Nomads of Today

Life and the Struggle of Queer Refugees from Central Asia

“Tashkent” – a supermarket of Central Asian goods located in Brighton Beach, New York City – always had the best samsa. Going there, a place that so closely resembled my home but was so far removed from it, was uncanny, yet it made sense. Central Asians value family and unity, and what is a more telling example of that than Brighton Beach, an area in South Brooklyn full of people that looked and spoke like me. When we – Central Asians – are abroad, we crave to find people similar to us: we feel anchored and secure no matter where we are. At least that’s what I thought. 

Right when I was paying for my samsa, RUSA LGBTQ+, a human rights organization that advocates for the rights of queer CIS communities in New York, was organizing a pride walk along Brighton Beach to celebrate not only the existence of queer people, but the people who survived and triumphed over the homophobic environments prevalent in Central Asia by living freely in the US. At the same time, it was a call to action to change the treatment of LGBTQ+ communities in Central Asia, so no queer person ever has to ‘survive’. 

It seemed symbolic to me that queer Central Asians were organizing a celebration of their pride outside of the walls of a supermarket full of people who may not readily embrace their existence. While being built on the premises of unity, “Tashkent” did not extend that unity towards queer Central Asians due to the general attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community in Central Asia. Queer people from all over the region move to a different country to seek safety and belonging only to be shunned again by the same people, in a different context: and yet their stories are unheard, their scars are unseen, and their existence is unacknowledged. That one fateful day resulted in more than a satisfying bite of samsa: it resulted in a realization that I needed to listen. 

“We come from cultures that repress who we are,” noted Anvar as he sipped his freshly brewed coffee somewhere in Midtown Manhattan. He spoke very calmly and with much poise, even though the weight of the conversation left little room for that. I connected with Anvar, an Uzbekistani activist, during my search for Central Asian LGBTQ+ activists and refugees who would be willing to share their stories of migration, mistreatment, and injustice. 

Despite feeling more physically safe, he notes that the internalized homophobia and the battle of accepting himself caused by years of oppressive and discriminatory rhetoric against queer people in Uzbekistan is “still a work in progress.” However, the opportunity to be and speak for himself has had a more positive impact on his life. “I started living ever since I moved here, not just existing like I did back in Uzbekistan,” he pointed out with pride. 

Uzbekistan, along with Turkmenistan, have criminalized male homosexual relations in any form, with convicted individuals facing up to three years of imprisonment. While the government is the main enforcer of these laws, heterosexual citizens of Uzbekistan often persecute or shun LGBTQ+ Uzbekistanis. 

Anvar first migrated to Russia, before moving to the US a decade ago. And while he has been vocal about the plight of LGBTQ+ communities in his home country, the reception of that among fellow queer Central Asians has not always been positive. “Being associated with me meant [other Central Asians who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community] are also queer and they didn’t want that attention,” admitted Anvar, providing a new perspective not only on queerness as a Central Asian, but also the consequences of being vocal about that within the community itself. 

“The majority of them [queer Central Asians] wanted to stay away from me,” he added, emphasizing the fear and the social stigma that exists among queer Central Asians even after migration.

One of the signifiers of homophobic attitudes in Central Asia is the pinning of queerness against Central Asian identities: if you’re Uzbek, you can’t be queer, and if you’re queer, you can’t be Uzbek. Anti-LGBTQ+ groups and figures argue that the ‘values’ of the West, i.e. queer identities, have not been a part of Central Asian history and identity formation. A man burning the pride flag in a Kazakh traditional attire will claim that “Kazakhs never had LGBTQ+ influence and our values do not allow for that,” even though you rarely see such “activism” against domestic violence or corruption. (citation)

Anvar disclosed that in the past he has received hate fueled by precisely that notion. He shared that his actions in the US are still broadcasted and criticized in his home country: “There was an article on ‘Fergana News’ of me going to a pride parade…with an Uzbek flag.” “Fergana News” is a major news publication in Uzbekistan. The response to the article by Uzbek readers was overwhelmingly negative, with the majority of the comments highlighting his “ineligibility” to properly represent Uzbekistan and its culture. Surprisingly, Anvar, whose existence would be deemed as a contradiction by these online users, is proud of his background and culture. 

“We’re unique,” exclaimed Anvar, as he thought of what it means to be Central Asian. “Whenever I see something about Uzbekistan, my heart tingles – it makes me happy,” he shared, as for the first time during the conversation, I heard happiness in his voice. 

