Uzbekistan: Anti-Gay Law Strikes Terror Into Gay People, but Enriches the Police (18+)
Photo: A scene from the play White, White Black Stork at Tashkent’s Ilkhom theater.
The topic of homosexuality, along with domestic violence, is tabooed in the press and public discourse in Uzbekistan. Moreover, the Central Asian state is among the remaining few countries where same-sex intercourse is punishable by a harsh prison sentence. Our Tashkent-based correspondent reports on how this law is enforced, based on first-hand experiences of gay people to whom he spoke.
When Iskander recalls his date with an elegant, slim, dark-haired man named Jakhongir that ended in a humiliating nightmare and extortion, he still trembles in fear and disgust.
From the moment he met Jakhongir he suspected something was wrong. Iskander, 39, a balding, hawk-nosed and stooping man, has no illusions about his looks, and the young and hot man’s attention was both unexpected and pleasant.
They met via Mamba.ru, a popular dating website, and, having exchanged a number of frivolous messages, agreed to meet at one of Tashkent’s cafes. Iskander was glad that Jakhongir looked just like in the photo on the dating site, because “far too often gay people hide behind other people’s photos,” he says.
Having just finished his coffee, Jakhongir said he was ready to go to Iskander’s one-bedroom apartment in Tashkent’s Yunus-Abad district, where Iskander had been raised, and where he had been concealing his sexual orientation from his neighbors, classmates and acquaintances throughout his life. Jakhongir’s readiness dulled Iskander’s instinctive caution.
“I just went crazy,” he explains.
But Iskander’s suspicions grew stronger when Jakhongir whispered something into his phone while putting on his jacket and paying for his coffee. Iskander decided that he should refrain from displaying any feelings just yet, and when the police was banging on his door half an hour after he and Jakhongir arrived at his apartment, the two were dressed and were not doing anything culpable.
“Culpable,” that is, from the point of view of Uzbekistan’s law that criminalizes sexual intercourse between men. Article 120 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code, which remained from the Soviet times, provides for a three-year jail sentence for sex between men. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the only former Soviet republics where homosexuality is still a crime. The other thirteen republics repealed this law.
Nevertheless, compared to the international outcry over anti-gay legislation in Russia, as well as attacks on gay-pride parades in Ukraine and Georgia, Uzbekistan’s gay people do not attract as much attention and do not make it to the front pages of the Western press for one simple reason.
Uzbekistan’s anti-gay law is extremely rarely enforced. Otherwise, thousands of gay people, or those posing as such, would rush to the West to seek political asylum, claim members of Tashkent’s gay community, along with Fergananews.com’s sources in Uzbekistan’s law enforcement.
Nevertheless, the very existence of the law creates a source of income for the Uzbek police and a source of trouble for gay people. “If there is a need to set someone up or pressure someone, this law is a good instrument,” says a former criminal investigator who works as an attorney now. “Faggots are also milked, extorted under the threat of a [criminal] examination.”
That was exactly the threat that Iskander faced when he opened the door when three policeman banged on it. They were very disappointed to see Iskander and Jakhongir fully dressed and simply enjoying some brandy. Jakhongir pretended that he was embarrassed and frightened, but Iskander realized at once that the handsome young man was in cahoots with the cops.
By “examination” they mean an examination of the anus for signs of sexual intercourse conducted by a medical professional. For the case to be referred to the police, there have to be witnesses of the intercourse, or at least witnesses who saw the two men together in an apartment.
From the legal standpoint, the witnesses are useless, even in Uzbekistan where justice is blind and corrupt, but from the point of view of an Uzbek gay person, it is social suicide. And in Iskander’s case, the policemen had strong leverage, namely, a transcript of the web chat between him and Jakhongir, where the former candidly wrote what he dreamt of doing with the latter, and how.
For this reason, Iskander asked the police if there was another way to deal with the situation. The policemen asked for $3,000, but Iskander told them he did not have that kind of money. After ten more minutes of bargaining, threats and pleas, the policemen accepted $1,100 and several hundred thousand Uzbek soums, and went away, together with Jakhongir.
“My friends told me that I got away relatively cheaply,” says Iskander. “Some had to give [policemen] their cars, gold and other valuables. Because what is at stake is your family, job, social standing.”
Later Iskander learned from his acquaintances that Jakhongir is a notorious “bait” who repeatedly helped policemen in Tashkent to set up gays. His photos repeatedly appeared on various dating websites under various names.
Iskander’s case is not an isolated one. Several gay people in Tashkent, as well as the aforementioned former investigator, tell Fergananews.com that the “hunt” for homosexuals is an old and lucrative source of extra income for the Uzbek police, who either look for gays at known meeting points or lure them out via dating websites.
