In the wake of the USSR: LGBT 2022
The fate of trans people on the western and eastern borders of the former USSR
So far, there are no official research for all of Russia’s neighbouring states that would reliably describe societal attitudes towards transgender people. However, recent information suggests that in Russia itself, some 66% of the population perceive transgender people negatively.
Negative attitudes range from simple misunderstanding to very aggressive statements.
Moreover, the more actively transgender ideas are promoted in the West, the more social backlash is created in Russia and more animosity is generated in national media. It seems that the widespread concern around LGBT rights globally has backfired in post-Soviet countries, and instead of recognition, increased attention is leading to humiliation, aggression and public outrage towards gays, lesbians and transgender people in particular.
Until recently, few people could pronounce the word “transgender” in Russian correctly. Now it is literally all over the news. Rainbow colouring leads to angry outbursts instead of joy. And the LGBT acronym has become the latest swear word for Russian philistines.
What is happening to trans people on the western and eastern borders of one of the most homophobic states? What are the prospects for transgender people living in the former Soviet republics?
The legislative framework that enshrines homophobic attitudes in Russia is Article 6.21 of the Administrative Offences Code of the Russian Federation “Propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationship among minors” that is generally referred to as the law against homosexual propaganda passed in 2013. The law is the basis for the suppression of public speeches and civil action by LGBT activists and prevents open statements about sexual orientation and gender identity. The vague wording of the law allows it to be used in almost any situation in the interests of the authorities.
Russia’s influence on its neighbouring countries is significant enough that similar acts have been passed in post-Soviet states, including Ukraine, which has been in a military conflict with Russia since 2014.
There are currently no acts in Ukraine that are based on Russian laws on LGBT people.
However, similar draft laws are regularly proposed by parliamentarians. As recently as 19 November 2021, the Servant of the People party representatives tabled Bill No. 6327 “On Amendments to the Administrative Offences Code concerning responsibility for propaganda of deviations from constitutional norms of family, childhood, motherhood and fatherhood”.
The bill proposed the introduction of a fine of up to UAH 17000 (about 520 EUR) for people found guilty of spreading propaganda related to “paedophilia, homosexuality and transgenderism”. The terms used by the MPs speak for themselves and demonstrate their limited understanding of the subject. Historically these bills use paedophilia and family values to cover the homophobic and transphobic intentions of the legislation, suggesting that such issues are interconnected and that LGBT people pose a danger to families.
At the moment, the bill has not been backed by other MPs. However, it is a close copy of the Russian Propaganda Act and also proposes amendments to the Administrative Offences Code to include monetary fines and child safety provisions.
Association with the EU has had a positive impact on Ukraine’s legislation regarding LGBT people. The legal process for gender reassignment was made easier in 2016. A new order of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine No. 1047 “On the determination of medico-biological and socio-psychological indications for sex affirmation (reassignment)” abolished the former commission overseeing the process. The decree ended transgender people’s reliance for gender reassignment on corrupt medical professionals who would only meet twice a year to determine their eligibility for transition.
The most important point in the new decree was the abolition of forced sterilisation, a former demand of the previous commission. As a result, many transgender people were able to change their identity documents and avoid going through the humiliating process of qualification by a transphobic commission and didn’t have to save up money because the former requirement for sex reassignment through surgeries (which for some people were expensive and complicated) was also overturned.
The Labour Code of Ukraine has also been amended to prohibit employment discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
However, the record shows that even the most successful laws have not eliminated homophobia in society, and there is no guarantee that legislation will be fully enforced unless members of the LGBT community feel enabled and prepared to assert their rights in court.
In 2018, an outrageous case was recorded in Kharkiv, where a transgender woman was hired as a cook in a chain restaurant, Puzata Khata. At the workplace, she was regularly subjected to bullying, psychological pressure and threats of termination by colleagues. She claimed the discrimination was due to being transgender. When she tried to approach the HR department she received no support and was asked to resign voluntarily instead. The woman eventually quit the job because she did not want to risk going to court but passed her stories over to a trans rights organisation.
