LGBTQI+ champions in South and Central Asia

Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy in front of background labeled 'Time 100' (© Taylor Hill/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
Arundhati Katju (left) and Menaka Guruswamy attend Time magazine's Time 100 gala in New York City in 2019, honored for winning a landmark LGBTQI+ rights case in India. (© Taylor Hill/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

Meet four activists who advocate for the LGBTQI+ community and fight gender discrimination in South and Central Asia.

Through art, litigation and public service, they build awareness of the need to defend universal human rights.

India: Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju

Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju are two attorneys who campaigned to end India’s law against same-sex conduct.

In 2016, the attorneys filed a petition on behalf of five LGBTQI+ community members. Two years later, the 157-year-old law criminalizing their relationships was overturned, a major gain for members of India’s LGBTQI+ community.

Before the decision, violators faced prison terms of 10 years to life.

In 2015 the pair won a legal judgment in favor of a transgender man who was confined by his parents. Now Guruswamy and Katju are advocating to legalize same-sex marriage in the nation.

“Litigation, for me, gives me hope,” Katju said. “I can change something in a practical, tangible way.”

The pair were included among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people for 2019.

Kyrgyzstan: Diana Arseneva

Diana Arseneva is the executive director and art project coordinator with Labrys in Kyrgyzstan, a nongovernmental organization that documents cases of discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community, engages in local and international advocacy and provides support to LGBTQI+ communities in that country.

Diana Arsenyeva sitting in front of blackboard decorated with line drawings of people and word 'Labrys' (Courtesy of Labrys)
Diana Arsenyeva, from the LGBTQI+ organization Labrys, uses art to raise awareness of LGBTQI+ issues. (Courtesy of Labrys)

In 2020, with support from Georgian platform Artif, Arseneva teamed up with Maksim Finogeev, a Ukrainian artist, to create the Mountain of Grief LGBTQI+ memorial walk near Bishkek, the country’s capital. The memorial recounts episodes of violence that community members experienced. The route, now permanent, is designed to generate empathy and prevent violence against LGBTQI+ persons.

“Through art projects we create a space where people can reflect and decide for themselves that hate is not about real people, but about political propaganda and the culture of hate,” Arseneva said.

Art provides an opportunity to address sensitive topics that people might be hesitant to discuss in direct conversation.

“Communication through art is often the safest way for the LGBTQI+ community in Kyrgyzstan to express themselves, because it avoids personal data and maintains anonymity,” Arseneva said. “A large number of people can express themselves and communicate their needs, pain and their reality without fear of being persecuted.”

Nepal: Bhumika Shrestha

Transgender activist Bhumika Shrestha has advocated for gender minorities’ rights and social justice in Nepal since 2007 and helped lead the movement for gender minority recognition, as Nepal faced enormous political upheaval and rebirth.

Thanks in part to Shrestha’s activism, in 2007, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled that individuals could be identified as a third gender on citizenship documents. In the spring of 2021, she successfully changed the legal gender marker on her citizenship documentation from “other” to female.

For her efforts she was named among the State Department’s 2022 International Women of Courage Awardees.

Among those congratulating Shrestha: the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, Randy Berry, who became the first U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI+ Persons in 2015. The position was the first of its kind for the U.S. government and any government worldwide.