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For Kazakhstan's LGBT Community, A Struggle For Recognition And Rights

Almaty, Kazakhstan's former capital, lost its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. For LGBT activists, the loss was a setback.
Pavel Mikheyev
Almaty, Kazakhstan's former capital, lost its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. For LGBT activists, the loss was a setback.

Last month, the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan made the news, as it competed with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

Kazakhstan lost its bid, but the effort drew attention to the problems faced by the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Human rights campaigners were hoping that if Kazakhstan were chosen, the country would face international pressure to improve conditions for people with different sexual and gender orientations.

Tatiana Chernobyl, a lawyer and consultant for Amnesty International, says, "Now that we don't have the Olympics, we are afraid that there won't be that pressure that we could use to get some changes here."

The changes that she wants include better enforcement of the country's laws to protect LGBT people from discrimination and violence.

During the run-up to the Olympic bid decision, Human Rights Watch completed a report on the issues in Kazakhstan.

"There's a significant gap between the standards set in the Olympic charter and the situation of LGBT people in Kazakhstan," says researcher Kyle Knight, who compiled the report. "When we were there, LGBT people in Kazakhstan told me about the constant state of fear they live in."

Rights groups frequently criticize Kazakhstan for its restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech, and its detentions of civil society activists.

Although same-sex activity was decriminalized in 1998, many people in the LGBT community, which remains largely invisible and is not vocal, say their rights are not equally protected.

Arman Bima, a dance teacher and choreographer in Almaty, says fear keeps many gay men in the closet and in denial about discrimination, "so they repeat the things that say, 'No, why I should say to everyone I am gay? If you do this secretly, everything is good.' But it's not true. Everyone has the problem."

The problems, Bima says, include police who won't investigate gangs that attack and rob gay men, and doctors who won't treat LGBT people.

Transgender people say they have problems as well, because Kazakhstan's laws make it extremely difficult to change their gender marker in official documents.

Activist Tim Shenker, a transgender man, says the law won't allow him, as a Kazakh citizen, to change his documents until he has undergone full sex-reassignment surgery.

"I started my transition six years ago," he says, "and I still have my own documents, in which I have my old name and old photo, so it's quite a problem to travel somewhere."

Shenker says the document problem means that transgender people are exposed or "outed" in every situation where they need to provide identification.

"The first question they ask is, 'Is it really your documents?' and you have to say, 'Well, of course they are mine,' " he says.

Tatiana Chernobyl says one major problem is the way the public views LGBT people.

"Public attitudes in Kazakhstan are very much negative among young people, among older people, so you can't say who is the average hater," she says.

The LGBT community fears that the government may now feel it's acceptable to pass a law that would restrict gay rights by banning so-called "propaganda about non-traditional sexual relationships to minors."

Russia passed a similar law in 2013, and activists there say the vague wording can be used to restrict virtually any public discussion of same-sex issues.

The passage of that law drew widespread international criticism when Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Seven months after the Games, the International Olympic Committee added a new clause to the contract for the host city of the 2022 Winter Olympics, explicitly banning discrimination.

Kazakhstan's parliament passed a Russian-style "anti-propaganda" law earlier this year, but it was struck down by the country's constitutional court.

Shenker says the biggest problem for his country is that many citizens have no concept of fundamental human rights. "They don't care for their own rights. They don't know that they have rights, so of course they don't think about the rights of other groups of people."

Conservative lawmakers in Kazakhstan's parliament have indicated they may try to pass another version of the anti-gay propaganda law in the near future.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corey Flintoff