We climb the stairs to the top, twenty flights, ten floors, and when we get there a guy sitting in an armchair says “Why didn’t you use the lift?” I suppose no-one expects the lift to work in old Soviet-era apartment blocks. Nobody expects to be on the roof either, but a short flight of wooden steps and a vertical climb up a metal ladder later we are emerging onto a wide roof area and the whole of Almaty is below us in early evening sunlight.
A DJ is playing in one corner of the roof and a dressing-up rail is set up by some carpets laid out to cover its felted surface. The view is astounding, the second city of Kazakhstan in all of its leafy grid spreads as far as the mountains; and the sky is bright, wide and wondrous.
We are here for a wedding, but just as the venue is unconventional so will be the wedding. The principal participants, - the “cosmic brides” - are Ruthie and Masha, Ruthie a transgender artist and musician, Masha a musician and fellow-artist, and the ceremony will be led by their friend Katipa the White Goddess and Tolik as Priest-in-Chief. As a fellow-transgender artist I am invited as an “Extra-Terrestrial Matron of Honour” but I know that I have come for a party.
The pretext for the party is a celestial one, the Perseid meteor shower due to be seen in the skies tonight, but it is an occasion to bring together the LGBT community of Almaty and to celebrate in a safe space. Even as people are arriving bottles are being set out on a table. The rooftop is a basic space with a small brick services-room and a defunct-looking satellite-dish behind it. Curtains have been hung across the side of the space, and through these in due course will enter anyone who wants to be married tonight.
My photographer, Nico, and I feel immediately at home. I know Ruthie and Masha from E-Mail contact and their artistic projects under the name Creolex are one of the reasons I have come to Almaty. I will give a performance and workshop at the British Council for them and the local LGBT community while I am in town. Not long after our arrival they appear, Ruthie in a long red dress, Masha in black, and Katipa in her priestess’s robes. Tolik follows them, bearded, in art-jacket and traditional skirt. It’s while before the ceremony but the roof is already filling up with guests and they are taking advantage of the dressing-up rail to find suitably extravagant costume for the night. The DJ is playing flute obligato to a cool jazz track, and food is being unpacked.
I keep being drawn to the view as a sunset slowly forms – this is right in the heart of the city but secluded and private and fun, and safe. Same-sex activity is legal in Kazakhstan and there is a limited right to change your gender designation on identity documents but the country is not a liberal place and it is generally safer to be “in” than “out”, even in a city that was until recently the country’s capital. That’s why this rooftop gathering is so important. It’s not the first party that has been held this year and Ruthie and Masha have been living together for a long time, but there’s a generosity about holding a marriage ceremony where your LGBT friends can gather and celebrate themselves which suggests that whatever oppression is felt the scene in Almaty has a healthy resilience about it.
The fun has already begun, even before the wedding. A big sheet is unfurled and people dance under it and stick their heads through holes. It’s all wonderfully playful. The ceremony itself is both parody and suitably and seriously pagan. Ruthie and Masha enter through the curtains to a classical fanfare, and others, following, take their moment to dramatize their commitment to each other herself whilst a young woman commits to marrying herself. Katipa then wields a shamanistic drum and after a ceremonial slicing of an onion its rings are exchanged as marital tokens. The proceedings are in the Kazakh language, and after a ritual “scarification” of the happy couple Ruthie makes a concluding speech. All of this is carried out in the spirit of the Perseids, “a Cosmic Queer Insemination is a rite of passage that leads its participants toward non-binary pluriverse of manifold genders, sexualities and marriages that populate our lovely home”, and according to the “holy book”, a script created by Creolex for the occasion. The crowd love every moment and are ready now to party the night away.
The sunset is majestic and gives the whole warm summer night an epic dimension. I wander amongst the crowd talking to the other guests. Many seem to come from the young new professional cohort of journalists, web-designers, copywriters, art-directors, and their style is quite miscellaneous, from tall rastas to petite party-animals, all ready to let their inhibitions fall away and engage in more flaunting of fabric and party-games with joke sex-toys. This is playtime for the LGBT community and they are determined to enjoy the sense of togetherness for as long as it lasts. The dark is now sewn through with the lights of the city far and near. On the street below life is carrying on with traffic, street-corner conversations and late shopping but up here the night is taking on a distinctly Kazakh style. There are Kazakh tunes from the DJ, Kazakh dancing, toasts are drunk and the guests line up for a group-photograph to express their solidarity.
It is 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed and Kazakhstan, together with the other Soviet Republics, found itself hurried to an Independence for which they were all unready, economically, politically and psychologically. Times have been hard and uncertain but there is a sense now that among some sections of the population “independence” is being chosen not imposed. Now everyone is asserting their nationality and the chosen identity is a version of Kazakh. Once the Kazakhs were nomads but the Soviets ended that with forced settlement and heavy agricultural cultivation. Kazakhstan was anyway a spirit not a nation but now that it is finding its feet as a nation the spirit is returning, at least among the young culturally-conscious who have good reasons for wanting an alternative to the Soviet legacy of conformism. People say to me,-
“Russia is Big Brother – we want to be in Europe.”
“There’s a lot of homophobia out there.”
“This is where we meet.”
“I want to go to London - I like fog.”
“I am Kazakh, not Russian.”
“We are an army out there.”
There are certainly a lot of people out there in Almaty and beyond who would identify as LGBT if they felt that public attitudes were sympathetic. For now these parties are one way of strengthening the community and encouraging solidarity. The guests are all linked by social media – lots of photographs have been taken, and a Go-Pro camera has been following proceedings. It’s a beginning which, if Central Asia generally can seize its moment for independent thought and attitudes, could become a movement. Only time will tell.
Late-comers are arriving, and the party will continue into the early hours. Despite the spectacular sky it has been hazy and the Perseids are nowhere to be seen, but, as I say when I am invited to make a short speech, the stars may be hidden but we all know how to shine.