Conquering Summits and Negative Stereotypes

After scaling Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, Dastan Kasmamytov unfurled a pride flag as he overlooked Russia -- a country known to codify homophobia in both social and legal spheres.

Kasmamytov is a gay man, an LGBTIQ activist and a mountaineer from Kyrgyzstan, a country in Central Asia. He breaks both physical and societal barriers through his activism; Kasmamytov founded Pink Summits in September 2018 to increase visibility of LGBTIQ Kyrzgzs through climbing mountains. 

“Pink Summits is a campaign that aims at [increasing] visibility of inspiring and positive LGBT+ stories around the world,” he said. “We are doing this by ascending the highest mountains on each continent as a queer mountaineer group. It is not only about waving the rainbow flag on those summits, but more about joint work to make...queer voices visible.”

Life for LGBTIQ people in Kyrgyzstan is tough. Although same-sex relations were decriminalized in Kyrgyzstan in 1998, no legal or policy provisions include explicit protections for LGBTIQ people, and societal attitudes towards the queer community are largely negative. A 2017 survey by Kyrgyz Indigo, a local LGBT advocacy group, found that 84% of LGBT Kyrgyzs had experienced physical violence and 35% experienced sexual violence. Moreover, efforts to pass a Russian-style anti-propaganda law have led to increasing hate crime against LGBTIQ people.

Kasmamytov said he was the first ethnically Kyrgyz person to publicly come out in his home country. The lack of representation of LGBTIQ folks in Kyrgyzstan – much less representation of a positive nature – fueled Kasmamytov’s desire to show queer people in a positive light through his mountaineering endeavors. Pink Summits will also help show the public that LGBTIQ-identified people are more than just their sexual orientation or gender identity. As a gay man, a mountaineer and a proud Kyrgyz, Kasmamytov illustrates the depth of his intersecting identities. 

“If I am successful with all summits, I will be the first ethnically Kyrgyz man who was on Everest and completed all Seven Summits. This first Kyrgyz man will happen to be openly gay,” he said. “This is probably not a big deal for Western societies, but for [the] Kyrgyzstan and Russian-speaking regions, this will explode, bringing up much needed coverage of queer people doing epic stuff.”

By climbing mountains and visibly advocating for the rights of LGBTIQ people, Kasmamytov simultaneously conquers summits and negative stereotypes. Mountaineering and activism became important parts of Kasmamytov’s life around the same time. “Mountains were providing me a shelter, a safe [haven] from police and state, from violence and hate, from pain that I experienced because of my sexual orientation,” he said. “I always felt safer alone up there in the mountains rather than among people. Mountaineering also helped me to avoid activist burnout, to find a life balance and to care about myself.”

Pink Summits proved to be an outlet for Kasmamytov’s anxiety of being an LGBTIQ activist in Kyrgyzstan. “Climbing mountains is dangerous, but more dangerous is to be an LGBT+ activist,” he said. “I could find adrenaline, emotions, fear, despair, hope, and help in both my activism and mountaineering,” he said. 

Kasmamytov has been targeted by the police because of his visibility as a queer activist. He was detained on the border of Georgia and Russia by Russian intelligence services for several hours after posting photos with a pride flag from Mount Elbrus’ summit.

“This was a world of police state, overwhelming state control, xenophobia and homophobia,” he said. “After posting the pictures from Elbrus, I got a lot of hate speech again in social media from Russian-speaking people. This reminded me of days after my first public coming out in Kyrgyzstan when the unimaginable backlash happened. Even the semi-governmental religious authority issued a fatwa -- a religious law -- [the] next day after my coming out, stating that gay people should be stoned to the death.”

Despite the repercussions and risks he faced after his descent from Mount Elbrus, Kasmamytov said that he remembers that particular climb fondly, because Elbrus is close to Chechnya -- a region of Russia in which LGBTIQ people have experienced wide-spread persecution, detention and torture. 

“It was a special, indescribable moment of pride standing on the top of the summit and waving a rainbow flag in the most conservative part of Russia,” he said. “I [write] my blogs and social media also in Russian because I believe especially Russian-speaking spaces lack stories like ours. In fact, waving the rainbow flag and reporting about the campaign could have direct negative consequences for us: we would probably have suffered some fines under existing ‘propaganda law’ in Russia. However, those fines are nothing in comparison to a real danger of being beaten up or even of disappearing in one of [the] prisons in [Chechnya].”

Kasmamytov hopes that Pink Summits will help queer people in marginalized areas feel empowered regardless of their surroundings. The visibility of the Pink Summits missions will hopefully increase positive coverage of LGBTIQ individuals, and show that queer people are multifaceted and have a plethora of passions, interests and dreams. “Despite hate and violence that we experience...we do and we will continue to do great and inspiring things,” he said. “We all teach, heal the sick, create arts, nurture kids [and] build new businesses, despite that we are hated for being who we are.”

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