Family Forces a Man Through Brain Surgery "To Cure Homosexuality"
30 June, 2020
Bekzat and Arman. Photo from their personal archives
One story as a harrowing illustration of how COVID-19 lockdowns wreck queer lives.

When Bekzat Mukashev, a 29-year old queer man from Kazakhstan, came out to his family last year, his life turned into a nightmare. Bekzat attempted to flee his home town of Uralsk, in western Kazakhstan, several times. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and borders shut, there was nowhere to go. Bekzat was abducted by relatives last month and has been held against his will since. His partner, an LGBTQ activist from Kazakhstan, who is only identified by his first name - Arman - contacted our partner outlet Novaya Gazeta with their story. 


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Kazakhstan decriminalized homosexuality in 1998 but human rights groups say the country’s LGBTQ population still lives in fear, facing hostility and abuse. Law enforcement often refuses to investigate crimes connected to the queer community and authorities have previously made efforts to roll back LGBTQ rights even further. In 2015, the government tried to pass an anti-gay “propaganda” bill, similar to the legislation adopted by Russia in 2013, which bans the promotion of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors. 

The situation isn’t just dire in Kazakhstan. Central Asia is among the most repressive places in the world for LGBTQ people, a legacy of Russian and Soviet colonialism. Former Russian colonies Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan still criminalize homosexuality. Just this year, a Turkmen court sentenced a famous artist and a number of other men to two years in prison on sodomy charges. In the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, a 25-year-old gay man was brutally murdered days after he came out on social media, Radio Free Europe reported last year. Meanwhile, in Tajikistan, officials had previously compiled lists of LGBTQ people.

Ends Up in a Hospital after Coming Out

For years, Bekzat concealed his sexual identity from his family. His father, Bekbolat, is a well-known businessman and local elected official. Bekzat knew that having a gay son would be perceived as a disgrace. Furthermore, his parents are religious people adhering to the Kazakh Muslim traditions, making it all the more difficult to come out. 

Despite his protests, Bekzat's parents forced him to marry a woman last year. 

“Every day, my parents would insist: You are 28 years old already. You have to get married. We want grandchildren,” Bekzat told Kazakhstan LGBTQ website in February.

Bekzat Mukashev with sister Liza ( left corner), mother Maryam and father Bekbolat. Photo: social media

It was around that time that he also met Arman, his future boyfriend. A week after his wedding, he came out to his family. It didn’t go down well with his family.

His younger sister Liza told him that according to Islam, homosexuality is "punishable by death." Then she promised that the family would "help him overcome this." Liza's husband began calling Bekzat's new boyfriend and threatening him. At the same time, their mother offered Arman money to disappear from her son's life. 

At first, the family wanted to take Bekzat to the psychologist. He refused and told his mother he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Arman. In response, the father beat him until Bekzat lost consciousness. After suffering injuries to the head and stomach, the guy ended up in a hospital where the family took away his identification documents and phone. The doctors at the hospital never reported the incident to the police. In a letter to a human rights organization, Bekzat wrote that his parents "had bought everyone out in Uralsk."

“Don’t think that you can escape, we will find you” 

After recovering, Bekzat fled Uralsk to the coastal city of Aktau, where he could stay with Arman’s friends. From there, he wrote to his parents, asking them not to look for him. In response, he started receiving threats from his parents. They promised to throw him into a psychiatric clinic or hire people to kill him and his boyfriend if Bekzat didn’t return home. 

Bekzat Mukashev with relatives and father Bekbolat (far right). Photo: social media

“Don’t think that you can escape somewhere, we will find you, our people are everywhere,” Bekzat described one message. 

Shortly after, the family acted on their threats — they found him, forced into a car, and drove back to the hometown. He believes it was his family’s connections to the authorities that helped them find him. Bekzat managed to escape again a few days later. Leaving behind his forced marriage, business, and all the possessions, he fled with Arman to a small neighboring town near the Russian border. But the threats traveled after them. “Mom wrote that my father was going to hire people who could kill us for money,” Bekzat told Novaya. 

Brain Surgery

Then the family tried another strategy. They lured Bekzat out of hiding by lying about the mother being diagnosed with cancer and needing the son to accompany her to an examination in neighboring Russia. “After arriving in Moscow, we went to the Burdenko Research Institute of Neurosurgery,” Bekzat recalled in his letter to Novaya. “First, I didn’t understand why we went there...” 

Back in 2015, Bekzat was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a chronic condition where fluid builds up in the brain. His parents were obsessed with the idea that the illness ‘made him gay.’ For days, they pushed for Moscow doctors to operate on Bekzat, but all refused. They found more cooperative surgeons back in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan who performed unconsented surgery in January. According to Bekzat, the surgeons drilled his brain and drained it of any excess liquid, despite that "Moscow doctors warned against the procedure that might do more harm than good."

Rescue Aborted by Pandemic

After the operation, his parents assigned Bekzat an armed guard. In the act of desperation, the gay couple decided to make their struggle public. Bekzat and Arman gave several interviews. Their story traveled across borders through social media thanks to the help of Eurasian queer activists. It eventually led to the rescue mission by the Russian LGBT network, the same organization that would rescue victims of queer pogroms in a Southern Russian region of Chechnya. It evacuated the couple to Russia with a further plan of sending them for asylum to the EU. 

But before the pair could flee further, Bekzat needed to get a travel passport. While citizens of Kazakhstan can travel to Russia with just an identity card, that wouldn’t be enough to get him to the EU. The Kazakh Embassy in Moscow told them that remote document processing would take six months, but in Kazakhstan, a passport could be issued in a couple of days. Bekzat decided to risk it and make the final trip to Kazakhstan for the new documents. 

Using procedural tricks, his parents managed to delay the process for a month. That’s when the border got closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We hid him in different apartments so that his parents would not find him,” says Anatoly Chernousov, editor of the Kazakhstan LGBTQ website “But they again put him on the wanted list, again hired strange people to look for him. These people terrorized both Bekzat’s friends and everyone who helped him, even his lawyer. The people who helped him were dragged to the police, asked about his whereabouts, and accused of having had him abducted [...]” 

He was tracked down and once again abducted on June 13. His relatives then sent videos to LGBTQ activists and journalists (including Novaya Gazeta), where Bekzat would warn them against publicizing the story. Most likely, he was pressured into recording the videos, friends, and allies of Bekzat believe. 

“I just wanted to tell someone, so that at least someone would know”

“When we found out that he was really at home with his parents, we submitted a statement about forced detention. The police did not take any action,” Isteev says. “We managed to organize a video chat with Mukashev. We insisted that it be carried out without his parents and invited advocates to ensure that Mukashev was not pressured. But, unfortunately, the parents refused, which confirms our statement on forced detention.”

According to Chernousov, there are dozens of stories like Mukashev’s in Kazakhstan. 

“Every month, somewhere around 10 people turn to us because something happened as a result of homophobia,” says Chernousov, whose website features a form where people can write about their troubles. He says each case is different, but the people who turn to them are often suffering at the hands of their family. In Kazakhstan, this is the biggest threat to LGBTQ people. 

“It’s horrible when we get this - when they describe the horrors and violence and then write: I just wanted to tell someone, so that at least someone would know,” Chernousov says. 

/Translated and abridged by Natalie Vikhrov, with materials from Novaya Gazeta correspondents Artyom Raspopov and Lilit Sargsyan. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.