Yan has a harrowing reminder of how haters in Uzbekistan treat transgender people.
“There’s a scar left by a screwdriver next to my liver,” the craggy-bearded and long-haired transgender man says, describing how his college classmates attacked him in 1997 in Tashkent, the capital of this former Soviet republic, a mostly Muslim nation of 31 million.
Here, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Uzbeks are routinely ostracized, harassed and abused, according to the United Nations, international human rights groups and local gay rights activists. A Stalinist-era law punishes consensual sex between men by up to three years in jail. President Islam Karimov’s government has repeatedly refused to scrap it.
And yet, despite all odds, Yan had his sex changed officially from female to male, underwent a surgery — and wed his high school sweetheart. It took him three years of patience and insistence, intrusive visits to doctors and officials, threats of legal action and a scrupulous search for loopholes.
He found Soviet-era regulations in the Uzbek family code that allow a sex change after an evaluation by a commission of psychiatrists. Communist Moscow adopted the regulations in the early 1980s after decades of Western pressure and, luckily for Yan, they were not removed after Uzbekistan’s independence.
What also helped him is that Tashkent is a relatively cosmopolitan city, a world apart from the patriarchal and parochial Uzbek countryside, where transgender people, especially women, face intimidation, beatings and rapes — or can “simply get killed,” says Yan, who heads the unregistered and clandestine Uzbek branch of XS (Access), an LGBT rights group that operates in the former Soviet Union.
“Their parents, family won’t even interfere,” Yan says over a steaming cup of tea. “Because they think it is a sin, a crime against God.”
Yan asked to keep his last name secret for fear of being targeted and attacked. Online, he goes by the name McMillan.
Families of transgender people “often kick them out of their homes or marry them forcibly, and if they don’t agree, kill them, and nobody cares, " claims Timur, another transgender man, who says he was first raped in fifth grade.
There are no available records of crimes against LGBT people in Uzbekistan, one of the three former Soviet republics where male homosexuality is still a crime (the others are Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan). Uzbek officials refused to comment on the issue. Western news outlets have been driven out of Uzbekistan, and officials routinely turn down their requests.
The anti-gay law is rarely enforced but remains a tool to imprison whistle-blowers, rights advocates and reporters. Few Uzbeks draw distinctions between transgender people and gays and lesbians.
Corrupt police officers use dating websites and informants to track down gays and extort money — otherwise threatening rectal “examinations” in front of neighbors or gang rapes in prison cells, several LGBT Uzbeks say in interviews.
A cellphone video leaked online several months ago showed plainclothes police officers beating up a man in drag who received male visitors in his apartment.
Homophobia is endorsed at the highest level. President Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since before the 1991 Soviet collapse, has said that homosexuality is “disgusting” and “something is wrong” with gay couples. Even his staunchest opponent, nationalist leader Muhammad Solih, who lives in Turkey, says that gays should be “isolated.”
LGBT issues and sex in general remain taboo. Authorities outlaw movies such as “Brokeback Mountain” or “Kinsey” and in 2013 banned a music video titled “Honey Tea,” in which a man in drag sang about his love to a guy in an office suit.
Mark Weil, an acclaimed director whose Tashkent-based Ilkhom theater was the U.S.S.R.'s first independent theater and whose productions occasionally addressed same-sex romance, was stabbed to death in 2007. The three men who were sentenced to up to 19 years in jail for his killing said that one of Weil’s plays insulted the Koran.
Yan began his legal transformation less than a year after Weil’s killing.
As a child, he had considered himself a boy — and announced it to his classmates when he was about 12. He grew up in Tashkent with his divorced mother, who threatened for years “that she will commit suicide, will not give me the money I’d been saving for surgery, place me in a nuthouse,” he says.
“I was a little offended that after I was done [with the transition] she kept me away from her friends,” he says, adding that she gradually accepted his choice. His estranged father called it a “misfortune.”
By the time he began the legal process, he had already been taking hormones that deepened his voice and triggered the growth of facial hair. Although some doctors were helpful, registry officials responsible for replacement of IDs met Yan with derision, laughs and shock.
“They kept saying, ‘Why? It’s so much easier to be a woman,’” the chain-smoking 35-year-old recalls.
Even after seeing a stamped psychiatric evaluation, they insisted Yan had to undergo surgery first. Meanwhile, medical doctors wanted documents proving his legal sex change because they did not want to be held responsible for “maiming” a patient, he says.
The conundrum seemed impossible to overcome. “For about a year, I was feeling down because I didn’t know what to do,” he says.
But he overcame depression and finally persuaded an endocrinologist to acknowledge in writing that his hormones were those of a male. His next step was to buy a bottle of expensive brandy to drink with a registry official, who agreed to issue him a passport with a different name and sex.
The bottle was the closest thing to a bribe during Yan’s ordeal.
Although a few other Uzbek nationals had their sex changed legally before he did, officials told Yan, they did that by forging papers, paying bribes or showing up for evaluations after sex-change operations performed abroad. Yan claims to have become the first Uzbek to transition in a completely transparent way.
An expert on Central Asia says an element of surprise helped Yan win. “Sex change in Uzbekistan is as rare as snow in July,” says Daniil Kislov, a Moscow-based political analyst and a native of Uzbekistan. “That is why such isolated cases succeed so easily.”
Yan says he had a mastectomy after five or six visits to an initially reluctant surgeon. He is saving money for several more surgeries to complete his physical transition. With the new passport, he married a woman with whom he’d been in love since his teens — and now proudly sports a wedding ring next to skull-like biker bling.
Small-framed, clad in a black leather coat, with a mane of long brown hair, pierced lips and ears, he swaggers down the streets of Tashkent ignoring stares and grins.
After his legal triumph, he started counseling other transgender Uzbeks seeking an official sex change or trying to secure a refugee status in the West. Three of them have completed their legal transition, and several more are underway.
The first outcome of his change was the response of a guard at a theater where he works as a sound engineer. “They started letting me use the men’s toilet,” Yan says with a laugh.
Mirovalev is a special correspondent.