Kyrgyzstan: “No penis, no passport”

July 6, 2010

It’s nearly two years since I wrote about the complete erasure of Kyrgyz trans women by Human Rights Watch in their report These Everyday Humiliations: Violence Against Lesbians, Bisexual Women, and Transgender Men in Kyrgyzstan (direct link to 48-page PDF). I emailed the Advocacy Director of HRW’s LGBT Rights Program querying why there was no mention of trans women and was told that:

[HRW] relied on information and contacts, provided by our colleagues from the Kyrgyz LGBT organization Labrys. They could not find trans women who were willing to give testimony.

And yet, if we assume the NHS estimate that 1 in 4,000 people is receiving medical help for gender dysphoria is both reasonably accurate and generally representative (yeah, I know, big assumptions), then for a country with a population of some 5.4 million people (via Wikipedia) it doesn’t take a lot of prodding at a calculator to come up with a guesstimate that there may be around 1350 trans people in the Kyrgyz Republic today.

In addition, we know from the HRW report that there are Kyrgyz trans men and, again drawing on the NHS estimates, the ratio of trans women to trans men is reported to be 5:1. Another quick jab at the calculator would suggest therefore, that there could be around 1125 trans women in Kyrgyzstan.

So where are they? Why don’t they show up in NGO and governmental reports and statistics? Why are Kyrgyz trans women so completely invisible to the world at large?

Perhaps this article at eurasianet offers some clues. As the writer, Dalton Bennett (a freelance journalist based in Bishkek), points out, there are real obstacles to transitioning:

Though, legally, Kyrgyz citizens have the right to change their sexual identification, “there are no mechanisms for implementation of this law. The lack of relevant documents that define this process is a barrier to exercise this right,” says Erik Iriskulbekov, a lawyer at the Adilet Legal Clinic in Bishkek and member of the Ministry of Health’s working group.

Under existing legislation, transgender individuals are required to submit a medical form to their local civil registry certifying them as “transsexuals” in order to change their documents. But the form in question does not exist, activists complain. The process thus leaves their gender ambiguous.

This was confirmed by Anna Kirey, Senior Adviser at Labrys Kyrgyzstan during a telephone interview with HRW researchers in 2007:

Ministry of Health policy allows transgender people in Kyrgyzstan in principle to undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS), and afterward they may legally change their gender in official identity papers. However, SRS is not now performed in the medical system in Kyrgyzstan—and complete SRS is a condition for legal identity change. A Ministry of Health representative told Labrys in May 2007 that it recognized the need for improved procedures for legal identity change and that it was developing a more streamlined process. In the meantime, transgender men (and women) experience tremendous hardship as a result of having a legal identity in limbo.

And this quote from the eurasianet article only emphasises the seemingly Kafkaesque nature of obtaining parity between one’s core sex identity and legal status:

“One person denied the right to change his documents was told in court, ‘No penis, No passport,’ and the judge struck his gavel. They said this in court!” exclaims Akram Kubanychbek, a member of the Ministry of Health’s working group. Kubanychbek is a transgender man who changed his passport’s gender marker with the help of an inexperienced yet compassionate bureaucrat.

Recent UNHRC recommendations have been accepted by the Kyrgyz government. As yet, they haven’t been implemented; nevertheless Anna Kirey hopes this acceptance will eventually lead to a much greater understanding of the rights of trans and GLB issues:

“It’s unusual for a Central Asian country to accept any [recommended approaches] to sexual orientation,” Kirey says. “I feel the new government is going to give us a lot more space for bringing LGBT issues into a more mainstream human rights agenda.”

I hope that the human rights of the hundreds of invisible trans women will be included in this process of change and that serious efforts will be made to reach out to them; although I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that the much-needed changes in Kyrgyzstan are going to happen overnight. A profound shift is needed in the attitudes of the general population too, and that is going to take time. The question is whether Kyrgyz trans women are able to survive the wait.

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Curtsey to Richard for the heads-up

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4 Responses to “Kyrgyzstan: “No penis, no passport””

  1. msruthmoss Says:

    This also makes me wonder about your last post too; Kyrgyzstan’s first ever trans comic is about a trans man… also isn’t a Labrys that axe that Mary Daly liked swinging about? I could be hugely over thinking that of course, but isn’t it unfortunately the way of a lot of feminist organisations to include trans men at the expense of trans women? And this:

    In the meantime, transgender men (and women) experience tremendous hardship as a result of having a legal identity in limbo.

    Why the brackets, it’s like trans women are just an after thought? I mean, if a load of Daly-esque feminists are running Kyrgyzstan’s (main?) GLBT organisation, is it any wonder that few trans women are coming forward to give testimony?

    Like I say, I could be vastly over reading this. Anyway whatever the reason, I hope it changes bloody quickly.

  2. Helen G Says:

    The (lack of) coverage of the situation for trans women is very troubling. I’m currently in email dialogue with Anna Kirey of Labrys about this: she agrees that there is an issue with Labrys access to transgender women – Labrys is apparently in touch with two of them on a regular basis and knows of four others.

    I understand that, because their situation is so difficult, many either live in deep stealth and don’t contact support and advocacy groups whilst others migrate abroad: it seems there is quite a large community of Kyrgyz trans women in Moscow, for example.

    I’m still researching the matter and as/when I find out anything more, will certainly write about it here.


  3. Interesting reading. Just a few thoughts; the associations msruthmoss makes about Daly, feminism and trans men might be a bit over thinking… after all from my understanding of Daly and her peers, she would not respect nor recognise trangender men for being men, but merely butch women, no?
    Also, I think the NHS statistic for the male/female ratio being 1:5 is somewhat out of date now and across Europe the ratio is beginning to level out towards 1:1. (Trans men have traditionally been invisible and have not needed to access medical services in the way that women require).
    However, certainly a much under-reported about area, I shall be following this more. Thanks for writing about it.

  4. Helen G Says:

    I honestly don’t know about overthinking – bitter experience has shown me that many GL(b) groups are happy to misgender us (TS women) until/unless they need our presence/existence to support their arguments (SSM being a prime example)…

    Although, if the situation is as bad as I’m hearing, then it’s no surprise that TS women stay woodworked. If the general view of Kyrgyz society is that TS women are merely effeminate gay men, and given the attitudes to cis gay and lesbian people, then, again, it’s no surprise that TS women either leave or keep very much to themselves. Although I worry how adversely that would affect anyone’s mental health.

    The NHS stats, yes, I tend to agree with you – but I need to start with something which I can verify. And as I live in the UK, it made sense to me to use the ‘official’ estimates.

    And now I must go and write a follow-up email :)


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