*names are changed
“Shame is worse than death” (uiat ölümdön katuu) is a renowned Kyrgyz proverb a respondent mentioned to describe the social consequences of parents knowing their children are queer. She says no Kyrgyz parent wants to find out their kid is homosexual. Aidai*, a lesbian woman who comes from a rural and traditional Kyrgyz family in a small town of Issyk-Kul in northern Kyrgyzstan is well aware of the shame and dishonor her sexuality might bring upon her family. Aidai experiences double consciousness, a term that the sociologist W.E.B DuBois applied to the split on identity and self-perception oppressed identities have with embracing their true selves and conforming to dominant values and culture in society.
DuBois spoke on behalf of black people’s experience of racialized oppression in a white-dominated America from the early 20th century. Double consciousness can be applied to sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, decolonizing identities and the intersection of all the former. A century later from when it was conceived and in a now 32 year-old independent post-Soviet Central Asian and Muslim country, I apply this concept to Kyrgyz queer citizens who live in largely homophobic societies and experience familial pressure to fulfill traditionally expected cultural roles such as marriage and having children in a heterosexual union.
Queer Double Consciousness
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two−ness, — a [Kyrgyz], a [queer]; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one [queer] body…
These lines that I slightly refashioned are from the 1897 essay “Strivings of the Negro People” by the civil rights activist and scholar DuBois, where he first introduces the phenomenon of double consciousness. Double consciousness is the inner “two-ness” and division that cultural minorities develop by means of belonging to a group that has been socially deemed inferior (Walker 2018). This condition creates a dual awareness of perceiving one’s self through one’s eyes and through the eyes of others simultaneously. This may lead to a mental conflict especially if one cannot live up to the sets of standards or expectations of both and has to irreconcilably conform to one or the other identity (e. g. being the exemplary Kyrgyz traditional daughter expected and queer, being a kelin (bride) and a lesbian).
On Society and ‘Kyrgyzness’
“Kyrgyzness” and the “traditional Kyrgyz girl” are notions that were frequently invoked by the informants. The root of double consciousness stems from these meanings, imposed and defined by the larger socially conservative majority. All respondents had an idea or vague notion of what the traditionally Kyrgyz woman and her duties are like, often comparing themselves with this moral mental image as an unattainable ideal their queer selves contradict.
As mentioned in the proverb ‘better death than shame’, one can define Kyrgyz(stani) society as an honor-shame based culture. In them, social behavior is regulated by categories of normalcy/deviancy and boundaries of propriety are set (McBrien 2021). When improper behavior appears, such actions are considered uiat (shame) and may act to tarnish the honor of one’s self, the family, the tribe or the nation as a whole. Similarly, one in fear of being socially sanctioned is left feeling internally conflicted and attempts are made to censor, suppress, hide or hate their true selves. This leads to DuBois’ “unreconciled strivings”/conflicting roles and identities where one experiences emotional distress and a broken sense of belonging to the collective, the latter being a dimension I explore from my respondents as well.
All the same, the social order can be defined as collectivist oriented in which collective goals are prioritized, leaving out actions motivated by one’s personal needs or based on individualism/hedonism (Möller-Slawinski and Calmbach 2015). To move onto the larger sociocultural context, it is important to consider Kyrgyzstan as a pluralist, multi-ethnic society with not much of a cohesive citizenry. Society is divided among lines of urban and rural, formerly Soviet and independent, religious and secular, Russian-speaking and Kyrgyz-speaking, progressive/liberal and traditionalist/nationalist, often causing clashes and debates from the traditionalist versus liberal camps (BTI 2022). As such, one camp embraces modernity and globalization while the other invokes a return to tradition (retraditionalization), family values, nationalism and sees globalization as a threat to culture and the nation (Beyer and Finke 2019).
The latter traditionalist orientation is the current take of the incumbent government of president Sadyr Japarov, whose new decree and “morality plan” from 2021 to 2026 aims to promote traditional, moral and national values by law. To be propagated in the media and school programs are the values of a “traditional society, the ideals of the family, a healthy lifestyle, love for the Fatherland and service to the people” (Civicus 2021). At the opposite end, this constitutional change is a direct attack on queer minorities and the attempts to protect their rights by civil society organizations. It will restrict those “alien” values that are not “inherent” to Kyrgyz people, becoming an ominous sign for the future of sexual, ethnic minorities and women’s rights.
To gather these personal narratives, I conducted two semi-structured qualitative interviews in English, Kyrgyz and some Russian words in between. While I use oral history methods, when it comes to a sexuality that is largely stigmatized, there was a sense of keeping one’s guard. That was present when choosing an appropriate venue for the interviews, when interacting with wary queer contacts on the internet and with the sense of responsibility I have now with their information, information that could ruin their lives. After all, the closet is fragile. Seeing the “risky methodological encounters” and the different implications of being queer, I treat queer oral history as a method in its own right (Boyd 2012).
Queer oral history’s implications are illustrating the lives of those left on the margins of society, dehumanized not only in life but even after death by silencing their life experiences and stories in the historical record. I undertook this research by having this in mind, that by claiming a space to talk of the queer Kyrgyz experience is to humanize queer identities and illustrate the internal turmoil of forcibly conforming/not being able to conform to cultural roles.
