Reflecting on the Tragedy of Queer Rights in Central Asia

Recently, news emerged from Uzbekistan that Miraziz Bazarov, an Uzbek LGBT activist who is fighting to get the government to decriminalize homosexuality, was savagely beaten by homophobes. True to form, instead of addressing the violence, the Uzbek government decided to blame Bazarov for his own beating.

It is a familiar pattern for violent homophobia and Bazarov deserves our support and defense. He is a victim, full stop, and the Uzbek government’s attitude toward his beating is unacceptable and cruel. Bazarov was beaten in the midst of a religious backlash to a perceived wave of LGBT activism — an uncomfortable (and more violent) parallel to a similar backlash underway in the U.S. But within Uzbekistan the tension between modern liberal rights and interpretations of religious faith are even more fraught that in the U.S.

A video that has stuck with me for years is this 1991 clip of then-Uzbek President Islom Karimov traveling to a city called Namangan to confront Tohir Yuldosh. For those who are unaware — and really, why should you be aware of it? — this was monumental for several reasons.

Namangan is in the middle of the Ferghana Valley, a generally conservative, more religious subregion of Central Asia carved up between three different Soviet republics by Stalin so as to prevent a unified ethic or Muslim front resisting Moscow rule (the exact boundaries become fiendishly complicated up close, and enclaves of Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz, were intentionally put on the “wrong” side as a symbol). After this video, Tohir Yuldosh went on to cofound the terrorist group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan with Juma Namangani (who was from — you guessed it — Namangan).

But during this video, none of that had happened yet. Instead, Yoldosh had begun to agitate for Uzbekistan to be an explicitly Islamic state, religiously conservative and opposed to the trappings of the modern liberal state as envisioned by the early 1990s Washington Consensus. Karimov, the president, came from the Soviet tradition, a party boss during the USSR, then president of the Uzbek SSR, and then president of the independent Republic of Uzbkeistan (importantly, Karimov had no real heritage ties to the Ferghana region; he was from Samarkand, still obviously Islamic, but not as conservative). By this point, he had successfully transitioned the country from one form of despotic secular rule to another; in his head, he probably saw himself as the Father of the Nation or something similar. Yoldosh represented a direct threat to that image, offering a hardline challenge to the image of Uzbekistan as a modern country.

So, Karimov traveled to Namangan to confront Yoldosh, where they debated the future of the country: is it global, or religious? Looking to the future or to the past? In a way the outcome of that debate doesn’t matter (either choice represented horrible things for the normal citizens of the country), but Karimov’s victory in that debate set the stage of decades of religious oppression, for struggles to adapt to the demands of basic human rights in the modern world, and what the people of Uzbekistan themselves really want. That struggle is still ongoing.

So, there is context for Bazarov’s savage beating. It is not justified in any way, but there’s a reason why Uzbekistan remains embroiled in a society—wide dispute over how modern or how fundamentalist they should be as a country. And in a lot of ways, it is emblematic of the region as a whole, that (mostly) wants to be open and “normal” but can’t quite shake its own past, and in the process brutalizes and destroys people without power who just want to live their lives.

Bazarov’s plight resonates with me on a host of levels, from the basic humanity being violated, to the struggle with religious fundamentalists rejecting his right to exist openly, to my own story of coming to grips with my own queerness. There’s always a fine line to walk when reflecting on a fellow traveler’s tragedy, especially when they are significantly less advantaged than you are, and I try to be aware of not wallowing in it. Tragedy, after all, is addicting to Americans, and we like to pretend we can assume someone else’s hurt and either solve it or at least achieve our own catharsis in the attempt. I know it’s a fraught path to even look ati. But I cannot escape engaging in reflection about this. You see, Central Asia was why I eventually escaped the hate-filled clutches of evangelical Christianity and finally build up the courage to came out of the closet.

