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Kazakh Antigay Campaign Deepens Over Same-Sex Kiss Poster

  • Claire Bigg
  • Madi Bekmaganbetov

Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan designed the poster to promote a gay club in Almaty, Studio 69.

Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan designed the poster to promote a gay club in Almaty, Studio 69.

The accolades were short-lived for a Kazakh poster depicting composer Qurmanghazy Saghyrbaiuly locking lips with Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin.

Since winning third prize in a Kazakh advertisement contest this summer, the poster has caused public outrage and stoked antigay sentiment in the Central Asian nation -- with one politician stating that blood tests can be used to expose homosexuals.

The producer of the divisive picture, the advertising agency -- Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan -- has been slapped with several lawsuits over what plaintiffs say is an affront to traditional Kazakh values.

Initial proceedings in a $186,000 lawsuit began on October 2 in Almaty.

The case was brought by 34 people studying or working in a conservatory and orchestra named after Qurmanghazy, a cultural icon in Kazakhstan.

The plaintiffs branded the poster "unethical" and claimed it insulted "the honor and dignity" of the artist's descendants and admirers.

Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan designed the poster to promote a gay club in Almaty, Studio 69.

The Kazakh poster is a takeoff of the famous kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (left) and East German leader Erich Honecker.

The Kazakh poster is a takeoff of the famous kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (left) and East German leader Erich Honecker.

The picture is both a humorous reference to the club's location -- at the intersection of streets named after Pushkin and Qurmanghazy -- and a spinoff of the famous image of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart, Erich Honecker, on the lips in East Berlin in 1979.

Some Kazakhs have praised the poster and stressed its creators' right to freedom of expression.

"We have taboos in all genres," Kazakh art critic Valeria Ibraeva told RFE/RL. "What we are now witnessing is an ignorant, cruel reaction."

'Some Kind Of Weakness'

But authorities in Kazakhstan are not amused. The poster has also sparked a barrage of angry, homophobic comments on social media.

Kazakh Culture Minister Arystanbek Mukhamediuly has described the poster as "ugly," "inhuman," and "a crime."

If people have some kind of weakness, it is their own personal problem. But it is absolutely unacceptable to propagate it in public."

"If people have some kind of weakness, it is their own personal problem," he told Tengrinews last month. "But it is absolutely unacceptable to propagate it in public, especially by using images of such respected persons."

Mukhamediuly has vowed to bring the designers to justice, despite an apology published by the Havas agency on its Facebook page.

A man who claims to be a descendant of Qurmanghazy, Nurken Khalykbergen, also sued the Havas agency for damages.

His case was eventually dropped, reportedly because Khalykbergen was unable to prove he is a direct descendant of the illustrious composer.

And in August, a court in Almaty fined Havas and its director a total of $1,700 for allegedly violating Kazakhstan's law on advertising.

The complaint was filed by the city's mayor's office, which charged that the image "violates widespread moral norms and behaviors since it shows nontraditional sexual relations that are unacceptable to society."

Decriminalized In 1998

The wording is strongly reminiscent of Russia's controversial new law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors, and there have been calls in recent weeks for Kazakhstan to adopt similar legislation.

Although homosexuality was decriminalized in Kazakhstan in 1998, the onslaught against the Qurmanghazy-Pushkin poster shows hostility toward sexual minorities is still rife.

Last month, the country's Communist Party called for the reinstatement of criminal punishments for homosexuality.

Dauren Babamuratov, the leader of the nationalist Bolashak movement, claimed at a news conference that DNA tests could be used to reveal homosexuality, which he described as "degeneratism."

He urged Kazakh authorities to bar gays from holding public office or serving in the army.

'Legitimate Part Of Free Expression'

The antigay campaign gripping Kazakhstan is drawing condemnation from rights advocates.

"The poster is no doubt provocative, but provocation is a legitimate part of free expression and arguably an inherent part of creative design," says Human Rights Watch's Mihra Rittmann. "Kazakhstan's judiciary should ensure that freedom of expression trumps subjective discomfort about a particular image and that homophobia masked as cultural concern is not allowed to triumph."

Controversy over the poster appears to have reached Russia, where the St. Petersburg branch of the nationalist Rodina party has voiced support for the lawsuits.

The party condemned what it called "rampant impunity of the immoral perverts" and voiced hope that "those responsible for the desecration of the memory of famous Russian and Kazakh poets will be punished," a reference to Pushkin and Qurmanghazy, who was not a poet but a composer.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


     

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