For the last 10 years, Lillya Ten has been dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of LGBTQI people in Kyrgyzstan and across Central Asia. She is currently the Executive Director of the community-based LGBTQI-organization “The Grace.” Lillya also works as a community journalist and writes a column profiling people living with HIV on the international information site Life4me.plus.
By Robert Blackmon
How did you get involved in activism?
To be lesbian in the homophobic and patriarchal Kyrgyz society means to be a second-class human being. It is a double burden – to be discriminated against because you are a woman and because of your sexual orientation. For me, it was important to decide – either I agree to live under these social pressures or to at least try to do something to change them. So, I made the choice to act.
What inspires you to do this work?
I am inspired by LGBTI activists who have combated discrimination and fought for their rights in the past – the Stonewall protests and young people from the community who just want to live in a better world. The belief that tomorrow LGBTI people will live better lives than before inspires me and brings energy to keep moving forward.
What is the focus of your work?
I work in the field of women’s rights with individuals who experience intersectional discrimination like trans women in sex work, lesbian, bisexual and queer women in rural areas, lesbian women with HIV, etc. They are invisible, vulnerable, and face discrimination, violence, and harassment on a daily basis without the ability to protect themselves or get a fair trial.
Can you share some background on what it’s like to live in Kyrgyzstan as an LGBTI person?
Among Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan is known as an island of democracy. First of all, homosexuality in Kyrgyzstan is not illegal. There are a number of LGBTQI organizations and groups that provide different services and advocate for their rights. On the other hand, it is a Muslim country, and the influence of religion and so-called “traditional values” are very strong. Life in Bishkek, the capital city, is significantly different from that in outlying regions.
To be LGBTI in Kyrgyzstan – without exaggeration – means living under psychological pressure, hiding your sexuality, and being terrified you might be outed at any time. There is no particular law to protect LGBTI people or any other marginal group such as an anti-discrimination law. At this time there are no “dragon” laws like in Russia, although there were attempts to adopt two similar bills – one against non-governmental organizations and the second against “propaganda of homosexualism.” Neither of them was adopted due to the strong protests of the civil society movement.
What is currently happening in Kyrgyzstan that pertains to LGBTI people?
Currently, LGBTI people are in a very vulnerable situation because the country is going through a change of power, bringing more conservative and corrupt candidates into office. In circumstances when human rights in the whole country are under threat, the rights of vulnerable groups like LGBTQI communities will obviously be further restricted.
Recently, during the COVID-19 lockdown, the government secretly accepted changes to a law that previously provided clear procedures to allow transgender persons to change their sex. Now trans people can no longer legally transition. By who and why these changes were made is unknown.
What has changed in the past few years?
In the past few years, the situation in general with human rights has declined due to the influence of Russian homophobic politics and Muslim countries that invest millions of dollars to build mosques and promote religious propaganda. Official power represented by the president and some members of parliament openly demonstrates their adherence to traditional patriarchal principles. And regarding LGBTQ rights, it is now more about keeping previous achievements rather than advocating for something more.
Can you share more about The Grace?
The Grace was established by activists and allies, each of whom has varying experience in human rights, gender, HIV/AIDS, psychology, and mass media spheres. These activists came together to find new ways of challenging homophobia and discrimination against LGBTI communities in Kyrgyzstan.
What are The Grace’s mission and objectives?
Our mission is the promotion of tolerance and human rights in society, to overcome the stigma and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Our primary objectives are providing the necessary social and legal support to develop an active civil LGBT community, establishing an interactive platform between the larger society and the LGBT community, and strengthening the capacity of the community, staff members, volunteers, and allied organizations,
How does The Grace operate?
The Grace implements activities and projects on funding from international organizations and programs. For instance, its last projects were funded by ILGA-Europe and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. But due to a lack of sustainable financial support and sustainability most of the year we work voluntarily.
What is your role?
I am responsible for the overall management, fundraising, reporting, and promotion of The Grace.
How would donations increase the impact of your work?
These funds might save young LBQ girls and women in rural areas from being forced to marry a man, might provide safe spaces and support for those who suffered from domestic violence, sexual harassment, or the threat of blackmail.
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