In Uzbekistan, homosexuality is illegal. Here's what LGBT life is like there

In a country where sex between men is a crime, these personal accounts reveal the everyday realities of pressure, friendship and finding your own path.

Darina Solod
25 February 2020, 12.01am
Illustration: Tatyana Zelenskaya. All rights reserved

This article has taken half a year to write. And it’s not because there’s nothing to say about the LGBT community in Uzbekistan. On the contrary, you could write a whole novel on the subject. But I wanted to show people’s stories, daily lives, how they identify themselves and the problems they have to deal with every day.

This is where it got difficult. Most of the people I met refused to talk about their lives, even on condition of complete anonymity. The main reasons were distrust and fear of the consequences. Uzbekistan is one of the few remaining countries where sex between men is still criminalised, and can be punished by a three to five year prison sentence. There are no accessible statistics on how many investigations have been opened. But in the course of conversations and interviews it’s become obvious that this criminalisation is widely used to blackmail and threaten people.

Aside from prosecution for their sexual orientation, gay Uzbek men experience daily harassment from the public at large. Many of them fear not only for themselves, but for their nearest and dearest. Even if they manage to flee the country and receive political asylum elsewhere, their families and friends are at daily risk.

LGBT people living in the Uzbek capital Tashkent have it a little easier: life here is more diverse, you can get lost in the crowd. Some people don’t hide their orientation (although they don’t advertise it) – it’s just not talked about. In both the capital and outside, however, there is a total distrust of strangers and need for extreme care in the choice of partners and friends. Despite many attempts, I was only able to talk to Tashkent residents and one activist now living outside the country.

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I have changed everyone’s names, known locations and descriptions to protect my contacts. These three stories show that despite danger and antagonism towards them, lesbians and gay men in Uzbekistan are no longer willing to “remake themselves”, as one person described it. Some have found their own “niche”, surrounding themselves with people they trust and isolating themselves from violence - at least for a time. Their hidden world can still fall apart at any moment.

Story No.1: “Being gay in Tashkent isn’t that scary”

The author of this story is a 25 year old man. He studied marketing and advertising, and has worked in the service sector. He is currently unemployed, and lives in Tashkent.

I’ve known I was gay ever since I was a child. And I thought it was normal then. But as I got older, I started facing social pressure - I had to start a family, have kids. At that moment, I basically didn’t understand whether I wanted that, but tried to start relationships with women. Naturally, they didn’t work out.

All my close friends know that I’m gay. I started talking about it a long time ago, because I didn’t want to be some kind of person who I’m not. Although I feel that my sex life shouldn’t bother anyone. I once told everyone at work about it: colleagues asked what I thought about gays and I said: “Well, what can I think about gays when I’m one myself?” Most of them were fine about it, but it was amusing when drivers who wanted to be part of our friendship group were a bit worried about what they could say or not say.

Of course, there were also people who just didn’t want to know about it, and talked to me as little as possible. They distanced themselves from me as if I didn’t exist, and even when they were working under me they would refuse to do what I asked. I don’t know why – whether because I was gay or because they thought I lacked authority. But I wouldn’t want to link this to my sexual orientation: I’m agree that people might not want to talk to me if I’m gay. But refusing to work because of that… I think it’s more a question of authority.

On the whole, it’s not that difficult to be gay in Tashkent. Of course, when there’s too much in the air about people being jailed, humiliated or beaten up, there’s a lot of fear around and you get worried. But on the whole I can’t say that I’m always afraid and live in fear of my life. I remember how when I was in the seventh grade at school - 14 or 15 - I fancied a boy. We became friends and I told him I was gay. And he, of course, told the whole class. I got a bit of bullying, but it didn’t last long – I didn’t react and it fizzled out. And the other students weren’t in the least interested.

02 (1).jpg
Illustration: Tatyana Zelenskaya. All rights reserved

If someone doesn’t understand what being gay means, or they only know the stereotypes, I try to explain that we don’t choose our orientation and that we can’t change it. Of course, when I was a teenager I also tried to change, I hadn’t yet accepted who I was, but as soon as I tried to get close to a woman I was completely turned off heterosexual sex.

