An Activist's Fight for Equality in Almaty

by Kylie Rose Doran (United States of America)

Making a local connection Kazakhstan


I stared uncomfortably down at my dirty shoes. The prior days spent hiking caked them in a layer of mud, creating a stark contrast to the glistening red and white floor beneath. I focused intently on my shoes to avoid the curious gazes of the nurses marching up and down the halls in their starched white Soviet-style uniforms. Uncomfortable and out of place, I waited for what felt like an eternity, trying my best to blend into the sterile white walls of this Kazakhstani psychiatric hospital. At just nineteen years old, Sultana Kali certainly knew how to make an impression. She floated elegantly down the sidewalk, glossy auburn hair flowing behind her, and I was immediately struck by her sophistication. I had looked forward to our meeting for weeks. Studying abroad at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana, I made friends who told me stories of Sultana Kali’s strength and courage. She lived over one thousand kilometers to the south in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, so I knew that during my short excursion there, meeting Sultana was one of my top priorities. I did not, however, expect that within minutes of meeting her, Sultana would invite me in to share a life-changing moment that she had been looking forward to for years. She had secured an appointment last-minute on the evening of our proposed meeting, and after passing this mental health screening, the Kazakhstani government would allow Sultana to change the gender listed on her government ID. Sultana Kali is open and proud about being a transgender woman in Kazakhstan. But unfortunately, her country is one that carries a double layer of stigma against members of the LGBTQ community. Former Soviet countries, namely Russia, have made headlines for their poor treatment of LGBTQ people, forcing them into concentration camp-like facilities and making it illegal to display “gay propaganda” around children. Kazakhstan has a similar attitude towards the community because, as Sultana put it, under the authoritarian government, anything that made a person different - made them stand out - was cause for alarm and potential exile. People simply kept that sort of thing to themselves. Additionally, Kazakhstan, like much of Central Asia, is a devoutly Muslim country with large mosques cropping up in all corners of the country since the demise of Soviet anti-religious policies in the early ‘90s. Some Kazakhstanis preach Islam as a reason for hatred of LGBTQ people. This combination of both Soviet and Muslim mindsets can make it hard for people like Sultana to go about daily life safely. As we left the hospital, Sultana excitedly told me how now, her ID would properly reflect her gender. Her high spirits were not even dashed when homophobic remarks were slung at us by the driver of a passing car. Sultana kindly told the man to “fuck off,” as we continued our walk down the street. This harassment was nothing new for her. When Sultana first came out as transgender, she was kicked out of her public school. She spent months applying in vain to public high schools around the country. All but one denied her. When she was finally accepted, incredulously, she asked, “Don’t you realize who I am? I am a woman who was born a boy.” At this, the headmaster rescinded her offer of acceptance. Sultana’s simple response - “If they don’t accept me 100% for who I am, then I don’t want to be there.” But with no access to high school education, opportunities are limited. With help from an American diplomat, Sultana applied to attend college in the United States. Even without a high school diploma, one community college agreed to sponsor her visa. But when it came down to the visa interview, the U.S. embassy denied her. Facing what seem like insurmountable obstacles, Sultana Kali still has hope for the future. She has found fulfillment in working with a community of Kazakhstani activists to protect the rights of LGBTQ people in the country. She has also found growing support from abroad, including one American exchange student who waited for her in that psychiatric hospital hallway as she took one small, but significant step towards equality.