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‘If the wrong person finds out, they might kill me’ Gay Uzbek men describe life in a country where their sexuality is a crime
Late last year, just one month after Russia banned “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships,” Uzbekistan’s presidential administration put up a bill for public discussion that would do the same. The copycat legislation threatens to further complicate the lives of LGBTQ+ people in a country where “sodomy” is still classified as a criminal offense. To learn how Uzbekistan’s existing anti-gay laws affect people on the ground, the independent outlet Mediazona Central Asia spoke with gay men there about the discrimination they face, the danger that coming out to friends entails, and their expectations for their country’s future.
‘My parents would send me to a psych ward’
Despite years of appeals from international organizations, homosexuality remains a criminal offense in Uzbekistan. According to the country’s criminal code, a person can face up to three years in prison for “sodomy.” As a result, most gay men hide their sexual orientation, often not telling even their closest friends and relatives.
With assistance from the Eurasian Coalition on Health, Rights, Gender and Sexual Diversity (EKOM), journalists from Mediazona were able to talk to a number of gay men living in Uzbekistan, the majority of whom were between 18 and 25. They described their struggle with the dilemma of whether to tell others about their orientation or to hide it for fear of criminal prosecution.
I only told my best childhood friend, and it turned out that he had the same confession to make. We accepted [our sexualities] as a natural phenomenon. But since he lives far away, and didn’t get to talk very often, I experienced this moment alone.
My friends know about my orientation. My parents found out about it against my will and had a very negative reaction, so now I have to tell them that I was “fixed” and that I’m “on the right path” now.
I usually hide it, because if anybody with the wrong kind of worldview finds out, they could hurt me or even kill me. I haven’t revealed it to my parents, because they’re very religious and just wouldn’t accept it. I came out to my brother. At first, he was extremely disappointed. But after some time, he started joking about my sexuality, like he would ask if I like such-and-such man or not. Initially, I told him that I’m bisexual, because I was afraid to admit the full truth. Sometime later, my brother told me that he could support me, but not my partners and friends. My close friends also know, but they were more surprised than disappointed. I liked the way my best friend reacted: when she found out, she said, “And what the fuck about it?”
I told three or four of my close friends that [I’m gay]. At first, their attitudes towards me were unpleasant, but then they more or less made peace with it. I can’t tell my parents, because I’m afraid that they won’t understand or won’t accept me. Chances are, they’ll think I’m mentally ill; probably, they’ll either send me to a psych ward, or this situation will lead to [my] murder.
The men Mediazona spoke to said that there are Uzbek- and Russian-language chat groups where LGBTQ+ Uzbeks can talk to one another. Most of these groups are organized geographically: there’s a Telegram channel for gay men in Namangan, for example. Unfortunately, not everybody who joins the channel is just looking to chat or meet up; it’s common to encounter blackmailers or police officers.
In Uzbekistan, there are social media groups [for gay men]. They can be divided into two categories: there are groups that are exclusively for dating, and there are groups that publish detailed information about various diseases as well as how to handle discrimination, stigmas, and so on.
There’s an open gay chat group where I post announcements that I’m open to meeting guys for both friendships and relationships. If me and a person I’m chatting with become close, I propose meeting up. But it can be tricky, since we’re communicating under conditions that make it difficult to trust one another. I had one situation where my neighbor, after he found out I was gay, started blackmailing me — he asked for money and threatened to tell my parents [if I didn’t pay him]. So I try not to avoid too much contact with heterosexual people, because it’s not safe.
I met one guy in the Namangan chat, and after that, two guys came over to my place. We just hung out and chatted, and then they suggested we go to their place to hang out and talk there. When we arrived at some other place, they told me that they were straight. They started threatening me, took my money, blackmailed me, and insulted me. They didn’t let me go until I had given them all the money I had on me. There was also one time when the guys I was talking to posed as law enforcement officers and tried to intimidate me with threats.
