In primary school Michael Taalaibekov was enrolled in an experimental class in #2 Lebedinovka Gymnasium just outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital. His class received extra lessons, and children’s rights were one theme they covered. Michael was intrigued by the concept that he and his peers had human rights. “Nevertheless,” he says, “we could see how teachers were violating our rights.” Indignant at his teachers’ mistreatment, Michael decided he would become an attorney when he grew up so that he could defend human rights.
When he finished his secondary education, Michael still wanted to go to law school, but his family couldn’t afford it. Instead he went to the Academy of Tourism in Bishkek, the most affordable university in the country, and pursued self-education on the side. "I knew here in Kyrgyzstan education system does not allow students to think critically." Even though he isn’t the human rights lawyer he wanted to become when he was a child, Michael’s life and work center on defending human rights, especially the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in Kyrgyzstan.
LGBTI rights work in Kyrgyzstan is especially crucial at this moment in history. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament is considering proposed legislation similar to Russia’s “propaganda” law. “In fact, this draft law is much worse than its Russian counterpart,” Michael explains. “It imposes a criminal penalty of up to one and a half years of imprisonment.” The bill, which is supposed to address “the formation of positive attitudes towards non-traditional sexual relations,” has already had its second reading in parliament, and a third and final reading is expected soon. “There is a coalition for justice and non-discrimination of which I’m a member. We’re doing everything possible to stop the draft law.”
Michael became committed to LGBTI rights work at age sixteen, when he was invited to participate in an LGBTI organization. “I met some cool guys,” he said. “They didn’t take me seriously because of my age, but despite this I learned a lot from them.” At eighteen, Michael joined the group Bishkek Feminist Initiatives and “started to do real activism. People there were very open-minded, so I didn’t hesitate to express my opinion.”
He got involved in sexual and reproductive health and rights organizing and youth outreach. “Despite the fact that other organizations working with young people on these topics had LGBT issues in their agenda, they didn’t do anything on it. Just coming out was a challenge for the youth of Kyrgyzstan.” Michael took it upon himself to make sure LGBTI issues were addressed. “I became a very scandalous personality. Everywhere in every meeting, I’m talking about LGBTIQ. In one youth activist meeting we were writing a statement on youth diversity, and of course I added LGBTIQ. One of the activists said ‘I’ve never met a gay person,’ and I’m like, ‘Hello.’”
For a year Michael worked with Labrys, an LGBTI-specific organization, “documenting and reporting on hate crimes, discrimination, violence and violations of human rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” Unfortunately, donors “stopped financing my position and I had to leave Labrys.” Now Michael is doing a lot of work behind the scenes--“invisible activism,” he says. He often advises organizations on how to include LGBTI issues in their work. One friend with a sexual and reproductive health and rights organization reached out to him asking for information about sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex, and queer. “He had a lot of questions, like ‘how can a transgender person be homosexual?’ And ‘how is queer different from bisexual?’ I have a lot of this kind of discussion.”
Michael has also created a public page for queer people on VK, the Facebook-like social network popular among Russian-speakers.” People share personal stories on the page, but Michael and the other moderators screen out “stories in which there is homophobia, racism, sexism, ageism, propaganda of militarism, totalitarianism and any other expressions of hatred. Also we are very sensitive to physicality and we do not publish photos or videos with idealized bodies. I believe that each body is individual and not subject to any comparison, but the media dictates an ideal body that does not exist.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m a psychologist,” Michael says. “As I'm the creator of ‘Theme’ I get a lot of messages from people. Some of them are just confused about their identity and ask me for advice. Some have serious problems with their parents and relatives, or with the state.” Recently he received a message from a trans woman who had had gender confirmation surgery abroad. She needed guidance on how to re-enter Kyrgyzstan when her old passport photo might raise questions. “I did my best to help her.”
About to turn twenty-one, Michael is still involved in Bishkek Feminist Initiatives. “They are part of me,” he says. “I can't leave BFI.” He is also the executive director of a recently-established public foundation called Community Initiatives and Research - Central Asia (CIRCA) working on cross-movement advocacy. As someone working for LGBTI rights from many different angles, Michael has a great deal of insight into the needs of Kyrgyz activists. “For our movement, it is important for people to simply express solidarity with us. Activists need to have their work supported and need to be paid adequately.” Most activists can’t even make rent with their salaries. “Make your own conclusions,” Michael says.
Contributed by Leah Entenmann, March 20, 2016