This story was originally published in Russian on
The following are the stories of three girls trying to adapt in Azerbaijan’s homophobic society:
Nigyar didn’t spare time or effort for a meeting with me: we met in a crowded café in a shopping center on an unusually snowy day for Baku.
She is short, stocky, and brusque in her movements, like an adolescent. But her well-kept hair and precise makeup reveal a girl carefully looking after her external appearance. She is embarrassed and avoids making eye contact during our conversation. Her answers are fairly short and reserved, but at the same time, she doesn’t decline to give her real name, or where she studies: “No problem!” She has an open profile on Facebook with her real name and surname.
Looking at her, I suddenly remember a story that I saw on a local TV channel several years ago.
Journalists interviewed a lesbian girl at her home. I’ve forgotten the questions and answers, only the picture remains: how she awkwardly tried to hide behind the curtain of her hair, how she looked out from under her brow, how she gave short, sullen answers.
The girl I’m talking with, Nigyar, is not at all inclined to hide things. Her short answers are not a result of caution, but of the fact that she has a light-hearted outlook on some things.
Nigyar is 19 years old. She is a second-year student studying translation at Odlar Yurdu University. Those close to her – her cousins and some classmates – know of her sexual orientation.
“Everyone treats it as something normal”, she answers confidently.
Nigyar understood early in life – at the age of eight – that she is attracted to girls.
“When I saw scenes with kissing in films, I noticed that I like the girls more”. She had her first girlfriend as a 12 year-old: “We met online, in a chat room. She was 18. We talked on the phone often, she would come by to pick me up. I missed all of May in seventh grade because I was seeing her, we would spend almost the entire day together. There probably wasn’t any special love between us, just attraction. My mother suspected something and drummed up a scandal. In the end, the whole school found out. It’s understandable that nobody accepted this, I lost all my friends”.
It was then that Nigyar made her first attempt at coming out: she tried to tell her mother that she likes girls more. “Clearly she didn’t really understand this,” she says, “This conversation was later forgotten”.
Nigyar wasn’t in any way frightened by understanding herself: “From the age of twelve I began to read online about homosexual relationships, I learned all about them. Things weren’t strange or bad for me.
And indeed, she doesn’t consider herself a ‘minority’: “I think that the conception of oneself as ‘abnormal’ comes in large part from the family, and in my family I’m not pressured because they don’t know anything.”
According to Nigyar, this bothers her: “I would like to not hide. And indeed, I’m planning to come out after school, but things would be easier for me if my mother knew that I am a lesbian”.
Nigyar says her mother reacts aggressively to anything related to homosexuality.
“If she sees on TV that a homosexual was beaten or killed, she enthusiastically approves of this, saying ‘I would also kill them!’ I think that if she finds out about my orientation, she’ll disown me.”
It’s entirely possible the mother knows that ‘something’s off’ with her daughter: “She diligently takes care that I don’t socialize with girls, but at the same time has nothing against me interacting with guys.”
And Nigyar really did try to have relationships with guys: “Our neighbor, who lived in England, came here recently for his brother’s engagement. We began to write back and forth, to talk and see one another for about a month, but nothing came of this, it didn’t work out. I would go out with him, and look at the girls walking by. Even then he didn’t get it”.
“Where do you meet girls?” I ask Nigyar. “Primarily online,” she says, unconcerned. “But the relationships don’t always go far. Sometimes it’s just a kiss. Now I’m single. My last relationship lasted seven months, the longest, and ended two years ago. I love this girl to this day. But she doesn’t want to make up”.
Today, there are often bisexual people in her social circle, which consists of guys and girls older than her, 25-26 years-old. But the ‘Facebook community’ doesn’t always appeal to her: “Girls there sleep with whoever, take drugs, and I find this repugnant”.
In contrast to Nigyar, Narmina has encountered discrimination and unfair treatment in society on multiple occasions.
“I was part of the Young Students’ Organization at college. One of my close acquaintances was also part of it. Rumors spread that she was in a relationship with me. The girl wanted to run for chairperson of the organization, but the rumors reached the teachers as well. They wouldn’t permit her to become chairperson, arguing that, ‘We won’t allow for some lesbian to become chairperson here’.
But she wasn’t a lesbian.
