When Alisher’s father discovered his son was gay, he beat him with an army belt, kept him at home for a month, then sent him from Tajikistan to a religious college in Iran to “knock the nonsense out of him”.
It did not end there. While in Iran, Alisher learned that his father had hired men to beat up his boyfriend, so he fled the college for Russia, where he now works on a market stall.
“My family doesn’t know my whereabouts, but after everything that’s happened to me, I don’t want to go back,” the 23-year-old told IWPR. “I know that my parents and the rest of the family won’t understand me. If I were to return, I would only face hatred and revulsion.”
Alisher’s story may seem extreme, but the homophobic attitudes he faced are not unusual in the Central Asian state of Tajikistan and, to a lesser extent, neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
Gay rights groups and individuals have told IWPR that police harassment and the threat of public beatings in Tajikistan – and rejection and the fear of being fired in Kyrgyzstan – force many gays to remain in the closet or leave their families and migrate to more tolerant countries,.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, there have been some improvements to gay rights in both countries. Homosexuality, which could lead to several years in prison during the Soviet era, has been decriminalised. And in Kyrgyzstan, which is generally more liberal, there are fewer cases of public intimidation and abuse than a decade ago, according to Maxim Bratukhin, head of local gay NGO Pathfinder.
In the capital Bishkek and elsewhere there are about a dozen gay rights organisations, as well as cafes and nightclubs where members of he lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LBGT, communities can gather.
But gay activists say advances have been too slow, particularly in neighbouring Tajikistan, where homophobia is more deeply entrenched.
Kiromidin Gulov runs one of Tajikistan’s only gay rights groups, Equal Opportunities, and said people sometimes attack gays, while even NGOs concerned with human rights show little interest in the issues they face.
His organisation recently held a public event to which it invited a host of NGOs and rights groups, but only two people turned up.
The problem, Tajik activists say, is that the public do not equate gay rights with human rights. Without wider support from NGOs, the media and government, they believe gay rights campaigns are unlikely to work.
Homophobia tends to be more prevalent in the poorer and more conservative south of Kyrgyzstan, though only a tiny fraction of people nationwide live openly gay lives. There are between 18,000 and 36,000 actively gay Kyrgyzstan nationals, according to a 2011 report on HIV by local NGOs and international organisations, but of that number, only 20 in Bishkek and five elsewhere had told their families and colleagues.
One 34-year-old lesbian from Talas, a town in northern Kyrgyzstan, told IWPR that she planned to emigrate this spring due to the prevailing prejudices.
The widowed mother of two has been planning to move since 2006, when she attended an LGBT parade in Prague and realised how liberated other countries could be.
“I felt free amongst others who were like me. No one was pointing the finger at me. There [homosexuality] is normal,” she recalled of the Czech event. “[In Kyrgyzstan] you live in constant fear – it’s a very unpleasant situation…. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like that.”
At 18, she was a victim of “bride kidnapping” – abducted and pressured into marriage.
“I’d always known I was lesbian, but I couldn’t do anything about it as I lived in a small village where everyone knows everyone else,” she said. Once married, she said, “It was very difficult; I was merely existing.”
Although she does not believe people would attack her if her orientation became known, she says, “I still don’t feel secure and I have to ensure no one finds out – not friends, not relatives, not acquaintances.”
She predict, “I don’t think our society will develop an understanding of [homosexuality] any time soon. Maybe in 20 or 30 years.”
The desire to emigrate is widespread. A report jointly produced by Equal Opportunities and the Kyrgyzstan-based LGBT group Labrys found that many want to leave for Russia or Kazakstan, where no visa is required and the language is not a problem. Failing that, people in Kyrgyzstan head for the capital Bishkek, where Bratukhin says “the atmosphere is more liberal”.
Homophobia is common in the workplace, and one woman from Bishkek said her boss sacked her after her homosexuality became public knowledge.
“My female colleagues shunned me. I was simply fired and not given any explanation,” she said.
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