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An Asian Antigay Bill Could Have Global Repercussions

An Asian Antigay Bill Could Have Global Repercussions

An Asian Antigay Bill Could Have Global Repercussions
Inmates stand atop the jail in the village of Petrovka outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

Why you need to know and care about the situation in Kyrgyzstan.

Advocates focused on the human rights of LGBT people internationally often think of this work as two steps forward, one step back. While this year Nepal amended its constitution to explicitly protect LGBT people and President Obama appointed Randy Berry as the first special envoy for the human rights of LGBT people, in 2014 we watched another country, Brunei, get added to the list of countries in which consensual same-sex activity can carry a death sentence.

As we win big victories in the United States like nationwide marriage equality, many LGBT Americans are paying more attention to the big stories happening on the international scene. But many may yet not realize that a dangerous moment is in our near future: a law that is moving forward that would set a new and frightening precedent with the potential to reignite a wave of anti-LGBT legislation in its region. The place is Kyrgyzstan, and while it may not be on the radar for most of the world, it must be now. This small Central Asian country is on the verge of passing a law that would be the first of its kind -- a "propaganda" law that would result in people being thrown in jail for expressing the most basic sentiments about their own identities.

In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower first invoked the metaphor of falling dominoes to depict the spread of communism across Southeast Asia. Sixty years later, as this hate spreads across Central Asia, it is a picture that once again seems fitting.

In the lead-up to 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the newly enacted Russian law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors outraged international human rights activists. LGBT Russians were already experiencing its effects, but with the impending arrival of thousands of athletes, spectators, and global leaders, predictions varied on how the law would be enforced at and around the games. Many hoped that the limelight would drive Russian leaders to reconsider their commitment to what the global community viewed as legalized homophobia, but in the end, the Kremlin didn't bat an eye.

A year and a half later we are faced with resulting irony that is hard to swallow: an event that was created to foster amity between nations may have become a springboard for homophobia across borders. In the small amount of time since the closing ceremonies, a bill emulating Russia's ban on so-called LGBT propaganda has advanced from a legislative rumor in the halls of Kyrgyzstan's Parliament to the precipice of becoming law. And this bill is not an outlier -- in Eastern Europe and in neighboring nations in Central Asia, legislators from Latvia to Armenia have explored similar moves towards codifying homophobia at home.

The Kyrgyz version of the propaganda law is far more dangerous than its Russian counterpart. On first glance, the Kyrgyz version of the propaganda law seems to be a carbon copy of its Russian predecessor -- certain sections, in fact, seem to be directly copied and pasted from Russian documents. But expanding upon what it emulates, the Kyrgyz law introduces newly conceived criminal penalties carrying prison sentences of up to one year.

The Kyrgyz draft law also significantly broadens the scope of its application, expanding its terms to include a widespread ban of all forms of public information about nontraditional sexual relations rather than limiting the ban to information accessible to minors. In effect, the sweeping nature of the bill could land journalists, artists, and human rights defenders in jail simply for exercising their freedom of speech. In practice, it could go as far as to shutter gay clubs, ban LGBT gatherings, and even allow Kyrgyz police to arrest workers at HIV/AIDS clinics for distributing informational materials to patients.

As LGBT Russians will tell you, passage of this propaganda law will have a significant negative impact that goes beyond legal hurdles, arrests, and courtroom sentences. Since the Russian law went into effect, bias-motivated crimes against the Russian LGBT population have become more commonplace and more brazen, and, worse yet, have met with indifference on the part of officials.

With the draft bill moving through Parliament, Kyrgyz LGBT people are already experiencing increased violence and discrimination. In the south of the country, LGBT residents are treated as if the law has already passed, with police attempting to arrest and fine people under the legislation. In April a leading LGBT organization was fire-bombed by young nationalist thugs in the nation's capital, Bishkek, and on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia a peaceful group was attacked by members of the hate group Kalys. It is clear that even the consideration of such anti-LGBT laws results in a validation of homophobia and the violence it inspires.

As Kyrgyzstan holds elections this weekend, the bill awaits its third and final reading in the new session of Parliament, and that is likely to occur this month. With little doubt that it will pass -- legislators voted 90-2 in favor on its second reading -- the LGBT population is now looking to President Almazbek Atambayev to intervene. His options are limited both by his country's legislative process and by his people's homophobia, but there is hope. If he chooses to not sign the bill when it arrives on his desk, he can either return it to Parliament for edits and clarification or issue a veto. When that day comes, we hope that global leaders, especially the Obama administration, will continue to urge him to stand on the side of human rights.

The impact of this bill becoming law would surely be disastrous for the entire region. Kyrgyzstan's neighbor to the north, Kazakhstan, has previously considered a propaganda bill of its own. Though it was voted down, reintroduced, and then coincidentally tabled by officials during an Olympic bid process earlier this year, the Kazakh LGBT community suspects that a victory for the Kyrgyz bill would pave the way for Kazakh lawmakers to reintroduce similar legislation. Like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan has deeply rooted feelings of enmity for LGBT people, manifesting in violent attacks and refusal of basic services. Members of Parliament have gone as far as to call for legislation to classify LGBT Kazakhs as "criminals against humanity."

With the first domino set to fall in Kyrgyzstan, it is critical that the United States and its allies put productive pressure on Atambayev and extend critical support to the Kyrgyz LGBT community. To let the bill pass and allow LGBT people to be incarcerated would be a historic step back for Kyrgyzstan, the region, and global human rights.

Shawn GaylordSHAWN M. GAYLORD is advocacy counsel at Human Rights First, leading its initiative to advance the protection of the human rights of LGBT people globally.

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Shawn Gaylord