Learning and Exploring at ‘Queer’ Asia: A perspective from Central Asia

QA Blog Series: QA18 Bodies X Borders: Reflections on the conference and film festival

Posted on 17/08/2018
Altynay Kambekova participated in ‘Queer’ Asia Conference 2018.

My journey to Queer Asia 2018 conference started long before my feet actually stepped into the International Airport of Astana named after the unchanging president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. I remember submitting my abstract just two hours before the deadline. It was a New Year’s Eve, and my partner and I were cleaning up the house after doing a last grocery haul. This New Year’s Eve was special for both of us. This is because, in Kazakhstan, New Year’s Eve is celebrated with one’s family and friends. This year was the first time I spent New Year’s Eve with my partner. In this excitement, I nearly forgot about the deadline, but looking back after the conference I was glad I managed to squeeze in time to submit to the conference.

When I first found out about the conference, I was very excited, and now looking back I can say that my excitement was justified as it broadened my perspectives on a variety of issues, one of them being the issues of national identity and nationalism.

I hold an MA degree in Nationalism Studies, and when I was writing my master’s thesis, I remember the reaction of my professors to my ideas on (the relationship between nationalism and queerness for example) – they were not welcomed. In most European schools, the study of nationalism is based on colonial heteronormative patriarchal discourses that is uncomfortable with the voices of ‘the Others’, the ones that have been silenced, made invisible for centuries.  Furthermore, it makes people from academia (made up of deeply capitalist elite institutions) feel uncomfortable. Here, I should also point out that when someone refers to academia, it is always implied Western institutions that are considered to have the only “valid” and “objective” knowledge on everything. I wrote my thesis from a decolonial perspective, using gender and sexuality as the main frameworks for the ideas of nation, national belonging, and borders. This sat in contradiction to white patriarchal and heterosexist theories of nationalism enshrined in most elite universities. Only if you’re “lucky” your professor does include intersections of gender and nationalism into the syllabus at the end of the semester, making it of less importance of not least for students to focus on this topic.  Furthermore, this still privileges heteronormativity and the gender binary of male and female with no mention of queerness.

Only if you’re “lucky” your professor does include intersections of gender and nationalism into the syllabus at the end of the semester, making it of less importance of not least for students to focus on this topic.

Such a master’s course was deeply disappointing. Instead I was thrilled when I read the description of the “Queer” Asia 2018 conference. Not only geographically does it give voice to us, the bastards of colonial discourse, but also shows to the Western world that it is not them, who bring “civilization” by demanding gender and sexual diversity and artificially imposing it. Moreover, queerness is exploited by the Western world constructing symbolic borders for refugees and migrants under the premise that we, “uncivilized” chords of Asians and Africans, do not tolerate cultural plurality or queerness. In this sense, the conference is a big and loud claim that we exist, we live and love, and we are queer. It is now that the word queer is proudly used abroad by white people, making it another trendy phenomenon. But hardly any of these people would consider me, a bisexual woman of color from Central Asia as queer, because the word is appropriated and used as a capitalist and neoliberal trend. This usage makes queerness a matter of fashion and glamor, something that those outside of the Western world inherently lack. However, unfortunately, the lives of queer people are rarely glamorous, instead, they face and have to fight with myriad problems every single day. In this regard, the ‘Queer’ Asia conference was a refreshing reminder of the lives of non-Western queer people, and was a great celebration of our actions.

The conference and the film festival gave me a lot of insight and was eye-opening on many fronts. From the first day of my arrival at the event, I felt as if I was reunited with my family, something I had been long in search for. I did not feel any sense of alienation  intrinsic to most academic conferences where value is affixed to the number of publications or the institutions of affiliation. Here I felt I could let my guard down and just be myself. I won’t lie, I was shy the first few moments, but everyone around me just took me into their warm embrace. It felt like home. This was a strange feeling because I was very critical and hesitant about attending the conference. I could not understand why the conference on ‘Queer’ Asia should take place in London, the place that is among the most difficult to reach starting from the visa issuing process and ending with daily expenses. I was afraid that this event was going to be just another one, where we are brought together by Western academia, maybe as a sort of amusement, or an object of study, or out of “moral duty” once a year to let us speak. This is a tactic used by cultural hegemons that Spivak describes. It works like a divide and rule strategy, when the “master” chooses the “special” or “deserving” people to be part of the feast for a while, under the pretense of recognition. In this sense, the feeling of betraying queer people in Kazakhstan, feeling of not deserving to be queer or not being queer “enough” had followed me on my flight to London.

However, what I felt on my way back was completely the opposite. This conference gave me a lot: I attended fascinating panel sessions. I felt both challenged and nourished. For example, the panel “Un/doing Disciplinary Boundaries: Methods, Theory, and Beyond” challenged me to think about the limits through which disciplinary methods and theory affect the ways in which we think or are allowed to think. I saw wonderful installations at the art exhibition, films at the festival, and even plays created by extremely talented people, such as Humera, written by Fatima Maan, a Pakistani queer woman. I met some brilliant and kind people and my conversations with them were not less insightful than the academic panels I attended. However, there is one thing that I am mostly grateful for to this conference is that it gave me Pride. I am proud to have been a part of this conference, and, yes, I am privileged to have been able to visit London, but I found peace with it. The fact that my voice was heard is still better than if no one had presented on Kazakhstan, and to think that by having this privilege I somehow owe something to the West is just falling prey to a colonial way of thinking. So, the humble sense of pride has been growing during the whole conference, and now I can loudly say: I am Proud!

