One afternoon in Bishkek
At the PEN International Congress in Kyrgyzstan, British journalist and writer Juliet Jacques gave a speech on the situation for transsexuals in Thatchers Great Britain, when “section 28”, a law similar to todays’ ”anti-propaganda law” in Russia was in place. The experiences of the local activists she met was both similar and different from Great Britain in the nineties.
To my surprise, as I couldn’t see any buildings besides a few high-rise blocks on the horizon, Syinat told the taxi driver to stop on a busy main road. I trusted her: we’d only just met but we were already friends, having spoken together on a panel about LGBTQI freedom of expression at the PEN International Congress, held in her home city of Bishkek, in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Kyrgyzstan, for the first time. We’d spent the journey discussing how the Kyrgyz parliament were voting to adopt Russia’s law against ‘propaganda’ in support of ‘non-traditional sexual relationships’ to ‘protect the traditional family’, applying sanctions across society rather than just in schools, effectively making Labrys, the support centre that we were visiting, illegal.
“We have to stop here because I can’t tell the driver where our organisation is,” she explained in English. The pavement, like most in Bishkek, was broken: even in the capital, there isn’t money to maintain them and the roads take priority. During our ten-minute walk down a dirt track, Syinat said that because they kept getting kicked out of places they rented, Labrys had to buy a house. They’re in a religious area on the outskirts, where the locals have taken exception to them looking ‘different’, she told me, often abusing or threatening them.
Syinat pressed the buzzer; Masha verified her and we entered. Having left my suburban, conservative home town aged 18 for England’s most queer-friendly cities – Manchester, Brighton and then London – this level of secrecy felt jarring, especially as it’s not illegal to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and/or intersex in Kyrgyzstan. But there is still plenty of prejudice within families, employers and the wider public (as in Britain); with the propaganda bill likely to pass, it’s becoming harder for them not just to challenge violence and discrimination, or simply to exist. Without the international support given to LGBTQI people in Russia, Uganda, Nigeria and Iran – societies better understood in the West – the people at Labrys feel isolated, and they’re surprised when they have any visitors.
Inside, it wasn’t unlike the radical queer spaces I’ve visited in Britain or the Balkans – there were posters and pamphlets with slogans, some familiar in English but most in Russian. (Or so I assumed: I can’t read Cyrillic, which Kyrgyz also uses, but the native tongue is not widely spoken outside official circles.) Ten people listened patiently as Syinat explained in both languages that I was a transgender writer from London: “she wants to talk about the propaganda law but she’s happy to answer questions.” Gulnara, a lively 19-year-old trans woman in jeans and a sequinned top, spoke first – in Russian, so I looked to Syinat for translation.
“She asked how she can get asylum in Britain.”
I paused, stunned. Then I said that it was difficult, but not impossible, as discrimination against gender identity or sexuality could be grounds for asylum, and that I’d send more information when I got home. Then she asked about getting sex reassignment surgery on Britain’s National Health Service as she thought she’d need it to change her documents, and it is prohibitively expensive in Kyrgyzstan. “It took me three years, starting in 2009,” I said, “and it’s harder now: the government wants to abolish the NHS, which they’ll start by charging non-EU nationals to use it, and scrapping unpopular treatments.”
Gulnara asked if she’d be socially accepted in Britain. “You’re a Russian-speaking, transgender asylum seeker from a Muslim country”, I replied. “I think you’d find it tough.” I watched her face drop as Syinat (who studied in York and worked for the British Embassy in Bishkek) translated, adding details about the British media’s anti-asylum rhetoric and the related rise of the ultra-conservative, anti-immigrant UK Independence Party. Crestfallen, Gulnara said she’d been told that Britain was very liberal – was it really so bad? “If you’re were white, English, middle class and prepared to play the Conservative Party’s game, then it’s not impossible” to be LGB or T (more than Q or I), I suggested, but otherwise, dealing with family, employers or public services could be a struggle.
I asked about the propaganda law. Uzalia, who like the other trans woman in the room had been disowned by her family, told me she’d leave Kyrgyzstan if it passed; another woman said she thought she’d be alright but worried for her friends, at Labrys and the Feminist Collective, both of which the Kyrgyz parliament has talked about shutting down. Then we talked a little more optimistically – they asked about my transition and surgery and I gladly said it had gone well, socially and physically, promising to keep in touch after I returned to London, saddened by their circumstances but touched by their intelligence, solidarity and irrepressible humour.
The climate is getting worse, they tell me now: one MP criticised the bill and got called ‘gay’ by other politicians, despite his ‘traditional’ family, and the community have no other support. The media portray gender and sexual diversity as alien to Kyrgyzstan, despite the evidence at Labrys, and the bill is being introduced with a copy of Russia’s Foreign Agents legislation, banning organisations from receiving any external donations. Lesbians and trans men already face correctively rape, with gay men and trans women often beaten and sometimes killed – the ambiguously worded propaganda law will censor journalists and enable the police to blackmail people, with the accompanying one making human rights groups reluctant to back them.
Their main hope is that President Atambayev will decline to pass the law, which may not stop it but will allow them to challenge it in the Supreme Court. However, the bill passed its first reading by 79 votes to seven, and Atambayev is firmly aligned with Vladimir Putin – any action needs to be taken in dialogue with the activists in Kyrgyzstan, to avoid making their situation any worse, but clearly, the time has come for international support.