* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Anger drives me to fight for lesbian, bisexual and queer visibility in Kazakhstan
Zhanar Sekerbayeva, 36, is an LGBT+ activist and founder of Kazakhstan women’s rights group “Feminita”
My government makes me angry. The police force makes me angry. Homophobia makes me angry. Luckily, anger is what motivates me.
I didn’t wake up and just decide to become an activist. I was inspired by an older woman protesting about the devaluation of the Tenge, the Kazakh currency. She was standing alone outside a bank. She told people how its fall in value could affect people’s pensions and everyday lives, so my friend and I, Gulzada Serzhan, went to join her in the square.
A lot of people joined us, but the police came and arrested everyone, including elderly people. They were rude and aggressive, grabbing and dragging us to the floor. I started recording what was happening and the video went viral on social media. The authorities thought I was one of the protest leaders and my photograph appeared across online media the next day.
Readers and social media commentators who saw the news couldn’t tell if I was a man or a woman, so it was a key moment for making lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) people visible.
That experience didn’t stop me from speaking out or peacefully protesting. Last year, I was arrested again for speaking out against the stigma around menstruation.
I joined the women’s rights group “FemPoint” in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to participate in a photo shoot. We took hand-drawn posters with slogans and pictures, as well as pads with red paint. Seven days after the demonstration, I went to a café to meet another feminist activist. When I came out seven police officers were waiting for me. They ordered me to go to the station and said if I didn’t, they’d use physical force.
For holding those pictures, I was charged and convicted of petty hooliganism by the authorities and made to pay a fine, but support from organisations such as Amnesty International made me feel much less alone.
As a lesbian, I knew I wanted to represent LBQ women. I wanted to protect my people, so Gulzada and I set up the Kazakhstan Feminist Initiative “Feminita”. We mainly focus on advocacy and strategic litigation. In our society, LBQ women are shy and stigmatised, so it’s important we address their needs through education and shared experiences.
It’s been a learning curve and since starting “Feminita”, friends have expressed reluctance to meet me. I’ve also faced challenges from strangers – men think it’s OK to send pornographic pictures and make comments on my looks.
But anger keeps me going. When I talk about a topic that angers me I can’t stop. Anger is my sister.
Anger has served me well and we’re making an impact every day. Just recently, we challenged a bylaw that included a derogatory paragraph about LGBT+ culture. We wrote letters and worked with embassies and our allies around the world. Eventually the law was passed without the bylaw.
We’ve also been conducting needs assessments of LBQ people. Through our research, we’re proving there are lesbians, bisexual and queer people in our society. We’ve discovered women need friendly allies, including lawyers and medical specialists. They want to be able to go to resource centres and they need access to human rights organisations.
My colleagues and I have been trying to register “Feminita” as a legal entity since 2017, but our application has been rejected numerous times. They always find a reason to tell us we’re not ready or that we are in violation of something. How can educated, courageous LGBT+ activists be violating laws of the country? On the contrary, we promote the protection of human rights. Whether or not the government wants it, the rights of lesbians, bisexual, trans and queer women are part of that.
We don’t want Feminita to just be a grassroots organisation – we want to create a think-tank that conducts its own research. It is solidarity that has helped us come this far and fights can only be won when we work together, so we will continue.