What do we talk about, when we talk about alliances and solidarity between the LGBTI and the feminist movements?

What do we talk about, when we talk about alliances and solidarity between the LGBTI and the feminist movements?

The words of Gulzada Serzhan, co-founder of Kazakhstan Feminist Initiative “Feminita” and guest on the latest episode of ILGA World’s Making Rainbow Waves podcast, explain it very clearly: “In my opinion, hate against the LGBTIQ community and misogyny have similar features backed by a patriarchal society. Therefore, we put ourselves as a part of a feminist movement.” On the occasion of this year’s International Women Day, these words must be heard louder than ever.

We met Gulzada as her organisation prepares to follow up on the important recommendation obtained by the UN Committee Against Torture, where her advocacy highlighted the human rights situation of LGBTI detainees. Together, we went over Gulzada’s journey as an activist, the current situation of the LGBTI community in Kazakhstan and the region more broadly, and why it is important to engage grassroots communities about the advances obtained at the international level.

“These recommendations are in a very official language,” she told us. “So we try to explain them in a very friendly way in our meetings. I think it gives (the community) some confidence” iif you explain “what those recommendations mean, why it is important for us, how it works, and what you can do to use those changes in your life.”

“We are lesbians and we have rights”: a conversation with Gulzada Serzhan

00:00:08 Gulzada Serzhan

We know our rights. We know how it works. We are out. We can come out and say that we are lesbians and we have rights. I think that’s very essential.

00:00:26 (intro)

Making Rainbow Waves, a podcast by ILGA World.

00:00:37 Daniele Paletta (Host)

Welcome to Making Rainbow Waves, a podcast by ILGA World, where we tell the stories of LGBTI human rights defenders worldwide. My name is Daniele Paletta, and I’m here today with Gulzada Serzhan, from a Kazakhstan Feminist Initiative “Feminita”. Welcome, Gulzada.

00:00:56 Gulzada Serzhan

Hi, Daniele.

00:00:58 (Host)

Thank you so much for being with us today. This is going to be a conversation about your story as an activist and the human rights situation for our communities in your country. And also, for you to tell us a little bit more about your advocacy experience, especially in international human rights bodies. Could you tell me more about your story as an activist? Was there a key moment that made you want to get involved in first-person activism?

00:01:35 Gulzada Serzhan

Yes. My name is Gulzada Serzhan, and I’m 51 years old. I live in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I’m an activist, feminist, lesbian, women’s human rights defender, co-founder of Kazakhstan Feminist Initiative “Feminita”, which is based in Almaty. We advocate for the rights of lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender women’s rights in Kazakhstan. I started my civil rights activism when I first time went to a protest with my colleague Zhanar Sekerbayeva in 2014. It was the very first time when I joined a civil rights protest. I didn’t know anything about how it is to be an activist. We shouted a famous slogan which is against patriarchal autocracy, autocratic, social, and democratic government. When in media, they started to discuss these two women, they started to confuse us: “Are they men or women? Why do they look different?” So, Zhanar and I decided to make this initiative to protect the rights of the LGBTI community rather than to be mistaken, and to be part of the civil society movement in Kazakhstan. That’s how we started in 2014.

00:03:23 (Host)

And you have continued your work since. I imagine it must have been something pretty new for you to dive into activism all of a sudden, right? I imagine you were doing something completely different before. But over the years, I know you’ve been very active in advocating for our communities in your country and in the region. So, how would you describe the human rights situation of LGBTI communities in Kazakhstan, and how do you think it has evolved over time?

00:03:59 Gulzada Serzhan

Yeah, you’re right. We are really involved in advocacy for LGBTI rights in Kazakhstan, probably because both Zhanar and I have our own backgrounds. I’m from academia, and she’s from journalism. That’s probably why we joined this path. As you probably know, Kazakhstan was a former Soviet country. If you compare the situation of human rights in former Soviet countries, in my opinion, in Kazakhstan, it is better than Russia and some Central Asian countries. However, it is worse than in, for example, Baltic countries. So I should say that Kazakhstan is better than all our neighbouring countries, is because we have some refugees coming from Russia and Central Asia. We, as activists, try to help them get some legal help or health help.