I first arrived in Kazakhstan on my 22nd birthday, just months after the invasion of Iraq. I was there, ostensibly, as an evangelical Christian missionary teaching English at a local business school, though I don’t actually recall talking to anyone about Jesus. Like most young people sent out by various evangelical groups, it was much more of an elaborately-justified adventure tour than an actual mission of service, though I hope my students at least learned a bit from the idioms and spelling exercises we did. It’s not exactly something I am proud of.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time at the local internet cafe, near my flat in southeastern Karaganda, where I’d send out emails to the donors at my old church who were supporting me and sometimes manage an internet voice call with my parents (this was pre-Skype!). Speaking English in that setting put a bit of a target on me, not in a bad way, but it was very novel for most of the patrons. This one guy, a body builder based on his bulky shoulders, ignored me — he was too busy playing bad music (“Wake Me Up Inside” by Evanescence was a favorite, which he would play on repeat), and he would sometimes stream video from weird Russian websites I didn’t recognize. He did this while coding websites by hand in HTML. To me, this felt oddly backward, as I had just converted my blog at the time from blogspot over to Moveable Type, and the prospect of writing out a website by hand was vicariously exhausting. Still, it was obviously good practice, and I always noticed when he looked particularly proud of a page he got to load correctly.

I was transfixed. While he waited for pages to load — the internet in Central Kazakhstan 20 years ago was not very fast — he would stretch and do these miniature flexes that I could not look away from. I hadn’t come out to anyone yet, certainly not to my fellow “missionaries,” so I was terrified of ever acting on these feelings. Moreover, I had fallen into the sex-shaming of evangelicalism, and sworn off any form of sexual pleasure, assuming that God would be pleased if I was pent up, horny, and miserable all the time.

Just getting through the day was exhausting: my Russian was terrible and people laughed at my accent, so I hated interacting with people in town, which meant I tended not to be proactive in seeing the city. My roommates spent evenings going out, eating at restaurants and exploring, while I stayed home and played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on my Gameboy Advance. It was one of those nights when the vow went away, and I found myself thinking about HTML guy.

I kept thinking about him long after I got home. Plenty of travelogues about travel to exotic places involves a fling of some sort; I had in my head that I would find a woman who would turn me straight, who would show me how comforting and right it felt to be hetero. I know a couple of women I met in Kazakhstan wanted to… or at least, they were intrigued by the novelty of a chubby but sexless young American man asking them to deconstruct Radiohead lyrics in class. But I had never envisioned a man filling that role; my experiences with sex had so far been fleeting, illicit, shameful, humiliating. I had no concept of sex as joy, only as temporary relief, hopefully not too painful, bracketed by remorse and prayer. I told myself that that’s all this could ever be — managing the shame, the secrecy, the guilt, but never finding something real.

Of course, there was another force preventing me from seeing what might have happened: I didn’t want to get beaten to death. That’s the other side of traveling while gay that I simply never got: not only was a vacation hook up unattainable, it was forbidden, and to this day I’ve never wrapped my head around those who manage it anyway. To this day, Kazakhstan remains a challenging place for queer folk, where it’s sort of legally okay to be gay but people have free reign to abuse and discriminate — and they do so.

One night, when my friends convinced me to go to a party in town, in what looked like an abandoned store front fitted with a disco ball and some speakers, I saw a man get punched in the face, then dragged out and kicked until he stopped crying. My student and translator, Marina, told me that the guy was a faggot, and he was being punished for “going after” the assailant. I pretended to be in agreement with her that the victim was to blame, and swore I’d never be so stupid as to be openly gay in a space that wasn’t controlled for it.

The fear of being gay, and an evangelical, and a missionary, and in a homophobic place where my language skills fell short, drove me into my work. I stayed after class, when I was normally cranky from the fatigue of teaching, to help some of the students go over passages they were trying to interpret. I wrote extensive comments on the short essays they wrote, marveling at how they translated Russian idioms into English without adding meaning. One of my favorites, “to leave with the head,” (ukhadit galavoi) confused me at first. I saw it a couple of times in the essays and couldn’t piece together what it could possibly mean.

So one day, while eating lunch at a Turkish restaurant near a statue of a man riding an aircraft cockpit like a cowboy (an homage to the pilots of World War II, they said), I asked Gulnara, who had taken a liking to me, what it meant. She struggled. “It’s like, when you are so focused on something, and you become forgetful.”

