ifa: You live as a LGBT+ activist, pro-feminist and queer Muslim in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. How is life for the queer community in your city?
Amir Mukambetov: Kyrgyzstan is more or less a democratic country with diverse nationalities. Most Kyrgyz identify themselves as Muslims but live a secular life, celebrating their birthday and sometimes drinking alcohol. We have two larger LGBT+ organisations in Bishkek and a few smaller ones as well as a LGBT+ night club. From time to time, it gets closed down and they have to move to a new location – but at least we have one! And we have several LGBT+ friendly places, like cafés, beauty salons or barber shops. Compared to other Central Asian countries, living as a LGBT+ in Bishkek is not as bad.
But at the same time, intolerance towards LGBT+ people do exist. I can't say that the society hates us, but if you asked people what they think about LGBT+, many would say 'Well, they are also humans, but I wouldn't tolerate them'. So, LGBT+ people usually build a bubble around themselves and the people who respect them. Sometimes they even manage to lose sight of the reality, thinking that life in Kyrgyzstan is good. But in reality, it's quite hard on us.
ifa: What are some of the difficulties the queer community faces?
Amir: People's intolerance shows itself on the street as they cast judgement on people who look different, there's bullying at school or LGBT+ people are fired from their jobs when their sexual orientation or gender identity is disclosed. I’m especially worried for children because as a child, you might not really understand why all the other children are picking on you or why they hate you, and this can influence you for the rest of your life. For example, at the LGBT+ organisation Kyrgyz Indigo, I lead a team of 25 people. When I'm looking at their applications, I see that most of them only finished ninth grade while on average, most people go to school until the eleventh grade. Because of bullying, they tend to decide to finish school early. And usually most of the LGBT+ people work in service, like in cafés, restaurants or beauty salons, and their economic status is very low.
'There are still cases of the so-called "corrective rape" in Kyrgyzstan'
ifa: Do LGBT+ people also face physical violence?
Amir: Yes. For example, there are people who initiate fake dates by blackmailing people into violating a LGBT+ person. Transgender women doing sex work have to contend with the police who sometimes only want money, but sometimes they want free sex. We still have cases of conversion therapy in Kyrgyzstan, which means they try to 'fix' you with medication or through religious conversion – and there is also the so-called 'corrective rape', a practice where they rape lesbians, bisexual women and transgender men to 'heal' them.
ifa: You have been working for Kyrgyz Indigo since 2013, an LGBT+ organisation which was established in 2009. What do you do there?
Amir: Kyrgyz Indigo is one of the largest LGBT+ organisations in Central Asia. We also have branches in rural areas of Kyrgyzstan because life for LGBT+ in villages is usually harder than in big cities. Our purpose is to empower, mobilise and educate the community. We work with the parents of LGBT+ people and lead a group of queer Muslims. We also do a lot of work about HIV and other diseases, and we run a community centre as well as a shelter for people who got kicked out by their parents after coming out or being outed and for transgender sex workers who were evicted from their rented homes.
ifa: Five years ago, Kyrgyz Indigo also started working with the parents and siblings of LGBT+. Can you please highlight why this is important?
Amir: LGBT+ people are often not accepted by their parents, which really hurts relationships and family dynamics. But there are parents who do support their children, and we bring them together with other parents to do a kind of peer-to-peer work. Right now, we have more than 20 people in the parents' club. We also use best-practise examples from Poland or the Ukraine, where parents, independently from their children, are politically active, talking to politicians and the media. This can have a big impact. LGBT+ people are often so demonised, as if other people can't believe we are human beings, born from human beings. But when they see parents supporting their children, they realise that LGBT+ are people, too. Unfortunately, parents in Kyrgyzstan still aren't open being activists, but their work, like talking to other parents, is essential.
'The situation made queer activists in Kyrgyzstan into political activists'
ifa: Are you also active at a political level?
Amir: We never really wanted to be political activists, but the situation has made us into political activists because LGBT+ issues are used as political instruments by the government. As a post-Soviet state, Kyrgyzstan became a sovereign nation not long ago – this year we will celebrate 30 years of independence. In those 30 years, Kyrgyzstan has experienced several revolutions, and several presidents were kicked out of the country because of corruption and because they did not keep their commitments.
Now, Kyrgyzstan is struggling in the economic situation. The World Bank reported that every third Kyrgyzstani is living below the poverty line this year. We have a lot of problems, and the government is problematising the LGBT+ community, distracting people from the real issues in our country.
ifa: How does the government use LGBT+ issues politically?
Amir: One example: Kyrgyzstan gets its electricity from a major water reservoir called the Toktogul Dam on the Naryn River in the Jalal-Abad Province of Kyrgyzstan. Now the quantity of water in this reservoir is very low. All of the mass media was talking about it and people were concerned. But then, the national groups concocted a completely different topic for the news, claiming that LGBT+ people are attempting to break Kyrgyz tradition and that the country's nationality and traditions need to be protected. They're spreading this point everywhere, making videos and posting articles, and now everybody is concerned about that, which steers the discussion away from an actual, real problem that needs to be addressed — our dwindling water supply.
ifa: What are the consequences of this strategy for the LGBT+ community?
Amir: When politicians use LGBT+ for their purposes, they aren't considering how we're being affected as human beings. When the government only speaks about us in negative, one-sided ways, young LGBT+ could be outcasted and traumatised. As a child, I experienced a lot of bullying every day at school. I come from the countryside where there was no internet while I was growing up, no information from the outside, and I really felt like I was the only person in Kyrgyzstan who was different.
Human right activists are worried about plans of the Kyrgyz government to amend the constitution
ifa: The last protests, sparked by fraudulent election results, were in October 2020 and led to an overturn of the government. On 10 January this year, Sadyr Zhaparov was elected as the new president. Along with the election, there was a referendum about constitutional amendments – more than 80 percent of the Kyrgyz population who went to the polls voted to re-establish the presidential system.
Amir: That's right. Kyrgyzstan had a presidential system until the second revolution in 2010. Then, the constitution was changed and Kyrgyzstan became parliamentarian. During the referendum in January, people were asked only one question: Do you want to change the constitution from parliamentarian to presidential? People could only answer yes or no, and at that time, most people answered 'yes'. They wanted to change the constitution, but being given such a question, they didn't really understand how. Changing the constitution like Zhaparov wants would mean Kyrgyzstan taking several steps backwards. Part 4 of article 10 in the draft of the constitution is especially important for the LGBT+ community. It states that '… in order to protect the younger generation, events that contradict moral and ethical values, the public consciousness of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic may be limited by law.' But what are those moral and ethical values? The government will interpret those lines in its favour.
ifa: The 17 May is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. How do you feel about this day?
Amir: This day is one of my favourite days of the year and it's very close to my heart. We should celebrate this day with dignity and pride because it's the day when all LGBT+ people around the world unit to be heard and seen together as one.
Interview by Siri Gögelmann