Nataliya owns one of the clubs. "[As customer,] we have doctors, we have psychologists, [and] we have ordinary workers starting from 19 years old up to 56 or 58," Nataliya said. "They are very literate and very well informed."
Roman Knyazev is the Almaty-based editor in chief of Kazakhstan's national gay website (http://www.gays.kz). He told RFE/RL that tolerance of gays has been increasing since 1997, when the International Kazakhstan Bureau for Human Rights reported the killings of eight men targeted for being homosexuals.
But Knyazev stressed that any improvements are seen mostly in the bigger cities. "We have no problem with the authorities," he said. "Homophobia among the population is inherited from the Soviet education in which homosexuality was considered an illness. The youth is more tolerant than the older generation. Families increasingly accept their children as they are. But the situation is far from ideal."
In Bishkek, several gay bars have opened since 1998, when Kyrgyzstan decriminalized sexual relations between men. But the majority of gay men recently surveyed in the capital said they have been physically or psychologically abused because of their sexual orientation. Many pointed to continuing discrimination in public places, such as bars and restaurants, from where they are often asked to leave.
Aleksei Vashchenko, a gay man living in Bishkek, told RFE/RL that policemen often try to extort homosexuals. "There were cases when law-enforcement bodies have blackmailed representatives of sexual minorities, saying that they will tell [their staff members] at work, or their parents and relatives that that person is a homosexual," he said. "However, they would not have the opportunity to bring them before a criminal court, as it was before 1998."
Bishkek-based Oasis is a Kyrgyz nongovernmental organization working to protect the rights of gay men. The organization's head, Vladimir Tyupin, said Oasis is working with an increasing number of gays. But he noted that the majority of the estimated 35,000 homosexuals in Bishkek choose to keep their sexual orientation secret out of fear of public censure or isolation by friends and family.
"We established an initiative group in 1995. It consisted of merely 37 people. Now it already has about 7,000 people," Tyupin said.
Lesbian relationships in the Soviet Union were not policed as strictly as men. Lesbians were often sent to psychiatric institutions. In Central Asia today, as in the past, laws do not refer specifically to lesbians, but they say their lives are similarly difficult.
Earlier this month, lesbians in Kyrgyzstan launched a support group called Labrys. It is planning to publish a monthly magazine and open a telephone hot line and resource center to provide lesbians with psychological and legal support.
For the most part, the region's religious leaders, such as Kyrgyzstan's Mufti Murataly Ajy Jumanov, have shown little tolerance toward sexual minorities. "According to the Koran and Shari'a [Islamic law], men should marry women and nobody else. Women have to give their bodies and spirits to men. Islamic law absolutely refuses such [homosexual] connection between men and women. It is illegal and inhuman," Jumanov said.
Igor Dronov, a senior priest of the Russian Orthodox Church in Bishkek, told the United Nations' IRIN news service that tolerance "washes out the essence of absolute moral values."
However, Roman Knyazev, from the Kazakh gay website, stresses that sexual minorities are no different from anyone else. "We are not different from straight people," he said. "We have household problems like them, the same concerns about the present and the future."
While Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have decriminalized homosexuality, the countries' legal systems have not taken firm steps to secure the rights of gays and lesbians.
Donald Bisson, who works for the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Brussels, explains why: "In all countries, the movement begins by individuals deciding that it's time to do something. That means starting an NGO and then interacting with the government on issues of regulations, laws or discrimination. In Central Asia, it will be more difficult because the governments have not bought into the idea that gay rights are human rights. They always say this is being forced upon them by the West. They use that argument not to move forward in a positive way."
Despite the difficulties faced by sexual minorities in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, gays and lesbians there enjoy relative tolerance when compared to neighboring states. The majority of gays in Tajikistan keep their sexual orientation hidden, although homosexual acts were decriminalized there in 1998.
In 2003, a public-opinion survey revealed a particularly negative attitude toward gays. According to a local NGO that advocates gay rights, Tajik police routinely harass gays once they have revealed their sexual preferences.
In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, sex between men is still punishable by up to two and three years in prison, respectively.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik services contributed to this report.)