests include security, identity formation, and nationalism in Central Asia

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Blue Domes

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