Over the 20-plus years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet republics’ treatment of homosexuals has been an indicator of the state of democracy and human rights in those countries, whether homophobes and religious fundamentalists like it or not.
For this reason, it is no surprise that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the most authoritarian states among the former Soviet republics, continue to criminalize homosexuality. The other three post-Soviet “Stans” had decriminalized it by the end of 1990s.
Nevertheless, the police in Tajikistan also extort money from gay people with threats of exposure. Only in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, there are isolated “islands” of gay freedom in the form of gay clubs in major cities.
The Way It Used to Be
The most amazing thing is that exactly a hundred years ago what happened to Iskander would not be possible. Not because there were no mobile phones and Mamba.ru at that time, but because homosexuality was an integral – and often involuntary – part of men’s lives in Turkistan (a region in Central Asia inhabited mainly by Turkic peoples, including present-day Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China’s Xinjiang – translator’s note).
When in February 2012 the Uzbek government banned the already unofficial celebration of St. Valentine’s Day, the holiday that the government deemed to be “too Western” was officially replaced with recitals of poems by Babur, a descendant of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, and the most well-known native of Andijan, who lost several wars to Sheibani Uzbeks, but later went on to conquer a portion of India and establish the Empire of the Great Mughals.
In addition to his talents as a military leader and sovereign, Babur is also known as a major poet and the author of the first autobiography in the history of Muslim literature. In his autobiographic book, Baburnama, he describes his first love – a young man named Baburi.
“There was a man in the camp, who had a son named Baburi. His name seemed very fitting. I felt exceptionally disposed towards him. Moreover, because of him I became sad and imprudent. Before that I was never disposed towards anyone, and never listened to or said anything about love or passion. Sometimes Baburi would visit me, but I was so embarrassed and confused that I could not even look at him, let alone talk to him!” (An excerpt from a translated version of Baburnama from an encyclopedia published in Tashkent in 1992).
Babur’s revelations were not deemed to be scandalous statements by a decadent aristocrat, a Marquis de Sade in a turban, but rather were part of the gay culture of the Muslim Turkistan and Iran.
Gay sexuality left its mark on classic Muslim poetry in Farsi, Arabic, and Turkic languages, from the days of Saadi to the 20th century’s song dedicated to “a man with a long nose” performed by bacha boys.
“There have been many raids for you; Your heart was pierced by the dagger of grief; And your heart, alas, was broken! And your nose! I am in awe of it! Your nose got into my noose! You are trapped! It led to a different kind of tenderness, a different kind of pose!” (Source: Vostlit (Oriental Literature))
Although the Koran and hadiths unequivocally condemn same-sex intercourse, and the Arabic word “luti” (pederast) originates in the name of Lot of Sodom and Gomorrah, homosexuality was for centuries part of Muslim men’s life. The prohibitive cost of marriage, ban on premarital sex, and lack of access to women pushed poor men into each others’ arms; aristocrats and the rich also enjoyed paid services of “beardless” bachas.
Dances of bachas were a traditional form of entertainment in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, until 1920s, before it was banned by Bolsheviks. (Photo by Prokudin-Gorsky, taken between 1905-1915).
Bachas (known in Ottoman Turkey as “köçek” and in Egypt as “Khaval”) were in essence juvenile male prostitutes. They were bought at young age from poor parents, and then taught to dance and sing to perform at feasts/parties (bazm). The feasts were often a prelude to orgies and often turned into an auction with the most generous partier getting the boys.
Russian and European travelers, who visited the Emirate of Bukhara, and the Khanates of Kokand and Khiva, portray local mores, including parties with bachas and receptions at homes of rich Muslims, who often had young male lovers also called bachas.
The young male lovers were a symbol of high social status. At parties they played a role equivalent to that of female hosts [in the West], entertaining guests with conversation, or even flirting with the most important guests on their masters’ orders.
Central Asian historian Akhmad Donish wrote that Nasrullah, the Emir of Bukhara in 1826-1860, was a big fan of sex with lovers of both genders, preferably juveniles; he even forced Ulema (Muslim scholars recognized as having specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology – translator’s note) at his court to declare that homosexuality is innocent:
“Nasrulla, under fatwas (rulings on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority – translator’s note) by such authorities as Mufti Namangani, legalized sodomy and claimed that the fatwas document that sodomy is not a sin.”
Describing a military campaign by Nasrullah’s son, Musaffar, who ruled in 1860-1885, Donish claims that homosexuality was widespread in the military of the Emirate of Bukhara:
“Ten thousand warriors, along with their auxiliaries – twenty thousand men in total – enjoyed sodomy, being aroused by the sight of women and children in that area.”
