Launched in 2017, Kok.team was the first LGBTI mass media in Kazakhstan and the first website to publish LGBTI content in the Kazakh language. I spoke with the two co-founders, Anatoly Chernoussov and Daniyar Sabitov, to discuss what inspired them to create Kok.team and the impact this project has had on the portrayal of LGBTI topics in Kazakhstan’s media.
Can you start by telling me a bit about yourselves? How did you meet and what led you to create Kok.team?
Daniyar Sabitov [D]: We have been friends for a long time, and actually we became friends on the basis of LGBT issues and LGBT activism. For many years we lived together; we were flatmates. At some point, we discussed the situation of LGBT issues in Kazakhstan and we realized that there was a huge lack of something in our information environment — there was no website in the Kazakhstani part of the internet which was about LGBT issues. We realized that for all 30 years of Kazakhstan’s independence, there was no website in the Kazakh language about LGBT issues. There are a lot of people who speak only Kazakh and who don’t speak Russian or English, and we realized that there is this paradoxical situation where there is an ocean of information about what it means to be LGBT, about psychological issues, mental health, and so on, but in this ocean of information, there is a desert named the Kazakh language.
Anatoly Chernoussov [A]: Like resources and information in Kazakhstan.
D: Anatoly and I both work with media, with texts, and so on, so we decided to fill this gap with a website. We called it Kok.team and we can tell you later why it is called this, because maybe for the English-speaking person, it seems a bit strange. We started discussing in 2016 what we could do, and in the beginning of the spring season in 2017, we launched our website Kok.team in 3 languages: the main is Russian; the Kazakh covers the most basic topics, because Anatoly and I don’t speak Kazakh on a very high level, so we just made what we could to fill this information gap; and the English part is just a visiting card that tells people we exist and provides our contacts.
A: I can add about the naming, about why we are called Kok.team. There are a few different meanings. First, it is very similar to the Kazkah word көктем (köktem), which means spring. It’s a very good meaning, like when spring is coming and everything is changing. You can also divide the name into Kok and team. Көк (Кök) in Kazakh means the color of the skies, and it also has different, special meanings for Kazakh people. It means saint, or light blue, yet at the same time green, the color of spring grass, so basically you can translate the name as light blue team. Also, the color light blue in Russian (голубо́й) means gay. It’s not really common now, but older people still say “He’s light blue, he’s gay.” Afterwards, we realized that it sounds similar to cock in English, which is just a funny coincidence.
D: But not the main meaning!
A: No, it’s not the main meaning, which is light blue team and spring. A lot of people don’t say Kok.team, but instead say көктем.
D: We launched the website on the first of March—
A: With the slogan “The spring is coming.”
What initially led you to become interested in LGBTI activism?
D: I met my first live gay person at age 21 or 22. I found a forum where a small group of people discussed things. It was an LGBT forum, and from time to time they coordinated offline meetings and I decided to go to one. That’s how I met my first friends from the LGBT community. And being with other LGBT people makes you more, not sensitive, but involved in the agenda. Because if you are alone, you don’t think much about LGBT issues, but when you are at least two, you can’t just avoid the topic. Certainly we discussed these issues, the problems in Kazakhstan, in the world, and that’s how the idea of the importance of activism appeared in my case. And you just don’t notice when you change your status from LGBT, like being gay, to being an activist — you can’t just mention this pivot point.
A: For me, it was was actually quite clear when I became gay. When I was 25, I said I was gay and there was nothing I could do about that — before, I had rejected that thought.
D: So you gave up on your straightness.
A: Yes, so I gave up on my straight life, and at the same time I found that forum also, though by that time it was not really active. I started to get involved in some internet activism, because you could be anonymous and go somewhere and write some comments and support people and maybe hate some homophobes. Everything was located in the Russian part of the Internet. Then I went from internet activism to in-person, offline activities. I started when I lived in China, I studied there, and continued when I returned to Kazakhstan and found more people. And finally, I ended up living with Dani in the same flat and discussing what we are going to do about the situation.
D: So for now, half the day we are gay, and the other half we are activisits. We rest only at night!
You said that your knowledge of the Kazakh language wasn’t that high.
A: Yes, I can understand when I read official documents or news in Kazakh, but I cannot create texts. So most of the materials in Kazakh on our website are either translated or written by other people. Still, we have a difference between the Russian and Kazakh parts. If you compare the Kazakh and Russian parts, the Kazakh part is one-tenth the Russian part.
D: When Kazakhstan was a part of the USSR, the Kazakh language wasn’t popular. The state policy supported Kazakh people speaking Russian and oppressed them in different ways when they spoke Kazakh. For example, you could only get university degrees in Russian. We can say that the majority of the cities’ population spoke only Russian, and small villages were kind of reservations for the Kazakh language and Kazakh-speaking people. My parents, both ethnically Kazakh, didn’t speak the Kazakh language. After the USSR dissolved, the situation slowly started to change.