In absence of a legal claim, the fact that Puzata Hata employees violated Article 2.1 of the Labour Code of Ukraine “Equality of labour rights of Ukrainian citizens” did not make a difference.
Part 3 of Article 61 of Criminal Code of Ukraine only acknowledges national and religious basis for hate crimes – not gender identity or sexual orientation. It refers to national and religious characteristics only. Therefore, virtually none of the criminal cases related to attacks on LGBT persons have been prosecuted under this article. Most often, law enforcement agencies categorize LGBT hate crimes as “disorderly and insulting behaviour” and generally do everything to justify the attackers justifications in order to mitigate punishment.
A recent example of this included the attack on a transgender person in Zhytomyr in 2020, where the transfeminine person was raped, beaten, handcuffed, stripped naked, and forced to return to their house with the prospect of committing robbing. Thankfully, the trans person’s parents were home and managed to chase the attackers away.
Human rights activists demanded that the incident be treated as a hate crime. However, they struggled to get rape (Article 152 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code) added to the list of charges as the police tried to limit them – only charging them with robbery against the person under Article 186 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code. The crime is now being investigated under multiple counts: rape, assault with intent to rob (Article 187 of the Criminal Code), extortion (Article 189 of the Criminal Code) and torture (Article 127 of the Criminal Code). However, the judge is clearly acting against the interests of the survivor given that the main defendant was not even in custody at the time of the first trial (March 2021). A fair court decision cannot be expected.
The situation for LGBT people in Belarus is much worse. There are essentially no laws that protect their rights to any extent. Potential discrimination is not included in Belarus’ legislation. And, while there are no specialised laws on propaganda, the authorities’ practice has created an unsafe atmosphere in which LGBT people are unable to exercise their human rights.
The Constitution of Belarus mentions the equality of all citizens before the law. But there is no mention of sexual orientation or gender identity. The concept of discrimination itself is missing too. The Criminal Code of Belarus does not contain the concept of hate crime; however, Article 167 on “sexual violence” includes mention of forced “sodomy and lesbianism” as types of sexual violence.
The Labour Code of Belarus also makes no mention of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The actions of the police and the authorities in Belarus do not allow for public campaigning, especially in light of last year’s events. Against the background of revolutionary sentiments in the country and the strengthening of the dictatorship, non-governmental organisations have been actively shut down. Representatives of the LGBT community who used to work there are deprived of help from human rights activists and are forced out of their jobs. During the 2020 protests, LGBT people were regularly targeted for arrests and threatened by the police. Now the controls have escalated to new heights – unlike previously, there is much less information available as the risks for people are extremely high. The era when sex reassignment surgery was historically free of charge for Belarusian citizens seem to have been forgotten.
Attacks against LGBT persons have traditionally been reduced by the courts in Belarus to disorderly and insulting behaviour and, in extreme cases, gross misconduct. That happened, for example, in the case of Mikhail Pischevski who was subject to an organised premeditated attack that was later categorised as disorderly behaviour. The injuries caused to the victim were declared “negligent” in court.
Artem Shliakhtenok’s case is the only one in Belarus where “committing a crime motivated by hatred against a particular social group” was listed as an aggravating circumstance. Artem’s attack against a member of the LGBT community was prosecuted under the offences of “disorderly and insulting behaviour” (Criminal Code, art. 339) and “theft” (Criminal Code, art. 205). However, because of the aggravating circumstance the case was subject to closer examination and heavier punishment than usual for such charges.
It is easy to conclude that the Western ex-USSR countries do not resort to direct harassment of LGBT people at the legislative level. However, this does not prevent them from using their local influence to violate the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to a greater or lesser extent.
The situation in the Central Asian post-Soviet countries has distinctive characteristics because of the predominance of Islamic faith across the region.
Kazakhstan is the region with perhaps the loudest official statements concerning transgender people in Central Asia.
