(Editor's Note: To maintain its subjects' privacy, this article is using pseudonyms.)
ALMATY -- Danagul grew up feeling she was born in the wrong body.
After spending her childhood and adolescence in confusion and fruitless attempts to explain her feelings to her parents, Danagul moved out of her native south Kazakhstan once she finished school.
In public, Danagul is a 23-year-old man named Daniyar, as stated in her passport. In private, however, she identifies herself as a pansexual, transgender woman.
Danagul’s secret is shared only within her closest circle, including her wife, Saniya, her mother, and a small group of friends in Almaty, where she now lives.
Even in her country of around 18 million people's biggest city, Danagul feels that most Kazakhs aren't ready to accept sexual minorities. The fear of insult and isolation forces her to continue living a “double life.”
Despite the burden of her secret, Danagul considers herself lucky in her new life in Almaty, where she met her “soulmate” Saniya in 2017.
Both self-employed and financially independent, Danagul recalls first meeting Saniya, 26, at a gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities. Danagul introduced herself as a man.
Saniya, who identifies as a pansexual woman, is “very well-read on transgender issues," Danagul says.
“I told Saniya my passport name, Daniyar, but she asked me what my real name was,” she says. The two “immediately clicked” and soon their “close friendship” grew into a romance.
“We moved in together and in a less than a year, Saniya made a marriage proposal and I said yes. We got officially married,” Danagul says.
On their wedding day in 2018, Danagul donned a groom’s suit and Saniya wore a white bridal dress. Their union was registered as a marriage between a man and a woman.
Under Kazakh law, marriage must be between a man and a woman.
So in front of relatives and friends, they are simply Daniyar and Saniya, an outwardly heterosexual couple living and behaving like so many others.
“We can’t tell our friends and relatives who we are or how we feel in private about our gender and sexual identities," Danagul says. "We're afraid they would cut ties with us because of this."
She recalls painful memories from her childhood of her Christian family taking her to a priest to “exorcize the demons inside my head.”
Kazakhstan, a predominantly Muslim Central Asian republic rich with ethnic minorities, decriminalized homosexuality in 1998 by abolishing a Soviet-era law.
And society’s attitude toward LGBT communities appears to be gradually relaxing, especially in the cities.
But homophobia is still prevalent, says Daniyar Sabitov, editor of a website called Kok.team that focuses on LGBT issues.
“There are two types of homophobia in Kazakhstan: at the state level and in society,” Sabitov says.
“At the state level, it includes judges and lawmakers who publicly berate LGBT people, or police officers who illegally raid gay clubs,” Sabitov says.
“Homophobia in society ranges from verbal insults to violence and murder. It’s emboldened by the homophobia that exists at the state level,” Sabitov adds.
Sabitov is hopeful that the Kazakh society’s attitude will inevitably become more tolerant toward sexual minorities as part of a “global trend.”
But Danagul and Saniya live among today’s realities.
They aren't planning to come out anytime soon.
Danagul isn't considering gender reassignment surgery, which is legally allowed in Kazakhstan since 2009.
Instead, the couple say they just want to protect their ties with friends and family, keeping their own lives on hold.