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Prejudic, abuse and fear of attacks keeps LGBT community in shadows.
When Alisher’s father discovered his son was gay, he beat him with an army belt, kept him at home for a month, then sent him from Tajikistan to a religious college in Iran to “knock the nonsense out of him”.
It did not end there. While in Iran, Alisher learned that his father had hired men to beat up his boyfriend, so he fled the college for Russia, where he now works on a market stall.
“My family doesn’t know my whereabouts, but after everything that’s happened to me, I don’t want to go back,” the 23-year-old told IWPR. “I know that my parents and the rest of the family won’t understand me. If I were to return, I would only face hatred and revulsion.”
Alisher’s story may seem extreme, but the homophobic attitudes he faced are not unusual in the Central Asian state of Tajikistan and, to a lesser extent, neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
Gay rights groups and individuals have told IWPR that police harassment and the threat of public beatings in Tajikistan – and rejection and the fear of being fired in Kyrgyzstan – force many gays to remain in the closet or leave their families and migrate to more tolerant countries,.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, there have been some improvements to gay rights in both countries. Homosexuality, which could lead to several years in prison during the Soviet era, has been decriminalised. And in Kyrgyzstan, which is generally more liberal, there are fewer cases of public intimidation and abuse than a decade ago, according to Maxim Bratukhin, head of local gay NGO Pathfinder.
In the capital Bishkek and elsewhere there are about a dozen gay rights organisations, as well as cafes and nightclubs where members of he lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LBGT, communities can gather.
But gay activists say advances have been too slow, particularly in neighbouring Tajikistan, where homophobia is more deeply entrenched.
Kiromidin Gulov runs one of Tajikistan’s only gay rights groups, Equal Opportunities, and said people sometimes attack gays, while even NGOs concerned with human rights show little interest in the issues they face.
His organisation recently held a public event to which it invited a host of NGOs and rights groups, but only two people turned up.
The problem, Tajik activists say, is that the public do not equate gay rights with human rights. Without wider support from NGOs, the media and government, they believe gay rights campaigns are unlikely to work.
Homophobia tends to be more prevalent in the poorer and more conservative south of Kyrgyzstan, though only a tiny fraction of people nationwide live openly gay lives. There are between 18,000 and 36,000 actively gay Kyrgyzstan nationals, according to a 2011 report on HIV by local NGOs and international organisations, but of that number, only 20 in Bishkek and five elsewhere had told their families and colleagues.
One 34-year-old lesbian from Talas, a town in northern Kyrgyzstan, told IWPR that she planned to emigrate this spring due to the prevailing prejudices.
The widowed mother of two has been planning to move since 2006, when she attended an LGBT parade in Prague and realised how liberated other countries could be.
“I felt free amongst others who were like me. No one was pointing the finger at me. There [homosexuality] is normal,” she recalled of the Czech event. “[In Kyrgyzstan] you live in constant fear – it’s a very unpleasant situation…. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like that.”
At 18, she was a victim of “bride kidnapping” – abducted and pressured into marriage.
“I’d always known I was lesbian, but I couldn’t do anything about it as I lived in a small village where everyone knows everyone else,” she said. Once married, she said, “It was very difficult; I was merely existing.”
Although she does not believe people would attack her if her orientation became known, she says, “I still don’t feel secure and I have to ensure no one finds out – not friends, not relatives, not acquaintances.”
She predicts, “I don’t think our society will develop an understanding of [homosexuality] any time soon. Maybe in 20 or 30 years.”
The desire to emigrate is widespread. A report jointly produced by Equal Opportunities and the Kyrgyzstan-based LGBT group Labrys found that many want to leave for Russia or Kazakstan, where no visa is required and the language is not a problem. Failing that, people in Kyrgyzstan head for the capital Bishkek, where Bratukhin says “the atmosphere is more liberal”.
Homophobia is common in the workplace, and one woman from Bishkek said her boss sacked her after her homosexuality became public knowledge.
“My female colleagues shunned me. I was simply fired and not given any explanation,” she said.
Homophobia can also be take more subtle forms. Another Bishkek resident who tried to keep his homosexuality secret was surprised when his boss approached him on his leaving day for a quiet word.
“Even though you’re gay, you were very good at your job,” the manager confided.
Tajikistan, the poorest former Soviet state, is more conservative in outlook, and gays face more serious hostility, so that many live like members of a clandestine political movement.
Activists say gays live in fear of violence and abuse at the hands of the police, while the public ridicules them. As a result, many want to leave for Russia or Kazakstan, according to a joint October report by Equal Opportunities and the Kyrgyzstan-based gay group Labrys.
Like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan’s population is predominantly Muslim, and Gulov said a small minority of religious extremists would support severe punishment for homosexuality like stoning to death.
A bigger problem, though, is abuse from the police and general public.
“Sexual and physical violence against gay and bisexual men perpetrated by the police… is very common,” the Equal Opportunities/Labrys report said.
Some police still treat homosexuality as if it were still a crime, arresting “suspects” and detaining them for days, activists say, and horror stories circulate.
When one 28-year-old gay woman reported that her ex-husband had raped her in December 2010, a police officer advised her to remain silent “and be grateful that her former husband did not kill her”, the report said.
One gay man told IWPR that when he reported a robbery to the police, the officer insulted and intimidated him, and detained him at the police station for the day.
Activists also claim that some policemen use websites to contact gay men anonymously, before blackmailing or harassing them.
One Dushanbe resident in his early forties told IWPR that cash-strapped policemen have blackmailed many people he knows.
“There are some people who contact you, gain your trust and then become threatening,” said the man, though he added that life for gay people in Tajikistan was not impossible.
One former Tajik police office said gays were unwelcome.
“Gay men are not accepted here,” he said. “Maybe people do say unpleasant things to them, but the police force isn’t a finishing school. It’s a tough job.”
Allegations of police abuse fit into a wider pattern of homophobia, and openly hostile attitudes are common.
Furqat Anvarov, 19, recalled with approval a recent attack on a gay man near the Philharmonic concert hall in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.
“I think those guys did the right thing,” Anvarov said of the attackers. “If I’d been there, I would have joined in the beating, so that they’d learn.”
A 42-year-old woman in Dushanbe also said she disliked gays, adding that a man’s proper role was to establish a family and raise children. Tajikistan is short of men due to deaths in the 1992-97 civil war and the subsequent mass labour migration to Russia, and the interviewee said any remaining bachelors should get married.
“If my child turned out like that, I would reject him,” she added.
Gulov cited cases where gay Tajik nationals were subjected to forced “cures”.
“One young man was tied to a radiator and left in the cold with no food for a weekend. Prayers were chanted to expel the ‘evil spirits’,” he said.
Another man’s homosexuality became a local scandal, with neighbours quizzing his relatives and people taunting him in the street. Eventually, it became too much to bear.
“The young man couldn’t take it any longer and hanged himself,” Gulov said.
(Some names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.)
Umed Olimov, Olimbek Olimov, Mehrangez Tursunzade are IWPR contributors in Tajikistan. Yekaterina Shoshina is a student at the Bishkek-based American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Yevgenia Kim is a journalist in Bishkek and Dina Tokbaeva is IWPR regional editor.
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