On 25 November 2020, the Minister of Health Aleksei Tsoi approved the rules of medical examination and sex reassignment for persons with gender identity “disorders”. This news was widely circulated in the media despite the fact that the document itself did not represent a new stance. The first sex reassignment order was adopted in the country back in 2003 and was originally much more nuanced. The updated rules dictated strict age limits, a compulsory procedure for undergoing transition, and time limits for the validity of the required examination commission report. One of the benefits included the abolition of an obligatory one-month stay in a psychiatric hospital prior to medical transition. However, the disadvantage was that it is only possible to pass the medical examination for persons over the age of 21, and the new identity documents would only be issued after the operation “following the obstetric and gynaecological care arrangement standard and the urological and andrological care arrangement standard”. In other words, a transgender person must undergo a medical evaluation and sex reassignment surgery, otherwise, they will not receive a passport.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) has called on the Kazakhstani authorities to remove the age restriction and increase legal protections for healthcare for the the transgender community. However, the legislation remains unchanged. Despite all challenges, an average of 7-12 transgender surgeries take place in Kazakhstan each year with 13 people, seven men and six women, undergoing medical examination in 2020 alone.
At first glance, Kazakhstan appears to be the most LGBT-friendly region – specialised NGOs operate in the country, certain measures are taken by the authorities, and there is a unique website for the Central Asian region, Kok.Team, which aims to protect the rights of Kazakhstani LGBT people. In light of recent developments, NGO activities in the country are likely to be hampered significantly and social intolerance will likely become more acute. This is especially true for transgender people who do not have a passport that matches their identity.
Victoria, a trans woman, filed a complaint with the police about “violation of equal civil and political rights” under Article 145 of the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan, which includes a prohibition against the restriction of human rights on grounds of origin, social, official or property status, sex, race, nationality, language, attitude towards religion, beliefs, place of residence, membership of public associations or on any other grounds. On that day, the bank operator refused to process Victoria’s request when she saw her passport. Even though the photo in the document matched her appearance, she had not undergone the surgical transition required to change her identity documents which meant that her sex was incorrectly shown as male in her passport. Although she did not question the authenticity of the passport, the operator stated that she would not “serve women with male documents”. The police refused to pursue the case.
Even though she was appreciated and liked by her management, Lilia, a trans woman, was forced to leave her job as a nail artist in a beauty parlour following a state inspection. State inspectors found Lilia’s appearance to be inconsistent with her identity documents and deemed this a violation. The parlour owner explained to Lilia that she would either have to change her gender expression to be more masculine or “quit her job for a while”. Lilia chose the latter, explaining that “the surgery is expensive and so far I can’t afford it… Without the surgery, I can’t get a new passport. I can’t pretend to be a man that I’m not either”.
Artem, a trans man who was born in Uzbekistan but moved to neighbouring Kazakhstan under a legal residence permit, is unable to work in his trained profession due to mismatched gender identity documents. Currently, he is working in a low paid job where he sells goods at his friend’s market stall because no one asks for his documents there. Artem has gone through several stages of medical examination but has not been able to obtain new identity documents because he has not undergone sex reassignment surgery. Artem considered his options to resolve the problem following consultation with activists in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan: “I even thought of going to Korea to have the surgery there but I changed my mind, it’s too expensive”. For now, he is in process of renouncing his Uzbek citizenship to begin the transition in Kazakhstan under current legislation.
Another Central Asian republic full of ambiguous legal policies. The country has undergone many turbulent regime changes and will likely continue to remain unstable. It is not without reason that Kyrgyzstan has been called the land of mountains and revolutions.
Kyrgyz Indigo and Labrys are LGBT organisations active in the Kyrgyz Republic, both working to advocate for LGBT rights and strengthen the capacity of the LGBT community. They cooperate with state authorities, law enforcement agencies, medical professionals and the media. In 2014-15, the Kyrgyz parliament repeatedly attempted to introduce a draft law banning the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations”. In general, the first version was very similar to the equivalent Russian act.
