Unsafe in the classroom
“Children’s parents did not want them to sit next to me.”
18-year-old Alvi* remembers his school years in Azerbaijan as a time of isolation and bullying.
“Everyone sat at an assigned desk, but mine seemed to change constantly. Every time there was a teachers’ meeting, I was forced to move toward the back of the classroom,” he recalls. “Once I asked a classmate of mine, Medina, why this happened and she told me ‘My mother doesn't want me to sit next to you, because you're like a girl.’”
Alvi’s experiences at school are familiar for young adults who identify as LGBTIQ+ in Azerbaijan, according to other teens interviewed for this article.
While no studies have been conducted specifically on how school children who identify as LGBTIQ+ in Azerbaijan, the country scores the lowest in the ILGA Europe’s Rainbow Index, an annual assessment of the legal rights of LGBTIQ+ people in Europe.
The level of homophobia makes it difficult for children to feel safe and accepted in school, teens and LGBTIQ+ rights advocates told Chai Khana.
Zi*, a 16-year-old student at Khirdalan city school, says that when she first told her friends that she was bisexual, they all started to distance themselves from her.
“It seemed to them that my sexual orientation could affect them as well. I heard such things like, ‘You will fall in love with the girls of our whole class’, ‘You will seduce them,’” she recalls.
“Once during a conversation with my classmates, when I reacted to their homophobic remarks, they pushed me on the desks, saying, ‘You're crazy, you don't know what you're talking about.’ They used to say things like 'perverted' and 'seduced',” Zi said, adding that she has just LGBTIQ+ friends at school who are being pushed away by others.
In the Azerbaijan public schools, even the relatively new sex-ed curriculum reinforces heterosexual ideas and norms—and does not address homophobia or bullying, noted Javid Nabiyev, the founder of Nafas LGBT Azerbaijan.
“The new curriculum also fails to appropriately address a variety of sexual orientations, gender identities, behaviors, and experiences. […] The absence of bullying prevention policies or an inclusive curriculum, as well as neglected needs, have become the main contributors to discrimination against LGBTIQ+” Nabiyev writes.
Teens interviewed by Chai Khana report that bullying can occur anywhere, from the classroom to the restroom—although the toilets seem to be a favorite spot for bullies. 17-year-old trans woman Rena* says that she was repeatedly abused in the restroom. It got to the point that she was afraid to use the school’s facilities at all.
“Once, when I went to the cafeteria in the 6th grade, 5-10 children followed me. From there they followed me to the toilet. They approached and started calling me petukh (faggot),” she says.
“I did not pay attention to them, so they beat me. Later I had to ask for the key to the teacher's toilet from the cleaner of the school and used to go there.”
Khayal*, 17, had a similar fate after a friend, whom he had confided in about his sexuality, told their classmates following an argument.
“Once, boys came to the toilet and teased me, saying, 'Why don't you go to the girl's toilet?' They even had the idea to call more friends and beat me,” Khayal recalls. “But I was able to defend myself.”
One state-run program, “A pupil`s friend,” was designed to make schools a safe place for teachers and pupils alike. But the program only covers a fraction of the schools in the country, according to Mehriban Verdiyeva, one of the psychologists assigned to the project. She notes that to date, there have not been any documented cases of bullying motivated by homophobia.
“There was no bullying by the children because LGBTIQ+ pupils kept it secret. But there were problems with their self-acceptance. Usually, we don't tell [heterosexual] children that if you are a boy, you must like a girl. We teach them to accept themselves, to pay more attention to their feelings and thoughts,” the psychologist says, anti-LGBTIQ+ approach of teachers depends on their individual views.
"There should be no discrimination. For example, ‘this is a bad student’, ‘this is a good student’, ‘his sexual orientation is this or that’ should not exist. There should be help for children who are subject to discrimination.”
The Ministry of Education did not respond in a timely manner to repeated requests for comment on bullying and attitudes toward LGBTIQ+ youth in public schools.
Bullying, in general, is an issue in Azerbaijani schools, according to Lala Mahmudova, a gender studies expert who has researched the issue. The problem became particularly acute following the death of a 14-year-old in the capital Baku.
Elina Hajiyeva committed suicide by throwing herself out of a school window in 2019 following months of beating, insults and other abuse at the hands of her classmates, including taunts that she was a “lesbian” due to her dyed hair and clothing.
In Elina’s case, children did not call her a “lesbian” because they thought that was her sexual orientation, Mahmudova notes.
“In Azerbaijan, one of the countries where homophobia is most prevalent, it is very common among students to insult each other with homophobic epithets and obscenities,” she writes.
“When this word is used by homophobic students to humiliate others, that is considered homophobic bullying. It is also a type of bullying to address someone with the words gey [gay], mavi [blue], or qızbibi [sissy] (all of which are derogatory words referring to gay men in Azeri) in order to humiliate them.”
For children who identify as LGBTIQ+, the bullying is even more intense and can have an oversized impact on their schoolwork and their mental health.
“Beneficiaries reported experiencing bullying, harassment, discrimination, and harassment for their appearance and behavior at school, and often felt socially isolated during these periods,” notes Sevinj Samadzadeh, the co-founder of the Gender Resource Center. The center provides counseling and legal support for LGBTIQ+ youth in Azerbaijan.
“This continued emotional and physical violence has made adolescence a difficult and painful time for most beneficiaries.”
Rena says that due to regular bullying, eventually, she stopped participating in class.
“In the mornings I never went to school with motivation and expect excellent grades. I only wondered who will tease me first when I entered the corridor. I had a passion for music. I used to record sound through computers, telephones, and other devices. And I prepared it so beautifully to perform at a school event,” she recalls. “They didn't permit me.”
Akif, 17, who is currently preparing for the state exam, says he shows great interest in his classes and studies with excellent grades despite the homophobic bullying he endures.
“I don't have the desire to go to school. They tease me so much I cannot study. It is hard to focus on the lesson. It causes insomnia, I cannot sleep well,” he says. “I even sit in the back to keep a low profile. The first couple of times you can ignore it, but it eventually definitely gets on your nerves and you get stressed and aggressive.”
He recalls one incident when he was walking down the hallway at school.
“About 30-40 people were making strange noises behind me,” he says. “At that time, teachers saw it, but no one reacted. Teachers prefer to remain silent when someone insults someone. They never tried to address the issue or explain to the bullies why their behavior is wrong.”
Khayal notes the school administration tried to force his parents to move him to a different school.
He recalls that after rumors about his sexuality started to circulate, some teachers seemed to be trying to punish him by giving him lower grades or deliberately ruining his papers. “I got angry and argued with the teachers and the principal found out. After that, the teachers started calling me ‘a problematic student’ and telling me ‘If you are not normal, you should be expelled from school,’” he says.
Khayal is one of the lucky ones, however, since his parents supported him despite the school’s efforts to get him kicked out. “My parents stood behind me and they [the school] couldn't do it.”
Despite all the pressure the teens experience at school and elsewhere, Rena believes that the only solution is to fight against bullying and discrimination.
“I realized that if I keep silent, it will continue. So, when I was pressured, I began to put pressure on them. If someone teased me, I started responding to it,” she says. “Sometimes I was afraid because I was alone and there were many of them.”
Alvi, who is now a university student, says life is a bit easier now that he is not in high school.
“Nothing is said directly to me at university, and I am not subjected to physical violence,” he says. “Sometimes I refuse to play a masculine role and exist with my feminine non-binary identity. Sometimes, by claiming words like petukh and feminine, I try to disarm homophobes. My firm position may discourage them from using such verbal and physical violence against me.”
* The names were changed to protect the identity of the respondents.