No safe space for queers

Author: Ramil Zamanov, , Photographer: Emin Mathers
Edition: Neighborhood
Topic: LGBTQI+

When I started work on this essay, my plan was to write about the safe queer spaces in Baku, including, pubs, restaurants, streets and organizations. I had in mind a particular neighborhood, where I had the impression that the locals and shop owners were open to the queer community and, as a result, a welcoming space had been created. But a recent queerphobic attack on me and my friends made me realise that the concept of safe space is exceptionally fluid, especially in queerphobic countries such as Azerbaijan.

For many months, Islam Safarli Street was a hidden gem in the center of Baku, a sliver of queer-friendly bars, pubs and restaurants between Istiglaliyyat Street and Salatin Askerova Street, on the border of the city’s famous Fountain Square. It was a place to find like-minded people, especially the queer community in Baku.

I remember coming to this street in the summer of 2021 and meeting many activists and queers having fun in front of Platforma, a bar. We gathered in front of Platforma almost every night since it was too hot to be indoors during the summer. While there were some tiny incidents with local residents since young people became very loud after 22:00 and the police were called many times, the street was the safest in Baku for many queers and activists because it was the neighbourhood where people managed to openly express themselves.

Many other queers and I thought that the queerphobic attacks happening in less developed areas of Baku (such as Hazi Aslanov, Memar Ajami, 20 Yanvar and others) would never happen in the center of Baku, where hundreds of progressive people come to hang out. It was a rare oasis of safety that was essential for many of us because nobody wanted to put themselves in danger to have fun. Other safe nightspots in Baku are too expensive for working-class queers and activists. Islam Safarli Street seemed like the perfect spot for many queers like me.

All that changed in the fall when I was visiting friends in Baku. As usual, we decided to hang out on Islam Safarli Street.

My friends and I were standing at Platforma, around 00:10, a guy amicably approached us by talking to us about Friday night and having fun. He said, 'I am not homophobic but I do not like to sleep with boys.' Then, he walked away and our friend Aqil joined us.

Aqil had a drink, and he seemed to be worried that the men were drug dealers.  So, we slowly moved to the other side of Islam Safarli Street, in front of Platforma. While we were talking, the second 'drug dealer' came. This guy was around 1.60 cm tall and he seemed to be high. He kept asking Aqil to buy a drink for him. While we decided to leave this spot, a third man came over to us. This guy was 1.80 cm tall, and he had a pretty muscular body. He heard Aqil telling us not to worry about the ‘drug dealers’ and suddenly he punched Aqil in the nose. Aqil's nose began to bleed, and he called the police and an ambulance. I ran to a nearby shop to purchase tissues for Aqil's bleeding nose.

When I came out of the shop, I saw all three men were attacking another friend, Kamran, and Kamran was trying to film them. When the men started to run away, Kamran and Aqil followed them. The men then jumped on Aqil and started to beat him up. When Kamran tried to fight them, one started to hit him.

While all of these happened, nobody in the area reacted or tried to interfere. I was in a state of shock. There were around 20 witnesses, people who cooperate with international organizations for gender peace and other issues. There were also ordinary citizens. Everyone just watched as the three men tried to beat Aqil and Kamran. I began to scream, 'people, help us!!! Call the police!' In response, one of the men came and hit me. Then they ran away. Despite my injuries, all I could think was saving Kamran and Aqil, who were lying on the road. Eventually, they got up and started to pursue the men who attacked them, which led to another beating. When I saw a police car, I forced them to stop and explained what happened. The exchange that followed would have been hilarious if it had not been so disturbing.

Police officer 1: What had happened here? Why did you stop us?

I:  We called the police. You should help us now.

Police officer 2: Sorry, but this is not our territory. We were just passing by, and thus, we cannot help you. You should wait for the police team you called.

Police officer 3: Why did they attack you? Why didn’t you hit them? This would have solved the problem.

Their attitude was a great example of how Azerbaijani policing. As ‘men,’ we were expected to 'protect' ourselves from these 'attackers'. It is sad to see even the most reliable power authority members are not aware of gender stereotypes and labelling. The police should protect people, but instead, they told us to hit back. This sounds like Azerbaijan is run with the 'law of the jungle', the strongest always wins.

Azerbaijani police seem always ready to attack people in a crowd and at demonstrations with sticks and pepper spray. However, when peaceful citizens were attacked, none of these police officers could help us. It took 20 minutes for the police officers who were ‘responsible’ for this territory to arrive. They took us to the police station.

My friends asked me to leave the station, so I headed back to my flat, which was a 10 minute walk from the police station. It was around 2:00 a.m, and I was so afraid to walk in the city. I remember those ten minutes as the scariest in my life: every man I passed looked like those three attackers, and my legs were shaking so much it was hard to move.

I finally arrived home safe and sound. Once inside, I broke down as the events of the night overcame me. I found I could not even move due to the shock. It was the most traumatic night I have ever experienced, due to the attack and the total lack of response from my fellow citizens.

Spending our days on Islam Safarli Street made us believe that Islam Safarli was a safe place for queers, but the attack proved that it was not. The geography of queer spaces changes very frequently in Baku because queerphobes and attackers surround us in Azerbaijan. I am extremely worried about safety in Baku, and it is impossible to walk in the streets without wondering if I will arrive at my destination safely.  My friends and I can't think that we are free to live on these streets because we cannot even safely hang out in the one neighborhood where we felt like we were safe and we belonged.

We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.