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Activist harassed during European development bank meeting in Uzbekistan

Authorities confiscated Nezir Sinani’s Pride tote bags

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Nezir Sinani, left, an LGBTQ and intersex rights activist from Kosovo, holds a Pride tote bag while attending European Bank for Reconstruction and Development meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. (Photo courtesy of Caspar Veldkamp/Twitter)

Uzbek authorities last week harassed an LGBTQ and intersex rights activist while he was attending a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development meeting that took place in the Central Asian country.

Nezir Sinani, who is from Kosovo, is the co-director of Re-course, which is based in the Netherlands. 

He said Uzbek police on May 17 “started harassing and intimidating me, stopping me from entering the meeting venue (in Samarkand) and confiscating meeting materials.”

“This included the Uzbek police calling the (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) security officer asking for my info details,” said Sinani in a tweet.

May 17 was the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, which marks the World Health Organization’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1990. Uzbekistan is among the more than 60 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

Caspar Veldkamp, an EBRD board member from the Netherlands, on May 17 posted a picture of him with Sinani and two other activists holding Pride tote bags. 

Sinani once he left Uzbekistan sent the Washington Blade a series of pictures that show security officials interrogating him outside the meeting. 

He is holding Pride-themed tote bags in two of the pictures. Sinani said he and the other activists used them “to keep meeting files to distribute to EBRD counterparts we met.”

“Tote bags were not forbidden in the venue, but were still confiscated only because they were Pride-themed,” he told the Blade.

Uzbek authorities on May 17, 2023, confiscated Nezir Sinani‘s Pride tote bags before they allowed him to attend a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. (Photos courtesy of Nezir Sitani)

Veldkamp in an email to the Blade said he has “been in touch with” Sinani and “shared his information with the EBRD’s office of the secretary general, which gathers information regarding several incidents, including a similar one regarding my own staff.”

“They will follow up with the Uzbek authorities,” said Veldkamp.

Veldkamp told the Blade that Uzbek authorities have yet to respond.

The EBRD’s 32nd annual Meeting and Business Forum took place in Samarkand from May 16-19.

The State Department’s 2022 human rights report notes “at least four cases” of authorities forcing men to undergo so-called anal exams between 2017-2020. Anvar Latipov, a gay man from Uzbekistan who the U.S. has granted asylum, last month told the Blade during an exclusive interview in D.C. that a group of vigilantes broadcast online a video of a man they forced to sit on a bottle.

‘Criminalization and discrimination is completely unacceptable’

The State Department report cites other activists who said “members of the LGBTQI+ community in Tashkent (the Uzbek capital) were being harassed by both local authorities and private citizens and were on ‘red alert,’ and were seeking to avoid going out in public” after a group of men attacked blogger Miraziz Bazarov in 2022. Latipov told the Blade that transgender Uzbeks and people with HIV/AIDS face additional discrimination and persecution.

The Uzbek government previously kicked the EBRD kicked out of Uzbekistan after it criticized the country’s human rights record. Latipov noted to the Blade the EBRD now has $2.4 billion in 69 active projects in the country.

Latipov spoke with the Blade while he was in D.C. to lobby the World Bank Group and other multilateral development banks to pressure the Uzbek government to stop its persecution of LGBTQ and intersex people. Sinani and two other activists — Irena Cvetkovic, executive director of Coalitions Margins in North Macedonia, and Amarildo Fecanji, the Albania-based executive director of ERA – LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans — were with Latipov.

“In Samarkand I attended the annual meetings of the EBRD with the aim of raising awareness on the brutal policies of Uzbekistan toward the LGBTI community,” Sinani told the Blade in a lengthy statement. “EBRD has a role to play to include the LGBTI community in its development projects to be able to fully deliver on its mandate.”

Sinani said he met with EBRD President Odile Renaud-Basso, EBRD board members and management “as part of my engagement there.”

“The Uzbek police stopped me from entering the meeting venue following a speech I held at the main meeting of EBRD board of directors with the civil society representatives,” Sinani told the Blade. “The police confiscated tote bags we used to handout reading marerials to the counterparts we met. Materials raised awareness on the brutal crackdown of Uzbek government on the LGBTI community in the country.”

“The behavior of the Uzbek police is a reflection of the situation in the country toward the LGBTI community. In this case they harrased and intimated me for the sole reason of raising awareness on the situation on the ground. With the LGBTI community in the country they go harsh, way harsh. They imprison them after doctors establish their sexual orientation via anal examinations, which WHO regards as a form of torture,” he said. “Such criminalization and discrimination is completely unacceptable and EBRD, alone the other international finance institutions, need to condemn and demand from the Uzbek government to repeal the law that enables them to hunt down the LGBTI community.”