00:05:30 Gulzada Serzhan

The officials do not want to make it (look like it) is feasible. They don’t brag about that because, overall, Kazakhstan is not a friendly country for refugees. However, for LGBTI people, the recent years, especially as in Russia and in other neighbouring countries, the human rights situation for LGBTI communities is really worsening, and the anti-gender movement is rising up really highly after this war, in comparison, I would say that it is better than all these terrible situations in our neighbouring countries. I think it is also due to the advocacy and activism of the LGBTI community and LGBTI activists in Kazakhstan.

00:06:35 (Host)

Thanks for sharing that. Since your name, of course, “Feminita” is a grassroots queer feminist human rights organisation. And, as you said, it works to protect the human rights of lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans women, but also women with disabilities, women who engage in sex work. I was wondering what it is like for “Feminita” to be a feminist organisation within the LGBTI movement at large. And what does feminism mean to your LGBTI advocacy? How do you make intersectionality work in your daily practice?

00:07:16 Gulzada Serzhan

In daily practice, when we introduce “Feminita” to any auditorium, we say: “We are intersectional feminists, a collective of lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender women’s activists.” In my opinion, hate against the LGBTIQ community and misogyny have similar features backed by a patriarchal society. Therefore, we put ourselves as a part of a feminist movement. For example, we actively take part in the organisation of feminist rallies and marches, and we support all other women or feminist organisations. We try to hold these feminist values. Being part of a larger movement and having allies is really important. We see these feminist and grassroots organisations as an ally, very strong movements. We feel like a part of it.

00:08:44 (Host)

I hope they have been welcoming to you as well, of course.

00:08:49 Gulzada Serzhan

Well, time to time. It depends.

00:08:51 (Host)

It depends, okay. That’s an ongoing process. But I think I can also speak for our experience at the ILGA World; the alliances with feminist and LGBTI movements are becoming extremely, extremely important for us. It has always been present, but I think we’re trying to make that even more explicit, especially in this climate of anti-rights, anti-gender movements that are really being very loud and aggressive. You also mentioned that they’re having an impact on your country.

00:09:32 Gulzada Serzhan

That’s true, yes.

00:09:34 (Host)

I know your advocacy is not limited just to your country or your region, but it has also often reached international human rights bodies. Like the United Nations, for example. Only last year, we know that the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT), thanks to your advocacy, heard about the detention of LGBTI activists. And you obtained a recommendation on the issue. Of course, this is a great result because you managed to bring to light a situation that normally remains hidden. So, I was wondering whether you could share with us your experience with engaging in UN mechanisms, both last year, on the occasion that I mentioned, and in the past. How has that evolved over time?

00:10:28 Gulzada Serzhan

This advocacy at Geneva, the UN Committees, was started in 2016 by Zhanar Sekerbayeva, the co-founder of “Feminita”. She went for the first time. It was UNHRC, and we got the very first recommendation on non-discrimination of LGBTI persons based on SOGI, sexual orientation and gender identity. It was the first time. It was very successfully advocated by my colleague. Later, the next, I don’t precisely remember. I think either 2017 or 2018, I went to CESCR, the Committee for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. And we also got the support of the committee regarding the registration.

00:11:37 Gulzada Serzhan

It is very essential for these organisations like us, “Feminita”, to be able to legally register, but we are still not registered. It’s one of the discriminations against the community because when some collectives of LGBTI activists try to also register, whenever you have on your statute the words related to lesbian, bisexual, etc., then they try not to register it. We see this discrimination, but we are not giving up. We are still trying to register. And later, at the end of 2019, it was UPR (the Universal Periodic Review). Again, with the help of ILGA, I went to UPR, and Kazakhstan got 11 recommendations, one of which was supported. It is creating an enabling environment for LGBTI community rights activists. It is a very important recommendation which was supported. We praised the officials for supporting it.

00:13:06 Gulzada Serzhan

However, when we got back to Kazakhstan and we were invited to discuss these supported recommendations from UPR in the Ministry of Justice, it was online because it was COVID time, Kazakhstan was declaring that we are going to make it in a national plan and we are going to work on it.