In essence, oral histories are agreements between a narrator and an informed interviewer to record their memories and narrations (Boyd 2012). It becomes queer oral history when both parties are queer and there is a degree of sensibility shared. In order to achieve what I intended to do and to employ reflexivity, I was also out of the closet and my queer identity was instrumental to offer trust and making sure safety is kept long after the record is published.
Following, I present the narratives of two Kyrgyz queer women: Aidai and Jibek whose accounts I have divided into themes. To start with, I introduce their cultural backgrounds, the different ways and means they had to come to terms with their sexual orientations and later I explore the narratives and instances where they had felt double consciousness. These instances range from expressed parental and cultural expectations and the experience of existing and navigating through a homophobic society. All respondents are or have been Bishkek residents, the capital city that Kirey calls an “urban asylum” for queer residents of other regions (Kirey 2007). Being more relatively liberal than the rest of the country, where a traditional order and patriarchal structure are maintained, in the capital one feels a vibrant yet underground LGBTQ+ scene and the presence of NGOs that cater the needs of the community.
2 Kyrgyz Queer Women
Aidai comes from a small village in Issyk-Kul from a family she calls traditional. She is the youngest of all her siblings. She came of age in a house that bred cows, sheep, chicken, a mother who taught Russian literature at school and the incessant domestic chores all throughout. Her family is not made of strictly pious Muslims but what is instead jokingly known as the “Kyrgyz way of doing Islam” which involves shaman folk beliefs, Hanafi Islam and a less strict attitude due to the former socialist past. She remarks her parents are those who “give a toast, gulp down a vodka shot and read a Quran verse afterwards”.
Currently, Aidai is 26 and a bank worker in another major city nearby. She visits her girlfriend in the capital from time to time. She expresses her lesbian sexual orientation dubiously, as it is an identity she still has to come to terms with. Initially, Aidai thought of herself as bisexual, explaining that “you might have two possible roads to take, one where you end up choosing women and if it does not work out then you could take the emergency exit of liking men”. It is a secret she keeps from her family, whom she separated from years ago for college and now keeps an emotional and physical distance.
Growing up in her village, where everyone knew and gossiped about each other and where there was no LGBTQ+ representation of any sort, she reflects: [realizing it] was tough, […] I felt alone in the world, it was very tough. I felt like this lonely person, the only wrong person”. Aidai adds:
“It was more as if I had murdered someone, in that sense I mean. And you live in a society where no one commits homicide and I was the only one that had taken someone’s life. This was a thing I could tell to no soul and something I would have to live with for the rest of my life”.
It was after moving to Bishkek where she found respite and felt less of a “criminal” in the world for loving women. Representation came for her via the internet, mentioning lesbian-themed videos on Youtube that she watched endlessly and once an open textual confession of her orientation in a local Instagram account where people posted their most profound secrets anonymously. At the age of 18, she found information on other people like her. She says: “they were my age, younger than me, older, […] have had terrible fates, okayish fates”.
Jibek is a 25 year old lesbian from Karakol whose path brought her to Bishkek to study and work. In her own words, she comes from a traditional Kyrgyz extended family with older siblings and two demanding parents. Jibek considers her family a pillar of support, a family where strong familial ties reign. Her sexual orientation and same-sex relationship are kept a secret because of the ties she wants to keep.
Jibek knew of her orientation early on from a movie scene she watched during her early teens, with this thought of liking girls returning later in college. Her mother’s verbal attitude towards homosexuality later induced internalized homophobia. She once recalls visiting with her a local museum exhibition on Women’s Day that shone light on stories of the LGBTQ+ community. Moments later upon walking home, she voiced a homophobic rant that got imprinted in her mind. The rant coincided with her upcoming year as an exchange student in the US, the rant preparing her for the immoral Western values that were waiting:
“She said children call their parents parent one and parent two. And she said this is a spoiled tradition. This is a spoiled culture. It’s bad that they’re not calling their parents mom and dad, that they have parents of the same sex”.
She shared how she has a boyfriend that she has been dating for a year, an invented boyfriend for whom she takes inspiration from her current girlfriend, with pronouns and genders swapped. This has caused excitement in her parents who frantically await for a future groom to meet them.
She maintains one should not be selfish when it comes to family, but is also aware of the “Western” and individualist way of doing things. In her own words, she is a traditional Kyrgyz girl who performs all culturally expected Kyrgyz rituals, next in line being that of an opposite-sex traditional marriage.
Narratives of Queer Kyrgyzness
Having walked through the respondents’ backgrounds, in this section I gather instances where turmoil arises from the conflicting roles of being Kyrgyz in the traditional and heteronormative sense and queer at the same time.
Instances of Double Consciousness
Aidai is aware of the negative connotations of being queer in a traditional family. Having introduced a notion she has coined as the “average Kyrgyz girl”:
“She remains a virgin before marriage, has children and becomes the best kelin (bride) in the world. She does not drink, smoke or swear. I used to internalize these notions […], but I can’t stand by this ideal since I’m a lesbian.”
Double consciousness acts as a two-fold perception of one’s self while also leading to internalizing negative views. Jibek also recounts a similar notion, focusing on the separation of her cultural and sexual identities which she sees as incompatible:
“I would not say that I’m a hundred percent content with my orientation. I always think that I might be actually bi or even just curious and that I’m in fact straight. And when I get older, about 30 or something, I will turn back into a ‘normal Kyrgyz girl’ and get married to a guy.”
Both Aidai and Jibek have internalized a role they cannot live up to and what is perceived as proper for a Kyrgyz woman. They also consider “Western” values as potentially something to blame for their orientation:
“I do not hate this part of me, but I still have these doubts about whether it’s actually true or not. If it were not for the influence of Western values […] or maybe this is actually something that was born within me. 15% of me is saying that it’s the influence of the West and 85% of me is saying that I was born this way.”
Inability to Perform Cultural Expectations
Both parents of the two women have stressed the importance of marriage at some point, the ripe or statistical age to marry in the country being early and mid-20s. Jibek’s parents that know about her boyfriend (who’s secretly a girlfriend) have said:
“They are repairing the house and reminding me they have already renewed the paving stone. And I am so used to my mom and me talking about me getting engaged, being put on an earring (folk custom), and that I will get away. Then my father said, ‘I have finished with the paving stone in case the in-laws burst into the house’.”
She does regret mentioning having a “boyfriend”, as that has caused insurmountable pressure. To conform to her parents’ will, she had devised the possibility of getting into a lavender marriage but has changed her mind and chosen to “stay single this time”.
When it comes to Aidai, who is less emotionally dependent on her parents, she remembers receiving blessings so that she will marry soon and in her parents’ words, so they could die in peace having walked her to the altar. While the pressure is less felt, she believes there is no need to come out unless she is forcefully ‘outed’. If that were the case, she speaks of a counterbalancing technique to right the wrong she will cause by her sexuality being disclosed. She mentions:
“When will I be able to live in peace within my community [as a lesbian]? For instance, if I were to do a greater good… do something for the community, for example, building a school. If I were to be accepted by the community, they would have to respect me first. Then if certain things were to be revealed about me, perhaps a shameful thing… then one would right the wrong.”
Broken Senses of Belonging
Both Aidai and Jibek maintain their queer selves separate, navigating through queer spaces of acquaintances while remaining in the closet to their families, jobs and other hetero-dominated spaces. Jibek mentions her future is not in Kyrgyzstan, as she fears being disowned and disappointing her family. While her family is everything to her, when talking about belonging to the wider community, she talks of distrust as two gay men were publicly outed, harassed and forced to flee the country.
Aidai, on the other hand, having shared the high standards and reputation she has to earn to be accepted, mentions on belonging:
“I don’t like these words charged with judgment, I do not like them at all. Fundamentally, I think I would like to be accepted by society. To fill the same ranks as everyone, but for instance, if I turn 35, I’m unmarried and live with a “girlfriend” people will gossip about us… I do not want to be an outcast, that is why I don’t want to stay in the country.”
She shares her grievances and definition of what it means to belong:
“It’s the feeling of being a member. When my circle does not gossip about me, for example, ‘she is that way, and that other way’. It’s not about being confined to being an outcast, being set aside or tittle-tattled about. It’s when I’m sitting with them shouder to shoulder and talking and gossiping about others. I have to be at the same table, performing the same role.”
Discussion and Wrapping Up
The oral history fragments I have shared denote how Aidai and Jibek experience double consciousness or the more commonly known expression of “double lives” queer people lead to keep appearances and play the heterosexual part. Living in constraining societies and unaccepting families has caused Aidai and Jibek’s selves to split into two, just as DuBois experienced while being condemned by his dark skin in a white world and by being an American but not fully an American.
The two queer and traditionally expected Kyrgyz selves were not reconciled and instead were kept separate/incompatible. Since the second aspect of double consciousness is one’s perception of the self becoming partite, an interesting finding was that both evaluated themselves in two contradictory ways. One part was able to embrace their queer identity without passing judgment as seen in Aidai’s notion of “average Kyrgyz” to another definition of “freer Kyrgyz”:
“These are girls that might drink, smoke, perhaps sleep with whomever they like, and that in itself would not ruin someone’s integrity.”
Jibek, on the other hand, was able to pronounce that she may have been partly “born this way” yet it was also possible she was “influenced” by the West. In contradiction, there were also internalized negative views on one’s non-heterosexual identity, with both Aidai and Jibek acknowledging and judging themselves according to the dominant homophobic narratives. At the same time, definitions on what is proper were flexible and accommodating in Aidai’s mind.
A second factor that arose conflict and distress was the inability to marry a man and fulfill what is culturally expected of a Kyrgyz woman. Where once there was a possibility to save face for Jibek by entering a sham marriage, now these thoughts are futile. As a final observation, the two-ness has caused a broken sense of belonging to one’s family or larger community, breeding desires to leave the country or the ultimate fear of losing one’s family’s close ties and high esteem.
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