‘If my family had supported me…’
“I’m a trans.” When a child says this to a parent, it can totally transform their relationship in Azerbaijan. For the majority of Azerbaijani parents, learning their child is LGBTIQ+ may come as a complete shock. That was the experience of Musa, a 20-year-old transman living with his two brothers and mother.
“As a kid, I used to wear boy’s clothes. But as I grew older, life became more difficult. They tried to feminize me, put earrings on me and dress me,” Musa says, recalling the challenges he faced some years ago.
His mother is a psychologist at the secondary school where Musa used to study. That’s how his mother first found out about Musa’s relationship with a friend at school. She did not take it seriously and labeled it as childish, however. It became a real problem when he cut his hair in 10th grade.
“Do you want to be a man?” she shouted loudly. I said yes. She answered ‘Aaz’[a rude expression that means ‘hey, girl.’]. I said I didn't like this, and she said, ‘How come? Are you a man?’ Then she took me to psychologists,” Musa says, recalling the first quarrel with his mother four years ago.
Despite visiting two psychologists and learning that being a transman is fine, Musa’s mother did not accept her child’s choice. On that day, his mother did not return home to punish him. “My aunts said to me, ‘We're going to kill you if anything happens to your mother.’ In fact, my mother spent that night at my aunt’s place.”
Family members are one of the sources of threats and violence toward LGBTIQ+ in Azerbaijan, according to major global reports. For instance, 17-year-old Umid from the city of Ganja committed suicide after receiving a call from his father, who reportedly told him “I will come and kill you; you humiliate me in public. Now everyone knows. It's a shame to me.”
Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a feminist and LGBTIQ + activist, cannot recall a case when action was taken against parents who were abusive to either LGBTQ + or other children. “Only when reports of particularly violent acts and torture are spread on social networks, government agencies face a certain obligation. There have been several cases of LGBTIQ + citizens running away from home due to parental pressure, and the police have ignored their complaints of domestic violence,” she says.
“When I was 18, I left home due to pressure from my family. They appealed to the police, and the police forcibly took me to my mother, who was waiting at the police station. I repeatedly told them that I was 18, but they said ‘your mother's condition is bad, go talk to her and then decide yourselves,” says Musa, adding that he still did not return home. He notes that domestic violence is considered a “family issue” and is ignored by the authorities, so no one knows how prevalent it is.
While there were frequent reports about gays and trans women being attacked and publicly humiliated in Azerbaijan, in recent years trans men became also a target of transphobic attacks. In May 2021, Herman Turan Javadzadeh, a trans man, was attacked in Baku’s central square: an unknown person grabbed him by the neck and punched him in the left kidney.
Yaman, 26, who is currently studying in Turkey, says he told his uncle about his trans identity, but no one else in his family, before leaving Azerbaijan. He decided to go to Turkey to study in part due to his desire to start the adaptation process, especially hormone therapy, in a comfortable environment.
"When I came back from Turkey for the first vacation, my father got angry when he saw how I was dressed and said very harshly, 'You look like a boy, and I don’t want to see you again like this. Keep your hair long.’ I was confronted with this reaction without even disclosing my gender identity. So we stopped speaking.”
Yaman started taking the hormone in 2015 but did not tell his mother until April 2021 while at home from university during a holiday.
“When I talked to my mother, she started crying and saying, ‘It's my fault.’ Every time she saw a feminine man on TV, she would turn to me and say, ‘You are cursed people in the sight of God,’ and she would look at my clothes and say, ‘God damn you,’” Yaman recalls.
“It was difficult for my mother to accept hormonal therapy and gender adaptation surgery. I would like them to support me during this period. Because I see the family as a power. It's a different feeling to have that power supporting you.”
Reluctant to sever ties with family members, Yaman tried to educate them about gender issues. He and his mother watched the film “My Child,” which is about a Turkish LGBTIQ + family organization, together. He says that after watching the film, his mother's attitude toward him improved.
Although 22-year-old Chinar has a good relationship with his parents, they cannot accept his trans identity. Chinar, who was born and raised in the Lankaran district, says it is more difficult to be LGBTİQ+ in provincial communities where everyone knows everyone and where, unlike the capital Baku, people rely on strong kinship, conservatism and religion.
“The Talysh community in Lankaran is a closed community and they find such things strange. My relatives do not understand how this can happen. The transphobic environment sidelined me. I became ashamed of people and introverted. I started to develop worries and anxieties. I didn't want to go out in public because I didn't look exactly the way I wanted to; I was ashamed of my voice,” Chinar adds that his family members consider him mentally ill. “My mother had even thought I was bewitched. She called someone to cast a spell on the house.”
A psychologist at the Gender Resource Center, who has been providing psycho-social counseling to LGBTIQ + for almost two years, says that a significant proportion of young people in Azerbaijan have close relationships with their families, which is why children’s trust is damaged during coming-out.
“Since children open their eyes to the world first in the family, the family must be the first place where trust is established. At the same time, the conditional love, threats, fears, etc. that arise in the family, grow with the children as they grow up. Later, it is very likely that these children will expect similar traumas from the people around them and will not be able to feel close to them,” the psychologist explains.
Respondents interviewed for this article told Chai Khana that they need to move away from their biological families and choose people to serve as their new families.
“If my family had supported me, everything would have been easier for me. If I had received mental and material support from my family, I would have achieved what I had long wanted,” says Chinar who finds comfort within his circle of friends who also face the same challenges in their own families.
Yaman says he has selected a new family–three friends from the university. “When we were thrown out of our homes because we were LGBTIQ+, we lived on the street, we went through the most difficult times together. Also, there is a family who I knew and once I came out to them. As a result, I felt support from them that I had never felt from my own parents. That’s why we are still in touch and they are my chosen family.”
*Names of respondents are changed to protect them from any possible harm.