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Taiwan to allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt children

Island is only Asian jurisdiction with marriage equality

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Taipei, Taiwan (Photo by Richie Chan/Bigstock)

A week before the fourth anniversary of Taiwan granting the legal right to same-sex couples to marry on May 24, 2019, the Parliament of the island republic passed an amendment allowing same-sex couples to jointly adopt children.

The rights were an amendment to the same-sex marriage bill that passed its third reading in the Legislative Yuan without objection, AFP/France 24 reported.

The amendment establishes that the process for joint adoption is now procedurally identical for same-sex couples as it is for heterosexual couples under Taiwan’s civil code.

Hung Sun-han, a Democratic Progressive Party legislator, joyfully announced the news on Twitter.

Earlier this year, the government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen lifted restrictions on transnational same-sex marriage, allowing the island’s LGBTQ residents to marry partners from jurisdictions such as Japan or Hong Kong that have yet to legalize same-sex marriages.

Same-sex marriages between Taiwanese residents and those from mainland China are still prohibited. Taiwan remains the only jurisdiction in Asia to have legalized same-sex marriage.

“After four years of hard work, today the Parliament finally passed the (bill for) adoption without blood relationship by same-sex couples,” the advocacy group Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights said in a statement.

The amendment comes after a family court in southern Kaohsiung City last year ruled in favour of a married gay man seeking to share parenthood of his husband’s adoptive child — the first verdict of its kind, AFP/France 24 reported.

Fan Yun, another Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker, draped in a rainbow flag, spoke to local media.

“The amendment not only ensures the protection of children’s rights but also meets their best interest,” said Fan. “In the future, spouses and parents, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, can have full legal protection.”

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Chinese government forces Beijing LGBT Center to close

Shutdown is part of a broader crackdown

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Beijing LGBT Center (Photo by Mitch Altman)

The government of Chinese President Xi Jinping continued its crackdown on the country’s LGBTQ minority, abruptly forcing closure of the Beijing LGBT Center on Monday.

In a brief message posted to the Sina Weibo microblogging website and on its WeChat account the center stated: “We very regretfully announce, due to forces beyond our control, the Beijing LGBT Center will stop operating today.” 

With its closure, the Beijing LGBT Center, which has been operating for 15 years since it was founded in 2008, leaves China’s LGBTQ people with few resources to turn to. In November 2021, prominent LGBTQ equality rights legal group LGBT Rights Advocacy China, co-founded by Peng Yanzi and A. Qiang in the city of Guangzhou in 2013, and focused its efforts on securing legal rights for LGBTQ individuals through strategic lawsuits in China’s legal system, indefinitely suspended operations.

That suspension taking place after previously in July 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China permanently disabled and deleted dozens of LGBTQ student organizations’ WeChat accounts across China.

The accounts, which were primarily managed by students, advocate LGBTQ and gender equality, and providing support to LGBTQ students on university and college campuses.

The pages of those accounts now display the message: “According to internet regulations, we have screened all content and suspended this account.” The names of the accounts have been changed to “Unnamed.”

In a early morning phone call Wednesday local time to an activist in the Chinese capital who asked to not be identified, the Blade was told that there was an accelerated push by Xi’s government to rein in LGBTQ groups and activists. The activist indicated that the center had published an article commemorating its 15 years of dedicated work last week, which “likely caught the scrutiny of both the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security.”

“They are not the first group, nor are they the largest, but because Beijing LGBT Center was in Beijing, it represented China’s LGBT movement,” said another Chinese activist who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety to the Associated Press. “In our political, economic and cultural center, to have this type of organization. It was a symbol of the LGBT movement’s presence.”

A human rights activist from Hong Kong, who spoke to the Washington Blade on the condition of remaining anonymous, pointed out that in recent years the government has moved towards becoming more intolerant and homophobic towards LGBTQ people.

Acceptance of LGBTQ individuals in China has varied historically. In modern China, homosexuality is neither a crime nor officially regarded as an illness in China. For decades, the legal status of consensual same-sex activity between men was ambiguous, although at one point consensual sexual acts between people of the same sex were banned under a law on hooliganism in 1979 with punishments ranging from imprisonment to execution. That was cleared up in the revised criminal code of 1997 as China moved to decriminalize homosexuality.

In 2001, the Chinese Society of Psychiatry removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. This is consistent with the consensus of global medical associations that homosexuality is not a medical condition. But same-sex marriage is still illegal and the topic remains taboo socially.