In Kyrgyzstan, the drafted bill proposed a propaganda ban for all ages, prohibited the dissemination of information about “non-traditional sexual relations” in the media, and provided for restrictions on the organisation of peaceful assemblies devoted to this topic. Moreover, the penalties were more severe and included imprisonment. The proposed law provoked an extremely strong reaction from human rights defenders and was sent back for revision several times before it was eventually scrapped by its drafters “for technical reasons”.
The State Registration Service under the Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic stated that sex reassignment was legally possible in the country solely on the grounds of medical necessity. As noted by the State Registration Service, “the Ministry of Health creates a commission that provides a report on whether a given person needs sex reassignment. Then the commission issues a relevant certificate with which the citizen can receive a new ID at the registry office”. The name and gender marker are changed in the documents, but the PIN (personal identification number) remains the same. According to Kyrgyz law, transgender minors can be examined from the age of 16 but only with the consent of their parents or guardians.
In 2016-17, “Guidelines for medical and social assistance to transgender, transsexual and gender-nonconforming people for medical professionals at all levels of health care and other agencies of the Kyrgyz Republic” were developed.
At a glance, the political background in the country appears to be quite favourable towards the LGBT community; however, a significant part of the population holds very conservative views. For example, the public association Kyrk Choro, which has some 5,000 members across the republic, has consistently challenged many “non-traditional” initiatives by LGBT activists. Proponents of plural marriage, the Kyrk Choro members actively advocate for the restriction of women’s and LGBT rights using aggressive tactics.
They not only “fight for traditional values” but openly try to defend a patriarchal order in society by any all means.
In the spring of 2021 in Bishkek, about 200 violent men disrupted a rally condemning violence against women and were successful in chasing them away.. Protesters outside the Ministry of Internal Affairs demanded that the president toughen the law on NGOs and called feminists and LGBT representatives “Satanists”. The enraged anti-protesters forced the rally participants to disperse.Instead of censuring the actions of these “activists”, the law enforcement agencies offered them informal support.
On 1 August 2020, a new version of the Law “On Vital Records” came into force. In the previous version of the law, there was a vague clause about providing sex reassignment certificates by a medical organisation that could be used as legitimate cause to change vital records. However, the new version removed any provisions for sex reassignment.
Despite the new legislation, the National Mental Health Centre still examines transgender people and issues a diagnosis certificate. Between 2016 and 2021, more than four dozen people underwent examination for the diagnosis of “transsexualism”. Other laws, such as Article 38 “Gender identity reassignment and affirmation” in the law “On citizens’ health protection in the Kyrgyz Republic”, allow for affirmation of “gender identity through medical intervention”. However, the definition of affirmation is very vague.
But neither a loose interpretation of vague definitions nor the loyal attitude of medical professionals are helping transgender people to get new identity documents. More and more often, evidence comes to light that legal gender recognition (even after corrective medical measures) is impossible for transgender people in Kyrgyzstan.
In the autumn of 2021, the writer and publicist Oljobai Shakir published Adam+, a story about his transgender son and the difficulties the family experienced. While the government allowed the work to be published, the story demonstrates the difficulties for people with non-mainstream identities.
Another well-known case involved a young trans man whose coming out ended tragically. The family could not accept the “daughter’s perversion” and hired a man who to correctively rape her in order to restore her to traditional values. The rape resulted in pregnancy and led the trans man to later commit suicide.
Another trans man was forced to drop out of school because he had a problem obtaining a passport according to his chosen gender identity and name. His family also refused to support him and evicted him from home to live in the streets. The boy tramped for several years and became addicted to alcohol. During this time, his relatives repeatedly tried to “knock some sense” into him and marry him off to a man by taking him for visits to their mountain village. The support of LGBT activists enabled him to dig himself out of this hole.
