Azerbaijan gay life is an emerging scene. Surrounded by rugged wilderness of high mountains and immense seas the fledgling “gay life in Azerbaijan” is also surrounded by Islamic homophobia and traditional ‘family values’.
The balance between secular liberal tolerance and conservative religious rejection of sexual varieties is tipped toward the latter. But influences from the West–especially by potential EU membership with its human rights standards–have given courage and hope to many LGBT citizens for a brighter future. Homosexuality has been removed as a crime and a brave LGBT organization has appeared. (photo right: Azerbaijan coat of arms)
Located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, Azerbaijan has an ancient and historic cultural heritage. The country was among the birthplaces of mankind and is located at the heart of ancient civilizations.Furthermore the country is known to be among the most progressive and secular Islamic societies. Aside from having been the first Muslim country to have operas, theater plays, and a democratic republic, Azerbaijan today is among the Muslim countries where support for secularism and tolerance is the highest.
The Constitution of Azerbaijan does not declare an official religion but the majority of people adhere to the Shia branch of Islam, although Muslim identity tends to be based more on culture and ethnicity rather than religion and Azerbaijan remains as one of the most liberal majority-Muslim nations. After gaining its independence, Azerbaijan has reached a high level of human development, economic development, standard of living, and literacy as well as a low rate of unemployment and intentional homicide.
The year 2000 saw the abolishing of the Azerbaijani law forbidding homosexual interactions (gay sex). A special edition of Azerbaijan, the official newspaper of the Parliament, published on 28 May, reported that the Parliament had approved a new Criminal Code, and that the President had signed a decree bringing it into force in September. The text of the new Criminal Code was also published.
Thus the old Article 113 (inherited from the Soviet era, and which punished anal sex between men with three years imprisonment) has been replaced with a new Article 150, which bans only forcible sexual acts. (From Wikipedia)
Gay Life in a Straight Society
Although homosexual acts between consenting male adults were officially decriminalized, reports about police abuses against gays, mainly male prostitutes, persisted during the last year. While complaining of the violence against them, the victims preferred to remain anonymous fearing retaliation on the part of police.” (2001 Report of the International Helsinki Federation).
It has been observed that the state controlled media outlets use homosexuality as a tool to harass and discredit critics of the government and opposition journalist.
Homosexuality in Azerbaijan is an issue surrounded by confusion, ignorance, secrecy and a lack of conceptual understanding at the most basic level. There is hardly any objective and correct information on the psychological, sociological and legal aspects of homosexuality in Azerbaijan, with the result that the majority of society simply does not know what homosexuality is.
Social attitudes are generally homophobic. “Coming out” as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person is therefore rare and individual LGBT people are afraid of the consequences. Thus many of them lead double lives. Some feel deeply ashamed about being gay. Some, in particular those who are financially independent and living in Baku, are able to lead a safe life as a LGBT person, as long as they ‘practice’ their homosexuality in the private sphere. There is no LGBT political movement, but there is awareness among some human rights activists and LGBT people of the need for an organization advocating for LGBT rights and protection. (From Wikipedia)
The decriminalization of consensual same-sex male acts in 2000 was a big step forward in respect for human rights. The late President Heydar Aliyev’s determination to remove any obstacles to Azerbaijan’s accession to the Council of Europe was the major factor leading to the decriminalization.
The age of consent is equal for both heterosexual and homosexual sex, at 16 years of age.
As of 2009, there are no established forms of legally recognized unions for homosexuals.
The first LGBT organization for promoting LGBT rights established on May 17, 2011; the first blog in Azerbaijani Language opened on February 25, 2012. For more information visit www.freelgbt.wordpress.com blog; also you can follow on Twitter @freeLGBT.
But not all is well for LGBT people in Azerbaijan; it is, despite some reforms and secularism, still a Muslim-based country where homophobia has deep roots i the religion. As reported in this BBC story, one gay artist was forced to flee his country because of persecution and threats.
BBC News, Paris
15 September 2011
Eurovision 2012: Azerbaijan’s Gays Not Welcome at Home
By Dina Newman
Officials in Azerbaijan insist gay visitors are welcome to the 2012 Eurovision song contest when the event, which has an enthusiastic gay following, is hosted in the capital, Baku.
