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Kyrgyz Referendum Seeks To Prevent Same-Sex Marriage

  • Farangis Najibullah

A mass wedding organized by the Kyrgyz Ministry for Labor, Migration and Youth and private sponsors is held in Bishkek in October 2013.

As voters in Kyrgyzstan vote in a nationwide referendum on December 11, among the things they will be deciding is whether marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman.

There will only be one question on the ballot -- whether voters accept proposed changes to the constitution. But in answering "yes" or "no" to that single question, voters will be deciding on 26 proposed changes, one of which is the definition of marriage.

The definition would effectively bar same-sex unions, whose legality is unclear and apparently untested, seeing as no couple has ever applied for one.

Proponents nevertheless argue that the definition is needed to protect family values. Critics of the effort say it is a nonissue. And members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community -- already under intense pressure -- are noticeably silent.

The amendment to the constitution has been widely advocated by the ruling Social Democratic Party and enjoys backing from many other politicians, community leaders, and religious figures.

Existential Threat?

If history is any indication -- Kyrgyz citizens have voted overwhelmingly in favor of amendments proposed in three constitutional referendums held since independence in 1991 -- the definition of marriage as a union between man and wife will become part of Kyrgyzstan's basic law.

"We are against same-sex marriages in Kyrgyzstan because they eventually lead to the destruction of mankind," Marat Jumanazarov, the head of the Independent Group of Civil Activists and Experts, argued during a recent gathering in Bishkek.

Jumanazov urged listeners to reject "invented" values from the West that he claimed would erode society. "We need to protect our healthy society," he said.

Ar-Namys (Dignity) party lawmaker Kozhobek Ryspaev has warned that the Kyrgyz nation faces the risk of extinction if same-sex unions are not banned.

"Look at what's happening in the world: women are marrying women, men are marrying men. There are only 3 million pure Kyrgyz people," he said. "We could disappear altogether because of this."

Edil Baisalov, a Bishkek-based political analyst, says same-sex marriage is a "nonissue" in Kyrgyzstan and that the lawmakers and others supporting the effort to define marriage are the same who are behind Kyrgyzstan's so-called gay-propaganda bill.

No Change Needed?

That legislation, which mirrors Russia's controversial 2013 law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors, was approved by the Kyrgyz parliament on first reading in 2014, but has not become law.

The Kyrgyz bill envisages jail sentences of up to one year for the promotion of "a homosexual way of life" and "nontraditional sexual relations."

Kyrgyzstan's LGBT community has been noticeably quiet on the issue -- requests for comment forwarded to the main NGO supporting gay rights in the country went unanswered, and there has been scant comment in local media from representatives of the community -- saying that violent attacks, including rape, have increased against them since the legislation was introduced.

Omurbek Tekebaev, leader of the Ate-Meken (Fatherland) parliamentary faction, has noted that no couple has ever applied for a same-sex marriage in Kyrgyzstan, while Bishkek's four civil-registry offices recently confirmed that they had never received an application for same-sex marriage, according to Kyrgyz media.

Tekebaev, who co-authored the constitution, says there is no need for any amendment in the first place. Despite claims to the contrary being made by supporters of the marriage definition, he says, same-sex unions would not be allowed under the existing constitution.

Article 36 of the Kyrgyz Constitution stipulates that "Family, fatherhood, motherhood, childhood -- these are concerns of the entire society and are given priority protection of the law."

According to Tekebaev the article guarantees that " Kyrgyz society is heterosexually oriented" and that "there is no place for same-sex marriages."

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Gulayim Ashakeeva contributed to this report
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