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LGBT In Turkmenistan: Go To Jail Or Live A Lie

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

To his friends and colleagues in Turkmenistan, Kamil is a successful cardiologist working at a prestigious clinic and an eligible bachelor from a well-connected family.

Only a few people in his close family circle are aware of Kamil's real struggle: He is secretly gay.

In Turkmenistan, where homosexuality is a crime and shunned by the Central Asian country's conservative society, being gay means having to choose between living a lie or facing up to two years in prison and a lifetime of disgrace.

RFE/RL changed Kamil's name to protect him from possible retribution.

The 24-year-old native of the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, spoke to RFE/RL about his ordeal, which includes being beaten up by police and coming under pressure by his parents to marry a woman in order to conceal his sexual identity.

"I have known since my childhood that I am gay, but it was difficult for me to accept it," Kamil said.

After finishing high school in Turkmenistan, Kamil went to Belarus to study medicine. He said it was in that authoritarian-ruled country where he finally "tasted freedom" about his sexual orientation and "began to accept" his homosexuality.

After returning to Ashgabat in 2018, Kamil said he "found love" on a dating website and began exchanging romantic messages with a man.

"In our online communications he was very pleasant. We decided to meet in person," Kamil said.

But Kamil's much-anticipated date ended in disaster.

His online "lover" turned out to be a policeman whose job was to lure gay men online and bring them to "justice."

Turkmenistan hasn't dropped a Soviet-era law that criminalizes homosexuality. Along with Uzbekistan, they are the only two countries among the 15 former Soviet republics that consider being gay a crime.

There are several reports of gay men in Turkmenistan being subjected to physical and verbal abuse both by police and fellow citizens.

"We decided to meet at 7 p.m. and when I went to the agreed place, he wasn't there. I called him and he said he was on his way," Kamil recalled. "Then two plainclothes police officers came to me, handcuffed me, and drove me to a police station."

"They beat me up and verbally abused me inside the police vehicle and the beating continued at the police station," he said. "They also gave me electric shocks."

Family Pressure

Later that evening Kamil's family found out about his detention.

Kamil says he was spared a jail term only because his uncle -- a government official -- interfered and secured his release.

On the way home, "it was my father and uncle's turn to insult me," he said.

"At home that evening, my father shouted at me that it would have been better for him to take me somewhere and kill me than having a gay son," Kamil said. "My uncle and brothers told me that I dishonored them."

A pixelated image of "Kamil," a gay cardiologist in Turkmenistan who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.
A pixelated image of "Kamil," a gay cardiologist in Turkmenistan who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.

The family took Kamil to a mullah to "cure" his homosexuality with religious prayers and forced him to seek counseling from psychologists to help him come to his "senses."

Kamil's father also suggested that he should sleep with a prostitute to become a "real" man.

"The final straw, however, was when my family decided that I must marry a woman," Kamil told RFE/RL.

Kamil said his father, uncle, and brothers -- the only people who knew his secret -- ignored his pleas that he didn't want to get married. They demanded that Kamil keep his sexual identity secret with a fake marriage so as to not shame the family.

Desperate to prevent the wedding, Kamil contacted the bride and told her he was gay and was being forced into the marriage as a cover-up for his homosexuality.

The wedding, planned for mid-October, was subsequently called off by the bride's family, though Kamil's ordeal was far from over. Kamil says his uncle beat him up on October 17 to punish him for ruining the family's marriage plan.

It was the family's second attempt this year to force Kamil to marry a woman.

Government Blacklist

Using his government contacts, the uncle also put Kamil's name on a blacklist of people banned from leaving the country. Preventing people from traveling abroad is a common practice by Turkmen authorities, who closely control their citizens' movements.

Kamil said he had previously left for Turkey without telling his family.

But his family "hired a Turkmen man" in Turkey who easily found Kamil and forced him to return home just two days after he arrived in Istanbul in February 2019.

"He threatened me and took me to the airport and forced me to get onto the plane. So, I was back in Ashgabat on February 20," Kamil said.

Kamil suspects the man was connected to the Turkmen Embassy in Turkey but RFE/RL cannot independently verify the claim.

Before leaving for Turkey, Kamil had contacted the Ashgabat office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) seeking help for his situation.

"At the OSCE office, a local employee spoke with me. He was speaking Turkmen, he didn't give his name, and just asked what I wanted," Kamil said.

"I told him about my situation and asked for help. When I told him that I'm gay, his facial expression changed, he suddenly became rude to me. He said there's legal punishment for homosexuality in Turkmenistan and that I should be happy that I'm not in jail," Kamil added.

RFE/RL was unable to contact the OSCE office in Ashgabat as the phone number on their website doesn't connect.

Unable to find support, Kamil said "there is simply no life in Turkmenistan" for members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community.

Despite the imminent risk of imprisonment and social isolation, Kamil said he has no choice but to come out as gay.

"I hope I would feel free [openly admitting I'm gay] or, at least, that my story becomes the first step in achieving freedom for other people like me."

"Please spread my story," Kamil urged.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world’s most reclusive countries.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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