The Central Asian Antigay Movement in Global and Local Perspective

Eric McGlinchey is an Associate Professor of Politics at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

How can LGBTI rights be advanced in societies where large segments of the population see the LGBTI community as a threat to children? This is a challenge George Mason University International Relations Policy Task Force (IRTF) students and I have been exploring both locally and in the context of Central Asia. Several IRTF students have lived this challenge. They graduated from high schools where LGBTI rights have been debated and undermined at school board meetings. Just this September Fairfax County Public Schools, the alma mater of many Mason students as well as the nation’s twelfth largest school district, pulled two books— Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy and Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer— that explore LGBTI relationships, from school libraries, this after parents claimed the texts were pornographic and promoted pedophilia.

In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan the LGBTI community is similarly portrayed as deviant and as a threat to children. Both the Kyrgyz and Kazakh parliaments passed draft laws in 2015 that would effectively criminalize homosexuality. The Kyrgyz parliament’s draft law would impose jail sentences of up to one year on individuals who promote among children positive attitudes toward “untraditional sexual relations.” Justifying the logic of his country’s anti-gay law, Kazakh parliamentarian Aldan Smayil explained we need “a ban on information products depicting cruelty and violence, provoking children to life-threatening acts, including suicide, containing scenes of pornographic, sexual and erotic nature, promoting non-traditional sexual orientation.”

Pushing “antigay” legislation is politically advantageous. Only two percent of Kyrgyz and four percent of Kazakh respondents surveyed in Gallup’s 2013 World Poll agreed that homosexual relationships were morally acceptable. Seventy-six percent of Kyrgyz respondents and eighty-two percent of Kazakh respondents shared in the 2013 poll that they saw homosexuality as immoral. Neither Kazakhs nor Kyrgyz appear to have become more accepting of homosexuality in the intervening years. When asked in Gallup’s 2020 World Poll if their city was “a good place” for gay or lesbian people, only seven percent of Kyrgyz respondents and nine percent of Kazakh respondents agreed.

Given this overwhelming bias against the LGBTI community, it may appear odd that the antigay movement in Central Asia is a recent phenomenon. My searches of the BBC’s Monitoring of Central Asian news and more targeted searches of Central Asian papers, for example, Vecherniy Bishkek, yielded few news stories about the LGBTI community in the years prior to 2013. The few articles that do appear in the press prior to 2014, moreover, are strikingly objective in their coverage of LGBTI issues. For instance, a March 2012 Vecherniy Bishkek article, “Week against Homophobia and Transphobia Gets Underway in Bishkek,” notes that, over the course of the week, activists will hold ten events to “raise awareness about the challenges members of the LGBT community face.”

In 2014 Vecherniy Bishkek’s coverage of LGBTI issues spiked from a handful of stories in 2012 and 2013, to over four dozen articles. And it was not just the number of stories that had changed; so too did the tone of these news articles. Rather than articles discussing the need to raise awareness about the challenges the LGBTI community faces, the media focus was now on the Kyrgyz parliament’s move to “ban gay propaganda and same-sex marriages.”

What happened? Why did Kyrgyz politicians suddenly become so preoccupied with the LGBTI community in 2014? A frequent explanation is  “Kyrgyzstan’s close affiliation with Russia inspired the law.” There is considerable evidence to support this view. The Russian parliament voted unanimously in June 2013 to pass the law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” known widely as that “gay propaganda law.” Kyrgyzstan’s movements toward passing a similar law, analysists conclude, is indicative of the continued hold Russia has over Central Asian societies.

The anti-LGBTI movement my students and I are now seeing in northern Virginia, however, suggests an alternative explanation: political necessity and expediency. The Virginia Republican party needed a new message in the post-Trump era 2022 gubernatorial campaign. Although Trumpism no longer resonated among local Republican voters in Virginia, the supposed dangers of a transgender student using the women’s high school bathroom did. Conjuring pornographic and pedophilic threats the LGBTI community purportedly poses to teens and preteens, be it children in Virginia or children in Central Asia, is an effective way to mobilize political support among populations who have grown weary of past failed policies.

Russia, in short, did not drive Kyrgyzstan’s anti-LGBTI upswell any more than Moscow propelled the upswell of anti-LGBTI rhetoric at Virginia school board meetings. What political entrepreneurs in Russia did do, however, was demonstrate the political effectiveness of portraying the LGBTI community as a threat, particularly a threat to children. Central Asian politicians, much like politicians here in Virginia, recognized the expediency of this newly prominent anti-LGBTI strategy and have adopted antigay rhetoric to mobilize their political base.

Regrettably, well-intentioned efforts to dispel unfounded portrayals of LGBTI individuals as pedophiles and predators often backfire. Nationalists in Kyrgyzstan, for example, effectively depicted the Obama administration’s policy of promoting LGBTI rights as an American attack on Eurasian traditional values. And legal advocacy groups in Virginia have portrayed requests that teachers abide transgender students’ preferred pronouns as leftist attacks on teachers’ religious freedoms.

Recent scholarship, perhaps most notably the work of political scientist Adam Berinsky, illustrates that individuals from perceived outgroups, be they opposing political parties or foreign countries, rarely are able to shift ingroup thinking on conspiracies and disinformation. Leftist activists are poorly positioned to shift anti-LGBTI views that individuals on the right may hold. And US administrations, similarly, will struggle in their efforts to promote LGBTI rights internationally. Critically though, this same recent scholarship finds that individuals do shift beliefs when confronted with dissonant views from “unlikely sources,” that is, from members of their own political parties or identity communities.

The implication of this finding is profound for how LGBTI rights can be advanced at the local and international level. Here in the United States the most effective champions of LGBTI rights may not be activists on the political left, but rather, LGBTI allies on the political right. And in Central Asia local activists with few overt ties to the West are likely better positioned to advance LGBTI rights than are activists publicly linked to Western funding and international organizations. Fortunately, here in Virginia, there are many on the right who do support the LGBTI community. In a 2019 survey, for example, 53 percent of Virginia Republicans polled said they would support “nondiscrimination laws to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination in housing.”

The polling numbers in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, admittedly, are more daunting. Nevertheless, that nearly a quarter of Kyrgyz and almost one-fifth of Kazakhs in Gallup’s 2013 World Poll were unwilling to condemn homosexuality as immoral does provide reason for hope. Growing Central Asian support for LGBTI rights will take time. As difficult as it may be to accept for those of us who want change sooner rather than later, quiet and patient diplomacy that allows Central Asia’s nascent LGBTI movements to strengthen from within may prove more effective than directly resourcing human rights campaigns that antigay politicians can readily brand as Western attempts to undermine traditional culture.