His Excellency Almazbek Atambayev
Office of the President
Chuy Avenue 205
Republic of Kyrgyzstan
RE: The draft bill to outlaw ‘non-traditional sexual relations propaganda’ in Kyrgyzstan
I recently spent a week in Bishkek as a special guest of the PEN International Congress, held in your nation for the first time. I had never imagined that I would visit Kyrgyzstan, but I was captivated by your beautiful mountains, fascinated by your past as shown in the National Historical Museum, and touched by the kindness of the Kyrgyz people who showed me around and told me about your country’s politics, customs and culture.
In particular, they explained the progress made by the Kyrgyz Government and Parliament in achieving democracy and fighting corruption since 2010, bringing greater human rights to your country, and PEN International opened the Congress by saying that Kyrgyzstan was the only Central Asian nation free and fair enough to host. However, I was there because PEN International and many of your citizens are concerned about a draft legislation currently under consideration by your Parliament: the bill to outlaw ‘non-traditional sexual relations propaganda’. Indeed, many of the Kyrgyz people I met will be directly affected by this, and I was so moved by their stories that I had to write to you.
PEN International invited me to speak about the bill because I am a transsexual woman and writer whose articles on LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people and politics have appeared in The Guardian, New Statesman, Daily Telegraph, Open Democracy and elsewhere. All of my work springs from the same source: growing up in Britain during the 1990s, when we had a law called Section 28 which banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality in schools’. This meant that I had no information as I tried to understand myself, no way of raising the subject when I wanted to explain myself, and no recourse against bullying as I struggled to accept myself.
You may know about Section 28, as it is referenced in your draft bill. In an attempt to justify itself, the bill says that not only does Russia ban ‘gay propaganda’, but so does Britain. This is no longer true: passed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party in 1988, Section 28 was repealed in 2003 and remains one of the most hated acts in British history. When British LGBTI activists find out that members of your parliament are using it to support similar legislation, they will be outraged – partly because it did them so much damage. Even though there were never any prosecutions, the law was far from just symbolic.
As a transgender person, Section 28 harmed me. In my teens, I knew I had gender issues but thought I was a gay man. With little internet access, it was hard to find positive explanations of what words like ‘gay’ or ‘transgender’ meant, let alone a community. I could not talk to my parents as they did not seem accepting of anything apart from the ‘traditional family’, although once I finally felt able to open dialogue with them, more than a decade later, they learned to love and accept me as their daughter. Back at school, I was too frightened of being disowned by my friends, ridiculed by the girls and beaten up by the boys if I told anyone that I wanted to be a woman, or that I sometimes fancied men, and only one person was brave enough to tell me about his sexuality. I remember the tears in his eyes and the lump in his throat as he paused and said “I’m bisexual”, terrified that I’d say I didn’t want to see him ever again, and the relief on his face when I insisted that “You’re still my friend” and we walked home together.
That was when I was 15: I didn’t have the knowledge to give him any further support and nor did the few others he told, so he and I had to rely on our school. During our four years, we got one hour on sexual diversity, in our Religious Education class, weeks before we were due to leave. Our teacher couldn’t even say the word ‘homosexual’, refusing to explain what it meant. He showed us a short film, twenty years old or more. Copying it, one of the boys stood up, pointing at people and saying “Are you gay?” The teacher did nothing: I don’t think he wanted to stop the intimidation, but even if he had, he couldn’t – even that might have been interpreted as ‘promoting homosexuality’. I kept silent too: luckily our law only covered primary and secondary education, and I’d realised that there was a world beyond my school, and discovered myself and others like me through TV, films, and the internet, which arrived just in time to save my life.
But Section 28 didn’t just affect LGBTI people, or silence discussion of LGBTI issues. At my school, like many in Britain, “gay” was an insult used for anything considered unmanly, thrown at any boy who did anything different. A love of literature was “gay”, and usually I kept my passion for it to myself. However, aged 14, we were shown Ozymandias, the best work by one of Britain’s greatest poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and I was too impressed to hide my amazement. Immediately, several boys laughed and called me “queer”, and I shut my mouth. Of course, my English teacher could do nothing, despairing at how hard it was to encourage her students to read, write or think in such an environment.