The more mature I become, the more I accept and understand myself. I know that I’d like to have a family, but not in the usual sense - where’s there’s a husband and wife - but my own family with a man who I love. I’d like to live with someone and bring up a child together if possible, but there’s no chance of that in Tashkent - or in Russia. So I’m thinking about moving elsewhere, but I don’t have any concrete plans about it.

I feel that there are practically no LGBT communities in either Uzbekistan or Russia. I mean the kind of community where people are friends and do things together. There is activism, of course, but that doesn’t particularly unite people – it’s each person for themselves. Gay men don’t live together as communities – no one wants to do that and basically nobody cares. There are several reasons for that, but the main thing is fear – no one wants to end up in court.

How do we get together with one another? Like everybody else, we make friends with people who have the same interests. We don’t have a separate subculture: you don’t ever find people meeting up with friends, bumping into other gays and hanging out with people just because they’re also gay. It’s also interesting that I’ve encountered much more homophobia in Moscow than in Tashkent – I’ve never been called a “paedo” here or been threatened, whereas in Moscow it’s happened quite often. And it’s not as though I’m part of a select group of close buddies; in general people just treat me normally. I used to be embarrassed about my voice and appearance, but that was to do with a lack of self awareness. As soon as I accepted myself I stopped being afraid of other people, avoiding them or disguising my gayness, although I never advertised it or tried to show off.

"Perhaps I’ve created an ideal private world for myself where everything’s fine. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to overdo it and scare people into thinking that gays have a really hard time in our country. You can’t deny that there’s a certain vacuum here, but I’m comfortable inside it"

Gay men in Tashkent generally use social networks to make contact with one another, but they all use codenames and hide their identities, out of fear. They post photos of random people online, so meeting up with one another is totally haphazard. It’s easy enough to meet people – it’s all a question of interests. You make friends with people and then meet other people through them. It’s not that we only want to to meet other LGBT people, but we don’t mix with straight people, because they aren’t “our people”.

We do have certain safety rules. For example, I wouldn’t go to dodgy places on the outskirts of Tashkent, because I might get into difficulties. But again, it wouldn’t be because I’m gay, but just because it’s generally not safe there. Perhaps I’ve created an ideal private world for myself where everything’s fine. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to overdo it and scare people into thinking that gays have a really hard time in our country. You can’t deny that there’s a certain vacuum here, but I’m comfortable inside it.

Story No. 2: “You’ll have your fun and then get over it”

The author of this story is a 27 year old woman. She studied art, and currently works in IT and design. She lives in Tashkent.

I’m neither here nor there, people don’t think about me at all. Seriously, who thinks about who pansexuals are, what is that about anyway, how do they live? I’m neither hetero nor homo: I’m somewhere in-between. That’s how I identify myself.

I don’t encounter the problems of either group, especially since Article 120 of the Uzbek Criminal Code [which criminalises sex between men] doesn’t affect women. When I had a girlfriend, the worst thing that could happen people might point and shout “lesbian” at us, but we could survive that. No one was threatening to beat us up or even show any direct aggression.

I see this as part of traditional patriarchal values: a lesbian is someone who “will have her fun and then get over it” - it won’t be serious. I had a girlfriend who never worked out how to have sex with another woman. She doesn’t see women as completely human. Patriarchal values mean that you need a partner of the opposite sex.

From the point of view of safety, it’s also easier for a woman to be LGBT – society sees us as some kind of amusing creatures: “Look at them, walking hand in hand, the silly lesbians!” And it is safer for us than for men – we can walk hand in hand, while men can’t. My group of friends are also lucky: we already know who we are, we understand ourselves; we know what we find interesting in other people and know what we want, so we have our comfort zone. But this is mainly a question of luck – everything might be OK and no one pays attention to you, or it might be the opposite. Tashkent, in contrast to the rest of the country, is generally very privileged. Here you can try to explain, show and prove something to someone. In the rest of Uzbekistan, people have no time or resources to think about our lifestyle: people are too busy eating, drinking, working and having babies.

