Monday, September 11, 2017

Interview with Botagoz Omarova

Это интервью с журналистом Ботагоз Омарова было записано в Караганде 11-го августа 2017 незадолго до моего отъезда из Казахстана и между вторым и третьим отказами в выдаче студентческой визы Султане Кали.  Интервью включает размышления насчёт отказов и тоже на такие темы как запрет трансгендерным людям служить в армии, опубликован Президентом Трумпом в июле.

Часть первая:

Часть вторая:

Часть третья:

Часть четвёртая:

Friday, September 8, 2017

My Declaration

I sit on the deck of a 33-year-old freight ferry, somewhere on the Caspian.  Kazakhstan lies far behind me.  Azerbaijan is already visible, but we seem stuck in the water, moving neither forward or back.  Who knows when we will actually reach Baku.

Our ferry may be stuck, but I am not.  This is my declaration that I will fight and will not forget:

The triple denial of an F-1 student visa to Sultana Kali is rooted in transphobia and discriminatory views of LGBTQI persons in Kazakhstan.

Why do I believe this, and why will I fight a system that has the means to crush me?  For that, see my Letter to a Senior Colleague.  The evidence speaking most loudly that the denials are rooted in transphobia is this:
Of sixteen students accepted by Lane Community College since 2010 -- four of them this year -- Sultana is the first to be denied a visa by Consular officers in Astana and Almaty.
Read those words again and let them sink in.  In what way did Sultana differ from other Kazakhstani students accepted by Lane?  Were Sultana's finances that much different from those of 15 others?  Were her ties to Kazakhstan that much weaker?  I don't think so.  It will take strong documentary evidence in the form of a spreadsheet comparing these characteristics for all Lane students to convince me that Sultana differs significantly.  I only know of two ways in which Sultana stands out from others:  1) She is tall, and 2) She is transgender.  I put my money on the second as being the characteristic that led Consuls to refuse her visa on the grounds that she is an intending immigrant, the catch-all category of refusal that is used by Consuls when an applicant does not meet their criteria, a catch-all that in the end can mean almost anything.  As anyone who knows Sultana can assure you – as I can assure you -- an intending immigrant is one thing Sultana most definitely is not.  Her life now and in the future is firmly rooted in Kazakhstan.

We've lost our battle with Consular in the sense that Sultana is not going to the US to start college this month.  Her life is on hold for yet another year, denied education in Kazakhstan and now, thanks to Consular, in the US.  My country is now complicit with Kazakhstan in what I consider to be a human rights violation.

I wanted to resign after the first visa denial.  Early retirement still beckons as an island of rest, but  several colleagues prevailed on me to stay in the Foreign Service.   And so here I still am.  I hope, however, that those same colleagues understand that behind my smile, I am a fighter and will use every means available to this pen even if the odds against victory are huge.  I will wield this pen within the U.S. State Department and in public, the personal consequences to me be damned.  

The engines of this ancient ferry have started again.  Soon I will be disembarking in Azerbaijan on a circuitous journey to the US.  Behind me lingers the image of Sultana at the seaport in Aktau.  The  physical and emotional feelings of that final hug remain.  For Sultana, her family, all in Kazakhstan's LGBTQI community, all dear friends in Kazakhstan, and for my own heart and soul, I will not walk away from this fight.  To all who have stayed behind in Kazakhstan, I assure you our parting is only temporary.  We will be together again.  I will be back.

Letter to a Respected Senior Colleague

You recently wrote that
For the record:  I have seen no evidence of transphobia or LGBT phobia -- or any other forms of discrimination -- in our consular sections.
Dear Colleague, despite my great respect for you and other colleagues in our Mission, I beg to disagree.  The triple refusal of an F-1 student visa to Ms. Sultana Kali is discriminatory.  I say that even if our Consular colleagues had no realization that they judged Ms. Kali through the rose colored glasses of transphobia when adjudicating her visa application.

Put yourself in my skin for a moment.  As a transgender woman, I know that had I transitioned ten years ago instead of seven, the odds are very high that you would not know me today.  It was common, perhaps standard, for transgender persons to be removed from federal service as recently as 2008.  Even today, there are parts of the US where I fear for my safety.  I mean that in the literal, physical sense should my transgender history become known.  Some states have or are adopting bathroom bills telling me which restrooms I may use and which I may not.   Others are considering laws allowing businesses and even public servants to deny me and my gay brothers and sisters service on religious grounds.  Are such laws adopted, supposedly democratically, by state legislatures discriminatory?  

Whether you feel it or not, dear Colleague, you have white male cisgender privilege.  I, too, have white privilege and can only begin to sense the even greater fear that my black transgender sisters live in as they walk the streets of any U.S. city.  Still, can you begin to grasp my fear and their greater fear?  I say this as someone who used to have male privilege and knows what it is to have given it up.  If I had transitioned ten years ago instead of seven, would you have stood up for me?  Even seven years ago there were some who wanted me drummed out of the Foreign Service.  From what I know of you, I like to think you would have stood by my side.

And now President Trump is pushing policies to bar transgender persons from serving in the military.  Will you stand with me if he next turns his eyes on transgender persons in the Foreign Service?

Now take a further step with me and see if you can put yourself in the skin of a transgender person in Kazakhstan.  I assure you, dear Colleague, conditions for transgender men and women in Kazakhstan harken back to conditions in the US fifty years ago.  Transgender persons are denied education and employment.  I don't mean that as in sometimes.  I mean it as in always.   Schools and universities expel anyone whose sex as specified in identity documents differs from gender identity and presentation.  Employers will not hire transgender persons for the same reason.  An entire class of people is denied both education and employment in Kazakhstan.  Did you know that?