Myrzaym, a trans woman, does not hide her identity. She found friends among other trans women. Together they socialised in cafés and clubs. One night, three guys met her and her friends but when they discovered that Myrzaym was a transgender girl, they drugged her drink and drove her out of town when she was unconscious. There they beat Myrzaym, cut her hair and crushed cigarettes on her. The ruffians later drove off after abandoning her in the mountains.
Venera, a trans woman, has been aware of her identity since childhood, but she has only been able to admit this openly as an adult and only to a relative living in Europe. It was through her relative’s support that she was able to make her first steps towards transitioning. She successfully came out to her sisters and aunt, who supported her to come out to her mother. However, Venera was unable to find a common ground with her mother for several months. With the support of LGBT NGOs, she was able to be examined by supportive doctors. Although she has met with neither disapproval nor opposition from medical workers, she was wary of having surgery in her home country: “Some time ago a trans woman I knew from Uzbekistan had surgery here. She lived only a few weeks after the operation”. As a result, Venera prefers Thai surgical services.
“I know people who’ve been through the same procedure who are 60 years old now, which is proof that all the gossip about trans people not living long is a myth”, Venera shared. According to the latest information, Venera was planning to emigrate to a foreign country where she could be happy.
Tajikistan is the southernmost of the former Soviet republics. Tajikistan’s proximity to troubled Afghan territories has always been a concern for the Kremlin, and a certain Russian presence in the republic has persisted to this day since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the overall social and economic status of the country has not improved much over the past 30 years.
Historically, transness and homosexuality are uniquely reflected in Tajik culture, but LGBT rights in Tajikistan are not protected. Society, which adheres to a position of outward decency, is neither ready nor willing to publicly acknowledge the existence of queer persons.
Many cases are known of Tajik trans women going abroad to become sex workers. After saving money, they return to their homeland where many of them have to return to presenting as male – even to the point of having to remove their breast implants. In Tajikistan itself, many trans people work in the sex industry, especially in the capital city. Advertisements for the “transmasseuses” services are quite common even on public websites.
Despite being a contemporary part of life, transgender practices are historical in Tajikstan. The practice of “bacha” boys dressing up as women to please adult men has been widespread for centuries in modern Tajikistan and neighbouring Afghanistan. But even in ancient times, attitudes towards such cross-gendered people were deeply duplicitous: despite their widespread popularity, the “bacha” remained despised in society, forming an inferior caste similar to South Asia’s hijras population. This attitude persists to this day: for parents, a transgender son or daughter is a great misfortune and an embarrassment to the family.
While Samira Mazal is internationally known as the transgender daughter of the Honoured Artist of Tajikistan Malika Kolontarova, which suggests a wider acceptance of trans people, her story cannot serve as an example of tolerance because the whole family lived for a long time in the West. In Tajik society, Malika is actively criticised and it is believed that she “neglected her son because of her endless tours and did not give him the education he needed”. The acceptance of a trans child by their father is widely perceived as a negative.
Formally, there are no bans on LGBT people in Tajikistan, but a few years ago working groups were set up to “register persons who disturb public order and are members of vulnerable groups”.
The press centre of the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that “these working groups identified 367 such people, who were placed in the category of vulnerable citizens; 319 of them are homosexuals and 48 are lesbians”. It is clear that there are many more in the country but coming out is literally impossible in the face of police harassment.
In 2019, the Human Rights Watch World Report stated that Tajikistan has an official register of people identified as LGBT.
These people are often subjected to forced medical examinations, ostensibly due to concerns for their health.
Quality medical care is completely inaccessible to LGBT persons – they have to conceal their identities and make up stories about their relationships to avoid humiliation and stigma. This is not only true when they visit gynaecologists and urologists, but even psychiatrists hold the view that homosexuality and transgenderism are treatable pathologies.
Khurshed Kunguratov, the chief psychiatrist in Tajikistan, said: “This is absolute degeneracy. It should not be like this. If anyone needs help, welcome – we will help as much as we can. First, we talk about what happened and where it came from. And then we treat it. The treatment is a guaranteed success”.
Several years ago, Rector of Tajik State Medical University Ubaidullo Kurbonov announced at a press conference in Dushanbe that three sex reassignment operations were conducted in Tajikistan over the past 15 years.
Tajik NGOs have provided data on 14 trans people who have publicly come out.
To date, there is only one known precedent for issuing a new passport in Tajikistan due to the gender marker.
The current legislation in Tajikistan states that transgender persons can change their passport if they present “a standard document on sex reassignment issued by a medical organisation”.
The wording is very vague, which of course does not improve the situation of Tajik trans people in any way.
Several Tajik trans men have quite successfully transitioned with the help of LGBT activists and have even joined advocacy groups to help protect the interests of transgender people in Tajikistan. Some have even managed to get married.
Public opinion is somewhat softer on trans men, as the transition from female to male in the eyes of patriarchal society is perceived as a kind of upward mobility.
It is trans women who are subjected to the most severe pressure, having to endure endless humiliation everywhere, from their home to the state border.
Trans woman Mila explains, “The worst thing was that my whole family turned their backs on me. My brothers said, ‘We’re not your brothers anymore. Either you become a man again, or you are no longer part of the family. Get a ticket and go wherever you want because you are a disgrace to our family’. My mother, my closest friend/relative, constantly called me all sorts of names, even threatened to ask doctors to induce a coma and forcibly inject me with testosterone. Now, of course, she is worried because I am far away from her. We keep in touch by phone but she still has not accepted me”.
Mila has been unable to find friendly doctors in Tajikistan. Driven to despair, the woman decided to have an castration herself and miraculously survived.
She has now left Tajikistan and lives in another country.
For several years, trans woman Kristina was supported by a wealthy man who rented her a flat in a remote area where no one knew them. In that flat, the “sponsor” visited Kristina inconspicuously. But the affair ended when she voiced her desire to undergo sex reassignment surgery and officially marry him. Left without support, Kristina contacted LGBT activists but she chose to go to Uzbekistan to undergo the surgery and get her papers changed in her home country in the end.
Naima, a trans woman, was constantly subjected to psychological abuse in her family. When her parents informed her that they were planning to find a suitable girl to make sure their “troubled son” enters a traditional marriage, Naima decided to seek asylum in a faraway country. She secretly packed her bags and left home. To cross the border unhindered, Naima was forced to cut her hair and wear men’s clothes. Her family reported her missing, accusing her of stealing documents and money, and it was only police sluggishness that saved her from going to prison – by the time an APB had been sent out, Naima had already left Tajikistan.
Turkmenistan is an extremely closed state with a strong totalitarian regime. Internal problems are barely made public, and information about Turkmen LGBT persons rarely receives any publicity. There are many legal restrictions on receiving information related to LGBT cases in the country. Turkmenistan’s civil society organisations are not independent and receive tacit restrictions and bans on their activities.
The Turkmen branch of the Red Crescent NGO is headed by the president’s sister. Under her leadership, the organisation’s activities have been transformed into a real farce: female employees are forced to wear dresses instead of skirts (because a woman in a skirt “looks promiscuous”), unmarried workers are called “perverse”, and volunteering in nursing homes is prohibited because “only former prostitutes” are kept there.
Overall, the Turkmen authorities’ official position is unambiguous: everything is fine, there are no “degenerates” in society and there can’t be.
There are no direct rules in Turkmen law that restrict or prohibit members of the LGBT community from acting as custodians or guardians. There are no such bans on same-sex couples either. At the same time, the country’s legislation does not contain a definition for LGBT persons, and same-sex relationships between men are a priori criminalised.
In Turkmenistan, as in Uzbekistan, sexual relations between men are prosecuted under Article 135(1) of the Criminal Code, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison for consensual sodomy and up to five years for homosexual rape.
Any questions from the international community regarding LGBT persons in Turkmenistan are met with the official stance of the authorities – “they don’t exist”. Nevertheless, the police occasionally raid homosexuals, checking and questioning everyone who comes under suspicion, those accused of homosexual behaviour are subjected to forced anal examinations. Men who socialise in same-sex companies automatically draw the police’s attention.
