Between Appearance and Reality in Baku: LGBTI Rights in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s capital Baku was ready when the Eurovision Song Contest took place there at the end of May 2012. All guests were welcome. “Baku was very open and liberal,” journalist Jens Maier describes the atmosphere. “A gay club was opened. I do not know of any cases in which problems arose or people felt threatened.” Two openly gay activists, Elham Bagirov and Kamran Rzayev, also remember the excitement of this occasion. More people assembled every evening at Club 17, a meeting point for homosexuals, than in the official ESC club. After three or four days, guests there were also ready to appear in pictures and films.

Bagirov and Rzayev affirm that Azerbaijan is not a country hostile to homosexuals. Quite the opposite: “I’m 36, I am openly gay and I’ve never been attacked,” explains Bagirov. They can move around quite at ease on the street in the center of Baku. The culture in Azerbaijan, influenced by oriental culture, enables this. In addition, their country is very moderate, although it is Muslim. “Does this look like a Muslim country?” asks Rzayev as he looks out at the fountain square in the city center. Istanbul has many more women wearing headscarves, he adds.

A liberal Muslim country, at first glance

In fact, when you see young men in the central square or strolling along the harbor promenade on the Caspian Sea, you would not think you are in a Muslim country. Young, fashion-conscious men in tight jeans and shirts walk around with carefully styled hair. You often see them walking arm in arm or touching each other’s shoulders and arms. Only few women wear headscarves, often in bright colors like pink or violet, so that they come across as stylish accessories and not like a compulsory clothing item.

But behind this lies another reality. We see this with the closing of Club 17 shortly after the Eurovision Song Contest. Homosexuals in Baku reported to that on the second weekend of June, a police raid took place in the club. The reasons for this were unclear. Journalist Jens Maier concluded, “Homosexuality has again gone underground. At least the Internet remains uncensored.” Activist Bagirov explains in contrast that the club was closed for the annual summer season when business is slow and would soon be opened again. Another men’s club had also opened in the meantime. A lesbian bar in the city center also continues to operate, although the name at the entrance was removed.

Moreover, the fact that men in public can have close bodily contact cannot be equated with tolerance of homosexuality. This is a sign of tight, often lifelong friendships that begin in childhood neighborhoods, among relatives or at school and often last throughout their lifetimes. These friendships and family ties form the glue that binds society together in Azerbaijan, from a local level to the highest state and economic power structures. Personal loyalties and informal connections are necessary for getting ahead, whether professionally or in everyday life, for example, when you need a permit from a government agency. So when homosexuals walk arm in arm on the street, it is under the guise of friendship. Activists Bagirov und Rzayev also admit that more explicit behaviors would not be tolerated: kissing in public is taboo.
A certain tolerance exists for men with feminine appearances in a number of occupations. Open homosexuals and other sexual minorities are accepted in beauty salons or in show business. In traditionally masculine fields, however, they are significantly disadvantaged and discriminated against, Bagirov und Rzayev also state.

Family Violence

Conservative values run deep in Azerbaijani society. In past years, observers document a stronger resurgence of traditional structures and values in the regions. Many families would see it as shameful if daughters or sons came out as homosexual and did not establish a traditional family. They have to face the possibility of violence from their own families – either from fathers or brothers. This includes beatings and forced marriages.

The gay artist Babi Badalov describes to the BBC his family’s reaction when they found out about his homosexuality. For years he had attempted to live according to traditional norms. He even got married. But because he could no longer endure this lifestyle, he applied for asylum in Great Britain. His claim was denied, however, as homosexuality is not a criminal offence in Azerbaijan. A campaign supporting him in Great Britain became known in his hometown in southern Azerbaijan near the Iranian border. His family considered this to be a dishonor. His brother swore that he would kill him and then himself, reported Badalov to the BBC. His sister encouraged him to leave Azerbaijan and never return. Badalov found asylum in France shortly thereafter. (see Eurovision 2012: Azerbaijan's gays not welcome at home by Dina Newman)
These traditional perspectives are dismantled only gradually and usually also just in educated circles in Baku. Young parents who grew up at the end of the Soviet Union are often more tolerant towards their own children.

