A kiss too far in Kazakhstan

By bne IntelliNews August 29, 2014

Naubet Bisenov in Almaty -


A poster for a gay-friendly nightclub in Almaty featuring the great Kazakh composer Kurmangazy and Russian author Pushkin engaged in a kiss has caused outrage in conservative Kazakh society and raised the spectre of Russia-style anti-gay laws being introduced.

Intended as an entry for a closed advert competition in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, the award-winning poster advertises the Studio 69 club located on the junction of Kurmangazy and Pushkin Streets in central Almaty. Hence the choice of the subjects for the poster.

In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the poster's designer, advertising agency Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan, apologised for any unintentional offence it might have caused and explained the poster was created for a "small circle of individuals" for the Red Jolbors Fest held in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, where it claimed third place in the Outdoor Advertisement category. Despite the agency's reassurances that the poster would not be published in the paid media, it has circulated widely on social media, causing a storm.

The nightclub's director, Maria Belskaya, has said Studio 69 has nothing to do with the poster advertising the club, and the competition's website states the advert was commissioned by the "LGBT community of Kazakhstan".

"Our lawyers are working on monitoring all media outlets which have said that the commissioner of this poster was us. Lawsuits will be brought against these outlets," Tengrinews quoted Belskaya as saying.

Studio 69 has already been the target of anti-gay groups in Almaty: in May, anti-gay activists walled up the club's entrance in protest against gay marriage in Kazakhstan following the murder of a young woman by her gay partner. The two women had entered into Kazakhstan's first known gay marriage in the industrial city of Karaganda in spring 2013. Kazakhstan doesn't recognise gay marriage officially.

Unease in Almaty

The poster has stoked simmering anti-gay sentiment in Kazakhstan where society largely remains hostile to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, which deliberately keeps a low profile. Outraged public and cultural figures, including a Kurmangazy descendant, have called for legal action against the designers of the poster, while the Kazakh culture minister described the poster as a "crime".

There is also the fear that having Russia's most venerated poet depicted in such a way could invite strong reaction from the homophobic authorities in Russia, where Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin's nationalist Rodina party has already called for "just punishment" for the poster's designers.

The Kazakh authorities have so far resisted calls for the adoption of Russian-style "gay propaganda" legislation that was passed by Duma last year, which bans the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations". The Kazakh-language, opposition-leaning Zhas Alash newspaper has blasted the authorities for their inaction over the "insulting of Kurmangazy" and suggested that "pervasive" gay clubs in Almaty enjoy the protection of people high up in the government.

Members of the gay community in Almaty have mostly refused to discuss the poster, but some of them say they were also shocked by the brazenness of it. "The poster is tasteless and is a deliberate provocation," a 43-year-old artist, who asked not to be named, tells bne. "This has been done in order to distract people's attention from the rising prices and economic hardship."

The artist, who says sexuality is a private matter and shouldn't be advertised, doesn't rule out that the controversy could be used by some MPs to renew attempts to copy Russian-style "gay propaganda" legislation. A number of MPs, with Aldan Smayyl and Bakhytbek Smagul of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ruling Nur Otan party, which controls parliament, being the most vocal defenders of "traditional values" from alien Western culture – tried to initiate anti-gay laws in parliament last year. Smayyl justified such initiatives by claiming that there were 240,000 gay people in Kazakhstan who promote homosexuality in society. According to Smayyl, there are apparently "more than 10" gay clubs in Almaty and "four" in Astana – comments which invited numerous jokes about his great knowledge of the gay scene in the nation's largest cities.

Kazakh officials complain that the Western media hardly write about the country without mentioning Borat, the British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen's satirical anti-Semitic, homophobic character that appeared in the film "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan". If attitudes towards the LGBT community in Kazakh society harden as a result of the brouhaha over the poster, Astana could find it difficult to get rid of the country's associations with Borat any time soon.

A kiss too far in Kazakhstan

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