This week, a government journal in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan announced that the country’s interior ministry had compiled a registry of “proven” gays and lesbians. The list named 319 men and 48 women, whom Tajik federal prosecutors identified in operations they called “Morality” and “Purge.”
A purge — likely in the form of mass incarcerations — is exactly what human rights organizations are afraid will happen. But the phenomenon would not be unique to Tajikistan: Over the past few months, police in Egypt, Azerbaijan, Tanzania, Indonesia and the Russian republic of Chechnya have rounded up people suspected of being gay — and in many cases tortured or publicly humiliated them.
What’s more, many of the crackdowns look like “copycats” of one another. “There are a lot of ways in which these crackdowns follow the same sequence of events,” said Kyle Knight, a researcher on LGBT rights at #Human Rights Watch. “And there’s reason to believe that what’s happening in Tajikistan now is based on things their government there has learned from, say, what Azerbaijan just did.”
The sequence generally starts with someone — most likely a religious figure or government official — publicly denigrating acts of alleged sexual deviance. In countries where homosexuality is taboo and driven underground, such comments may be the first thing a person has heard in public about LGBT people.
“It is easy to say that these particular people are spreading disease, that they are foreigners or sinners. From a starting point of ignorance, prejudice is an easy next step,” said Knight.
Then things get dangerous. As public anger grows against sexual minorities, political leaders often have no tools to counter the tide. In most of the countries listed above, homosexuality is not illegal. But there also aren’t any nondiscrimination laws that include sexuality. Without them, political leaders have to expend their own political capital to step in — assuming they think LGBT communities deserve protection at all. Instead, leaders usually side with the denunciations, or even calls for criminalization, and obscenity and prostitution laws are often turned against sexual minorities.
My colleagues in Jakarta, Moscow and Cairo have all recently documented that sequence. “These communities have always been targeted by police, but we’ve seen this worsen since 2016, when a number of high-level politicians made statements portraying LGBT communities as immoral or a threat to the nation,” said Ricky Gunawan, the director of the Community Legal Aid Institute in Jakarta, to Vincent Bevins, writing for The Post.