Official advocacy for political rights practically impossible

Homosexual relations were decriminalized since 2000. Members of the government point to this when they want to emphasize their country’s democratic and Western orientation. However, no type of legal protection against discrimination exists for the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity. They also lack equality laws. Homosexual and heterosexual couples are in no way treated equally.
Advocacy for political rights for minorities, whether sexual or religious minorities, for example, is practically impossible. Activists Bagirov’s and  Rzayev’s organization “Gender & Development” officially addresses HIV prevention and the fight against drugs. This example shows that they are legally registered and receive financial support from the government. Other organizations that would officially advocate for LGBTI rights do not exist. Activist  Rzayev reports that an exchange took place with the Ombudswoman of Human Rights Commissioner Elmira Suleymanova. However, she overlooked understanding for homosexuals.

Since the political opposition and the independent media that criticizes the government both have been weakened in recent years, President Ilham Aliyev’s authoritarian government has turned its attention toward civil society. Members of non-governmental organizations have faced pressure when becoming politically active, for example participating in protests or publishing critical comments through online social media. At the same time, the government attempts to take over the civil society sector with its own youth organizations.

Government uses stereotypical views against the opposition

To discredit the opposition and critics of the government, the leadership of Azerbaijan likes to draw on the stereotypes regarding sexual minorities that exist in the country. A youth organization supportive of the government claimed that Ali Karimli, the director of an opposition popular front party, was gay. But even he did not raise this issue at a discussion with foreign journalists during which he listed all of the campaigns that the government had launched against him in the past years. Apparently mentioning this topic would have been uncomfortable for him. The traditional opposition parties such as the young opposition activists in Azerbaijan concentrate their efforts mostly on the problem of the unequal distribution of power in the country. Minority rights do not play any practical role in their political work.
A further example is the case of the opposition popular front party’s press secretary, Natiq Adilov, and a journalist critical of the government, Qan Turali. In December 2010, they participated in a seminar sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Deutsche Welle at a hotel in northwestern Azerbaijan. Secret cameras were installed in several hotel rooms and filmed at least Adilov and Turali in their room that night. During a number of protests against the government in spring 2011, the recordings appeared on the Internet and the TV station Lider. This belongs to Azerbaijani media reports according to President Ilham Aliyev’s cousin. The campaign involved slander against both media actors, and those affiliated with them especially suffered as a result. Adilov and Turali sought legal action, claiming damage done to their private lives, but without success.
Khadija Ismailova, an investigative journalist who works for Radio Free Europe among others and is also critical of the government, experienced similar negative treatment as well. Private recordings from her bedroom were publicized after a threat was made. This was quite unusual, as such attacks against women have been taboo up to this point. Like other journalists, she attempts in vain to achieve justice in the courts. However, Ismailova did receive support from a very unlikely ally in her fight against this smear campaign. Islamic organizations and even the devout Shiite community in the village of Nardaran declared their solidarity with this journalist, an avowed atheist.

Religious groups fuel complaints

On the other hand, Islamic groups publicly advocate against homosexuals and, in the process, are often influenced by neighboring Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death. Many Muslim clergy study in holy cities in Iran. In addition, many Iranian TV channels send unhindered propaganda to Azerbaijan.

Just a few weeks before the Eurovision Song Contest, a Muslim group appeared at a sanctioned demonstration organized by the opposition, loudly declaring their hostility towards homosexuals and the idea of a possible gay-lesbian parade in Baku. The idea for this parade had come up in blogs from Western Europe, but it was not seriously discussed at all in Azerbaijan. Symbols like the rainbow flag are not even recognized on the Caspian Sea and would not be understood, explained activist Kamran Rzayev. He also reported challenges with the Azerbaijani media. Many journalists lack knowledge, and often they just use simple stereotypes when discussing sexual minorities. However, the interest in this issue has grown recently, and the journalists increasingly employ correct descriptions instead of terms of abuse.
Other than that, the Eurovision Song Contest seems to have left behind a minimal effect regarding tolerance towards homosexuals. Journalist Shahla Sultanova says sarcastically that merely one thing has changed: in the meantime one sees Azerbaijani men wearing shorts in Baku. The many international guests made it possible for the once inappropriate article of clothing to be accepted. She is otherwise minimally optimistic about tolerance in her country, because for unmarried heterosexuals over 30 it is extremely difficult to be accepted in society. Those who do not have children and are not in a relationship must often deal with embarrassing personal questions from friends and colleagues.
This can only change when traditional structures are no longer essential for moving forward in professional and everyday life, in other words, when relationships no longer play a deciding role in determining whether someone finds a job, for example. As long as this is the case, sexual minorities will not be accepted, or if so, only in small niches in corners of society. In addition, the lack of education and awareness remains an issue, as deviating from the norm continues to be seen as a threat to the social fabric.