Illustration: Tatyana Zelenskaya. All rights reserved

I have a friend, a designer who is now living abroad. He grew up in a rural area but moved to Tashkent. His whole extended family followed his social media posts and they were in hysterics about his homosexuality, and he eventually closed his account and left Uzbekistan because he was tired of it all. And while he was living in a rural area, things were difficult for him – the locals didn’t accept him and his parents lived with him but thought he was insane, so he couldn’t accept himself either. The whole situation hung on a fine thread – any further and it would break completely, and photos on his social media page were the last straw. In third world countries such as ours, family links are incredibly important. They provide a false sense of security.

In terms of friendships, things are, of course, difficult. People are either very closed in on themselves, full of complexes and afraid of themselves, or else they live in an official marriage, a cover for their orientation. And everyone suffers in this situation – both the man himself, trying not to let it get him down and his family, whom he needs as a screen.

I remember something funny from when I was at college – a group of active lesbians was keen on the idea of all the lesbians in the city forming their own community. I met up with them one day but didn’t get on with them and didn’t see them again – it was all too strange. The whole point of the meeting was just “being lesbians” – it was very limiting, there was only one topic of conversation and it all seemed very introspective. In this kind of group you start to feel like a walking cliché. I am a person, an individual with my own interests and views on life, whilst there, everything becomes devalued and all that remains of you is that you are LGBT. It’s all so active and heartfelt that it’s a bit scary. And every attempt to create an LGBT community ends up with just one reason for bringing people together – their sexual orientation, which is not so strong a bond.

"I often think about leaving Uzbekistan, but not because of my sexual orientation and my views, but because life has really been hard in recent times. But I’m not thinking of going yet"

As for awareness raising, I feel the need to explain homosexuality to people individually, because it is not the same as paedophilia. This is complicated: you have to work on a mass scale to explain on a mass scale. But people in this country have no interest in what homosexuality is and why there’s no such thing as homosexual propaganda – no one understands that if you’re not born a homosexual, you’re not going to turn into one just by going on a couple of Gay parades. This is the problem: you can’t just explain to people individually, you need a mass campaign. The state doesn’t want to change, because it is patriarchal through and through, not to mention the enormous role, both here and in Russia, of religion, which is also inimical to LGBT issues. And sex education in general is a disaster in this country – children don’t know where they come from, what “hetero-“ and “gay” mean and so on.

My girlfriend and I are thinking about how to fill this gap: how we can run a course to explain these basic things to people. But for the moment everything is very complicated here and just leads into a blind alley: it’s dangerous to organise public awareness events because they might attract too much public attention and harm the LGBT community, so we don’t know what to do. I can’t imagine what activism could take place in this area, even despite the privilege extended to women of not actually getting beaten up. But I do have concern for my own safety – you can be punished here for a non-existent offence like activism, for example, that contravenes the traditional values of our country.

I often think about leaving Uzbekistan, but not because of my sexual orientation and my views, but because life has really been hard in recent times. But I’m not thinking of going yet.

Story No. 3: How a protest turned into flight

The last story in this text belongs to Shohrukh Salimov, a political refugee from Uzbekistan. In August 2019, Salimov published a video appeal to President Mirziyoyev with a request to decriminalise sex between men. That year, Salimov had been arrested following testimony by a friend, who had been blackmailed by officials from the Uzbek interior ministry - either you hand over your friends or you go to prison. Salimov was beaten and humiliated during detention, and was subject to extortion: interior ministry officers demanded he pay $2,000 for the investigation to be closed. After he gave them this money, Salimov travelled to Moscow, and then Istanbul, where he currently lives.

I’m bisexual. Before my arrest and appeal, no one knew about my sexual orientation. I lived outside Uzbekistan for many years, returning just for short visits and completing my business as quickly as possible before leaving again. I was afraid that someone might catch me and start to blackmail or lynch me.

The last time I visited Uzbekistan, I was arrested by the police, who were helped by an old friend whom I had known from the age of 14-15. We met accidentally in town but he invited me to his home. I went because I trusted him. Once there, we were arrested and accused of having sexual relations. During a phone conversation with me, my friend was also talking to someone else, and the cops didn’t break down the door of the room but opened it with a key. We were both taken to the police station. My friend was freed after 20 minutes. I realised that I’d been framed.

I was tortured and cruelly beaten, as well as being humiliated, insulted and threatened with prison. I was so emaciated that I was ready to sign any piece of paper to get out of this hell, but they were demanding $2,000 to release me.