This didn’t make any sense to me, and I thought back to how I tried to explain English idioms. There was one, “stuck in a rut,” that just didn’t click for them. What was a rut? Most of their streets got muddy; what does being stuck in the tire divots have to do with anything? When vocabulary is limited, explaining something like a feeling of being trapped by your routine, by your choices and surroundings, denied agency and choice, is hard.

So I tried to ask Gulnara some more questions. Eventually, we settled on a meaning: to be so focused on work that you forget things. It’s like being absent minded. I think there was an allusion to a slaughtered animal but we didn’t explore it. By this time of day I usually needed a nap before doing much else. I thanked her and hopped on the marshrutka to go home. I tried not to think of it as anything more than one of those quirky little stories Americans love to collect about Central Asia, akin to eating horse for the first time, or figuring out what those weird hooks are in the market with the hanging meat.

The thing with homophobia is it never needs to be at the surface to have power. As a child in evangelical church I learned early on that my lack of attraction to girls was a plus — I could honestly tell my Bible study I didn’t struggle with lust toward women! — but it was also a pretty big minus. Before joining a prayer group I had to fill out a questionnaire that asked if I had ever struggled with “various forms of demonic possession,” one of which was homosexuality. A transman attended a sister church; I was afraid to talk to him, because I saw how the church talked about trans people (hatefully), and I never understood how he navigated the hate and his faith.

One weekend in July, I took students camping in Karkaralinsk, a park midway between Karaganda and Astana, the capital city. There, we went hiking, drank gallons of black tea, ate crusty bread with butter and jam, and roasted potatoes on the embers of a bonfire. The men and women stayed in different cabins, each with a single shower in the middle of an expanse of tile. There was no privacy. I didn’t shower the whole weekend because I was so scared of being caught looking, or doing something wrong, and being labeled a queer. It ruined the experience for me, which I otherwise loved: watching the sun set on the steppe, laughing around the fire as we chewed bits of seared pork fat, playing cards. I learned a lot about my students there. They learned almost nothing about me.

Toward the end of my time there, I developed a rather severe case of food poisoning. I had taken to trying shashlyk, marinated pork cooked on hot coals, wrapped in naan and served with raw onions, from everywhere I could find it. It was my favorite food, right next to the little manti dumplings made of mutton and pumpkin. Near Panfilov Park (every moderately sized city in Central Asia has a Panfilov Park), there was this one corner where a guy served shashlyk next to his cousin, who operated a cart that served kvass, a drink of fermented rye bread. This was the real deal, too, where there was only a single short ball glass that was delicately wiped with a single rag between customers.

Anyway, so I ate and drank there, and got dreadfully sick. I couldn’t eat for days, not even when we took the train south to Almaty and I joined my friends climbing the thousand steps above the Medeu ice rink. The only calories I had was the sugar in the tea; even eating naan or “fully cooked meat,” as Yeva put it, simply went through me without stopping for digestion. And it got me to thinking about where I wanted to go after I got back home. I had been obsessed with the idea of going to a missionary school, doing the adventure thing full time. I told myself I’d eventually find a woman I would be willing to settle with and marry; that I’d get to scratch my adventure itch and stay respectable to the church and to my family. But that was all a fantasy — a dumb one, at that. Sitting at the chaikhanna halfway up those steps, sucking on a sugar cube I had fished out of the tea, just to feel alive for a few minutes, I had a profound sense of regret at what I hadn’t experienced there, at what I left myself miss out on because I was too afraid of who I was and what I wanted in life.

Either way, the homophobia that infests too much of this world is there, even in the back of my head, telling me I’m too girly or too at-risk to relax and feel comfortable, too lispy to pass, always a hair’s breadth away from being hurt by a random stranger. That is the cost of living, so why not be myself?

And so, when my plane disgorged me into the hazy air in Los Angeles, my hair matted and my clothes stench-filled from 36 hours on airplanes, and I saw my aunt waving to me in the baggage claim, I resolved that’s what I would do.

comments powered by Disqus