Scenes from the peaceful times were not much different.
“The bazaar of depravity, gambling, conversations about fornication, and sodomy was at full swing. Behind every wall and in every ditch, there were lovers, the ones who desired and the desired ones, fulfilling their wishes. The rais (officer) in charge of order at the bazaar encouraged gamblers and pederasts.”
Religious figures often set the pace, because in many Sufi brotherhoods the sight of a beautiful young man is a subject of prayerful meditation with the goal of reaching a religious trance and union with God.
Russian observers were unfamiliar with and unaccustomed to such mores. Here is how they describe them:
“Their passionate, fiery temperament, along with a lack of opportunity, for reasons mentioned above, to realize their boiling sexual passions, causes these men to do without women by practicing reciprocal pederasty.
In addition, the poor practice a more terrible, but also the cheapest kind of sodomy, namely, bestiality. Masturbation is also common in Sarts (settled population of Central Asia – translator’s note). The abhorrent vices are part of Sarts’ nature to such a degree that the vices became a hereditary trait of the Sart nation.
“Bazm” and bachas are believed to be the most potent promoters of pederasty.
Bazm is a Persian word meaning a ball, feast, party. What Russian in Turkistan has not witnessed a dance of bachas accompanied by loud Sart music?
Every notable event in a Sart’s life, from birth to circumcision to wedding, is celebrated with a bazm that normally takes place before a feast.”
Although the Tsarist authorities tried to ban bazms and bacha dances – for instance, those were banned in Tashkent in 1886 after an epidemic of cholera that Ulema claimed was caused by the city residents’ depravity – only Communists were later successful in extirpating homosexuality as a cultural element. The notorious law [against homosexuality] in Stalin’s Criminal Code of 1934 was used to fight pederasty among communists in Turkistan.
During the post-Soviet era, it has been deemed preferable not to mention Turkistan’s historic homosexual subculture. An exception the play White, White Black Stork, staged at Tashkent’s Ilkhom theater, that is based on an autobiographic work by Abdullah Kadiri.
IS IT EASY TO BE GAY; A MONOLOGUE BY A GAY PERSON IN TASHKENT
How to Meet
Gays used to meet each other via their friends, at gatherings at people’s homes, and at meeting points at the monument of Amir Timur and the alley next to TSUM (the Central Mall).
Now, in the era of Internet technologies and cheap mobile Internet connection, people meet online. Most gay people use dating website Mamba.ru and social network Odnoklassniki.
Article 120 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code
The police have been informally instructed not to enforce the article as it may spur emigration.
If they start sentencing people to prison terms under this law, both gay and non-gay people would rush to Europe to ask for political asylum based on their sexual orientation.
While policemen cannot really throw people behind bars under the law, they can still use it to start proceedings, and then extort money out of gay people threatening that if the proceedings continue, the gays’ neighbors and employers/co-workers would find out.
During the 24 years of post-Soviet independence, the law was only enforced in one case. The case was against a journalists, whom the authorities wanted to punish for something else, but could only make charges under this law stick.
The police does not conduct raids at such places as the meeting point near the monument of Amir Timur. Barely anyone goes to the meeting points anymore anyway. Everyone meets online or at private homes. Policemen only check bushes around the meeting points, trying to catch someone in the act, making love in the moonlight.
How Policemen Set Gays Up
Policemen create fake accounts on dating websites to lure gay people out. It normally happens if they find out via their sources that the gay person has money.
Normally [if they catch someone], they do not take the gay person to a police station, but rather only help themselves to the valuables they can find on him and let him go. However, if they manage to videotape one “in the act,” they can extort more money.
I told all my friends who were afraid of such setups that the right thing to do is to tell the police to start formal proceedings.
If you do that, they can still falsely accuse you of rape… but let the court try to establish that.
Love for Money
There are no gay brothels, but there are boys who will have sex for money, mostly online.
Attitudes Towards Gay People
I think people in Tashkent are pretty tolerant towards gays. Gays try not to put anything on ostentatious display though so as not to irritate anyone.
It is not part of mentality. In other words, sex with a child or a teenager has never been a norm in Uzbek society.
But rich people would do it and others would turn a blind eye as it puts food on many families’ tables.
Hypocrisy does exist. If a teenager from the province comes to Tashkent to study and finds a rich Tashkent “elder brother” to financially support him, the teenager’s parents would turn a blind eye.
They would of course wonder why his “elder brother” is as much as 20 years older, but would not openly ask this question.
That is because for them the boy can be anyone and anything, but not gay.
Oleg Ilyin is a pseudonym of Fergananews.com’s freelance correspondent in Tashkent.