According to activists, harassment of gay men intensified again in August and September 2021.
No documents legalising LGBT persons exist in Turkmenistan. Likewise, the concepts of gender identity and medical sex reassignment are missing in legislation and policy and changing one’s gender identity in civil documents is virtually impossible. In fact, Turkmen trans people seek medical help outside of the country, but subsequently, such changes may cause problems when re-issuing official identity documents.
Turkmenistan’s isolation has repeatedly been a source of concern for the global community. The documentary Turkmenistan: Forbidden Homosexuality has succeeded in drawing attention to the problems of trans people.
In 2015, Alternative Turkmenistan News presented this 15-minute film at the Oslo/Fusion documentary film festival, which included a unique interrogation video of a detained trans person, apparently recorded by a police officer. In this episode, a man wearing a woman’s dress is aggressively questioned about whether he has partners of either sex and whether he provides sexual services for money. In the short video, the detainee has his genitals beaten, is forced to undress, and his anus is examined to determine if he has any homosexual contacts.
Turkmenistan is such a closed state that the situation of Turkmen trans people can only be assessed based on informal snippets of information.
Uzbekistan is one of those countries with no NGOs or public organisations specialising in LGBT issues. It is common knowledge that male homosexuality is criminalised in the country and can be punished with up to 3 years in prison.
Certain international human rights instruments have not yet been ratified, putting human rights defenders in a difficult position.
Uzbekistan, in particular, has refused to follow the 11 UN recommendations on LGBTIQ rights under the pretext that they contradict national law.
MP Rasul Kusherbayev has publicly stated that the day same-sex relationships were legalised would be “our death day”, declaring that “If they say it is against human rights, I don’t care a damn for such rights”.
“Traditional values” have a direct impact on the lives of trans people here too. On the one hand, the problem of transness is silenced – there are no publications in the media, it is not customary to discuss such issues with officials, and in general, the social position can be summarised by the phrase: “There are plenty of more burning issues”. The legislation mentions transness literally once; in Article 229 of the Family Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan “Making corrections in case of sex reassignment”, which states that “correction of vital records in case of sex reassignment is only allowed based on the health authorities report”.
Needless to say, such wording creates a great deal of uncertainty.
There are friendly medical professionals in the capital, and many transgender persons from the province prefer to come to Tashkent for medical services. Here, psychiatrists and endocrinologists can be consulted and provide support that they can. Typically, psychiatrists in the capital city are quite loyal to trans people and are skilled enough to make differential diagnosis of people who want to reassign their sex. Another advantage is that it is easier to find hormonal medication in the capital and buy it without a prescription. This free circulation of sex hormones in pharmacies in Tashkent means that many transgender people from neighbouring countries can acquire medication there.
In fact, sex reassignment in Uzbekistan follows a fairly standard post-Soviet algorithm: an initial examination at a psychiatric clinic followed by a confirmation of a transgender diagnosis by the Public Council at the psychiatric clinic that concludes with a receipt of an expert opinion report.
At this stage, many trans people get stuck and do not knowing what to do. A psychiatric assessment is not enough to change identity papers. Few of the friendly doctors are willing to risk the responsibility of issuing a “health authority report” based on an established diagnosis F64.0. The civil registry office employees unanimously demand the unobtainable “report” from trans people, but as a rule, they cannot explain the content or how to acquire this document intelligibly.
However, there is an interesting trend where transgender people from the Central Asian republics are often operated on in neighbouring states. Uzbeks undergo surgery in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhs – in Uzbekistan, Tajik trans people go to Kazakhstan, and so on. Many go to clinics in Russia and other countries beyond post-Soviet territory. Having received a sex reassignment certificate there, they successfully obtain new documents in their home country.
