Out of work and without support: Trans* life in Azerbaijan during a pandemic
Aysu, a trans* woman, was killed in an apartment in the Azerbaijani capital this June.
“Aysu and several other trans* people were approached by a man on the night of 18 June. When he saw Aysu, he offered her a large amount of money and took her to his apartment. CCTV footage shows Aysu entering a block of flats and trying to leave a while later. However, a man grabs her by her hair and throws her back into the apartment. Later, we found out that Aysu was stabbed eleven times and murdered that night," says Seymur Nazar, a friend of Aysu’s.
A day later, another trans* woman was attacked in a car by a client who stabbed her in the throat and shoulder, but she managed to escape.
A strict lockdown has been in place in Azerbaijan since March due to the coronavirus outbreak. You can leave the house for just three hours and only after receiving SMS permission. All shops except for groceries are closed, and cafes, restaurants and entertainment venues are closed as well. Many people in the country have lost their jobs.
However, the restrictions have hit trans* people especially hard, where they already have a difficult time living in what is already considered Europe’s most homophobic and transphobic country according to human rights group ILGA.
To compile the ranking, human rights activists study a number of indicators in each country, in particular equality and lack of discrimination, the legal recognition of sex change, the fight against hate crime, and freedom of expression. According to all these indicators, Azerbaijan has topped the list of Europe’s most homophobic countries since 2016.
"We have to sell our bodies"
Trans* woman Nazrin (name altered for safety reasons – editor’s note), 36, rents an apartment together with five friends.
“This is a two-room apartment. There are six of us living here: four gay men, me, and my female friend, who is a trans* woman. We are renting it for 350 AZN (about 202 USD)," Nazrin says.
Nazrin and her female friend are sex workers.
"Nobody employs trans* people in Azerbaijan. For this reason, they have to provide sex services," Seymur Nazar says.
“We sell our bodies to earn money to rent an apartment, buy food and pay our utility bills," Nazrin explains. “Who or what organisation, what state will give me money for this, who will tell me, ‘Here is money for you to pay for your apartment, here is money for you to buy food and clothes’?”
“Aysu and other sex workers simply have to go out into the street amid the lockdown. Who would want to put their life at risk? Sex workers are persecuted and routinely harassed by the police, anyway," says Javid Nabiyev, an LGBTQI+ rights activist now living in Germany.
Nazrin has almost resigned herself to the fact that she will no longer be able to find another job in Azerbaijan (we say “almost” because after the interview she timidly asked the film crew if trans* people can be employed as journalists). However, the strict lockdown has deprived her of this income as well. She is now afraid of going outside after the murder of Aysu, and also because she is afraid of being fined 200 AZN (about 130 USD) for violating the lockdown.
Aysu and her friends had been fined several times. “You cannot go anywhere the police are patrolling the entire city. No, they do not detain us, but they impose fines that we are unable to pay right now. And then they begin harassing us, saying things like ‘What kind of people are you’, ‘you are neither women nor men’, ‘who needs you’,” Nazrin says. Now they have to, as Nazrin put it, “work over the phone”.
However, calls have almost stopped coming in in recent months, too.
“After the pandemic started, people got scared, we got fewer calls, they do not call us at all. Nobody comes anymore,” Nazrin complains.
"The murder occurred two days after the threats”
Trans* people in Azerbaijan cannot rely on help or support from their families or relatives.
"For example, if homosexual people don’t have a job and can’t support themselves or pay rent, they can go back to their families for a while and are not afraid of being kicked out, but trans* people cannot even rely on that option. They have no chance of going back home and families," says LGBTQI+ rights activist Javid Nabiyev.
Most trans* people have been disowned by their relatives. The latter are also often unaware of changes to their appearance. Many trans* Azerbaijanis run away from home and thoroughly hide their whereabouts from their families as they fear that they will be killed.
This is what happened to Aysu, her friends believe. A few months earlier, Azerbaijani blogger Ata Abdullayev circulated a video in which he showed a close-up of Aysu’s face. He was filming her at night on the empty streets of Baku without her consent.
“After the video was circulated, Aysu told her hairdresser that her uncle, who had recently been released from prison, had seen the video and was now looking for her. She was very afraid that he would find her,” Seymur Nazar says. A few days before the murder, her uncle found her and threatened to kill her.
That the murder was a premeditated one, her friends believe, is also suggested by the fact that when the man approached the several trans* women standing in the street, he “shined a light in their faces and, upon seeing Aysu, offered her a fairly large amount of money”.
The prosecutor’s office has now launched a criminal case into “premeditated murder”. Kanan Abdurakhmanov has been detained as a suspect. However, Seymur says, Aysu’s uncle is not named as a suspect.
Aysu’s body remained in the morgue for two days. Her friends buried her. Her family were not present at the funeral.
“What family would accept me being like this?”
Nazrin is not going to go back home - she has nobody to go back to.
“My mother gave birth to me as a son. What family would accept me being like this? Therefore, I have to take care of myself,” Nazrin says.
Because the lockdown in Azerbaijan has been in place for a fourth month now, and there is no way they can think of making an income, Nazrin and her friends have no choice but to accumulate debts.
“I have a lot of debts. I borrowed money because of the apartment, otherwise I would not be able to pay the rent," Nazrin explains. “I asked the owner if I could pay half of the amount, but he did not agree. He says if I object I should look for another apartment.”
For this reason, the six of them have to huddle in the tiny two-room apartment. "Sometimes we cannot find money to buy bread or cigarettes," Nazrin says. But the problem is not just the roof over her and others’ heads.
“Trans* people need constant hormone therapy as well,” Seymur Nazar explains. “Unfortunately, during the lockdown, they are unable to pay for their hormone therapy. For this reason, they are suffering. We have managed to raise the required amount for two to three trans* people several times. However, we are not able to raise money for everyone.”
Nazrin says that the female friend she is now sharing her place with has decided to go to radical measures because of the hardship.
“Because of these problems, she has decided to have her breast implants removed and go back home. She is going to go back in a couple of days. She is now going to have an operation,” Nazrin says.
Her friend lives in the Azerbaijani countryside. Her family does not know that she is a trans* woman.
“Nobody wants to help LGBTQI+ people”
Since the start of the lockdown in Azerbaijan, when many people lost their jobs and were left with no money to live on, civic activists launched charity campaigns to raise money and food to help those in need. Thousands of people in and outside the country have joined the campaigns. But even here, LGBTQI+ people never received aid.
“I will tell you about something that we came across in connection with a campaign,” Javid Nabiyev says. “Nobody wants to provide financial assistance within a campaign that has the letters LGBTI in it. The organizers of this campaign, too, refused to mention LGBTI, because they feared that this might put off those who wanted to provide financial assistance. And they decided to refuse to help LGBTI people rather than end up with no financial assistance at all.”
Nazrin is grateful even for the little help that she did receive during these four months. Back at the very beginning of the lockdown, she received a phone call from an organization that provided her some assistance, though she could not recall the name now. A friend of hers shared her bank card information on social media and people occasionally transfer small sums to it.
“By lending us a helping hand during these days of lockdown, you are not doing anything bad. On the contrary, you are doing a good thing. We are people just like you, just a little different,” Nazrin says.
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