But a few days ago, a couple of weeks ago, we got attacked by a mob in Shymkent. So it was opposite of what we supported as a country. So we made it very clear in other discussions with Ministry of Justice that they were doing the opposite; “You have to tell all those offices in other cities that Kazakhstan supported that recommendation, now we have that obligation.”

I think maybe it was a good thing that it happened to show how it’s not to be done and how they are violating it. If nothing happened, then we could say they support it, and let’s move on, right? Now, we are explaining the officials, the Minister of Justice, and we regularly meet with them and tell them how we see the implementation of the recommendation.

00:15:03 Gulzada Serzhan

Probably, it is very new, and it was not common for activist groups to advocate at the national level to explain what should be done, how it should be done, and how to deal with the perception of this heritage from the Soviet times. In Soviet times, we had this legal prosecution in our criminal code; we had an article against homosexuality, so how to get rid of all this past? I think it’s the step-by-step process; we are working on it, and we are very loud. We are out lesbians in Kazakhstan. We don’t hide it. We go to the meetings and face these officials and the Ministry of Justice or Minister of Internal Affairs to explain to them what should be done and how it should be implemented. And why it is beneficial for all citizens and for all people living in Kazakhstan. We are very out loud to tell this also for the community, spreading this courage to make them feel more or less sure about their rights. So we are doing our best.

00:16:43 (Host)

Thanks for sharing all of that. And first of all, I’m so sorry that you got attacked, and I hope you and all your colleagues are doing okay. I imagine it must be hard. So first of all, I want to send you all my solidarity. And it’s just really terrible that visibility always has to come with a cost, right? Because, of course, the more you expose yourself and the more people are trying to put you back in your corner. So I think it’s extremely important what you’re doing, but it’s also very hard and comes with a cost. So again, my solidarity and my thanks for what you’re doing. In the specific…

00:17:29 Gulzada Serzhan

If I may, I would mention that it’s not only LGBTI activists who are attacked but also political activists. I think the way autocratic government oppresses the civil society movement is similar. If you’re part of, for example, the working union or political activists or other group which they see as a threat to the autocratic ruling, then they might organise this. The biggest one was in January 2022. We have to see that the LGBTI rights movement is one of the civil society movements, along with other movements. So they do not differ. If this is the LGBTI community, then let’s do it this way and another way. The oppression is similar. So, we stand together with other civil rights movements. Sometimes, some groups do not want us to be part of the civil society movement, but we don’t listen because they’re not making the agenda. The agenda is made by all parts of the civil society movement.

00:19:10 (Host)

Yeah, and that’s exactly where the solidarity comes in, right? Different groups may have very different paths and very different goals and life stories, but everyone is united in these cases. Yeah, it’s really important.

Coming again to the recommendations that you received last year with the Committee Against Torture, I wanted to quote what the committee said, if I may: “The Committee is seriously concerned about the allegations of violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, inflicted on person deprived of their liberty, and harassment and sexual violence, inflicted on female detainees by male guards in exchange of favours. The committees said the government should ensure that all allegations of violence against detainees, including violence on the basis of SOGI, are thoroughly investigated and the suspected offenders are persecuted and, if convicted, punished appropriately. With specific attention paid to allegations of violence against female detainees.”

00:20:20 (Host)

Of course, this is extremely relevant. As we said, it’s not something that… The situation of prisoners is a reality that has not always come to light. So I was wondering, now that the shadow report has been submitted and the recommendations have been made, what happens next? How do you follow up on them? Maybe you already have. If so, have you seen any changes in how the government is responding or interacting with your groups or other groups that have made shadow reports to the UN bodies?

00:20:58 Gulzada Serzhan

First of all, we informed the LGBTI community that we got this recommendation. So when you explain to the community what these recommendations are and what they mean, it is very important to give them some… They may become more confident. Especially for LGBTI activists. It is important, essential, to know that they have rights. And the government received this recommendation because, with all these anti-gender groups, they’re throwing this fake information. They’re making it seem as if “You are so alone. Nobody is going to help you. You have no rights, and the whole world is against you. And you are the only one living in this world and have no rights.” So this feeling of insecurity is making some activists and some LGBTI members become vulnerable. And after also the COVID time, this situation of their mental health is not good. At that time, we spread the information that Kazakhstan went there, and we explained the whole process: how we were sitting there, who said what, what was the response of this state, and how they behaved. We shared all these details with the community to let them know that they were not alone, and the state accepted this. So they received this recommendation, and they have to follow these recommendations. And we are watching it, we are monitoring it. We explain that we monitor, and we come up with that. Any time when the government makes a discussion, a roundtable discussion with civil society about this recommendation, we show up and say, “We like this” or “We don’t like what you are doing.”

