Vahid Ali has been an LGBT and gender rights activist for the past 3 years, during which he has lead trainings and independent research in several organizations. Currently, he is working on a pocket – sized book which will discuss LGBT and gender issues. His recent blog, which touches on questions of discrimination against sexual minorities in patriarchal societies, drew him to our attention.
Vahid Bey, what are the career issues faced by sexual minorities in Azerbaijan today?
First of all, I’d like to note that the majority of LGBT individuals are against the term, “sexual minority”. There are a few reasons for this: the expression “sexual minority” simply reminds LGBT individuals that they are the victims of discrimination and being in a minority. The LGBT collective would prefer to not be a separate minority, but rather be accepted as a part of society. Moreover, the term “sexual minority” encompasses things such as BDSM, swingers and other sexual practices.
Career issues of LGBT individuals depend on how they are accepted by society. But it is not only careers that are problematic for LGBT individuals – it is their entire lives. At the root of all issues of LGBT individuals is the heteronormative mentality. And the reason for this heteronormative mentality is the patriarchal, androcentric nature of society. Discrimination in the work place against LGBT individuals can come out in different ways… While being hired, while being fired, during training sessions. As a rule, LGBT individuals in Azerbaijan are not “out.” The reason for this is that they can encounter many issues in their work, education and other opportunities if they do.
If they express themselves, they are subjected to hazing and isolation from both homophobes and ‘transphobes.’
Unlike heterosexuals, they are not deprived of rights such as paternity and maternity leave, financial aid, receiving financial credit and so on.
Does this problem of LGBT individuals being pushed into the arts and cosmetics industry exist only in patriarchal societies, as in ours, or does it exist across the world?
Of course, in more liberal – minded societies, LGBT individuals don’t face such problems. All of their rights are defended by the legislation. But in patriarchal societies such as ours, LGBT individuals are forced into cosmetics and the arts. If we look at, say, Russia and Turkey, you can see pretty much the same picture.
Despite the fact that discrimination exists everywhere, there are big differences between modern and more traditional societies. What is this difference, in your opinion?
The discrimination faced by LGBT individuals in more modern and progressive societies can be both identical to the one faced by LGBT in this part of the world but it can also be of a completely different nature. It all depends on the context. But the general picture is completely different. Today, in modern societies, LGBT organizations help to secure rights for trans – individuals. Traditional societies are barely willing to allow LGBT individuals the right to life. They look at them as ill, as cursed, as sinners – as the descendants of Lot from the bible. For traditional societies, these people may as well have come from another planet.
In such societies such as ours in Azerbaijan, discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity can be observed in many different realms: the presence of a heteronormative atmosphere in education and homophobic behavior of teachers threatens the quality of education received by LGBT individuals. Trans – women come across especially difficult challenges in their education. Education is directly linked to finding work. For that reason, trans – women often come across barriers in their preferred line of work and they are forced to work in the sex industry.
But if they
hired, then they also come up against a number of problems. They can’t openly talk about their sexual orientation nor their gender identity, because they are sure that they will be subjected to discrimination and they could even be fired. If they are fired for such reasons, finding new work becomes even harder – because they have already been subject to shame and mockery, and their sexual orientation or gender identity has become public knowledge.
The fields you mentioned above – cosmetics, beauty salons, the arts – are these naturally appealing to LGBT individuals or are they forced into them?
Patriarchal societies do not consider homosexuals as men. According to our binary society, only a woman can like men. And for that reason, they look at homosexuals as if they were women. This social pressure influences the lives of homosexuals. And in such a way, some homosexuals may begin themselves to think that they do indeed have more with women – and so they express their feminine side. Society then begins to associate them with the trades and professions I mentioned above.
You mentioned in your blog how many people at work are forced to hide their sexual identity. But don’t you think that in doing so, in hiding this part of themselves for the sake of work, they are sending a message of the heteronormative majority that “yes, you’re right. Homosexuality is a bad thing”?
Feminists often don’t appreciate when someone, especially a man, tells them what would be better or worse for a woman. And of course, I can’t say that everyone should openly speak about their gender identity or their sexual orientation. I would like to note, however, that the reason for the success of the LGBT community in the West was that its members got tired of hiding, and they wanted to let everyone know that they did indeed exist, that LGBT individuals are everywhere, and for that reason must be considered a part of society.
What steps should be taken, in your opinion, to support LGBT individuals and to deal with discrimination in the work place?
The problem of sexual orientation and gender identity is a political one, really. It depends on the politics of the nation. If a law is passed “On the prohibition of discrimination”, then such cases of discrimination in schools, work places, the police, army and medical center would dramatically decrease.
Many people that work in this sphere also think that educating the people could be an alternative to a legislative approach. I think it’s more reasonable to employ a more radical approach. The problems of LGBT individuals and women are political, and should be included in the political platform of a party.