So I didn’t dare be seen with a book in my own time, or show any of my scripts or short stories to my classmates, who ridiculed me for wanting to be a journalist. It was not until I left my school that I began to seek out great novels, plays and poems and share them with my friends: I lost four years of intellectual development to homophobic bullying and its legal enshrinement, and I hate to think of how many other people were put off literature or art by similar attitudes.
Perhaps you will be glad to hear that for me, this story is now far happier. I am fortunate enough to be able to write about gender identity and sexuality, including my transition from male to female, taking all that youthful confusion, loneliness and sadness and turning it into works that have helped people across the world understand and accept themselves. I know this because they often write to tell me; I was informed at the PEN International Congress that individuals from the USA to Syria had read my Guardian series on gender reassignment. Writing this, I checked my blog to see which countries produced the most visits, and I was surprised to find the Ukraine and China in the top ten, and Russia in the top five – nations that are not as free or open as Kyrgyzstan.
The people I met in Bishkek were not so lucky. I met a young man, heterosexual, who told me that nobody wanted this ‘propaganda’ law and that he didn’t understand what good it would do Kyrgyzstan. I met a lesbian woman who told me that she might be able to stay safe if this bill was passed, but feared for her friends. I spoke to a young transsexual woman, disowned by her family, who could not afford the surgery she desperately desired. She told me that she would leave if the draft bill became law, asking if I could help her to claim asylum in Britain. I listened to an activist who told me of the violence and corrective rape faced by lesbians and transgender people, who felt that the bill might make it impossible to speak out – it wasn’t wider politics that worried everyone so much as basic survival, as the legislation threatened to tear apart their hard-found, close-knit communities, the only support they had.
I also befriended a lesbian woman who took me to the National Historical Museum and kindly translated everything about your nation’s past, from Kurmanjan’s unification of the tribes and the Russian takeover to the 1918 civil war and the Stalinist purges. By now, I was coming to love Kyrgyzstan and wanted to read some of it writers, so I asked which were her favourites. She named several killed during the 1930s, saying what a loss they were to your culture, and we talked about how life was better for authors now, and how much more that could be done to ensure that Kyrgyz people were free to speak and to be as they wished.
Then we talked about how Kyrgyzstan secured its independence, the two revolutions since, and how this bill represents a pivotal moment in its development. I already knew from PEN that Kyrgyzstan was comparatively progressive, and from Sadyk Sher-Niyaz’s epic film Kurmanjan datka, which we saw at Manas Cinema, that tremendous strength had been needed to unite your nation. I also knew that the one MP who stood up and said that the propaganda bill was cruel and unnecessary was called “gay” in parliament and the press, even though he was married with children, and that the bravery of Kurmanjan would be needed again to stop it.
I will close by saying this: in the 21st century, I do not believe that Russia cares which laws Kyrgyzstan adopts on LGBTI citizens, but like-minded people worldwide will. Denied the love of those around us as youngsters, we are used to reaching across borders of language and state to support each other, particularly via the internet: if you pass this bill, the international community will do all we can to demand its repeal, just as we did with Section 28. Since that was abolished, we have seen just how much LGBTI people in Britain have to offer – in politics and business, literature and art, sport and media – and I think that if you let them have a voice, or just let them be, you will see just how much the bright, kind and proud Kyrgyz people I met can give to your country.
So I beg you to remember that they are not symbols but people, to be brave for them and reject this bill. Even if you don’t, though, you will always have its LGBTI population and sooner or later, they will ensure that it becomes a bitter memory, just as Section 28 did here. Please, for the sake of everyone in your land, do not let your name be attached to it: stand up for these citizens and together, you can build a more beautiful Kyrgyzstan.
Read the letter in Russian here.