Tatar language activist who identifies as queer: ‘Under the influence of the modern Russian state, Central Asian politicians are trying to implement similar anti-gay policies’

screenshot from Instagram of Marsel Ganeyev Used with permission.

Screenshot from Marsel Ganeyev's Instagram account. Used with permission.

Many people in Central Asia of the post-Soviet republics are talking about ways to de-Sovietize and decolonize  their respective countries and understand their identities.

Global Voices spoke with Tatar language activist Marsel Ganeyev from Kazakhstan, who also identifies as queer. Marsel is a Ph.D. student in Medical Science currently living in Europe. His aim is to “help minorities reconnect to their roots and  overcome the emotional trauma.” Because Marsel is representative of both an ethnic minority in Kazakhstan and neighboring Russia, as well as sexual minority, his views combine both experiences.

Kazakhstan is known for being multinational, with many more ethnicities than the titular Kazakh nation, such as those from neighboring countries but also Jewish and German communities deported there in Soviet times, and, not the least, the Turkic national minorities .

Marsel was born in Kazakhstan but identifies as Tatar, an ethnic minority in Kazakhstan and the neighbouring Russian Federation, which, however, has its own federal republic, Tatarstan, that, because of the nature of Russian regime, does not have much independence from the federal government.

Marsel Ganeyev

Marsel Ganeyev. Text reads: (top) The language as an instrument of protest. (Middle) How Moscow kills the languages of Russia with the example of Tatar. (Bottom) How can the languages of Russia help against war? Screenshot from his Instagram account. Used with permission.

Elmira Lyapina (EL): Marsel, can you tell us about your activism?

Marsel Ganeyev (MG): I have been actively involved in activism for the past four years, since I started learning Tatar. I mostly did social media activism, initiated a Kazakh queer documentary project “Qara Magan,” started a podcast Tatar Identity, and in general motivated hundreds of people to start learning Tatar or their ethnic languages. Moreover, I am running a Telegram group, where we are sharing Tatar learning sources, and organizing speaking clubs.

EL: What do you mean by “queer language activism”?

MG: It describes the different sides of my identity, as I am a Russian Tatar queer, born and raised in Kentau, a small town in South Kazakhstan. Both sides of my activism “queer” and “language” appear equally important to me. They are very much interconnected as queer people are facing very similar problems as those people whose language is endangered or marginalized in any sense.

EL: What is a “queer language”? Is it a specific language development related to the queer community?

MG: Yes, that’s a topic of my interest. I am trying to define “queer language” within our space. In general, this language is represented by the means that queer Central Asians use to define themselves and communicate to the outside world, for example, specific terminology, language selection, folklore, art, dance etc.

EL: What are the challenges for the queer movement in Kazakhstan? Does it have other minority language activists, as you?

MG: The contemporary queer movement in Kazakhstan faces the challenging task of addressing our country's [Soviet] colonial history, which significantly influences the development of queer language. As we navigate this evolving landscape, we not only learn to articulate our own Central Asian queer identities but also how to engage with a world where homophobia often intersects with colonial narratives. Our journey involves both self-discovery and a commitment to challenging the deeply ingrained prejudices that persist.

In Kazakhstan, there are other queer people who are minority language activists; however, their major focus is language itself. For the Tatar queer activism, I am supported by my friends and a group of people who help me with my work. The Tatar-speaking queer community is not as big but we all know each other and try to collaborate and share.

EL: You speak publicly in European states on historical (and politically sensitive) topics, such as decolonization, while talking about the influence of Russia on post-Soviet republics. Is there any particular queer perspective in relation to this?

MG: These topics are directly related to my queer language activism. As in the case of Kazakh, we are still dealing with the consequences of Soviet Russification politics. On the other hand, if Kazakhstan is an independent state, implementing its own policies with Kazakh being the only state language, Tatar has been losing its position within Tatarstan,  since Putin came to power.

With the queer side of it, a lot of things that we are dealing with today are the consequences of Soviet anti-gay policies. Moreover, being under the influence of the modern Russian state, Central Asian politicians are trying to use the same narratives and implement similar anti-gay policies. As we go through the decolonial practices, it also helps us to go beyond the frames that heteronormative society is projecting on us.

EL: Do you mean the queer community deals not only with the colonial past contribution but also with Russian influence on Kazakhstan discourse?

MG: Yes, unfortunately, the population of our country is still influenced by contemporary Russian propaganda. For example, in 2017, Kazakhstan implemented an anti-gay propaganda law, similar to Russia, but it was withdrawn later that year due to complaints from local activists to the European Human Rights Commission. Also, this year Kyrgyzstan introduced a similar policy.

EL: Regarding the “anti-gay policy,” don’t you think that religious views in this region might have more influence than (post)Soviet narratives? 

MG: In the case of Tatars, religion always played a significant role in sustaining culture and language. Even though there is a Christian minority of Tatars, it is difficult to imagine Tatar culture without Islam. Whenever you get into Tatar literature, folklore and customs, religion is deeply embedded in it. However, the most homophobia [that is visible in Tatarstan in Russia] is a consequence of the Russian anti-gay propaganda. There are, in my opinion, not as many people advocating for “killing gays” because of Islam. I think that most Muslims tend to be very understanding of one’s choice. Moreover, many queer Tatars and Kazakhs consider themselves Muslim and do not find it conflicting; for example, you can listen to one of the episodes of my podcast with a Tatar drag queen Selena.

When talking about transgender people, the Tatar- and Kazakh-speaking population has less vocabulary to offend them as there is no need to use gendered pronouns.

Although some queers from Muslim families do experience homophobia based on Islam, in my opinion, it is not a general discourse that is being used by the government and media. Personally, I come from one of the most religious Muslim regions in Kazakhstan, a Sufi center, Turkistan, and I never experienced religious homophobia myself, it was mostly phrased by “пацанские понятия” [lad's concepts. In essence, these are prison language and concepts transformed for everyday life, formed in the Gulag system in the 1930s.] There is a nice book on that topic by Dan Healey  “Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi.”

[Ed: The opinion stated is solely an individual experience, and there are documented experiences of  other queer people in Central Asian countries or Muslim regions of Russia who have experienced homophobia and violence.]

EL: You both speak publicly and run podcasts. Who are your listeners? And what is their common reaction?

MG: My audience is extremely diverse, mostly  Central Asians, non-Russian people of Russia, Russian speakers who find the topics of imperialism important, and the general queer public. There are also many Europeans, as the topics I am touching are getting more attention in the EU since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

When I do my public talks, the interested audience in Europe is mostly immigrants and people involved in arts and academia.

Even though I am running my podcast “Modern Tatar identity” in Tatar, English, and Russian, I prioritize Tatar, and, among the first seven guests, five were speaking Tatar, and four out of five had Tatar as their second or third language, and consciously learned it in the adulthood. The listeners are mostly Tatar speakers from all over the world, covering all continents, with the highest number in Germany.

Usually, people are quite supportive. If they are people of Russian origin, they tend to get very defensive, refusing the concepts of colonialism being applied to Russia.

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