Focus on gay and lesbian rights

Kyrgyzstan is known as an island of gay tolerance in an otherwise oppressive region. Some gay people come here from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where homosexuality is punishable by law, in search of a more favourable and accepting environment. The number of gay and lesbian groups in the country
is growing as a consequence.

On Saturday a new support group called "Labrys" was launched in the capital, Bishkek, to promote the rights of lesbians. The Labrys, or double-bladed axe, comes from the goddess Demeter (Artemis). It has become a symbol of lesbian and feminist strength and self-sufficiency. "It will organise lesbians, provide them with psychological and legal help, and work on establishing a more tolerant attitude towards lesbians in the country," Anna Dovgopol, leader of the group, funded by money from the Netherlands, told IRIN.

The new organisation will publish a monthly magazine, organise seminars on health issues, and open a telephone hot-line and resource centre to offer advice and support. Counselling and cultural events will also be offered. Lesbianism remains very much a taboo in this conservative Central Asian nation. "If my family ever finds out that I belong to the group, I will be
in deep trouble," one of the women at the launch, who refused to be photographed, told IRIN.

THE REALITY

Although the attitude to gays and lesbians in Kyrgyzstan is less hostile than in neighbouring states, people of non-traditional sexual orientation, especially gay men, are one of the most oppressed and discriminated groups in the country, according to recent research conducted by Denis van der Veur for the Dutch HIVOS Fund.

Most gays and lesbians in the country live in the capital, Bishkek, or in the northern part of the country, which is more liberal than other regions. In Bishkek, according to the Oasis NGO, the only organisation fighting to protect the rights of gay men, there are around 35,000 people of a different sexual orientation. The NGO officially works with just 6,500 of them who are open about their sexual orientation. Others remain undercover.

Those who decide to go public risk physical and verbal abuse, possible loss of work and unwanted attention from the police and authorities.

Veur, who conducted research with more than 50 gay men in the capital, found that they "describe their environment in Kyrgyzstan as negative, hostile and even violent. They refer to the prevalence of discrimination in public places such as bars and restaurants, from where they are often asked to leave." Around 65 percent of men surveyed said they had been physically or psychologically abused because of their sexual orientation.

"Homosexuals are still poorly informed about their rights," Vladimir Tyupin, the leader of Oasis, said. "Many of them do not know that homosexuality is legal in Kyrgyzstan, and they often are ashamed to ask for legal help. Although senior policemen seem to be understanding, it is the lower ranks,
the street patrol officers, who chase and abuse gay men in Kyrgyzstan."

Theoretically, no one can refuse a gay person a job due to his or her sexual orientation. In reality, homosexuals are sacked under some pretext when their sexuality is revealed, but the official reason for their sacking does not mention their sexual orientation. A recent Oasis opinion poll indicated that most employers in the region would not hire a gay or lesbian if they were aware of the person's sexual orientation.

The situation of homosexuals in prisons is especially daunting as gay men are often openly victimised by inmates and the authorities. Almost half of such people in custody are physically abused, according to research.

LESBIANS ALSO FACE HOSTILITY AND REJECTION

The attitude towards lesbians is less hostile then towards homosexual men. Local tradition allows more freedom for public displays of affection by women. Nevertheless, in Kyrgyzstan lesbians are less visible than gay men and there are no figures for how many there are in the country.

Elena, a gay woman, told IRIN that she had spent most of her life in denial of her sexuality. "At some point I was fed up with hiding, living someone else's life... The most surprising was the reaction from my close friends. Although they are modern [in many of their ways], graduates who have travelled abroad, their reaction to my coming out was shocking. It is a complete rejection."

Despite the fact that the situation in Kyrgyzstan is better than in other Central Asian counties, Elena said that she and most of her friends dream about migrating to western Europe or the USA. "We want to feel free to be who we are, to feel like normal people." Lesbian activists say there have been seven known cases so far in which homosexuals from Kyrgyzstan received asylum abroad for "the violation of their human rights" at home.

Dovgopol from Labrys recounted how, in one of the city's cafes, lesbians were refused service due to their sexual orientation and were forced to leave. "They did not complain, because filing a complaint would mean a public and political coming our for lesbians and none of them were willing to do this. They were afraid to be openly lesbian in Kyrgyzstan."

DOUBLE LIFE IN THE SOUTH

In future, gay rights organisations are planning to expand their activities to other regions such as Osh and Jalalabat in the south of Kyrgyzstan. These are conservative and traditional regions, where most of the population is Muslim. According to Oasis, research among 2,500 gay and lesbians in Osh city suggests that those of a different sexual orientation have no choice but to lead a double life. Many gay men are forced to get married and have children, and hide their sexuality from their family.

There are no support groups protecting the rights of sexual minorities in the south, because it is almost impossible to find someone to lead such an organisation. Many are afraid that participation in such an organisation would ruin their career, and relations with their family and friends.

For lesbians, according to Anna Dovgopol, it is equally difficult: "The society in the provinces is so closed, the topic of homosexuality remains taboo. For a lesbian there it is almost impossible to find other gay people."

CONDEMNATION FROM RELIGIOUS LEADERS

Religious leaders, for the most part, do not exhibit tolerance towards gays and some have even appealed for proactive measures to be taken against them. "I think we should unite our efforts and maybe start punishing people for such behaviour. Thousands of Muslims will be punished by Allah for not preventing, not stopping, lesbians and homosexuals," said the leader of
Muslims in Kyrgyzstan, Mufti Lugmar azhi Guahunov.

The Russian Orthodox Church in Kyrgyzstan seems equally hostile to sexual minorities. "Such tolerance washes out the essence of absolute moral values. Of course, our church will not fight homosexuality with weapons, but we will never tolerate it," Igor Dronov, a senior priest of the church in Bishkek, said.

LEGAL RECOGNITION

During the Soviet period, homosexuality was considered a crime. Article 121 of the USSR penal code sentenced men for "sodomy" for up to five years in jail. Officially, about 50,000 men were put away in Soviet jails or sent to Gulags under such charges; the real figure is believed to be much higher.

In Kyrgyzstan the ban on homosexuality was lifted in 1998 after concerted pressure from international human rights organisations. However, the Kyrgyz constitution does not explicitly mention the right to chose one's own sexual
orientation.

The Kyrgyz legal system does not appear to be changing to take any further steps to secure the rights of gays and lesbians. It is too early to raise the question of official gay marriages, and legal adoption for same-sex couples in Kyrgyzstan is a long way off, activists say.