Chinese government officials increasingly push the narrative that LGBTQ culture is an imported “Western” idea, while expressing concern that the country’s big tech platforms are spreading subversive views and ideas that could upend traditional ideas of gender.

In an action promulgated by Xi’s government this week, China’s National Radio and Television Administration ordered broadcasters to “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics.”

In the directive, the NRTA used the term “niang pao” which means “girlie guns” — more commonly translated as “sissy” an offensive description of effeminate men. The directive is seen as taking direct aim at the idols of the Chinese music industry who tend to be in their late teens to mid 20s, are thin, and dress in what could be loosely deemed an androgynously ambiguous manner.

The nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists started in 2015 after Xi came to power.

Speaking with the AP, the activist noted that police pressure on rights groups increased in the past few years, the activist said. Police often invited LGBTQ groups to “drink tea” — a euphemism for unofficial meetings that police use to keep track of certain targets. That used to happen in public spaces, but started taking place in private spaces, such as directly in front of activists’ homes. Police also started taking activists to the police station for these “teas.”

The Beijing LGBT Center has faced ongoing challenges to stay open throughout its existence, with obstacles arising from both funding limitations and political pressures. LGBTQ groups cannot register as non-governmental organizations in China, making it difficult to obtain government approval for events and secure external funding.

Because of those restrictions, groups like the center have been forced to create fundraising events at local bars and or receive direct financial support from groups outside of China. The Center also began to rent out its space to other, related organizations on weekdays at below-market rates, effectively tapping into its biggest asset — its real estate.

In addition to this there was direct financial support from the center’s sister organization, the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

This latest move is seen by some China watchers as another in a decades long battle by Beijing to combat Western influences on the younger generations of Chinese.

Conservatives in Chinese society and government charge that young Chinese youth are turning into ‘soft boys,’ reflecting concern that the Chinese pop stars who have embraced the pop-culture phenomenon in part due to the influence of the South Korean pop music and all-encompassing genre known as K-Pop, are failing to encourage China’s young men to be masculine enough.

In some government circles the source told the Blade its seen as overtly homosexual and targeting young Chinese males. One area that has raised the ire of officials is video games.

Game developers already were required to submit new titles for government approval before they could be released. Officials have called on them to add nationalistic themes, the AP reported.

“There is a tendency in China for some people to relate homosexuality and LGBT people to Western lifestyles or capitalistic, bourgeois decadence, so this was in line with a moral panic,” said Hongwei Bao, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Nottingham and specialist in queer politics in China.

“Especially now, there’s tension between China-West relations, so there is likely to be a heightened sense of nationalism which sees LGBT issues, feminist issues, as Western, as unfit for China.”

A closeted gay government source told the Blade that world events factor in to the crackdowns. Citing the rising tensions with Taiwan and its closest ally, the U.S. as an example.

He noted that in addition to gay men and lesbians, the center had opened its doors and resources to bisexual and transgender individuals, who themselves are minorities within the LGBT community and, as a result, face particular challenges.

“Their shutdown makes one feel very helpless. As groups large and small shut down or stop hosting events, there’s no longer a place where one can see hope,” said another Chinese activist who requested anonymity for fear of government retribution told the AP.

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Inside Seoul’s hidden lesbian nightclubs

For a few hours, women can gather without fear of discrimination

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A busy street in Hongdae. (Photo by hwan/Bigstock)

SEOUL, South Korea — Hongdae, a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, is known for its vibrant nightlife and indie music scene. By day, it’s a shopping and café mecca. By night it’s a crazy, alcohol-fueled playground. What’s easy to miss — and not even many Koreans living in Hongdae know about — is that hidden in plain sight, there are also secret lesbian clubs where women can gather and be themselves without fear of judgment or discrimination.

“Hongdae is the lesbian area of Seoul?!” my good friend blurted out when I told him over dinner. He’s been a resident of Hongdae for more than seven years but had never noticed. Most Koreans don’t know any LGBTQ people as Korean society is conservative and not accepting of homosexuality. Hongdae’s reputation as a more free-thinking, hipster haven makes it a perfect location for openness — albeit in private. 

In South Korea, homosexuality is not illegal, but it is not widely accepted, especially in more conservative areas of the country. Seoul is more open compared to the countryside but not open enough for lesbians to be open. Same-sex couples cannot legally marry or adopt children and discrimination against the LGBTQ community is still prevalent. 

Allen, a Korean woman in her 20s says, “There is a very strong homophobic atmosphere [in Korea] regardless of generation.”

