When Kazakhstan’s first LGBTQ magazine went online back in March 2017, its founders found themselves trapped in a heady world of spy games. The site was hosted abroad, so that their real addresses could remain hidden. Content was only uploaded via VPN. No one took chances.
It was only when co-founders Anatoliy Chernousov and Daniyar Sabitov moved to the Czech Republic that they finally began to relax. They now run Kok.team — a trilingual news site and online community — from their base in Prague. A third co-founder, Amir Shaikezhanov, is still based in Almaty.
The team are justified in worrying about their safety. Homosexuality was decriminalised in Kazakhstan in 1997, but there remain no LGBTQ NGOs, no equal rights, and strong overtones of official intolerance. “In Kazakhstan, everything you hear about the LGBTQ community is always negative,” says Sabitov. He and Chernousov see homophobic rhetoric as a side effect of the country’s hyper-patriarchal traditions, as well as — in their words — the trauma and toxic culture carried over from men’s experiences in the many prison camps based in Kazakhstan during the Stalinist era.
“There’s horrendous public homophobia and transphobia,” says Sabitov. “There aren’t a lot of queer people living openly in Kazakhstan: I only know two women who are out and a couple of men. They’re worried they won’t be able to find work.”
Kok.team gives LGBTQ Kazakhs a platform in an openly hostile world. Working with a team of writers, its editors publish stories relevant to the community at large, promoting the kind of information that mainstream Kazakh outlets won’t touch. Features on lesbian sex and healthcare concerns mix with first-person pieces on coming out, or the latest homophobic rhetoric aired in parliament. It’s a simple strategy, but Chernousov and Sabitov hope it will cut to the heart of the two biggest problems facing Kazakhstan’s LGBTQ community: the need for information in the Kazakh language, and the need to unite a disparate community.
“Kazakhstan is a very young country. We are still creating a language, an understanding, a lexicon”
Some Kazakh people may speak Russian as a first or second language, but others — particularly in more rural areas — do not. But in the first 25 years after Kazakh independence, no LGBTQ organisation, group, or NGO published work in the country’s official majority language, leaving millions of people unable to get information on their rights, health problems, or even simple reassurances that they were not alone. Just by using a translator, the team can reach large swathes of people who have spent decades excluded from their rightful place in LGBTQ activism. Even translating basic FAQs on what it means to be gay or transgender breaks new ground.
“Kazakhstan is a very young country. We are still creating a language, an understanding, a lexicon,” says Chernousov. Even the site’s name is pointedly tailored to a Kazakh-speaking audience, rather than international appeal. “Kok” in Kazakh means light blue — a colour that’s associated with LGBTQ people in many post-Soviet countries.
But even for those LGBTQ Kazakhs who do speak Russian, it’s important to have their own voice. For too long, say the team, conservative Kazakhs have pretended that queer people in the country did not exist: that LGBTQ people were exclusively white and “over there” — in Europe and the US. Kok.team not only proves that LGBTQ Kazakhs do exist, it also helps them to navigate the country’s unique cultural landscape. That could be traditional Kazakh family ties, gender stereotypes, or the challenge of coming out to friends and family at a far later age than many in the West. “Russian LGBTQ activists have their own problems,” says Sabitov. “What about us in Kazakhstan? We’re an Asian country. Stories we run about events like Hong Kong Pride resonate with our readers because they feel closer to us.”
That sense of cultural identity brings us to the second point. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world. It takes 54 hours to drive from its easternmost to its westernmost point, and 29 hours from the south to the north. The estimated 1.5 million LGBTQ people living in Kazakhstan are spread across that space, although most activists are concentrated in Almaty and and the capital Nur-Sultan. Reaching people across the country means going digital — and now they’ve begun cementing a community, the team hope they can empower readers to campaign for real change.
“Social media pages dedicated to gossip and pornography get thousands of views and likes from the Kazakh LGBTQ community. But articles on political or even social issues don’t touch readers in the same way,” the team told The Calvert Journal. “The main reason for this is that LGBTQ people in Kazakhstan don’t recognise that they are connected to one another by shared problems. They don’t see themselves as a political entity that could express a point of view, let alone act.”
For now, however, the team’s immediate goal is campaigning for the creation of anti-discrimination laws. Other battles still feel just too far out of reach. “We don’t want to think about issues like equal marriage and adoption,” says Sabitov.
Kok.team is also facing its own battles. With no registered address, and a remit that falls outside the scope of traditional activism, grants are few and far between. For now, the site relies almost entirely on crowdfunding to keep up its important work.
But change is in the air in Kazakhstan. Following the resignation of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, more and more young Kazakhs are demanding real social change. And even if LGBTQ issues remain far down the list of priorities for most pro-democracy protesters, the future is finally looking hopeful. “Any change is good,” says Sabitov. “For the last 30 years, we’ve had a homophobic government which supports the likes of Russia’s ‘gay propaganda law’. But young people are taking to the streets and they are more LGBTQ-friendly. There is hope.”
Support Kok.team via their Patreon here.