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Sexual Minorities In Kazakhstan Hide Who They Are To Avoid Abuse

A 2018 survey in Kazakhstan indicated intolerance toward sexual minorities, with a majority saying they wouldn't want to "live next door to criminals, drug addicts, or members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community."

Many Kazakh activists and experts say little has changed since then in society's attitude toward sexual minorities.

The extent of homophobic abuse in Kazakhstan was highlighted last month when two organizers of an LGBT gathering were mistreated both by police and the crowd in the southern city of Shymkent.

Footage shared on social media shows a male officer manhandling LGBT activist Zhanar Sekerbaeva to force her into a police car as a crowd of men watched. Some of the men in the crowd are seen helping to push Sekerbaeva. One man throws a punch at the activist's face after she is in the car.

Sekerbaeva said she and fellow LGBT activist Gulzada Serzhan had traveled from Almaty to Shymkent to organize a gathering to promote the rights of sexual minorities in the Central Asian country of some 18.5 million people. They were confronted by a crowd of "about 30 men" who also shouted homophobic slurs at the women and threatened to "kill" them, Sekerbaeva said.

Zhanar Sekerbaeva
Zhanar Sekerbaeva

After holding the activists for nearly eight hours at the Shymkent police station, officers sent the women back to Almaty. Police insist they acted to protect the women from the angry crowd.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and several Western diplomatic representatives, including from the U.S. and British embassies in Kazakhstan, condemned the May 29 incident in Shymkent and urged Kazakhstan to give equal rights to sexual minorities.

HRW wrote that the Shymkent police's response, "targeting the activists rather than their attackers -- shows just how urgent the need is for better protection of women's and LGBT rights in Kazakhstan today."

But a majority of comments on Kazakh social media supported the Shymkent police and the crowd's attitude towards the activists, with many saying they had no place in Kazakh society.

Kazakhstan decriminalized homosexuality in 1998 when it abolished a Soviet-era law. But homophobia remains widespread among Muslims and Christians. Many members of LGBT communities in Kazakhstan say they hide their sexual identities from people to avoid insult, marginalization, and even violence.

Pretending To Be Straight

Aleksandr, a 37-year-old doctor, says he knew he was different in his early childhood. In kindergarten, he didn't like playing with boys' toys, and instead wanted to dress up dolls in the girls' group.

But he quickly figured out that doing that wouldn't be acceptable for others. So Aleksandr learned to stay silent and watch others play.

As he progressed through school, Aleksandr continued to isolate himself from others to avoid homophobic bullying. He eventually told his parents that he was gay. He says they were deeply upset but accepted the situation.

After graduating from medical school, Aleksandr met a man who was married to a woman and wanted their relationship to remain a secret. After a few years, the man ended the relationship, something that left Aleksandr "depressed and suicidal." Since then, he's lived alone.

Apart from a small circle of family and a few friends, he hasn't told anyone about his sexual orientation. Aleksandr says he believes Kazakh society doesn't accept those "who are not like everybody else."

In public, Aleksandr says he pretends to be heterosexual. "At work I have a behavior 'befitting' a man. My manners, the way I speak, are 'manly' and don't give any hint that [I'm gay]."

"Even as a child I honed every movement, every gesture, and intonation so that I didn't look or sound different from other boys," says Aleksandr, who works at a city hospital in western Kazakhstan. He asked RFE/RL not to disclose his full name or where he lives.

Moving To The Big City

Bota, 30, says she had to move from her hometown of Shymkent to Almaty after being abused because of her sexual identity. Many of Bota's friends and relatives stopped talking to her after she came out as bisexual.

Bota recalls an incident when women wouldn't let her use a public bathroom and saying, "you're not allowed here." At a wedding in Shymkent, some guests threw walnuts at Bota in order to make her leave.

Bota says that in Almaty she lives in relative anonymity because nobody knows her in the big city and "people just mind their own business."

Transgender Threats

Noa, a 22-year-old transgender man, says he has received threats both from relatives and complete strangers over his sexual identity. "My uncle threatened to rape me to 'correct' me," he says. "My aunt calls me a sick person."

Noa feels he is a man who was born in the body of a woman. "I created a social-media account as a man. It was liberating," he says. "For the first time I felt comfortable. I didn't have a chance yet to present myself as a man in real life."

Noa hasn't undergone gender-reassignment surgery, which has been legal in Kazakhstan since 2009, though it is a complicated and often humiliating process. The law allows transgender people to formally change their gender in their passports only after undergoing reassignment surgery.

'Western Influence'

Many people in Kazakhstan believe the "LGBT rights issue" is a Western export that threatens local traditions and family values.

Sultan Musakhan, a 26-year-old Kazakh student in Canada, says that homophobia in Kazakhstan also stems from "religious beliefs, patriarchal traditions, and the low level of people's awareness and education" about the topic.

Musakhan, who has come out as gay, also criticizes "a lack of interest by the Kazakh government to support LGBT rights."

Aigerim Qusaiynqyzy, a Kazakh social affairs expert, says Kazakhstan doesn't even have a law that protects LGBT people's rights. "The Kazakh parliament and [our] society are not ready to adopt such laws."

According to Qusaiynqyzy, many people in Kazakhstan "prefer to use tradition against innovation and change, which are associated with the development of society and the protection of rights."

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    RFE/RL's Kazakh Service offers informed and accurate reporting in the Kazakh and Russian languages about issues that matter in Kazakhstan, while providing a dynamic platform for audience engagement and the free exchange of news and ideas.