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Reaching for the Highest Peak

How do you create unprecedented social change in Kyrgyzstan? Gather health officials, mix in some of the best doctors and psychiatrists, and add determined LGBT activists. Then, watch as they build trust, break barriers, and learn from one another.The result? The first gender marker legislation change in Kyrgyzstan’s history, signed, without objections, by 13 various Ministries of the Kyrgyz Republic. The decree is now on the Prime Minister’s desk awaiting the final signature.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

13th November 2011 06:23

Alessia Valenza | ILGA Asia

This major win is a result of tireless efforts by Global Fund for Women grantee partner, Labrys, a group working for LGBT rights in Kyrgyzstan. In the past year, this Central Asian country has gone through significant political upheavals, including a presidential overthrow and deadly interethnic violence, followed by peaceful democratic elections.

Facing an Impossible Goal

In order for transgender people to change their name and gender on identity papers, a Kyrgyz law requires a formal document to be issued by a medical institution. There are two problems: no such process exists for medical professionals to follow and the government has yet to provide the formal document necessary.

“Our job was to develop legislation that would allow transgender people to be able to change their name and gender marker without any kind of medical interventions if they do not wish to do so,” said Labrys’ founder, 31-year-old Anna Kirey. “When we started it was almost impossible to think that we would be able to cooperate with people at high levels in government. It took a lot of work, but seeing that cooperation is possible makes me very inspired.”

After authoring alternative reports for UN human rights bodies on violence and discrimination facing Kyrgyzstan’s LGBT population, Labrys garnered international attention, which they used to establish an official working group with the Kyrgyz Republic’s Ministry of Health.

“You can work so much better when you have support from people in the government,” said Anna.

The first of its kind, the working group is made up of health officials, medical specialists, psychiatrists, Labrys representatives, and people from the transgender community. Their goal is to develop an identity policy that upholds the rights and dignity of transgender people.

Labrys staff conducts trainings for doctors and psychiatrists on sexual orientation and gender identity. Labrys also made it their mission to build trust and bond with group members over meals, songs, and dance; they even brought the members to a major LGBT conference in Moldova. The group is now a trusted resource for Kyrgyz medical specialists.

“A lot of doctors had never met an LGBT person before,” said Anna. “It was exciting to see these new friendships happen.”

Shedding a Legacy of Hatred

Watching Labrys’ rapid progress makes it hard to believe that homosexuality was illegal during the Soviet era, and up until 13 years ago. Yet, if outed, individuals still risk losing their jobs and becoming disowned by their families. Despite the progress, the rate of violence is still staggering:

Labrys’ research shows that one in four LBT interviewees experienced sexual violence and were forced into “curative” sexual situations.

While the legacy of hatred remains palpable in the region, Labrys has been able to reach over 800 LGBT individuals. Labrys operates an informational resource center, organizes awareness campaigns, runs self-help groups and workshops, and offers free psychological and medical services. The group also trains activists in other Central Asian countries on how to document human rights violations based on sexual orientation. Just over the past three months, they have collected 29 cases.

“Slowly and painfully, the topic of LGBT is shedding its skin of being a ‘taboo’ issue,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, a Labrys staff member. “There are still great achievements ahead though, and should they come to fruition, Labrys will have mastered its highest peak yet: the gender identity legislation.”