Olga, a trans woman, began her transition back in Uzbekistan, but it was hard for her psychologically. She underwent the final surgical correction abroad after obtaining Russian citizenship as a man. She had the full documentation required to change her identity documents but she first had to renew her birth certificate which could only be done at the place of issue. Repeated requests to Tashkent had no effect because the correspondence kept getting lost on the way. It was not possible to resolve these issues remotely.
Olga needed to go to Uzbekistan but going through border and passport control for a trans woman who looked like a model with a male passport posed a serious problem for Olga. The woman was desperate: she could not get a job, she could not come to Tashkent, and she had no one to rely on. A journalist she knew helped her find a trusted person in Tashkent to represent her interests in the local civil registry office. A few weeks later, the issue that had been pending for several years was resolved.
Trans man Kamol was held hostage by his family, who is respected across his region. His coming out was an intolerable embarrassment to his family. Kamol’s mother put up the most resistance. Referring to scientific literature, the young man tried unsuccessfully to prove to her that he was not ill, but she kept insisting on putting him in a psychiatric clinic.
Kamol received unexpected support from the local mullah, who tried to explain to the mother that her child’s transgender identity is the will of Allah, which must not be violated. But the family remained adamant, and Kamol’s only support was his aunt, who gave him a place to stay secretly away from the rest of his family. The family pulled strings to track down their fugitive son and later locked him in a shed and took away his phone. All the men of the family took turns visiting Kamol, trying to convince him that he was ill and should be treated in a psychiatric clinic – at first, it was just a stern tone of voice, and then they started hitting him with plastic water jugs.
Pretending to have succumbed to their urging, Kamol was able to get his phone back and record a video message describing everything that was happening to him, exposing the names and positions of those who were abusing him. The video was sent to trusted people who threatened to publish it on the internet. It was only through this black mail that Kamol was able to escape from the house. All he had on him was a passport with female personal information and a non-binding, written promise from his mother saying that she would not harass him. Left without money, Kamol lived at a mosque for some time, helping to prepare the premises for prayers. His greatest fear was that his identity would be revealed. With the support of friendly medics from the capital, Kamol was able to complete the transition and change his documents. Apart from his gender, he also changed his surname in order to avoid spoiling his family’s reputation and as a way to sever relationship with them. For the time being, he has enrolled in a university and is pursuing a profession.
In contrast, Nikita, a trans man, faced no obstacles from his family, and has long lived openly as a man. He has been able to get a job in a friendly workplace where he was not stigmatised. The most problematic interaction for him has been with traffic police officers when presenting ID documents. Like many other transgender people, he started hormone replacement therapy on his own long before he began his legal transition. He tracked down a trans man who had completed the transition on the internet and, on his advice, consistently followed all the necessary steps that enabled him to obtain a new passport according to the legal process.
Different fates demonstrate the complexity experienced by transgender people in post-Soviet countries, representing the whole spectrum of human relationships from hatred to acceptance; hope to despair. The situation in remote areas is much harsher. The further away from capital cities, the more pressure transgender people are subjected to, sometimes receiving direct threats. In general, society is not ready to accept and understand such people. When state officials explicitly state that LGBT people are unacceptable in society, there is little hope of rapid change – either in legislation or in public opinion.
The prospects are dark. While some of the states surveyed ostensibly have some kind of established protocol for “sex reassignment”, in fact, there is no orderly procedure. The human factor still plays a decisive role in the fate of transgender persons. Qualified medical and legal assistance remains difficult to access, and the further away from a national capital, the more tragic the situation becomes.
With the entry into force of ICD-11 on 1 January 2022, the depathologisation of transgender people and identities is likely to further confuse and complicate the situation.
One should hardly expect any singular change that will allow trans people of the post-Soviet countries to live a peaceful and dignified life without facing condemnation, misunderstanding, or even outright aggression. It would be a mistake to believe that recommendations or sanctions will affect the situation of trans people in a society that is obscured by “traditional values”. In a society where strict adherence to customary norms, rather than dignified existence, health and human life, is declared as the main value.