It’s Pride month. 30 days in which queer people around the world celebrate being able to be themselves, but also 30 days in which discriminatory structures that still prevail in many countries are denounced. Queer people are currently particularly threatened in Uzbekistan, and their situation is steadily deteriorating.
This is mainly due to Article 120 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes sexual relations between men. Gay and bisexual men face up to three years in prison. In 2021 alone, 36 people are said to have been sentenced on the basis of the article, 25 of them to prison terms. The figures come from a report published jointly by several human rights organizations.
However, the statistics would only represent the tip of the iceberg, it says, in fact significantly more people were living “under the imminent danger of Article 120”. Queer people were constantly at risk of suffering human rights violations – without being able to go to court or receive legal support.
One of them is Nadir, who actually has a different name but wants to remain anonymous to protect himself and his partner. Nadir comes from southern Uzbekistan, on the border with Afghanistan. Today he lives in exile in Europe, where he works for a human rights program and supports queer people in his home country.
In his early twenties, Nadir spent a number of years in a Western country, where he made many queer friends and attended Pride marches. “My experience of coming out and living out was there. While I didn’t grow up in a religious household, I did grow up in a traditional one. In some areas my parents were liberal, but not on the subject of marriage.”
When Nadir returned to Uzbekistan in 2010, he quickly realized that he would have to keep his sexual orientation a secret in the future. “I knew my family wouldn’t support me. She always emphasized the importance of masculinity.” At first he wanted to keep using the dating apps he had used in the US, but quickly found that most users weren’t using pictures at all. “I didn’t know at the time how dangerous it was. Maybe that was naive. I had to learn how to live the secret life of a queer man.”
He didn’t date for a while out of fear and didn’t confide in anyone. “It was a new level of paranoia. Many queer men in Uzbekistan have this trauma because they live in constant fear and stress.” It is particularly important for queer people to have a system that supports them. At the same time, it can be very dangerous to come out to others because you could be reported to the police.
The human rights report also states that police officers use the criminalization of homosexuality and the associated shame to intimidate gay and bisexual men and extort money from them. They threaten to inform relatives or employers; in some cases the men were also tortured and ill-treated. Doctors are conducting so-called “anal exams” on orders from Home Office officials, despite the fact that the World Health Organization has classified them as torture and has urged the World Medical Association to stop them.
His cousin, who was a lesbian, had a similar fate to Nadir. She was put under massive pressure by her family and forced into marriage. “There was increasing pressure from society and family, who made her feel wrong. She had no opportunity to explore her sexuality and was all alone. Ultimately, she committed suicide.”
The pressure on Nadir also grew steadily. “I felt really weak and vulnerable and I was in a very similar situation.” His parents kept demanding that he get married and have children. Formerly they would have encouraged him to study and develop freely; suddenly “they turned into strangers who only acted according to what society expected of them.” Several times a week they forced Nadir to undergo what is known as conversion therapy, which is banned in many countries.
At the time, Nadir would have preferred to flee abroad, but his father, who worked in a high-ranking government position, threatened to prevent him from leaving the country. “I was dependent on my parents,” Nadir remembers, until they gave him an ultimatum: either get married and leave the country or stay in Uzbekistan.
Nadir decided to get married. For his wife at the time, the marriage offered the opportunity to escape from her violent home. In Uzbekistan there are also numerous lesbian and bisexual women who marry gay men, says Nadir, and there are even websites for such “fake marriages”.
But even after the marriage, the humiliations did not abate; Again and again Nadir had to invent excuses why his wife didn’t get pregnant. “It was hard living this double life. It was painful and I got depressed.” At one point, his brothers even took him to a hospital where doctors performed so-called anal exams. Despite all the hurdles, Nadir then decided to file for divorce and move into his own apartment, after which most of his family broke off contact. “I was lucky that I didn’t have children. When a child is involved, it is almost impossible to escape. Lesbian women, for the most part, are trapped in abusive relationships.”
Nadir began volunteering at an HIV center, where he also met his partner. “At the center I saw people being stigmatized not only because of their queerness but also because of their HIV diagnosis. The health system didn’t catch them at all.”
The human rights report also reveals that people who are HIV-positive are exposed to an increased risk: According to this, the police often have access to the personal data of gay and bisexual men who are registered in treatment centers. “We have documented cases where HIV center workers informed the police of the man’s sexual orientation, thereby putting him at risk of persecution,” said Yuri Yourski of ECOM, the Eurasian Coalition on Health, Rights, Gender and Sexual Diversity.” “This is a violation of the right to privacy and is a major barrier to accessing much-needed medical care.”
When elections took place in Uzbekistan in 2016 and Shavkat Mirziyoyev was elected president, Nadir and his partner found new hope that something was about to change; that there might finally be a right to freedom of expression. Because at the same time, social media like Facebook and Instagram became more and more popular and it became easier to network with other queer people.
“We believed this was the moment to speak out, to fight for our rights.” The two met with journalists, international organizations and embassies. On the Internet, they shared tips on how to protect themselves to avoid becoming victims of human trafficking and police abuse, where queer people can find medical care, and they accompanied people to HIV centers and offered support in finding therapy and psychological help.
But their hopes for an improvement in the human rights situation were dashed because the more visible they became as activists, the more death threats they received. The police also put increasing pressure on her. Nadir therefore opted for a human rights program in Great Britain, where his partner was supposed to accompany him. But because the two were neither married nor in a relationship on paper, his partner was not granted a visa. Instead, he was evacuated to Georgia, where he still lives, with the help of a western embassy.
The situation in Uzbekistan has since deteriorated. Only last year did the Uzbek authorities draft a new penal code, but they did not repeal Article 120. Instead, the draft prohibits same-sex relationships under Article 154 – a section of the law that refers to “crimes against morals and the family.” The United Nations have therefore repeatedly called on Uzbekistan to finally remove Article 120 from the penal code – so far without success.
Nadir sees much of the responsibility for anti-LGBT policies in Russia and sees parallels with Chechnya, where queer people are also at risk of death. “The Uzbek population is strongly oriented towards Russia and is influenced by Russian television. A lot of sentiment comes from there.” His portrayal aligns with the human rights report, which concludes that the criminalization of gay men, widespread social and religious hostility toward queers, the influence of Russian politics, and anti-Western sentiment overall are “a toxic mix for LGBT people “ formed.
“The country is even open about the many arrests,” says Nadir, who is watching the developments with great concern. He hopes that international pressure on Uzbekistan will increase. And that the Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian queer refugees who travel to Uzbekistan due to visa-free travel will be better protected. They are currently particularly at risk.