Young people who come out as transgender in Kazakhstan suffer emotional and sometimes physical abuse from their families.  One young woman was chained to a radiator by her parents for days before friends managed to distract the family and rescue her.  Sex work is the only work available to most young transgender women who are rejected by their families.  Many of these young women are further victimized by sex rings and human traffickers.  Some whom I have met personally are savvy street operators who might seem coarse to you, but they have my understanding and sympathy.  Do they have yours?  They have no other choice if they choose to remain alive.

Ms. Kali is one in a thousand:  a 19-year-old transgender woman and feminist who enjoys the support of her family and who has turned herself at age nineteen into an activist leader recognized throughout the LGBTQI community in Kazakhstan.  She, too, was forced out of her school before receiving a diploma, and she has been fired from every job she has tried to hold as soon as her transgender history became known.  QSI and Miras International schools in Astana will not have her, and neither will Nazarbayev University.  None will admit to transphobia or discrimination against LGBTQI persons.  All allude instead to administrative problems or the poor quality of Kazakhstani schools when they turn Ms. Kali away, but those of us who lack white male cisgender privilege know that these are just excuses.  I have run into such excuses again and again in my own life.  Take the excuses away, and you are left with transphobia in its pure, unmasked form. 

The effort to enroll Ms. Kali in a U.S. school where she can earn a BA degree has been an effort lasting nearly one and a half years.  Through crowd funding, Ms. Kali collected donations from around the world, including many significant donations from Foreign Service Officers and LGBTQI leaders in the US and Europe.  Her essay on how she wants to change life for transgender persons in Kazakhstan won her a scholarship from Lane Community College that recruited Ms. Kali for what they saw in her:  an intelligent young woman who will go far even if denied a high school diploma in Kazakhstan.

When Ms. Kali was first denied a visa in on the grounds that her funds were insufficient to cover four years of undergraduate education, I stepped in personally by filing an I-134 Attestation of Support that commits me to making up the difference and guaranteeing that Ms. Kali will never need public assistance.  When the office of Congressman Peter DeFazio informed us that the interviewing Consul had wanted to see letters offering employment upon completion of the BA, we found two who immediately stepped up and offered such letters.  An American sociologist at Nazarbayev University wrote a letter offering career guidance and help getting Ms. Kali established in UN organizations such as UN Women.

None of this made a difference when Ms. Kali went for her second visa interview in July.  In fact, the additional documentation was not even reviewed.  The interview was over in 3-4 minutes with the same result as the first time:  214b refusal on the grounds that Ms. Kali had not proven that she is not an intending immigrant.  The result was the same at her third interview in August despite inquiries from Senators Baldwin, Cardin, and Collins that were instigated at the request of multiple supporters of Ms. Kali's cause in the US.

Dear Colleague, the interpretation of law is in the hands of those who apply it.  In the Jim Crow South, poll taxes and similar measures were used to deny black Southerners the right to vote.  Those applying the laws and denying voting rights would have claimed they were just upholding the law.  Were those laws discriminatory?  I think you would agree that they were.  Might there not have been some public servants who, when applying those laws, personally disagreed with them?  Might there not have been one or two among hundreds who chose to be more liberal in their interpretation and who extended to our black brothers and sisters the right to vote?  What would you have done?  What would I have done?  Don't we both wish and hope that we would have been on the right side of justice?  Or would we have just said we were following the law and doing our jobs?

The same applies here.  Determination of who is an intending immigrant lies in the hands of individual Consuls.  Perhaps income, bank accounts, property holdings, marital status, and children are good indicators of ties to one's country for the majority cisgender population.  I remember using those criteria myself when I did my own Consular tour a dozen years ago after a woefully insufficient six weeks of basic Consular training.  But do you see now that for transgender persons in Kazakhstan, not working, not having a degree, not owning property, and not being married is the norm?  In fact, they are the rule that has no exceptions.  Applying the criteria used for the majority cisgender population is tantamount to denying visas to all transgender Kazakhstanis.  Those criteria are, by definition in the context of Kazakhstan, transphobic.  

But could not a Consul see beyond income and bank holdings to consider the whole person standing at the visa window?  In Ms. Kali's case, couldn't her scholarship essay and multiple recommendation letters have served as substitutes to prove that she is not an intending immigrant?  As someone who has come to know Ms. Kali and her family intimately over the past year and a half, I can give you my personal assurance as a Foreign Service Officer that Ms. Kali is not an intending immigrant.  Her life and what she wishes to accomplish in it are in Kazakhstan.

You wrote:
For the record:  I have seen no evidence of transphobia or LGBT phobia – or any other forms of discrimination -- in our consular sections
Do you see now why I disagree with you and strenuously so?  By applying the criteria used for the majority cisgender population and denying a visa to Ms. Kali, the interviewing Consuls did discriminate against a transgender person.  Their decisions were based on criteria that are transphobic by definition.  Saying that the Consuls were simply applying the law does not make the result any less discriminatory or transphobic.

Dear Colleague, I call on you to take off the rose colored glasses of white cisgender male privilege.  I call on all of us at Mission Kazakhstan to remove our glasses of privilege whatever their shade.  We stand for human rights, and LGBT rights are human rights.  In denying a visa to Ms. Sultana Kali, our Consuls rendered a decision that is discriminatory and that supported discrimination against transgender persons in Kazakhstan.  Our standing as a beacon of hope has dimmed.  It is a sad day for Ms. Kali.  It is a sad day for the LGBTQI community in Kazakhstan that had looked to us for inspiration.  It is a sad day for all of us.

Robyn McCutcheon
(Former) Central Asia Regional Representative for Environment,
Science, Technology, and Health