00:23:39 Gulzada Serzhan

I think this work is done very well, and that’s why we have different young activists showing up. They’re so bold. They’re not afraid. They’re making some projects for youth, for other groups in the LGBTI community. I think that’s the result of making seen that we know our rights, we know how it works. We are out. We can come out and say that we are lesbians and we have rights. I think that’s very essential.

00:24:22 Gulzada Serzhan

These recommendations are in a very official language. It’s hard to understand, especially for young people. So we try to explain them in a very friendly way in our meetings, in our group meetings, etc. When we go online, we make video talks with the community, and we explain all of its importance. I think it gives some confidence; I think that’s an essential part of other than advocating at the national level and the international level. In my opinion, it was a mistake of the other groups who were advocating before not to connect with the community. Before “Feminita”, there were some attempts at advocacy. We can see some recommendations, but we never see anyone who did this work with the community explaining what those recommendations mean, why it is important for us, how it works, and what you can do to use those changes in your life.

00:25:52 (Host)

Yeah, as you said, the bottom line is really to make people understand that they’re not alone. Because I think even if our context and where we come from are very different, I think in our community most of us can relate to having experienced that loneliness. And that “Am I the only one”, right? And finding out that that’s not true, I think it’s what opens us up to the world… I’m sorry, I’m getting a little bit moved by all of this.

Because doing this advocacy work, I find, can also seem very remote, very strange. The UN can seem this gigantic, very remote mechanism that has no real impact on people’s lives. So as you said, it takes explaining, it takes bringing people in and telling them why this is not true, that this actually matters a lot. And so once again, thanks for all the work that you’ve been doing.

00:27:06 (Host)

I think we’re reaching the end of our conversation. Or maybe not; maybe there’s more you want to share. And, of course, you’re welcome to!

00:27:15 Gulzada Serzhan

Yeah. So, I want to share one of the ideas that we say to the communities about the UN mechanisms because of the anti-gender movement and all the propaganda saying that the UN is a useless organisation. There’s a lot of information like that saying that the UN has no teeth, that’s all blah, blah, blah, “it doesn’t help you.” We explain to the community that the implementation of the recommendation is in our own interest. So you have to feel, “That’s for me, and that’s my right”. It’s not because somebody in Geneva wants that; it is because I want that. So, all these recommendations are about us, and it’s our own ownership. You have to make it your own and it is very… The benefit of it is for Kazakhstan, not any other country. So we can’t do that. We cannot ignore all those recommendations. The “throw it away, right? Nobody cares. Nobody wants us to be a democracy except us, it is beneficial exclusively to us”… How we explain, though, all that rhetoric of crumbling propaganda against the UN is not helpful to you? So I think all LGBTI communities have to discuss it and prevent spreading all this information against UN mechanisms to make it seem like it is very useless.

00:29:39 Gulzada Serzhan

It is useless if you don’t use it. Nobody is going to make a rule in your home. So all these rules that are written on the paper are our own rules because we advocated for them. Zhanar and I went with these requests, and we got that recommendation according to the convention that we accepted in Kazakhstan. So Kazakhstan is our country, and we make the rules. I think we have to talk about that a lot and not throw away all those efforts that we are making.

00:30:24 (Host)

I completely agree. I really want to thank you for being here, for explaining all your work and the human rights situation in your country. I think your words are going to resonate with a lot of people that hopefully will be listening to us. So thank you so much for having been with us today.

00:30:46 Gulzada Serzhan

Thank you, Daniele.

00:30:47 (Host)

Making Rainbow Waves is a podcast by ILGA World. This episode was hosted by Daniele Paletta and edited by Kevin Mwachiro. You can find every episode on all streaming platforms, and transcriptions are available on ilga.org. Thanks for listening.