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Curtain Falls On Bishkek's Lone LGBT Club Amid Worsening Atmosphere


Inside the London nightclub in Bishkek: "The problem is that people don't understand what a gay club is," says Olesya, one of the club's founders. "They think we are doing something pornographic. But if they came and saw that it is just a normal club, where people dance and drink, then it would be OK."
Inside the London nightclub in Bishkek: "The problem is that people don't understand what a gay club is," says Olesya, one of the club's founders. "They think we are doing something pornographic. But if they came and saw that it is just a normal club, where people dance and drink, then it would be OK."

BISHKEK -- The old Asanbay car wash lies empty by day, a lonely mirage of heat dancing on the bare concrete forecourt as traffic rumbles in the distance. But once the sun sets on a Saturday night, scores of young people emerge from the darkness, descending upon the venue.

They knock on an old wooden door, throw a cautionary glance over their shoulders, and disappear into the derelict building located on the outskirts of the Kyrgyz capital.

Occasionally, a flash of purple light breaks through a gap in the curtains, betraying the secret revelry within. For this inconspicuous car wash plays host to Bishkek's only LGBT club, called London.

Its founders, a vivacious lesbian couple who resemble bouncers in both build and demeanor, command a table at the entrance of the bar and survey each customer who passes through the door.

Entrance is dependent on a good recommendation from one of the night's regular customers. New faces draw suspicion, and for good reason -- homophobia is pervasive within Kyrgyz society and often accompanied by violence.

Even the founders of the club are reluctant to disclose their names out of fear of attack, with one agreeing to speak on condition of anonymity. They launched London in 2015 but admit to knowing very little about the British capital or its gay scene.

"We used to run a cabaret show," says the co-founder who was willing to speak. "Occasionally, we would hold a gay night, which used to be very popular, so once the cabaret closed down we decided to start a gay club as we saw the need for a space where the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community felt safe and could really get to know each other."

Kyrgyzstan is an inhospitable home for members of the gay community. A recent survey by the LGBT organization Kyrgyz Indigo found that 84 percent of respondents had experienced physical violence, while 35 percent were victims of sexual violence. Kyrgyz Indigo described the results as "very alarming," noting that they indicate a "tendency of growth from year to year."

Many of those who attend the nightclub have been victims of abuse and fear interactions with those outside the community.

"I was beaten by my father [for wanting to be a woman]...and I was beaten at school for being too feminine," says an 18-year-old transgender woman who was attending the club for the third time and asked that her name not be used out of fear for her safety. "I felt so misunderstood, as my parents would not accept me, so after graduation I had to move away."

Bishkek has offered her little respite from discrimination. Before discovering London, she barely left the house, unable to find a regular job that would accept her new identity.

"Sometimes, I go out the house as a female, but I am often afraid that people will recognize me on the street and attack me," she says. "But I like coming to the club, as everyone is very open-minded, it is easy to communicate with other people, and it is somewhere I can be myself."

Last Call For 'London'

The new social freedoms enjoyed by the transgender woman will be short-lived, however, as this is not a normal night at London. This is its closing party.

A few weeks ago, the landlord discovered that the club was being used to host LGBT events and asked the renters to leave.

"They always claim it's not because they are homophobic," says London's co-founder. "But we know that's the real reason."

The loss of this nightclub will add to the obstacles faced by Kyrgyzstan's LGBT community, which already lives in the shadows after discriminatory legislation that would ban the popularization of homosexual relations and promotion of the homosexual lifestyle was proposed in 2014.

"Life was easier three years ago," says a 21-year-old gay man who regularly attends the club. "You could be on public transport and talk about LGBT stuff and nobody would notice because they did not really know what it was. But since the legislation was introduced, a lot of the population knows what the LGBT community is. There is a lot of aggression toward us and we cannot be open in public anymore."

The proposed bill emboldened a number of radical nationalist movements and, according to activists at Labrys, a gay activism group in Kyrgyzstan, led to a near 300 percent increase in attacks against the community.

"We joke about this legislation within the community. It was the biggest propaganda of them all. Now everyone knows about LGBTs," the gay man continues, drawing solemn laughter from his friends.

This is not the first time that the club's founders have been forced to close. In its two-year existence, London has moved venue three times.

"The problem is that people don't understand what a gay club is. They think we are doing something pornographic. But if they came and saw that it is just a normal club, where people dance and drink, then it would be OK," says the lone co-founder willing to speak, with notable frustration.

Their landlord asked them to leave their original venue after a mob of 30 men broke into the club and smashed the furniture, injuring some of the bar staff.

"Of course, we always worry that some haters will come to the venue. The location always get revealed eventually because people post about it on their social media," she says. "But I am not scared of homophobia. I have faith in the police."

That faith might be misplaced.

On another occasion, an assailant who crashed an event hit Olesya with a bottle. She tried to report the incident to the police but claims their response was, "Go away, you fag."

Worsening Environment, Rising Violence

The so-called "gay propaganda" bill, similar to legislation passed in Russia in 2013 that banned "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors, is awaiting its third and final reading in parliament before being passed into law. Activists already fear the worst, considering that the first two readings were approved with relative ease.

It is not the only legislation limiting LGBT rights in Kyrgyzstan. In December 2016, the Kyrgyz people voted in favor of a new constitution that included changes to Article 36 concerning the right to marry.

Until last year, "persons who have reached the age of majority" were allowed to wed. Since the referendum, marriage is only permitted "between a man and a woman."

This was presented in the national media as a ban on same-sex marriage and, according to Kyrgyz Indigo, this initiative also "led to [an] increase of cases of violence against LGBT people."

"It is tough to keep the fight going. We are always in debt as is and we cannot pay off our loans because the business keeps getting shut down," admits the club's co-founder. "But we will continue if we can find a safe space where we can run a sustainable business.

"After all, we have a responsibility," she adds. "We are like mothers to the community."

The revelers certainly hope they find another venue. The risks are too high if they don't.

"The last time there was a gap between venues, some of us went to the normal clubs and cafes but were identified and attacked," says the 18-year-old gay man as he leaves the car wash for the last time.

"That's why it's so important that London continues. It is the only safe place we can go."

Katie Arnold is a freelance journalist covering human rights issues in Central and Southeast Asia. Follow her on Twitter.
(Note: This article has been amended since its original publication to protect the identities of sources.)

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