Alone, but liberated
In recent years, dozens of queer Azerbaijani citizens have fled their homeland due to persecution for who they are. There are no official statistics on LGBTIQ+ people leaving Azerbaijan, however anecdotal evidence indicates they seek safety in countries near and far. A 219 report published by “I.S. Law Firm” noted that LGBTIQ+ people were among those who applied for asylum in the United States from Azerbaijan in recent years.
Others look for shelter in European countries while some relocate to neighboring countries where it is easier to settle, despite the fact there are fewer guarantees for their safety.
Pari Banu is one of those who recently made her home in Tbilisi, in neighboring Georgia.
When I met Banu in Baku, in January 2022, we had a long conversation during which she told me that it's really difficult to be kind of "be outside the box" in a conservative society like Azerbaijan, especially in the context of gender. Refusing to fall into accepted male or female roles makes you an outcast. She said that it was really a struggle to live in a society where even the color of your trousers, or wearing earrings can be a trigger for others.
“People always tell you ‘You have a penis. Act like a man!’ or ‘You have a vagina. Behave like a woman!’. But I have always been curious about what it means to be a man or to be a woman. Isn't it simply possible to move away from this primitive binary stuff? Does it really matter if somebody has a penis but they are effeminate and caring, or if you have a vagina but you are masculine and dominant?”
After we met a couple of times for shootings, she told me about her family, which is very conservative. Even a floral tote-bag was enough to start a debate and become an issue. The one reason cited by her parents was “the neighbors will see you, what will they say? It is so shameful!”
Banu told me how she agreed to serve in the military because her mother convinced she should. Her tour of duty was defined by terror and depression. In addition to hazing and bullying, Banu said soldiers tried to persuade her to have sex. She always said no so they would punish her by locking her in the toilets and storage facilities at night and beating her. One of the soldiers told her he would find her after she left the army and kill her.
“When I was a child, I passionately loved to put on makeup, wear a shirt, and perform belly dance. However, my parents were extremely strict about it, especially my father. But I've always had a brave personality. Then, I got punished for doing it. So I always just ask myself… Why? Is femininity a curse for a boy? And now, I found the answer… My absolute emancipation has always frightened others!”
When we met in June, Banu told me that she planned to leave her parents’ house and move to Tbilisi in neighboring Georgia where she hoped no one would pressure her just because of who she is.
Quotes from her diary:
I cannot bear it anymore. So I decided to move to Tbilisi. I do not know what I shall do there with my limited budget. But I do not have any other choice. It is humiliating. I almost lost myself... Maybe it is a way out!
I am afraid I should delay my transition. I am very sorry about that. It requires a lot of money. Now I should save money to survive in Tbilisi.
I am very confused. But I purchased a ticket to Tbilisi. I am very scared! I talked to Giorgi. He works at Untitled Gallery. I shall also work with them. But Giorgi told me that they can not support me financially. It makes the whole situation more stressful for me. I almost have no one there.
I found a Turkish girl based in Tbilisi on Facebook who will give me a little flat near Guramshvilli metro station for just $100. It is amazing! But it will be free only after July 17. So I continue to look for a flat or a room.
I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I feel frightened and scared. On the other hand, I am positively excited about the trip. Even now, my heart starts to beat faster. It is so strange!
A few days ago I made up my mind to reduce my dose of antidepressants, and eventually stop taking them. So I feel more insecure and stressed now. But I hope I can handle it.
It is so strange that after all that my family has done to me, I still feel guilty. I guess I have Stockholm syndrome. I just want to get rid of that odd feeling.
Yesterday I contacted two model agencies in Tbilisi. They require my headshots. I should take them somehow and send them. It can also be a job opportunity. But I guess I am a bit old for modeling.
My alcoholic father wanted to hit me after seeing my new green shopping bag with the pronouns she/they. He was holding a knife. I don't know why. Maybe he wanted to cut me. He just was concerned about the neighbors again.
I feel less and less of the impact of antidepressants. I drank and danced a lot tonight to get the same feeling of happiness. But when I became sober, all I felt was pain again!
I found a few paid fellowships that I can apply for. It could be a possible solution to survive for some period of time.
People continue to tell me that transgender persons are killed in Georgia. It makes me feel even more concerned. I have doubts...
Today I am a bit angry. I guess it is because of ignorance. It is sad!
My mom called and told me that I must find a governmental job.
We spoke. She said that I need treatment for my strange behavior.
I hate my parents more and more every day. But I know I should set the anger inside me free.
Today I told my mom that I will leave home soon.
We met in Tbilisi and I continued to photograph her. She told me that even if she is not financially stable, she feels much safer in this city. Starting on June 28 Banu changed apartments three times, but eventually found a landlord who was nice to her and they even became friends. She said she felt less lonely in the city. She started looking for a job, but the fact she does not speak Georgian is a big problem. She wants to find a good job with normal working hours, so it would be safe for her.
She received some messages from her family and relatives who still were concerned the neighbors might know that Banu is freely living her life the way she wants to and that doesn’t suit the family. She was even accosted by some Azerbaijani women on the street who were unhappy about a transgender woman from Azerbaijan. They said it was shameful.
Banu told me that her mother tried to convince her to marry some girl and then to do whatever she wanted. Banu tried to explain that it will make even more people unhappy than just her: The response was “But the neighbors will not know.” For her mother, that was a more important reason than the happiness of her child.
Banu is a visual artist and performer, she experiments with photography, performance, video, sound and fashion to talk about issues such as identity, violence and transformation.
Banu came across an open call for queer artists for an exhibition in Berlin when she was in Baku. She applied and took part in this exhibition with her Polaroids. Then, when she arrived in Tbilisi, the curator of the above-mentioned exhibition wrote to her and invited her to perform at the Tes club in Tbilisi.
She had a successful performance playing the role of the serpent goddess Shahmaran. Banu told the story of Shahmaran, who had been betrayed by her lover. “According to legend, whoever eats Shahmaran's meat becomes immortal, so her lover tells the king where she has been hiding and the king kills and eats her,” she says.
In the second half of the performance, she speaks about her experience.
Now Banu has been living in Tbilisi for more than a month. She expresses herself as she wants to. She is without her family and her friends, almost alone. But she is liberated and she is not afraid of those closest to her - her family, whose only thought was just to make Banu look the way the neighbors would appreciate. But at the same time she is not feeling safe. In our last conversation Banu told me that a few days ago she was attacked by two young men near her house, which is far from the center. They said something in Georgian, beat her and pulled her hair. An old man came to her aid. Now she is looking for an apartment closer to the city center, because it seems safer to her and she thinks that people in central neighborhoods are less homophobic.
The story is produced with the help of Unit, a network of journalists and activists who work with LGBTIQ+ topics.