However, such assurances jar with those who have had first-hand experience of how homosexuals are treated in Azeri society. “My brother has vowed to kill me, and then kill himself,” says Babi Badalov (photo right), a radical gay Azeri artist who has recently been granted political asylum in France. “The day I was ‘outed’, my sister screamed at me on the phone and told me to stay out of Azerbaijan. I don’t think I will ever be able to speak to any of them again.”
Mr Badalov grew up in a remote area of Azerbaijan and moved to Baku when he was 15. There he lived in fear, hiding his sexuality from everyone, including his best friends.
Worse than Prostitution
“We knew he was gay,” says his friend Tora Aghabayova, also an artist. Babi talked about his work in Azerbaijan. “But he never talked about being gay, so we didn’t mention it either. When he got married everyone was surprised. He was trying hard to conform, he was under a lot of pressure. “In the end, he chose to stay true to himself, so he had to leave. Like a cherry with a stone inside, if you press it too hard, the stone will fly out.”
After years of trying to hide his sexual orientation, Mr Badalov tried to claim political asylum in the UK in 2008. But his application failed on the grounds that homosexuality was not illegal in Azerbaijan. A campaign started in the UK in his defense led to his outing back home, to the horror of his family who live in the most conservative part of the country, on the Iranian border.
“Homosexuality here is seen as worse than prostitution,” says Yadigyar Sadykov, a human rights activist from Mr Badalov’s native region. “If a family decided to kill a gay relative, most people would approve. I have heard of many suicides of suspected homosexuals – I have never met an openly gay person around here.”
“During Eurovision, no-one will bother gay foreigners in Baku,” says Alekper Aliyev, a writer and an author of a controversial book about a gay relationship between an Azeri and a man from Armenia, the country’s historic enemy. “People here don’t mind, as long as it’s not in their family. There are several openly gay celebrities in Baku who have money and bodyguards, and they are safe. But nothing will change for the majority of gays, particularly in the provinces. This society will never accept them.” (photo right Babi sketch)
Azeri officials disagree, pointing out that Azerbaijan decriminalized homosexuality in 2001. “Recently there has been much ill-informed speculation by some expatriates about how we treat our homosexual community,” says Elnur Aslanov, a senior official from the presidential administration. “We consider all this nothing more than an unsuccessful attempt by those naysayers to gain a better reputation in their respective countries in the light of the upcoming Eurovision song contest in Azerbaijan.”
‘Almost an Alien’
Babi Badalov has a different take on it. “Eurovision will be held in the five-star Hotel Europa,” he says. “Everyone knows that after midnight not far from this hotel you can get gay sex with a transvestite prostitute.
Married men go there for fun. And yet homosexuality to them is disgusting.”
He remembers Baku with sadness: “I was a loner, a foreigner, almost an alien”. After his asylum claim failed in the UK, Mr Badalov tried France. Two years later he was finally granted political asylum. “It was the most fantastic, happy news in my life,” he says. “I screamed, cried and rolled around the floor of the post office. I was out of control.”
Although he is living in a hostel, he is an established artist and will soon be free to travel around Europe exhibiting his work. But he feels his home country will never be part of Europe. “Everybody’s rights are violated in Azerbaijan,” says Mr Badalov, “and gays are not an exception. I doubt that I will live to see my country join the modern world.”
ILGA Report About Gay Azerbaijan
ILGA Report: Submitted by Azerbaijanian gay community
Homosexuality is not well seen and public homosexual behavior not tolerated, although a couple of bars seem to work as meeting places for the gay and lesbian community. The environment is more relaxed than in other central Asian republics. Nevertheless gay visitors may consider keeping a low profile.
Anal intercourse between men was formerly punished with 5 to 7 years in prison, by the post-Soviet penal code, but this was finally changed in September 2001. Currently article 150 only prescribes punishment for violent homosexual intercourse, which is punishable by 3-15 year imprisonment.
Lesbian and non-penetrative gay sex between consenting adults is not explicitly mentioned in the laws as a criminal offense. In a recent presidential amnesty, prisoners convicted for homosexual acts were excluded from those released.