Finally, we, queer people from Asia, face precarious situations every single day of our lives, because we are constantly in danger and are the targets of elimination. After one of the conference days, I was talking with one of the participants, and I was complaining that I have so many doubts in my future, such as if I will be able to live with my partner and enjoy my life, if our parents accept us, if the society in Kazakhstan will ever accept our presence, etc. His response was brilliant: we, people, tend to underestimate uncertainty, we want everything to be clear, everything to be in certain patterns, but uncertainty itself is queer. To live in an uncertainty is to accept yourself and strive. To conclude, I was moved by the opening keynote panel where Geeta Patel underscored the close metaphorical similarity between queer people and bacteria. This metaphor is not just one of disturbance but also one of survival. As bacteria and unwanted members of society we are suited to strive to survive in the uncertain nature of our societies.

Altynay Kambekova works on the UNI Project – At risk men’s involvement in HIV treatment continuum in the Republic of Kazakhstan (2017 – 2021) The Global Health Research Center of Central Asia.

Resistance and Subversion: Queer Movements across Asia – Kazakhstan

Written by Amir Shaikezhanov for the QA Blog series Resistance and Subversion curated by QA 2018 committee member Ismail Shogo

The author, waving the flag of Kazakhstan, at a pride march in Prague (Image credit: Esquire Kazakhstan and author’s own)

Issues pertaining to LGBT community have gained increasing traction in Kazakhstan, with LGBT-related articles, interviews, and news getting more attention than most local and global events – a trend that stems from the taboo status of sex and sexuality in the region, and forces that seek to either preserve or disrupt this status quo (see links below). Yet very few LGBT individuals dare to open up to their own families, let alone through the media. In addition, discrimination is faced directly or indirectly on almost any level both in the professional and personal life of an individual. In this sense, LGBT visibility in Kazakhstan exists as somewhat a paradox – as prominent on the global stage and yet invisible as a social group in the country itself.

 Few studies have pertained to LGBT issues in Kazakhstan, with existing research reflecting high levels of homophobia in society. A study organized by the Friedrech Eberett Founation highlighted that homosexuals remain the third least favoured neighbours (16,6%) among Kazakh youth, after alcoholics (25,7%) and drug abusers (17,8%). In addition, Human Rights Watch has also reported that LGBT individuals are not only forced to hide their identity, but are also vulnerable to physical and sexual abuses. Many are afraid to address such cases to police fearing outing, or further abuse or blackmail from the police. In many cases LGBT people would face disapproval and disowning by their families, and could even face corrective rapes or murder.

The state has sponsored LGBT friendly service, such as local HIV prevention offices that provide free testing and free condoms to mainly MSM (men who have sex with men) and transgender people. Yet there are still laws that discriminate against LGBT people directly: marriage is not allowed between individuals of the same sex; no surrogacy or children adoption is permitted to homosexual; and homosexuals cannot serve in the military or police force. In addition, although transgender people are officially recognized, they are only allowed to change their ID after they have gone through a mandatory psychiatric 30-day evaluation and sex-reassignment surgery. This not only forces individuals who fail to comply to these regulations into illegal work, but also limits their access to education and travel. Furthermore, although the Constitution forbids discrimination on any basis including gender, nationality or other grounds, this is not seen to extend to sexual orientation and gender identity. As a result, courts often ignore this statute when cases involve LGBT individuals.

In recent years however there has been an increasing anti-LGBT stance by authorities in Kazakhstan. This has been informed in part by Russian influence, that resonates strongly in Central Asia. Politicians in Kazakhstan have adopted homophobic rhetoric on many occasions, which is also prevalent in Russian politics to advance anti-LGBT laws. These include the infamous anti-propaganda bill that has sought to mute LGBT-related discourse in public spaces. The Constitutional court however recently turned down the latest initiative of the law, sending it back for further development.

At the moment, because of strong public backlash and social pressures, t. Issues of safety have also prevented prospective activists from coming to the fore. There are, however, several civil initiatives such as Kok Team that advocate for LGBT rights, as well as provide psychological and juridical support to in the community. There are also online resources – including Feminita and Alma-TQ that are dedicated to LGBT issues and various other communities in Kazakhstan. International and local human rights defending institutions and healthcare funds have also organized activities and support for the LGBT community. In addition, active local communities have been formed in the two major cities of Almaty and Astana. These hold regular meet-ups, activities, flash mobs and other modes of socializing. These movements however have yet to develop objectives that go beyond social activities. This is likely to result from internalized homophobia, misogyny and transphobia within the community, as well as the increase in an anti-LGBT social environment, that has prevented the development of any coherent organized

Amir Shaikezhanov is an LGBT activist based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He is also a contributor to an LGBT dedicated web-portal kok.team that aims to both strengthen the LBTQ+ community and increase visibility of LGBT in society.

News, Interviews, and articles:

февраля 14, 2017Написать автору
Светлана ГЛУШКОВАфевраля 13, 2017 – NUR:KZ
мая 18, 2017 – NUR:KZ
Caravan.kz – Amir Shaikezhanov
Esquire.kz – Amir Shaikezhanov
08 ноября 2017 – Exclusive.kz

In this series: