11/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Land Where Nowhere Is Safe: A Lesbian Activist Speaks About Gender and Violence in Kyrgyzstan

Very few people can immediately place where I am from. When I say "Kyrgyzstan" I have to add: a mountainous country in Central Asia, once part of the Soviet Union, that is predominantly Muslim. It sounds like the middle of nowhere. And when I add, "I am a lesbian, and I work to help lesbian and bisexual women and transgender men there," they can't imagine how hard the task might be.

Kyrgyzstan is a conservative society, with deeply rooted norms governing how men and women should act. Those who do not conform are constantly at risk.

I am tall, with short hair. Sometimes people mistake me for a man. In some countries it would not be a big deal -- but in Kyrgyzstan, a man with dyed hair is enough to offend many men's sense of "manhood." Once in a bus, I overheard two men next to me discussing what they should do to me, 'the fag.' Sometimes I can calm things down -- for instance by speaking so that they realize from my voice that I am a woman. But that doesn't always work.

A new Human Rights Watch report tells the stories of people for whom trying to get along did not work. One lesbian described how, when she was 15, her girlfriend's brothers raped her brutally, saying: "This is your punishment for being this way and hanging around our sister."

Another woman told Human Rights Watch that an acquaintance locked her in a room and allowed several men to rape her, to "cure" her of being a lesbian.

Stories like these are common in Kyrgyzstan. In 2004, a group of lesbian women established a group called 'Labrys' to protect our rights. At first our goal was to demonstrate that we were "out and proud," but after listening to stories like these, we decided to focus on empowering lesbian women and transgender men instead. Most of those we talked to lived in poverty: no employer wanted to hire a "tomboy." Many had experienced severe violence, and their families had worked hard to persuade them they were unworthy of any rights.

The Kyrgyzstan government pays lip service to combating domestic violence against women, but does not treat it as an important issue. Legislation against family violence passed in 2003 has led to only a dozen or so restraining orders each year, while hundreds or thousands of cases are believed to go without response.

The usual excuse is that Kyrgyzstan is a traditional society. Families are seen as the only way for women to be part of society. They have to fulfill their duties, marrying young and obediently following what parents, family elders, and then husbands tell them to do.

The government does not even recognize officially that lesbian or bisexual women and transgender people exist. There is no place for us in a conservative, patriarchal value system. The way we dress, look and claim the right to make decisions independently shakes families to the core. Parents use violence to "straighten up" the disobedient daughter.

A transgender survivor of domestic violence once stayed in my house. I had helped him flee the house where his brother beat him constantly. We talked about pressing charges. He couldn't bring himself to do that, saying, 'They are my family.' He was too scared to go anywhere near where his brother and father lived.

Labrys staff deal regularly with such domestic violence and face these threats and dangers themselves. It is not just the abusers within families who threaten us. The police have raided the modest apartment Labrys rents as a headquarters (and shelter for survivors of violence).

Beating women is largely a private affair in Kyrgyzstan. It is a common belief that it should happen behind closed doors. However, if people on the street cannot tell whether you are a man or a woman, you are in trouble. The ones who don't "fit in" become targets. As I was walking home from a park one night with a group of lesbian and transgender friends, we were followed by a gang of young men. They harassed and shoved us and tried to start a fight. Another common occurrence.

Nowhere is safe: not the home, not the shelter, not the sidewalk. As an activist, sometimes I feel numb facing another threat, or hearing the story of another devastated 20-year-old. Sometimes I feel angry.

Now 'Labrys' tries to confront the Kyrgyzstan government before the United Nations and European institutions. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the only European group that includes the US along with Central Asian states. But the US and the Holy See have blocked the OSCE from including sexual orientation as an issue in its work against hate crimes.

There is a long way to go, but we keep working. What we want from the government is simple: acknowledgment that we exist. It's a small step, but it might make the Kyrgyz mountains move.