The idea of appealing to the Uzbek president came to me just after this ordeal. Before my appeal on Radio Ozodlik [RFE/RL’s Uzbek service], I posted video clips on YouTube [all videos have currently been removed from YouTube – ed.] where I talked about the difficult situation of LGBT people in his country and appealed to Radio Ozodlik on behalf of LGBT activists. The attitude towards us of both the government and the public are terrible, and were it not for international NGOs we would have been subjected to compulsory medical treatment.

Illustration: Tatyana Zelenskaya. All rights reserved

In a family where an LGBT+ person comes out to their parents, they still try to “treat” him or her because they think we are mentally ill. If you remember, former President Islam Karimov said that there was something wrong with our brains and that we were disgusting, and our country’s current leaders think the same. The same people are basically still in power.

After the appeal on Radio Ozodlik, when I had already left the country, police officers came to my home in Uzbekistan and announced to my brother that they would do all in their powers to return me to Uzbekistan and put me behind bars. I heard this from my brother, who threatened and insulted me.

I was forced to leave because they [Uzbek law enforcement] could have blackmailed me again and used me to frame other LGBT+ people, and then these people could tell my family – the police had video material showing police entering a flat where they found me making love to another man. This was my childhood friend and their agent, whom they had probably also threatened with prison and outing. That was when I fled to Moscow and then to Turkey.

"We are also citizens of Uzbekistan: we were born here, it’s our motherland, we pay our taxes, which fund the salaries of the police officers who ought to protect us. Instead, they set up sham meetings, blackmail and embezzle"

Uzbekistan has currently no human rights organisations that could protect the rights of the LGBT+ community. There are still activists, but they can do very little because of Article 120 [the Criminal Code statute which criminalises sex between men]. And we can’t even provide legal help for anyone – there is too much hatred here. In my appeal to President Mirziyeyev, I requested the repeal of this Article and the protection of pro-LGBT+ legislation. The President is, after all, the guarantee of the security of every Uzbek citizen, including every LGBT+ citizen.

We are also citizens of Uzbekistan: we were born here, it’s our motherland, we pay our taxes, which fund the salaries of the police officers who ought to protect us. Instead, they set up sham meetings, blackmail and embezzle and may even kill if someone represents a threat to them.

Once you’ve been arrested, there’s nothing more to be done – it all depends on money, and they can pin any crime on you for money and you can’t prove a thing. And if gay people won’t confess, they beat them and torture them to the point where they will start praying for mercy and do everything they ask. That’s the truth, as some police officers even admit.

As for the Uzbek public, gay men are often victims of informal courts. We are all becoming witnesses to open threats, insults and humiliation. And when this happens, no one can turn to the police, the public prosecutor or the courts because they are afraid to – they know that they won’t be helped and it might create yet more trouble for them.

And what can they say? “They beat me up because I was gay”, or “I was caught and beaten up while I was having sex with another man’. For this kind of statement you can be arrested immediately – you’ve admitted your own guilt. I have a recollection of over 35 crimes and offences committed with impunity thanks to Article 120. Blackmail, for example, is a crime. Causing deliberate serious physical harm is a crime. Humiliation, insulting behaviour and threats are all crimes. I could go on.

The reason they don’t want to repeal the article is, I think, because the powers that be are homophobes - they have a distorted idea of us and believe that we present a threat to our country. This world view has remained current among our more mature leaders since Soviet times and today’s young people take their example from them.

Religion also plays a role in this issue. Islam preaches that there can be no mercy for homosexuals, only death, and that by stoning or being thrown from the top of a high building. Uzbekistan is a secular state, but a majority of the population are practising Muslims and support these radical punishments, despite the fact that premeditated murder only attracts a 10-15 year prison sentence and murder founded on religious prejudice, a 15-25 year sentence.

Bloggers and religious people support these penalties and call for a return to the Middle Ages and their laws. I already have a price on my head – I have proof of this. Killing a homosexual brings a promise of Paradise, as a good deed and reward (both a spiritual one after death and a material one in life). This kind of thinking horrifies me. If these people knew anything about us, homophobia like this wouldn’t exist.

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