All of the men Mediazona spoke to said they had faced discrimination.
I face [harassment] practically everywhere I go: home, at school, at work, everywhere I’m forced to be. Discrimination takes the form of disgusting jokes and threats to do the worst things imaginable to us.
How many young guys have left their home country or, even worse, died in various ways? For example, pressure from their parents, loved ones, and friends? Or people spreading videos or photos taken by homophobes? [Or what about] punishment under the Criminal Code? And a lot of other things.
At school, at work, at university, and even at home. I’ve faced judgment, blackmail, humiliation, and awful psychological and physical abuse from my family.
Hearing verbal abuse from ordinary people is one thing; getting it from law enforcement is something completely different. Two of the men who spoke to Mediazona described past encounters with the police.
I had one situation where I got stopped in the park; they were conducting a raid in search of gay men. Police officers checked my phone and found the group “Namangan Chat,” which I was a member of, and asked me to follow them to the station. When I arrived, they started asking me all kinds of questions, like how many gay men are in Namangan, how many friends I have, how many acquaintances I have. I told them I’m the only one. Then the officers told me about Uzbekistan’s laws, and about how it’s a criminal offense. I ended up spending a day in an isolation cell. After that, my brother came to pick me up.
One time, my partner and I were caught by law enforcement. It wasn’t because we were doing anything; they were just randomly checking everybody in the street. They started looking through the contents of our phones, and they found photos of us together; not even intimate ones, just ones where we were together. They threatened to put us in jail under certain charges, and we had to pay a bribe. That was the end of the story. But I’ve heard of some really awful cases in which the police used torture or organized sting operations in order to prosecute members of the LGBT community.
Not all gay Uzbeks who get targeted by police manage to avoid prosecution through bribes. Yuri Yoursky, an EKOM coordinator, said that according to data from Uzbekistan’s National Center for Human Rights, in 2021, 36 men were convicted of “sodomy,” and 25 of them were sentenced to prison time.
“According to statistics from the Interior Ministry, that’s more than any previous year since 2016. In addition, there are thought to be many more cases in which police officers threatened to open criminal cases against people in order to extort money from them,” he told Mediazona.
According to Yoursky, “sodomy” cases often end in prison sentences or house arrest. “We don’t know of a single case that’s ended in an acquittal,” he said.
Beyond the Criminal Code
The men who spoke to Mediazona blamed Uzbekistan’s draconian anti-LGBT laws on the conservative nature of Uzbek society, the influence of Islam, and the “political will of the authorities.”
Ours is a Muslim state; religion carries a lot of weight. People don’t want gay people here and don’t understand them. Even if that specific article is eventually removed from the Criminal Code, the population probably still won’t accept [homosexuality] and will continue to behave the way they do now.
In my view, Uzbeks aren’t ready to accept the LGBT community. People here are religious, after all; they have an old-fashioned way of thinking, and they’re afraid of anything “different.” And they despise the things they’re afraid of.
Gay people are against the law, first of all, due to the political will of our government, because they don’t want to decriminalize being LGBT. Second of all, society is too conservative; they believe that the population isn’t ready for this. So in a context like this, the democratic reforms that we’re promised don’t happen.
Yuri Yoursky confirmed: the Uzbek authorities have indeed cited religion, culture, and public opinion to justify the country’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
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“The government [claims] that decriminalization would have a negative effect on society and on the country’s reputation in the Muslim world. Additionally, the republic doesn’t acknowledge that imprisoning people on the basis of their sexual orientation is a violation of their human rights and violates the country’s international obligations in this area,” he told Mediazona.
In his view, removing the “sodomy” article from the Criminal Code would only be “comfortable” for the government if it were done as part of a deal with more liberal countries.
“The authorities aren’t going to independently initiate this process just to protect its citizens’ human rights. At the very least, Uzbekistan hasn’t taken that step thus far, despite the international pressure it’s has been facing for the last 15 years,” said Yoursky.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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