The Queens of Central Asia: Exploring the Region’s Blooming Drag Scene4 min read
Over the last few years, the popularity of drag has skyrocketed thanks to icons such as RuPaul and Trixie Mattelm, even extending to more conservative pockets of the world. The countries of Central Asia are no exception, having recently seen a boom in the number of drag shows organised by dedicated groups of queer artists and activists. While there is still a lack of acceptance in the wider culture, the queer community continues to carve out safe spaces where they can express themselves freely and fully.
Within the region, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are the most permissive towards the queer community. There are several gay bars in Astana and Almaty, and a few queer parties in Bishkek. While the community is able to gather in this way, individuals still face regular homophobia and transphobia, forcing many to stay in the closet for fear of abuse and violence. The queer communities in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan face even more challenges as homosexuality is still a crime in both countries. While there is no law criminalising homosexuality in Tajikistan, there are widespread attempts to “cure” queer people.
Many of those in the LGBTQ+ community in Central Asia have been finding refuge in the burgeoning drag scene in the region. The first drag shows began appearing in Astana and Almaty in the late 90s and early 2000s in clubs like Spartacus, 69, Monroe, and L’amour, several of which are still standing today. These shows were pioneered by the first drag queen in Kazakhstan, Sergei Dulesov, who refers lovingly to the late 90s as a time of provocation in the post-Soviet space. From these first forays into the art form grew a community of talented drag performers and the first drag competitions in Central Asia.
In the Monroe Club, drag performers held an annual Miss Drag Queen Kazakhstan competition, starting sometime in the mid 2010s. Finding information on the beginnings of drag in the region proves to be extremely difficult given how careful drag performers needed to be. However, there are a handful of grainy YouTube videos highlighting performances, including a gem from 2012 entitled “2 Opera Boobs.” Unfortunately, the remnants of this time seem to be fading away, including the Monroe Club, which was put up for sale according to an online listing.
In their wake, new centres of queer life have been erected, such as the Central Station in Astana and Amirovki in Almaty. These clubs have carried on the legacy of their forebears while putting their own twist on drag. Amiroki, for example, has started their own drag competition called Drag On, which highlights the talent of up-in-coming artists. The performances vary widely, opening with Ursula from the Little Mermaid and closing with a reenactment of a scene from “Little Red Riding Hood,” all receiving kind words from the audience and judges. Similar competitions are also planned to be held soon in Astana at Central Station.
While there are not as many spaces for the queer community in Bishkek, local LGBTQ+ organisations have been putting on sporadic parties over the last year. One example is a recent Drag Ball organised by Kyrygz Indigo, a local LGBTQ+ organisation. This event had it all: dancing, drag racing, vogue, and a disco theme. Another popular party in Bishkek has been OTURUSHH, a monthly hetero-friendly event. These parties have been organised for just over a year now and draw in almost 800 people from all corners of Central Asia per event.
Gaining access to a lot of these events requires knowing either the organisers or someone who has already been. For instance, OTURUSHH’s social media is completely private and to be accepted as a follower, they state that you must “ask friends who are already subscribed to us to recommend you.” This is partly a measure to deal with the number of follow requests, as the page receives thousands, but it also provides an extra layer of protection for the organiser and the participants. This is vital given the history of violent homophobia in the country. As recently as 2017, 30 men broke into the only gay club in the city at the time and ransacked the venue, injuring several.
While acceptance for LGBTQ+ people might have increased globally, drag continues to be extremely taboo in the region. In an interview with several local drag queens in Kazakhstan, many highlighted that while they feel empowered by the artform they still face backlash in their personal lives. Several were afraid to come out to their parents, or had already been disowned. They also highlighted fears of getting attacked after a show.
While the greater society in Central Asia is not yet able to fully accept the LGBTQ+ community, that has not stopped the community from accepting itself. The few drag shows that have cropped up seem to be only the beginning of a larger trend in the region. These performers are also putting their own distinct mark on drag, developing characters based on Central Asian icons and lip-syncing to Kazakh and Kyrgyz tracks. While queer people in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan do not have the same opportunities, many from those countries have found temporary refuge in spaces in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. These artists show that no matter the circumstance there is always room for queer joy.