And another thing came into my mind — another thing we realized was that during these decades of independence, we didn’t have a platform where our voices—
A: Let’s say were heard. Where we could speak normally.
D: Usually we read about ourselves from newspapers, and at that time, LGBT topics were seen as just some curiousity or something strange and immoral. We knew about ourselves only from others. We decided to solve this problem also, and created a platform where LGBT people can talk to other LGBT people directly because we are interested in our own opinion on our own issues.
A: I will just give an example. In 2017, when we had already launched, but it was still just beginning, I was part of an LGBT sensitivity-training program for journalists. One of the cases I showed them was the case of one very popular internet newspaper where an article about a person who was killed because they were gay had been illustrated by pictures of the rainbow flag and Gay Pride somewhere in the US. Can you imagine that they can use these pictures? That was the situation when we started.
Did you both come from journalistic backgrounds?
D: Yes. As a theorist I taught journalism at Turan University and as a practitioner I worked for different analytical magazines and newspapers for more than 10 years.
A: For me, fifty-fifty. I was a kind of translator, and also wrote sometimes about culture, mostly opinion journalism.
D: There was another problem we had in the beginning. We have a text on our Patreon website: “Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world. It takes 54 hours to reach its easternmost point from the westernmost point by car without stops and 29 hours to get from the south to the north. The population of this huge area is only 18 million people, and the population density is 7 people per sq km (18 people per sq mi). That’s why consolidation of Kazakhstani LGBT+ people into an LGBT+ community is a big challenge.”
It was the situation that we had LGBT people, but we didn’t have an LGBT community. Maybe we still don’t have an LGBT community, but the goal of Kok.team was to help create the community, to show people from different cities, towns, and villages that they’re not alone, and that they have an information hub to connect to each other. Actually, now we work not only as a media organization but also as a connector. You know when telephones were first invented, people had to work as phone operators, switching cables to connect people. We have such a function now. When something happens to a person, they ask for help and because we know many and many know us, we are able to switch them, to direct them to the proper person or organization that has more possibilities to help them. So you see that there are many different problems we are trying to solve with only one project.
What sort of articles do you feature on Kok.team?
D: We can divide all of our articles into several groups. One part is the manifestos of the editors. We write conceptual articles where we try to sketch the way for our community. It seems very ambitious, and not very modest, but it is what we try to do.
Another big part is the stories of our people. For example, our latest project is “Poisoned Childhood.” We have a very active conservative group of parents who are trying to ban changes in legislation. Our parliamentary deputies are trying to put the term “bullying” into the legislation, and these parents are afraid that through this legislation, LGBT people, families, and all other immoral, awful creatures will try to destroy families, kidnap kids and sell them to the US, and so on. One of the arguments they made was “Look, they just want to use this bullying ban to protect the LGBT agenda in our schools.” The idea was that LGBT children should be the aim of bullying because bullying can protect them against being LGBT. In response, we asked all of our readers to send us stories about their bullying experiences from when they were in school. So far, we have posted more than 30 stories — awful stories, tragedies, just ruined childhoods, and so on — to show people what they are talking about when they say we want to kidnap children with this bullying legislation. With such projects we try to write different questions which arise towards LGBT people and the community and try, with examples of real people, to show who we are and what problems we face — as every LGBT media does, I suppose.
A: We also have a bunch of articles where we react to hate speech coming from people in power. We have a lot of articles where we analyze the homophobia that is grounded in our legislation. And we have a bunch of articles where we try to show some good examples of how to create communities, how to do something when you are living in a small town, what you can do—
D: How to find people!
And an interesting curious detail, our government, I think it was 10 years ago, they tried to control the internet sphere. They created legislation which stated all internet resources as media.
A: Even personal blogs count as official media.
D: Social media, personal blogs, everything. In this manner they tried to control, to censor the media sphere in Kazakhstan, but we saw this not as a bad thing, but as a feature, because being media, we received the right to ask questions in these bureaucratic procedures. When we asked questions to ministries, they might answer us because we are the media.
A: They have to answer us, not might.
D: And in this way we asked the Ministry of Health if the ministry agreed with the World Health Organization that homosexuality not a disease, and we received an official answer that “Yes, it is not a disease,” and we shared this information in all homophobic groups, saying “You see, our government said this.” Our government doesn’t want to play on our ground, but we make them play on our ground. We use their own rules—
A: Against them.
D: Why not? If we have this right, why not use it.
Could you describe what it is like to be LGBTI in Kazakhstan?
D: As usual, it depends where you live and in which bubble you live. The most liberal cities are the former capital, Almaty, and the current capital, Astana. In these big cities, people have a chance to hide themselves in the population. We can say that there are gay clubs in three cities. There are small groups of support, some feminist and transgender initiatives, one safe space group, and so on, but they are very small compared to the amount of LGBT people in Kazakhstan. I don’t think that these communities are stable, unfortunately — it’s my own opinion. It really depends where you live, because if you live in a small town in the south, for example — the south in Kazakhstan is more religious than the central part or the north part.
A: Like more traditional, more religious, more patriarchal.
