From <em>Kyzteke</em> to <em>Kumsa</em>: Queer identity in the Kyrgyz language
Life & Language: the Dictionary of the Queer International (2/4)

From Kyzteke to Kumsa: Queer identity in the Kyrgyz language

Tracing the linguistic roots of queer Kyrgyz words, Temir Kalbaev describes their evolution in media and academia from pejorative slur to human rights activism.

Kyrgyzstan is a post-Soviet, central Asian nation with prior connections to central Asian kingdoms such as Kokon and Khiva, which are current territories of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Kyrgyz people have historical and cultural ties with other nations in the region, including the Russian Federation, as a result of expansionist policies of the 19th century Russian Empire and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. The culture, beliefs, and traditions of the Kyrgyz people have been shaped by the influence of these neighbours. Diverse identities have developed within that complex and tumultuous historical context.

People with non-conforming gender and sexuality were largely invisible in this cultural landscape, giving rise to traditionalists’ argument that “Kyrgyz people have never been gay.” However, there are certain terms undoubtedly related to queer people in the Kyrgyz dictionary. In this article, I discuss the histories and contemporary use of three of these terms, in part via academic research, as well as in media and public perception of queer identities.

Kyzteke or kyz teke

The term kyzteke or kyz teke is widespread in Kyrgyz and Kazakh languages. As a collocation of kyz (meaning “girl”) and teke (meaning “male goat”) it is an offensive term mainly directed toward feminine men who are assumed to be gay or transgender. However, the usage of kyzteke has become more nuanced and there is no public consensus on its definition.

A trans woman is held up to an empty mirror frame by three men in suits. In the "reflection" is a goat.

Kumsa

Modern media outlets started using kumsa approximately 8 years ago mainly referring to gay men.[1] It is noteworthy that the word was mentioned in the Dictionary of Kyrgyz Language published in 2019 by the State Commission on National Language under the President’s Office of the Kyrgyz Republic. The word is given as a synonym to kyzteke[2] in the work.

Academic sources prior to the Dictionary of Kyrgyz Language—such as the Kyrgyz-Russian Dictionary of Yudakhin[3]—describe kyzteke as referring to “hermaphroditic” or intersex people. Therefore, the word kumsa, as synonym of kyzteke now automatically means “intersex,” leaving no specific word that includes gay men and transgender women in the national dictionaries. Lesbians are not mentioned in any of the sources.

Azhy kyz or azhykyz

While azhy kyz is also given as a synonym of kyzteke in dictionaries[4] and used for this purpose in the south of Kyrgyzstan, people in the north use it to describe a talkative person who speaks of irrelevant topics. Yudakhin’s Kyrgyz-Russian dictionary suggests it may have come from the Uyghur language.

Academic Research & Misconceptions

The prominent academic resource from which I draw much of this linguistic analysis is the Kyrgyz-Russian Dictionary of Yudakhin.[5] I also consulted the Kyrgyz Orthographic Dictionary by Karasaev[6] and other contemporary works such as Aldashev’s Russian-Kyrgyz Dictionary of Biological Terms and Names of Animals[7] (1998), which applies kyzteke to animals and other organisms: “Kyztekelik or hermaphroditism; the presence of two sexes in the same organism; these are found in a more systematic category of animals.” In this work, the term is discussed from anatomical, biological, and morphological perspectives.

There is sufficient academic evidence that kyzteke is first and foremost about intersex people, animals, and plants. This is logical even in terms of the word structure; the term is a direct combination of pejorative words for the male and female sexes. However, the terms’ usage has expanded in public discourse to encompass a broader range of queer sexuality, mostly due to pejorative usage in the media and by opinion-makers, such as religious leaders.

Religious sources refer to kyzteke as intersex people as well; however, as for its definition, they perceive bachabazdyk, kumsa, and kyzteke as synonyms.[8] Bachabazdyk (most commonly, Bachabazi) is a slang word derived from Farsi, referring to “boy lover.” It refers to a marginal Afghan tradition in which adolescent boys are involved in entertainment for adult men, which includes crossdressing, dancing, and engagement in sexual intercourse. On the local level, this concept aggravates negative public attitudes, conflating homosexuality and pedophilia.

Traditional media sources often refer to kyzteke in their discourse while covering queer topics; this adds to the misunderstandings of gender identities and sexual orientations of queer people.

New trends toward queer rights

While kyzteke, and less commonly, azhykyz, are considered offensive, kumsa has neutral connotations and is used by progressive media outlets as well as the anti-gay movement. At the same time, there is no reliable etymological source for this term. However, due to the predominance of the patriarchal order in society, the term only covers gay men. There is no single word (or evidence in historical linguistic sources) referring to lesbian or queer women in the Kyrgyz language.

As for usage, the English terms “gay” and “LGBT” are predominant among both Kyrgyz and Russian speakers, while offensive Russian words such as pidoras, pidor, and pedik are widespread in informal, queer-phobic conversations. However, the narrative in the public dialogue is slowly shifting towards kumsa, particularly in Kyrgyz-speaking media and communities, sparking a new trend in positive attitudes towards queer people. This trend is perceived as an advantage for queer communities to advocate for human rights, since it serves as evidence for the existence of queer people in the past and, thus, defends against accusations of Western influence. 


Endnotes

[1] “Muftiyat issues a fetva against gays (kumsa),” Azattyk Media, 2014. Accessed October 27, 2021 at https://www.azattyk.org/a/muslims_sexual_orentation_fatwa_jan14/25248030.html

[2] Kyrgyz State Commission for National Language (2019), Dictionary of Kyrgyz Language, Ch. 2, p. 94.

[3] Yudakhin, Konstantin (1985), Kyrgyz-Russian Dictionary, Vol 1, p. 476.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Karasaev, Khusein (2015), Kyrgyz Orthographic Dictionary, 2nd Edition, p. 313.

[7] Aldashev, Almaz (1998), Russian-Kyrgyz Dictionary of Biological Terms and Names of Animals.

[8] Narmatov, Abdyshukur; a religious leader.


The Dictionary of the Queer International is available now from Publication Studio.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Temir Kalbaev is a media expert, researcher, and activist based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He is an author and co-author of several queer community publications.

Illustrated by

Hagra is an artist living in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. He was born in 1992 almost immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hagra is a transgender person and a pansexual, so naturally the study of gender and sexuality and their place in post-Soviet culture has become the main focus of his art.

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