“I didn’t wait for them to chase me from the organization, I left of my own accord. They didn’t even want to listen to me when I tried to explain that my friend was not a lesbian.
They found out about my orientation at the college. My relations with everyone came to an end, everyone talked about me behind my back and laughed at me to my face.
After this, at college, many guys wouldn’t allow their girlfriends to associate with me. Now I’m working. If they find out here, they’ll fire me: 90% of the people working here are homophobes”.
When someone is fired, they rarely write the real reason in a person’s employment record booklet. More often than not, they think up a reason. Although by law this can be contested, Narmina doesn’t want personal problems.
“If they find out at work, I’ll leave on my own, I’m not going to fight”.
Now the director periodically calls Narmina to his office and asks, ‘Do you have gay acquaintances?’
“He’s friends with me on Facebook, sees my publications and comments defending the LGBT community. He doesn’t directly accuse me of being a lesbian, and apparently thinks that I am just a humanist and on the side of homosexuals. He brings me to his office and sometimes talks with me, wanting to deter me from dangerous thoughts”, Carmina says.
In Narmina’s family they don’t know that she is lesbian.
“My parents are religious, they would never accept this. I remember my mother saying something like, ‘Better to die than to find out that one of your children is gay.’ Because of this, I stay quiet, I don’t think about the future, I’d just like to get through the present day”.
Narmina is very devoted to her mother.
“There were many times I wanted to tell her, ‘Mom, your beloved daughter was close to suicide.’”
Although Narmina isn’t materially dependent on her family, her attachment to her mother prevents her from leaving for a more ‘tolerant’ country.
Narmina went to a psychologist who was recommended to her: his patients supposedly include more than a few celebrities, and he graduated from Moscow State University. During the counseling process, the ‘psychologist’ began to make advances on Narmina.
“He assured me that he would arouse an interest in men in me. He said that he wouldn’t even take my virginity. It’s good that I didn’t meet with him in person, we just wrote back and forth; he’d planned for me to pay ‘in kind’ for the counseling”.
Dinara describes herself as ‘butch’. In local terminology, butch girls are lesbians with masculine bearing and behavior. She has a short haircut and mostly wears athletic clothing.
On the whole she is one of those people whose orientation is ‘written on her forehead’. In her family, Dinara was supported by her father, which is atypical for Azerbaijani men.
“My mother, on the other hand, is very aggressive and says offensive things to me. She says that I will bring misfortune to girls”.
Her mother forced her to break up with a girl she was in love with.
“She caught me when I was talking with her on the phone, took away the phone, cursed me out and beat me. Then she invited that girl over for a talk. As a result, she lost interest in me, and one fine day I received an invitation to her wedding”.
“Even though I’m an ‘issue’, although I’m butch, I am a Muslim, I observe oruj (fasting). Many people say to me, ‘Why are you fasting, it doesn’t count, you’re leading a lifestyle that is displeasing to God.’ Maybe I am sinning, but I try to fast and do good deeds so that Allah will forgive me my sins. Not long ago, one person said to me that I am shaytan (the devil). You wouldn’t believe it, I was so offended”.
Perhaps because of her age (she is seventeen) Dinara believes that the LGBT community is very harmed by ‘unrestricted passion’. She believes that if lesbian girls weren’t so temperamental, didn’t show their feelings in public, if there was more pure love, attitudes towards them would be better.
Now she has a girlfriend with whom she has been in a relationship for four years now.
“They try not to let us see each other, socialize, they impede us however they can. But we love each other a lot. I’m waiting for when we turn 18, so that I can leave here with her. She’s only sixteen. I’ll have to keep quiet for her sake”.
According to data from the yearly ILGA-Europe ranking, Azerbaijan is the most intolerant of all Europe. There are several reasons for this:
1. A lack of laws protecting LGBT people;
2. A lack of shelters for victims of domestic violence;
3. Crimes are committed because of intolerance towards LGBT people;
4. Government representatives voice intolerance towards LGBT people without any consequences for their careers.
It’s very hard to find any sort of statistics on the LGBT community in Azerbaijan. Official statistics are not kept. The police do not put crimes against LGBT people in some sort of separate category. The only sources for more or less large-scale research are gay groups on social networks (with around 3000 members, as a rule) and the only Azerbaijani gay site, gay.az, where 1414 users are registered.