After İsa: Azerbaijan and the LGBT Movement

Source: Orhun Gündüz, “İsa’dan Sonra: Azerbaycan ve LGBT Hareketi,” (“After İsa: Azerbaijan and the LGBT Movement,”) hü, 03 February 2014,

“I am going. This country, this world is not for me… I am going to become happy… Tell mom that I love her so much. You are all responsible for my death. This world is not strong enough to bear my colors. Farewell.”

These were the last words of İsa Şahmarlı, president of the “Azad LGBT” organization and LGBT activist. He committed suicide by hanging himself with a rainbow flag, at the age of 20… He had an innocent wish: “I hope that I will one day see LGBT flags in the Baku sky. What I really want to see is a gay couple walking freely in Baku.”

They could not bear his colors. His words tell us much more about the mood that pushed him to suicide. His suicide is one in which the murderer is obvious; it was actually a murder. No matter what, LGBT people continue to resist homophobic oppression and violence and to follow the path of courageous representatives like İsa.

When it comes to LGBT rights and the LGBT movement in Azerbaijan, it is clear that not much is known. Unfortunately, unless  tragic and continuous incidents in the media happen, we do not deal with the problems of the “other.” Instead, we forget or ignore them. Same-sex relationships have been decriminalized in Azerbaijan since 2000 as a prerequisite for joining the Council of Europe and the age of consent is 16 for everyone. Gender reassignment surgeries are legal as well. We cannot know if İsa’s suicide will wake people up, raise awareness, and be a turning point but we can observe that a fledgling LGBT movement has been forming for a few years in Azerbaijan.

I interviewed “Nefes LGBT” NGO President Atilla Cavid Nabiyev about the situation of LGBT people in Azerbaijan, how the LGBT movement has been formed and its future.

Above all, your loss is our loss and my condolences to you. Would you like to share your feelings about it? Other than that of LGBT people, what was the reaction of society and media like?

Thank you for your wishes. The commemoration of İsa in Turkey pulled at our heartstrings.

About İsa, I can state that society thinks he deliberately committed suicide. However, my opinion differs on this point. There are many factors waiting to be revealed about his suicide. He could overcome society and his family’s reactions and overwhelm all phobias. So, it is really interesting that someone who supports LGBT rights and has struggled a lot in this way would commit suicide. Generally, this incident led to a huge stir within the LGBT movement and became a driving force. We can also say “the ones sleeping woke up.” In spite of their homophobic attitude, the media also wrote a lot about this. The cyber world was covered with hate speech. A lot of LGBT people were disappointed and that turned out to be an emergency for them. We are happy that after the incident we met many LGBT allies.

What are the problems of LGBT people in Azerbaijan? How are they subjected to discrimination? What is the perception of society and the state?

LGBT people in Azerbaijan face homophobia in two ways: Islamic and cultural values make LGBT people’s lives hard. At the same time, because of the lack of awareness in society, they actually do not know what they are afraid of. Society seems to have recognized this as a disease or a choice. No one wants to work with a “gay” or “transsexual” person, neither do they accept them as teachers to their children, nor want the officials in the bank or the other places to be homosexuals. This makes employment difficult. If you are an LGBT person, you have to live a dual life. As a result, society pushes people to sex work so that they can make their own money. No matter what, for society you are a prostitute.

Legislative bodies also tolerate homophobia. Current laws do not provide legal protection of LGBT people’s rights or create improved social situations for them. This is because the people who make the laws were also brought up with homophobic views. LGBT people are pushed to cooperate with the police by force and are subjected to rape. If they reject cooperation deals that provide financial advantages to the police, they are put in prison with the claim that they are dealing drugs.  Although Azerbaijan has been a Council of Europe member since 2001, no reform has been pushed in this area. Even in universities, homosexuality is accepted as a disease.

It seems that Isa will be a driving force for you… As “Nefes LGBT” non-governmental organization, how were you founded? Is it regarded as an official association or an initiative or is it an organization that does not have official recognition?

The first organization that dealt with LGBT people was founded six years ago. In spite of this, no development has been undertaken in the areas I mentioned. There is no draft legislation. No research has been conducted to show the difficulties LGBT people face; no short films have been made. We founded Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan in 2012 because we know the problems and we want to work to fight these problems. Because there are no LGBT politics in Azerbaijan, none of the LGBT organizations are officially recognized by the state. This includes Nefes LGBT. There are some institutions that deal with LGBT people but they are not official LGBT organizations. In our activities, we also face great problems. I am a target of threats everyday; a few months ago four people attacked me. If you commit yourself to LGBT rights, you cannot make use of other social services; for example, I have not been able to find a job for a few months because of this.

Sorry to hear this; in Turkey we also have serious problems with discrimination in employment. What does the fledgling LGBT movement in Azerbaijan need? As Nefes LGBT, what kind of activities do you carry out to contribute to the movement? Do you cooperate with other LGBT organizations in Azerbaijan?

There are a lot of deficiencies in the LGBT movement in Azerbaijan. One of them is the fear to come out. At the same time, most LGBT people do not know much. They may have sensed their homosexuality but because they do not know the biological and physiological aspects of it, they do not have much to express themselves. The other problem is that LGBT organizations cannot unite.

As Nefes, we have lots of plans. So far we have shared enlightening articles about LGBT people in our blogs. Apart from this, we conducted the “LGBT and the Business Environment” survey with our own funds. The objective of this survey is to shed light on the problems that gay and transsexual people face in the business environment. We will publish this survey in the following weeks.

We also started a project called “Research on the Rights for Education” together with the Global Alliance for LGBT Education. We planned to start an LGBT network in South Caucasia but we could not achieve any progress with regard to this.  We had meetings with ambassadors of eleven countries in Azerbaijan.

After the last incidents, we made a big attempt to celebrate 22 January as LGBT Pride Day. We are planning to initiate a big campaign about “Hate Crimes.” Azerbaijan will host the Council of Europe this May; so we are thinking about bringing LGBT issues to the European Parliament.

We are planning to create an LGBT portal in Azeri; there will also be a radio program and articles.

Moreover, we are thinking of a march. Many people think that homosexuality came from Europe in the 90s. To deconstruct these absurd thoughts, we will go to “Kobustan,” one of the oldest settlements in Azerbaijan and we will march with the slogan, “Our history is as old as Kobustan”

Nowadays, we are working on the campaign “Donate for LGBT Azerbaijan.” I wish everybody would join it.

Lastly, what are your personal opinions about the LGBT movement in Azerbaijan? What do you envisage?

We, for sure, are very hopeful. Now people know the LGBT movement even if they had not heard about it before now. This is the first achievement. LGBT people are also hopeful. However, I think that our power alone will not be sufficient to get united as one. We need support from LGBT organizations in Western European countries and Turkey.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you. We always felt that Turkey is on our side. Thanks for everything.

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