BY James Kirchick
July 12 2010 4:00 AM ET
Finding one of the two gay bars in Bishkek, capital of the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, requires more than a little bit of effort. It helps to have a local as your guide, as I did in April when dispatched for Radio Free Europe to cover the bloody political revolution that swept President Kurmanbek Bakiyev out of power. Though the establishment to which my guide led me is located downtown in a large plaza within plain sight of the massive presidential office building, it’s as inconspicuous as a speakeasy. My Kyrgyz companion made a quick phone call and performed some sort of special knock on the door, after which the bartender inside undid a series of locks. The whole scene was like something out of a 1920s Prohibition-era detective film.
Viewing any form of independent political organizing as a threat to its power, the Bakiyev regime targeted gay people alongside political dissidents. In 2008, for instance, Kyrgyz police raided a meeting of gay and AIDS organizations for no reason other than to send a message to all nongovernmental organizations: Criticize the government at your peril. With Bakiyev’s ouster, I assumed that life would become marginally easier for gays, now that there was an interim government with real challenges—not the phantasm of homosexuality—to confront. But the bar that night was nearly empty, indicative in its small way of the extent to which homophobia is ingrained in Kyrgyz society.
I was reminded of this experience upon reading news that a coalition of 19 American nonprofit groups, under the auspices of the Council for Global Equality, had compiled a report for the United Nations. Submitted to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council as part of the world body’s Universal Periodic Review process, the report’s purpose, according to one of the contributing organizations, is to “highlight ways in which the United States can improve human rights domestically.” The UPR requires all 192 U.N. member states to submit statements declaring “what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations.” Since governments—especially undemocratic ones—are unlikely to detail such shortcomings (especially pertaining to gays), the U.N. encourages nongovernmental organizations to contribute research about state-sponsored oppression.
Among the recommendations in the Council on Global Equality’s report are the codifying of hate-crimes and employment nondiscrimination laws, repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and federal recognition of gay relationships. In other words, the full panoply of measures that, if enacted, would give gay citizens the same rights as straight ones. I can’t say I disagree with any of these measures. But given that the United States is a fully functioning democracy with representative bodies and an independent judiciary, the U.N. is hardly the venue through which to raise them. Moreover, classifying the “human rights” situation for American gays alongside the plight of those in most other countries is stunning in its myopia, minimizing the grievous situations faced by gays in unfree societies.