Dima * takes a sip of beer and tears fill her eyes. He rarely talks about why he decided to temporarily stop activism. Remember that it was a rainy day in 2017, one of those days when the inhabitants of sunny Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, prefer to stay home.
She had planned to visit a local infectious disease clinic with a man she had contact with. The man, a well-known Uzbek musician, had been feeling ill for some time, and Dima had promised to support him when he had his first HIV test. That was part of his activism. He had been using dating apps to offer support and advice to other gay men in Uzbekistan who suspected they were infected with HIV, a path of fear and hopelessness that he himself had gone through several years earlier.
But on that particular rainy day, he decided to stay home and postpone the meeting. A day late, he thought, won't change a thing. Dima called the musician the next morning. But he was no longer there to answer the call.
“I know that even if we had met that day, it is very likely that he would have died. He was very sick, ”says Dima, looking at his beer. “But I cannot continue doing this, I have no strength. I just hit my limit. “
He asked that we keep him anonymous in this article for fear of retaliation. He is one of the few activists in Uzbekistan who encourage gay men to get tested for HIV and support them during the process.
Even before the COVID-19 rules for social distancing existed, says Dima, the Uzbek gays did not form organized or public communities. They do not have gay clubs where they can shelter or meet in large groups in public places.
“Few want to live openly,” says Shukhrat *, another homosexual who grew up in the conservative city of Kokan, and is now a businessman based in Tashkent. “We live in a‘ dictatorship of society, '”he told me.
Article 120: the law against homosexuals
Uzbekistan is one of the two post-Soviet countries (the other being Turkmenistan) where male homosexual acts remain illegal (however, lesbian relationships are legal). If arrested, gays face up to three years in prison for the infamous article 120. Although in practice this law is used very rarely, activists insist that criminalization contributes to the stigmatization of homosexuals.
Since current President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, Uzbekistan has been praised for his progressive reforms, such as releasing more than 50 high-profile political prisoners and allowing citizens to openly criticize the government.
But the gay community has not been given freedom. In 2018, Uzbek officials accepted numerous United Nations recommendations to improve the country's human rights record, including eradicating the use of torture. However, the law against homosexuals remained intact. Furthermore, hostile attitudes towards homosexuals are widespread in Uzbek society, sometimes with brutal consequences. In September 2019, 25-year-old gay Shokir Shavkatov was murdered in his apartment days after he declared his homosexuality on Instagram.
According to UNAIDS, the number of Uzbeks living with HIV increases year after year, and although there are no specific data on its prevalence among the country's LGBT population, men who have sex with other men are an important group of patients in all the world. Uzbek rights advocates say many gays, especially in small cities in the country, refuse to have regular HIV tests for fear that medical professionals will discover and reveal their sexual identity or medical status to their employers or their families. Many people are also unaware of how HIV is transmitted. There is no compulsory sex education in schools. In 2010, activist Maxim Popov was sentenced to seven years in prison (and later released) for raising awareness about HIV, which is considered disrespectful towards national culture.
The emergency measures by COVID-19, which include total confinement in the main cities, have made it difficult to access HIV centers, and therefore, testing, especially outside the capital.
Applications to provide support and advice on HIV
Irina * knows these difficulties well. She was supporting HIV patients as a social worker between 2011 and 2018, when the project ended and she lost her job. But he could not abandon his work. “The salary is over, the work is over, but the people are still there. You can't throw them away like trash, “he says.
“I know what to do when a person comes to me. The doctors give him a diagnosis, say 'you have HIV', and then they leave him in the office, alone with me. There are usually four reactions: tears, hysteria, fainting, and forced laughter. They tell him he is positive, he sits down and laughs. That is the worst time. “
And so Irina registered a profile with a male pseudonym on gay dating platforms, and wrote in her description that she provides support and advice on HIV.
“They know me by the name of Nikita,” he says. “Many people write to me, and I send them to places where they can be tested for HIV, and if they need more help, I support them as far as I can. If someone has a friend who needs help, they bring it to me. ”
Irina also created a channel with other activists on Telegram, one of the most popular apps in Uzbekistan, for people to find more information on HIV prevention and treatment.
In this channel, Irina provides advice on how to access HIV medication. Until mid-2021, this treatment will be free, currently financed by Global Fund and the Uzbek government. It is unclear whether patients will continue to have access to free treatment later.
Irina is also active offline, and volunteers at clinics to ensure that medical professionals treat patients seriously and provide them with the necessary information.
According to Irina, although it is not illegal to treat gays in Uzbekistan and doctors must protect the identity of their patients, homophobia often influences the professionals' response.
This is how he describes what happened to a young man: “He went to a clinic to be tested anonymously and left his phone number. Soon after, a nurse called and said that if she didn't show up that same day, she would have to call the police. He was horrified. First, because that's how he found out about his situation. Second, because of the nurse's attitude ”.
The young man said nothing to his family, he adds. “I managed to register him and he received treatment. But somehow, his relatives found out and said that he had to be taken to the mosque, because he had a ‘shaitan’ (demon) inside him. Homosexuality is often dealt with in mosques. ”
“Am I going to survive this?”
Some families are more willing to accept it. Dima lives with her boyfriend, and says that the parents of both accept the relationship. He also revealed his sexual identity at work, but says that for many gay Uzbeks, especially those living outside the capital, openly living their homosexuality is not an option.
In this context, he argues, “any change must start from the bottom.” To this end, both Irina and Dima continue their hidden activism. For Dima, this now means supporting gay men she already knows in her community. Irina is still active online.
But both activists conclude that without support from public authorities, a national information campaign on HIV, sex education at school, and the decriminalization of homosexuality, their work and impact will remain limited.
It will also be difficult to bear. “You face it daily. The person looks at you. She is now only 40 kg, her lymph nodes are huge, her temperature is just below 40 ° C, the diarrhea doesn't stop, and she asks you: ‘Am I going to survive this? '” Says Irina. “Of course I do,” I reply, but I don't know for sure myself. “
*Names have been changed.
This article was originally published at 50:50, section on LGBTQ + rights and feminism from openDemocracy. It is published here with permission and has been edited to adapt the style.