The other, even at home
Azerbaijan is the worst country in Europe for people who identify as LGBTIQ+, according to ILGA Europe. Homophobic attacks and bullying against the community are common in the country.
This is the story of one member of that community. The life of our hero (who we will not name) reflects the experiences of many members of the Azerbaijani queer community. Our hero was born in 1996, on a hot summer day in Baku. Since childhood, our hero (who defines as gender-queer and use the pronoun ‘they’) has never felt fully accepted or integrated when living in Baku. Their first memory of otherness was in kindergarten, when children started bullying him for being a “momma’s boy.”
‘When I was three or four my family sent me to kindergarten. I was a very hyperactive kid and the family thought it would be good if I attended kindergarten. However, I was so close to my mother. Every day, before we entered kindergarten, I hugged her for a long time,” they recall.
“I spent about a year in that kindergarten—the kids were always aggressive because they thought I was too feminine.”
Eventually they moved to a different kindergarten but life did not improve: the children there came from richer families and were mostly Russian-speakers—our hero did not speak Russian and, once again, struggled to fit in.
“I could not manage to find any friends at this new kindergarten because I was not from the upper-class, I did not speak Russian and I behaved too ‘feminine’. Some kids wanted to become friends with me, but their parents always told our teacher to keep me away from them..”
Things got worse when our hero started primary school in 2002. At that time, homosexuality was a taboo in Azerbaijan. Even small deviations from gender stereotypes, for example a boy who played with dolls or was interested in flowers, was viewed as a sign that something was wrong with him. The constantly reinforced gender stereotypes strengthened homophobia and traditional gender roles.
“People always made fun of me and misused me. They always wanted me to sing some songs and entertain them. In other words, I was kind of ‘drag queen’ for them. However, they were making fun of me, all the time,” they recall.
“They were making fun of me because of being overweight. I was so fat, my family took me to a doctor to treat me for this. At school, they even called me with a slung ‘piyli qizbibi’ which can be translated as ‘fat sissy’. I felt so insecure when my mom stopped picking me up from the school. At that time, I was already 10 and our flat was only five minutes from the school. Sometimes, my classmates attacked me with tiny sticks and enjoyed seeing me frightened. However, I never told my parents. I feared they would send me to a rehabilitation center in order to make me ‘more masculine.”
Their fear was not unfounded. At the beginning of the 21st century, Azerbaijani family order was still strongly influenced by old traditions. For instance, during the Soviet Union, homosexuality was viewed as a pathological disorder—a policy which still creates problems for the millennial generation. In the early 2000s, kids were not able to come out to their families. Our hero believes that the worst years of their life was between the ages of 13 to 17 (in 2009-2013).
“When I started high school, things became more complicated. The attacks and bullying at school made me feel so insecure… Once, I was almost raped by a guy who was three years older than me…Even when I visited the library, people called me a ‘faggot’. At that time, I visited our school counselor/ psychologist and she advised me to take some pills and become more ‘masculine,’” they recall.
“My own teachers started to punish me by lowering my grade … In our classes, I always talked about the rights of queer individuals and how society hates queers. That caused my teachers to call my mom and even offer rehabilitation services… After some time, my mom took me to a psychologist and the psychologist sent me to a urologist.”
They remember taking pills for over a year, although no one ever told them what type of pills they were.
“In short, this bullying evolved to the point when even doctors were involved in it. In the end, I started to feel that I do not belong here anymore,” they said.
In 2012, when Baku was hosting the Eurovision competition, our hero was attacked, in part due to rumors a queer parade was being planned in the city.
One evening, as they were walking home from a tutor’s house, a group of guys started to taunt them in Russian.
“I did not understand them clearly, but I understood the slangs they used such as ‘petux (gay in humiliating way)’, ‘suka (slut)’, ‘chuska (peasant)’. They were obviously drunk, and they tried to hit me on my back and legs. I managed to run away, but I was not ready to tell these to my family. I knew that police would not help me, and my family could not fight against all of these people. Additionally, I did not allow myself to destroy the reputation of my family and I kept it a secret.”
“On that day, I realized how alone I was… I felt like the ‘other’ in this country. Being ‘other’ who is considered immoral and slut… I knew that there were a lot of people like me, who suffer from this bullying, attacks, rape and violence…”
Despite our hero’s depression and the constant stress, they felt, they were accepted to one of the most prestigious universities in Baku in 2013.
For a while, it seemed like things were getting better: Azerbaijan was at the crossroads of Westernization and queer life became more popular among young generation. Our hero even started to date. However, they still struggled to feel at home.
“I attended one of the most prestigious universities in Baku for my BA degree, where students with high scores were admitted. However, the bullying and verbal attacks continued. Among my classmates, even some girls never talked to me because I was ‘too feminine’ and an immoral person for them… Even some of my classmates called me ‘qachqin’ (“qachqin” means refugee. Refugee is a sort of label in the Azerbaijani society). That was the new ‘other’ for me.
“Years passed, I was on dates with many guys and I had a good time with them… However, they were so oppressive and had a very patriarchal mindset and, so,, I did not want to continue any relationships with them… I visited some psychologists and they taught me how to accept things and change.”
After several years, our hero decided it was time to leave. They moved to a country in Central Europe in 2017, a time when arrests had become common in the LGBTIQ+ community. Azerbaijan had already been named as the ‘worst European country for being queer’ and people were trying to flee the country to save their lives. For the hero, moving to a new country was not that easy because racism was prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe.
Locals did not accept foreigners and it was difficult for our hero to communicate with people, even in English.
“From the beginning, I realized it is important to speak the local language… I was considered ‘other’ because I did not speak the local language… I have seen many times people who understand English and they refuse to communicate with me in English… Most of the time when they heard ‘I am from Azerbaijan’, they started to make fun of it by othering me. Basically, things were not rosy in Central/Eastern Europe, but at least nobody bullied me or attacked me because of my queerness.
“I was so happy for the first time being able to walk by holding the hand of my boyfriend. People did not care about it… With time, I also learnt how to ignore people and live my life in peace… Sometimes, it is not that easy but compared to Azerbaijan, I feel much safer here. I live together with my boyfriend and he makes me feel so amazing. As long as I have the support from him, I realize my potential more and more. That is what I could not find in Azerbaijan… There are some people with whom we do not feel as the ‘other’.”
Today, our hero believes there are signs that young people in Azerbaijan are getting braver and more willing to stand up for LGBTIQ+ rights. Even though homophobia has increased in general in the country, young people stood up for a young schoolgirl who committed a suicide in 2019 after being bullied and called homophobic slurs.
‘The young generation raise their voices more and more to end this ‘othering’. When Isa Shahmarli committed suicide, not many people stood up for him. We stood up with some NGOs but in the end nothing happened. For Elina, they did not stop and at least, the headmaster was punished. It is not enough but this fight should continue.
“Giving up would not contribute to stopping racism, sexism, ableism, fat shaming or ‘othering’. Committing suicide is not the only option; before that you need to reconsider your path. This path is not about if people attack you and make you hate this world… This path is about how you want to change the world and people around you…I am also trying to change the culture in Azerbaijan by studying it and so we cannot stop. This generation should change all the old constraints in this country!’