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In Bishkek

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The PEN International Congress in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, last week was the first to be held in Central Asia. It was also the first at which the organisation resolved to oppose ‘anti-LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) legislation which restricts the right to freedom of expression’, having never before campaigned on sexuality or gender identity.

John Ralston Saul, PEN International’s president, opened the Congress by saying that Bishkek was the only city in Central Asia that could host it. Two revolutions in the last decade have produced a democratic government committed to freedom of assembly, and domestic and international human rights organisations are allowed to operate there. PEN has expressed concerns, however, about police killings, torture in custody and the jailing of Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek journalist, on charges of complicity in a Kyrgyz policeman’s murder during inter-ethnic clashes in South Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, shortly after Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted.

PEN also questioned Russia’s growing influence over the former Soviet republic. The Kyrgyz parliament introduced a draft bill in March 2014 that copied Russia’s legislation to outlaw ‘gay propaganda’. I was invited to help PEN finalise their position on this, but told not to mention it publicly until I returned to London for fear that the government would shut down the congress.

The draft resolution demanded that laws or bills banning the dissemination of information about LGBTQI people be repealed or rejected. There was a meeting at the congress to discuss it; I was on the panel along with Masha Gessen and Syinat Sultanalieva, a Kyrgyz activist. Marian Botsford Fraser was in the chair.

Gessen described the effects of the selective enforcement of the Russian ‘propaganda’ law, which not only prevented LGBTQI people from challenging hate speech or physical attacks, but also blocked discussion of domestic violence or child abuse by banning criticism of the ‘traditional family’.

Syinat said that the Kyrgyz government hoped to secure Russian political and financial support by mimicking its legislation, with two crucial differences. The first was that Russia outlawed ‘propaganda’ directed at minors, while the Kyrgyz version had no age limits. The second was that in trying to justify itself, the bill mentioned not only Russia law but also Britain, pretending that Section 28 was still in force.

I talked about growing up under Section 28, which didn’t only make it impossible for my school to help me to understand my gender identity or sexuality, but also prevented my English teacher from intervening when I was on the receiving end of homophobic abuse because liking poetry was ‘gay’.

A delegate from Macedonia asked why PEN should address this issue, when there were no writers in prison because of their gender or sexuality, and more important matters of linguistic repression to consider. I’d been expecting the line of questioning, but not the wave of applause it received. Botsford Fraser explained that PEN had in fact fought to get LGBTQI writers released from jail.

Gessen grabbed the microphone: ‘It is true that there are no writers in prison because of the anti-propaganda laws, but I had to go into exile with my family because of this anti-gay campaign.’ (She now lives in New York.) ‘We are not actually discussing LGBTQI rights, though I think that would be appropriate; we are discussing laws that limit the rights to free expression and access to information, which are classic PEN issues.’

When the resolution was put to a vote the next morning, it was approved with no objections and only three abstentions.

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