New East Digital Archive

‘Sexuality is not something one determines once in a lifetime:’ meet the artist celebrating queer love in Kazakhstan

30 August 2021

Imagine living in a country where your love is forbidden. Where you aren’t allowed to marry, or at least kiss your loved one in the street without inviting discrimination. Where you’re banned from adopting and your relationship is recognised as a “personality disorder”, inhibiting your chances of employment or housing. Where your family could send you to conversion therapy, to change your sexual orientation or gender identity.

For a lot of LGBTQ+ people in Kazakhstan, this is still a devastating reality. Living in a society where your wellbeing is at risk takes courage and vulnerability — Irina Dmitrovskaya’s photo project Don’t Look at Pink is an exploration in believing in and becoming your true self.

The portraits — consisting of close-ups and staged evocative scenes — capture intimacy, isolation, connection, touch. It shows queer love as equal to any other intimacy: there’s physical closeness, moments of arousal, love, and playfulness.

Dmitrovskaya’s project was inspired by her own experience of love and being queer in Kazakhstan which, she says, often comes with a feeling of being always watched. “In the country I live in, being queer is referred to as immoral and unacceptable. At best, you’re advised not to disclose who you are.” She started a journey of self-acceptance by taking pictures of herself and her partner in a domestic setting.

Here, Irina Dmitrovskaya tells us about the radical possibilities of queer art amidst conservatism, the freedom and challenges of self-expression, and the hopeful future of Kazakhstan’s LGBTQ+ community.

I was born in 1988. Same-sex relationships were legalised in Kazakhstan ten years later. I’ve always thought about how the first ten years of my life, my very existence, was illegal. It’s absurd. I grew up in a completely heteronormative society, surrounded by images of heterosexual relationships, whether that was in books, films, cartoons, or the people I met. I was deprived of information.

Since my early childhood I couldn’t quite understand what was different about me. I was a quiet and closed off child, living with anxiety. It was an unpleasant and damaging experience. It got better as I got older. At university, I finally met people I could openly discuss sexuality with. Then I fell in love for the first time — of course with a woman — and realised that what I was suppressing all this time was my queerness.

This project has been an important step for me. Openness comes with risk but inevitably it liberates you and makes you stronger. Working on this series connected me to my inner power — vulnerability. I know perfectly well the dangers of hiding yourself, of staying in the closet, because I’ve been through it myself. I also know that another person’s bravery might be enough to help you believe in yourself.

I’ve come to the realisation that sexuality is not something one determines once in a lifetime. Sexuality is fluid, fluctuating, and variable. If there is enough freedom and curiosity, it is an adventure for life. Queerness is largely about acceptance: being alike and being different, being able to grow. Change is what underpins life, friendship, and sexual experience.

The reality of being queer in Kazakhstan is challenging. You have to prove your relationship is not a mental disorder, a mistake, game, or propaganda — but simply love. Being queer here means being in danger. It’s facing down hatred solely motivated by who you are. It’s never being able to marry or have a child.

We have a range of LGBTQ+ initiatives that I’m proud of, like and feminita. Their work is important for connecting the community and for creating a safer environment more generally. The LGBTQ+ community in Kazakhstan is still growing, and therefore not fully developed. But I think we’re moving towards an era of more mutual support and unity.

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