Some transvestites, mainly Russians, offer their services in the city. There are no exclusively Gay bars, but a couple of bars have a mixed clientele. (Try ‘Club 1033’ on Bakhihanov Avenue or ‘Terrasse’ by the Caspian sea.)
Anyway, male or female, straight or gay, take precautions, HIV infection levels are on the rise in Azerbaijan. Condoms are easily obtainable, but check the quality and expire date.
Pornography is easily and cheaply obtainable in Baku, although not in most other places. Pornographic images, either printed or recorded may cause problems when crossing the border. If you are taking not hard-core, but mere nudity or erotic materials you should have no problems, but you should not take any unnecessary risks with Azeri borders guards, who are always on the lookout to make a few extra Euros.
If you would like to meet people for marriage, friendship, travel, sex or other purposes you may place an ad on the free ads page.
Drugs are very prevalent and open in Baku, although illegal. Not surprising considering the geography of the country and it’s neighbours. However, as a foreigner, if you are caught with drugs, expect severe police harassment and the need to pay very stiff bribes at a minimum! The quality is reputed to be good and adultered drugs are rare. Synthetic drugs shipped form Russia are also claiming their market niche.
Interview with a Azerbaijani Gay Activist
15 November 2011
By Paul Canning
Interview with Ruslan Balukhin, co-founder gay.az, a website for LGBT people in Azerbaijan:
Q: What is the purpose of your website?
A: This informative-entertainment resource is for LGBT community of the capital, Baku. After news about the site appeared on the local news outlets, I started to receive SMS messages from supporters but also from people with negative views about this site. I often receive e-mails and calls with threats. Channel One and Euronews also sent me message and asked to give interviews.
Then I received similar message from Euronews where BBC and CNN were mentioned. I think, this interest is associated with the victory on Eurovision 2011 and with the calls from LGBT communities worldwide to boycott the show in Baku in 2012. As far as I can remember, an organization, official representatives of LGBT community in Azerbaijan, exists from 2006 – 2007 [this was ‘Azeri Gay Community’]. During its existence it has done nothing to solve problems of sexual minorities. What to talk about, if even the site lgbt.az, which is the site of the organization, doesn’t work anymore.
Q: What methods do you use in the struggle for your rights?
A: We do not yet have any defined methods. Today, our main goal is to offer psychological help to sexual minorities, and we also try to establish communication. Our site is not associated with politics and therefore we do not put any aims in the struggle for our rights on the government level.
Q: Although homosexuality is legal in Azerbaijan, I understand that it is not tolerated?
A: It’s very serious problem, because there may be many backgrounds of negative attitude and aggression: conservatism, religion, education and people’s views. But the main reason of different people not being accepted in our society is ignorance. People do not know about biological and genetic causes of homosexuality. It is not easy to replace negative attitude with tolerance. In the first place, educational work must be done, it is necessary to tell people who LGBT people are and why they are different.
Q: How do gay couples survive, is everyone closeted?
A: If you mean living together, there are many homosexual couples in Azerbaijan. Of course, most of them keep their relations hidden from others, but it is not hidden from sexual minorities. In most of our families, the attitude towards gays is that they shouldn’t be in their families. Sooner or later, families accept it. Sometimes much time is needed for the family of a transsexual to understand that nothing has changed with the person after they discovered a hidden part of his biography.
Q: What do you think about the future of the LGBT gay movement in Azerbaijan? Will change happen?
A: I’m sure that there will be equality among people, independent of their sexual orientation. It’s hard to tell, how much time will be needed for it – tens or hundreds of years, but that depends on us. Some Azerbaijani journalists call homosexuality “disgusting”, reports on these are left without reply. Gays encounter insults in everyday life – in universities, streets. Struggle against discrimination should be accompanied with educational work. We would like to have discussions about homosexuality in an adequate, delicate and informed way in universities and schools and mass media on the required level.
Compiled by Richard Ammon
[PDF] Forced Out: LGBT People in Azerbaijan (2007)
Report on ILGA-Europe/ COC fact-finding mission by Dennis van der Veur
YouTube Video: What do Azeris Think of Homosexuals?
United Nations Refugee Report: Refworld
Wikipedia Gay Portal