When you’ve done human rights work for a few years, you think you’re all old and jaded and can no longer be shocked, but it’s not true.
I got reminded of this last month when interviewing Sanjar Kurmanov from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group Labrys, based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I reached Sanjar while writing a report for Global Philanthropy Project on how government crackdowns on civil society affect LGBT groups (the report launched yesterday and is online here).
I asked Sanjar about two draft bills at the Kyrgyz parliament that would target all NGOs who receive foreign funding, and LGBT groups in particular. Are you still able to work openly? I asked.
“Before 3rd April 2015 we worked quite openly. We did advocacy really publicly, talking about LGBT in mass media.”
So… what happened on April 3rd?
“First they threw Molotov cocktails – four of them.”
Wait – what?
“Yeah, Molotov cocktails at the house that was our community center, office and shelter. Luckily no one was there. One of the bottles was on the top of the house, but was not burned. God saved us. The others fell in the yard, it was not a big fire. This house was our own house, we bought it.”
I was typing at high speed to try to get it all down. “Did you report it to the police?”
Sanjar said no, it wouldn’t be safe, and they didn’t believe the police would protect them. He described a recent case “Where trans woman was filmed her body without clothes by the police, and shared on social media.”
Wait. The police? Filmed a trans woman in the nude? And shared the images on social media?
Yes, Sanjar said. This happened twice. Labrys sued the police for damages and won settlements for the victims. Both times.
Anyway the failed bomb attack was scary, Sanjar said, but it hadn’t really stopped Labrys. A month later, they organized a small celebration for IDAHOT at a restaurant. That was also attacked – by 30 men from two nationalist groups.
“Suddenly they came to us and started to knock on the door, saying that we are illegal and we have to leave this place or they will burn everything, they will kill us, hate speech. So then we called to police.”
The police took 5 of the attackers and all of the victims to the police station, and put them all in the same room for five hours.
“We were not able to buy food or water. It was like we were suspects. The 5 [attackers] were trying to photo us. When we wrote [our account of the attack], one of the police members shared our addresses with them. When we noticed that, we started to shout. [The police] denied [doing] it. Then members of nationality groups and the police were sharing food together. We were asking them to please let us buy something, we want to eat and drink and use the bathroom…Some of [our members] were HIV-positive, we asked for drugs, and they did not allow this.”
Eventually the police chief showed up and let everyone go. Outside the station was a media frenzy, so clearly someone had called the media. Labrys slipped away in a friend’s car.
The Kyrgyz story is more dramatic than some of the others in the report. For many, the story was about failure to register an NGO, epic paperwork, police shutdowns of meetings, repeated and uncalled-for government audits, and other everyday hurdles. For LGBT groups in many countries, homophobic violence, police abuse, restrictions on operating an NGO, death by a thousand bureaucratic cuts, are nothing new.
What is new is the wave of “foreign agent” and other laws targeting international funding of NGOs, combined with another wave of anti-sodomy and “LGBT propaganda” laws that also specifically target LGBT groups, combined with resurgent nationalism which often seems to include homophobic scapegoating of LGBT people in the media. These different trends all come together sometimes to create a “perfect storm” that heightens the risk for the small ships that are LGBT NGOs.
But for all the looming threats, none of the activists I spoke to in Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Kenya or Hungary seemed anything but optimistic and dogged about finding new ways to continue their work.
Sanjar said that among other programs, Labrys provides medical aid and counseling to victims of homophobic and transphobic violence. They still need to a space to use as a shelter. He was matter-of-fact: “There is domestic violence. People need support. There are not less people coming to us.”
The Global Philanthropy Project report, The perfect storm: The closing space for LGBT civil society in Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Kenya and Hungary is a first look at how mechanisms for closing civil society space are impacting LGBT communities in four key regions, with focused case studies of Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Kenya, and Hungary. It includes recommendations for future research and for donor strategies to promote an effective, unified civil society response. For more information, visit Global Philanthropy Project.