Despite these challenges, the LGBTQ community in South Korea has been gradually (very gradually) gaining some visibility and acceptance in recent years such as an LGBTQ dating reality show “Merry Queer” following lesbian, gay and transgender couples. Seoul’s gay Pride parade — which last year drew thousands of participants despite protests from conservative religious groups — shows a shift in thinking too. However, it’s not enough progress as lesbian and bisexual women are still meeting in the dark. 

One way in which the community has been able to connect and support each other is through secret lesbian clubs. Goon Young* is a Seoul freelancer in her mid-20s. Growing up she was constantly told that being straight is “natural” which left her feeling confused about her sexuality. “I thought I was bisexual when I was in college. I figured out that I don’t like men only about two years ago.” Goon Young enjoys hanging out at Hongdae’s lesbian club scene regularly. 

These clubs are not advertised openly and are often hidden in inconspicuous side-streets, or in basements behind mainstream clubs.

One of these secret clubs is close to an infamous drinking spot for foreigners and when some foreign men were turned away for not being women, they looked visibly confused. It’s a large, luxe club with a strict no photograph rule. There’s table service and the DJ blasts Korean rap such as Jay Park and Zico. 

This club and most of the others won’t easily pop up when you search on your phone’s map so usually lesbians need to get to know another lesbian to ask around for the exact location. This typically involves going to an LGBTQ bar first, or meet-up group and making friends there, as blurting out to your work buddies “Oh, by the way, is anyone else here gay?” wouldn’t go down too well in Korea. Goon Young concurs, “I’m pretty open to people that I love, someone like my mom or friends, but you can’t really tell people who are coworkers or someone [you] just met.” 

Discrimination and stigma against the LGBTQ community persist in many areas of South Korean society, including the workplace and school. Many LGBTQ individuals still face rejection from their families and friends, and some even resort to conversion therapy to try and change their sexual orientation.

Luckily Goon Young’s mom is supportive, but not entirely convinced. “I came out to my mom — who loves me — last year. She still loves me and cheers me up when I have heartbreaks with girlfriends. But she says she still can’t take it seriously and gay things are not ‘natural,’ she always tells me to meet some good guys and date them even though I always reply to her that I don’t like men.”

The lesbian nightlife scene’s purpose is truly to create a safe space and respect the privacy of all. There’s so much trust in these clubs that “lonely heart” style personal ads are displayed on the big projector screen behind the DJ in the first club where I partied. After all, queer dating isn’t as straight-forward in a country that prizes straightness.

Inside these clubs, women let their guard down and can be themselves. They can dance, drink, and socialize without fear of being judged or harassed. Legally speaking, South Korea doesn’t have comprehensive LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws so the fear of physical safety for the LGBTQ community really means that a “safe space” carries much more weight than a “safe space” in a country where there’s more acceptance of gay rights. 

Another safe space was a tiny club a little walk away from the big, “lonely hearts personals” club. What it lacked in size it made up for in chaotic ENERGY! Nobody was sitting in a corner here and after picking up my free drink included with the entry fee (every club did this), it was hit after hit from rapper Lil Nas X to K-pop group BLACKPINK.   

Although lesbian and bi women were dancing wildly, enjoying the night, even within these safe spaces, many club-goers still feel the need to remain cautious as the fear of being outed can be overwhelming. 

The last club I went to carried this caution. Located on an inconspicuous street, women were looking over their shoulders when paying in. That is, right up until the elevator doors shut. Once shut, women let their guards down and asked me how I found out about this place. Once inside — free drink handled (every club did Budweiser as a free drink option) — it was a playground of EDM, large opulent bottle service with half-undressed bartenders. One of them was even passing around free shots from one of the stripper pole podiums.

If there’s a lesbian heaven, I think I caught a glimpse of it here.

The cool air hit me as I left for home but nobody walking past suspected that the women leaving this club were not heterosexual. The fact that these clubs are still a secret highlights the need for greater acceptance and visibility of the LGBTQ community in South Korea. While progress has been made in recent years, there is still a long way to go before LGBTQ individuals can openly express their identities without fear of discrimination or being attacked.

“Young people in Korea are pretty open to LGBTQ, [but] of course, there are [some] who hate LGBTQ people. Most of the old people just can’t take it”, Goon Young says. 

The existence of secret lesbian clubs in Hongdae and other parts of Seoul is a testament to the resilience and strength of the LGBTQ community in South Korea, also. Despite facing significant challenges and obstacles, these women have found a way to connect and support each other, creating safe spaces where they can be themselves.

Hongdae’s secret world of lesbian clubs offers a glimpse behind the curtain. Despite many hurdles, on a late, spring night in underground Hongdae clubs, women danced and flirted freely for the few hours they could be themselves.

(Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to protect identities of sources. Ash Potter is a freelance journalist based in Seoul.) 

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