Aliya*, another Central Asian queer refugee who I had the privilege to speak with, has also expressed that she misses her home country – Kazakhstan. Unlike the many tragic stories of queer refugees, her story did not begin with family. In fact, her family, specifically her mother, have always been supportive of her journey. The one note her mother made was that Aliya “had to introduce all of her girlfriends to [her] mother,” she jokingly remarked. 

Aliya’s struggle for freedom began with a simple decision. “I’ve always wanted to start a family,” she reminisced. While same-sex couples cannot legally adopt children in Kazakhstan, it lacks prohibitive measures preventing single parents from pursuing adoption. She and her partner decided to follow that route and adopted a young boy. Unlike both partners, the boy is ethnically Russian. After years of living in the same area and peacefully raising a child, the new family soon found themselves in the spotlight of unwanted attention, as questions about “the father” and the boy’s ethnicity arose.

“People started asking questions like ‘Where is the father?’ or ‘If you’re the mother, how come the boy is Russian?” added Aliya as examples of growing suspicion and harassment from her neighbors. Soon the situation began to devolve. 

“We began receiving death threats,” she noted. Unfortunately, none of the Central Asian nations, including Kazakhstan, have established anti-discrimination laws to protect sexual and gender minorities. Her family would soon realize that the police are of no help, as they either brushed off their cases as insignificant or implicitly agreed with the discrimination her family was suffering from. “The only viable solution was to move to a different area of the city”, she added. This would prove to be futile, as each new neighborhood became more dangerous than the other. “We moved at least seven times,” she noted with heaviness in her voice. 

“The last straw was when they threatened to call child services and take our son away,” added Aliya, explaining what led her and her partner to settle on the decision to move. What seemed to be the end of her journey in Kazakhstan, became the beginning of her journey to the US: a path no less frightening and difficult. 

While migration to and seeking asylum in the US is known to be a difficult and risky process, the specifics of such a difficulty are often overshadowed by the “final prize” – freedom and safety. Aliya’s story teaches us that sometimes those specifics are too difficult to forget. “As a result of the pressure, risk, and stress of the move, I developed cancer…On top of that, during the process, my mother passed away. At that point, we were unable to return,” she shared. 

There are many different stories of queer refuge, and despite familial ousting being some of the most common stories, Aliya’s story was different. Hers is the story of a government, which has sworn to protect the rights of every citizen, failing her and her family, forcing them to leave everything behind. “We wouldn’t have left Kazakhstan had there been legal protections in place,” expressed Aliya, reaffirming the need for the governments of Central Asia to take accountability for the horrors that LGBTQ+ Central Asians face in their home countries. One can only imagine how Aliya and her family’s life would have unfolded if people’s routine harassment of them was met with persecution from the police force. 

And yet, woman exuded the greatest joy in our conversation when expressing her profound love for her homeland. “I miss Kazakhstan. I try to remind myself of my home country by listening to Kazakh music,” she said, among some of her final remarks about her pride for her background. Despite learning another story full of heartbreak and trial, I once again came to understand these queer refugees as resilient, brave, and beautiful souls whose love for their culture and homeland is as strong as ever. 

And while, sadly, these “homelands” have been anything but welcoming for these people, their stories show that merely legalizing homosexuality/gender reassignment surgery is not enough: as we can see in the example of Kazakhstan, people who ‘dare’ to live their lives freely, while complying with the law, are not protected by the justice system when they do so. As such, while the legalization of homosexuality is necessary across all Central Asian countries, it is not sufficient – laws criminalizing any form of discrimination on the basis of gender/sexuality need to be implemented as well. 

More importantly, there needs to be a wider recognition that one can be Central Asian and queer at the same time, a recognition that leads to a conception of a non-exclusive Central Asian unity. And maybe someday, supermarkets like Tashkent will be a space full of mementos of the motherland they miss – not a reminder of a home they had to abandon. 

Author – Yerk*

*The name of the heroine has been changed

**The author’s opinion may not coincide with the opinion of the Feminita’s team

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Казахстанская феминистская инициатива "Феминита" - низовой квир-феминистский коллектив, ставящий целью создание и укрепление прав женщин и активистских сообществ, способных внести изменения в социальную, политическую, экономическую и культурную сферы для наиболее угнетенных групп населения Казахстана (лесбиянки, бисексуалки, квир, женщины-инвалиды, женщины в секс-работе). «Queer» (квир) в нашей целевой группе выступает в качестве зонтичного термина, который включает в себя всех женщин, которые оказываются вне половых и гендерной идентичности.

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