D: And it’s difficult to be LGBT in Kazakhstan, even if we don’t have criminal prosecution as in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. We launched the project “Tell about your trouble” in 2018 to try to show cases of discrimination or with crimes on the basis of hate towards sexual orientation and gender identity, because our officials say that there is no discrimination in Kazakhstan. And they are right, because officials work according to the legislation and there is no such term “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” There is no term, so there are no cases.
A: If it’s not written on paper, it doesn’t exist.
D: So we launched this project asking people to tell their stories, and we received every month dozens of stories of people experiencing a scale of discrimination from being called bad words and encountering hate speech to violence and blackmail from the police to cases of suicide. And on the basis of these cases, we created a shadow report to the UN, the UPR [Universal Periodic Review], when Kazakhstan had its turn to proclaim the situation on human rights. We sent our view on the situation with human rights in Kazakhstan in the LGBT sphere.
A: We also still have some people who are very traditional and keep to traditional society where the family is the most important part, where the family is the source of everything, where person, the individual is not the smallest part of society, but the family is.
D: The family is a subject of society.
A: The person doesn’t exist outside the family. We still have this tyranny of cousins, where relatives can even kill LGBTQI+ children, brothers, sisters; where they organize the rape of lesbians to make them “normal” to correct them, and so on. These stories we also receive — it’s the reality.
D: At the same time, if you have a good education, you live in Almaty, you have a well paid job, you might never face anything. And unfortunately, such people most likely won’t support LGBT movement. You know these cases where they say “Nothing happens to me, so why are you talking about these things when it’s just the person’s individual business, it’s not a pattern in the society?”
A: Some very privileged people can say this.
D: As in every country.
Have you seen a change over the last few years, whether in how the media in Kazakhstan portrays LGBTI people or within the LGBTI community itself?
A: We have seen a lot of changes, actually. And there is our impact also, because when we started, it was kind of a shock for people working in the media. Some of them were really aggressive, and said “No, you are not media, you are some kind of activist project.” But we also had a lot of friends who work in the media. They are LGBTQI+ but they were under pressure. We had a friend — unfortunately she died a little over a year ago — but she was a really brilliant journalist and she had tried to write about LGBTQI+ people and she was bullied by her coworkers, by other journalists, by editors. They would say “Oh, you are that you are that lesbian, that’s why you write about LGBT people.” It was very uncommon to read something neutral or something positive about LGBT people in mass media when we launched. Now, all the liberal media resources have articles about LGBT people. Mostly it’s basic things like “What is LGBT?” and “What does it mean to have rights?”, but now they have it. Before they did not, even in this liberal media, there was nothing.
D: I support Anatoly in saying that it’s our impact, that we shifted the theme from LGBT people are freaks to it being a human rights issue. Now, you can read in our media a lot about LGBT in the key of human rights issues, not as something freaky. Another big change is that in Kazakh-speaking media, the LGBT theme appeared in the correct way. These journalists began to ask us for an expert opinion and we gave our views, so now you can find LGBT articles also in Kazakh-speaking media.
And due to historical reasons, because the Kazakh language and the Kazakh-speaking people were oppressed, the Kazakh-speaking media were always kind of bastions of conservatism and traditionalism. Now the situation is changing — young and open minded people are creating LGBT friendly content in Kazakh. You need just open Tik Tok and see what young people do, what questions they bring up, how they behave, what do they say. These videos are my own hope, my light in the dark sky, because we see that this new generation is much more healthy, and I do believe that it’s the result of all our work, of all the LGBT initiatives in Kazakhstan. The flower can’t blossom without soil, and I think our project provides this kind of ground. Again, not a very modest statement!
Can you tell me more about how your organization operates?
D: Right now, there are just two people in our organization, me and Anatoly, and we manage the whole project. We work as volunteers 100% of the time. We don’t receive any grants or money for our work. Time to time, we have tried to ask for some grants, but we always receive a negative answer.
We do have Patreon where we collect money for our programmer who works with our website, and for translators who translate texts into Kazakh. The money we collect goes towards operation expenses — everything goes toward the business.
A: When we started, the team was bigger, but later people, due to different reasons, stopped working. It happens; there was nothing bad, just some people said they couldn’t do it anymore. So the team was a bit bigger, about five people at the beginning, and now it is just us.
How can readers support you?
D: We always say reading or sharing, if we talk about a Kazakhstani audience. This financial aid is also important because it helps us make more things — two people can do a lot but three people can do more.
A: For example, with this Kazkah translation, many times we were trying to ask people to translate and while some of them did it more or less regularly, people don’t want to work for free.
A: We can work for free, so I always think that there are more people who could.
D: But we can’t make them work for free.
A: When we started, we used our privilege, of course. At that time I had a really good job with a lot of money, so I could do the work for free completely, Dani had the same. We were really privileged, living in the normal part of the city, having friends. Not all of our friends had that privilege, so we can’t ask them to work for free. Now, when we have some money from Patreon, we can pay them.