Running from Homophobia in Azerbaijan

Narmina Gulamova is a fashion designer. At the age of 26 she changed her life in one day: she collected ‌her things, crossed the border with Georgia and applied for a visa to Europe to escape her family.

Narmina Gulamova is a fashion designer. At the age of 26 she changed her life in one day: she collected ‌her things, crossed the border with Georgia and applied for a visa to Europe.

Narmina did so because she had been summoned to the police, who demanded that she perjure herself in a case against a political dissident.

When she refused, she was shown a video in which intimate scenes of Narmina with her friend had been captured.

Narmina is lesbian. She hid her sexual orientation from her family and society, but with close friends whom she could trust, she has been open.

“I can not say that I lived in a country more difficult than other women. Had I been born a heterosexual and not lesbian, discrimination and harassment would still have been  inevitable. Yes, I hid my girlfriends, hid my relationships with them. But do not heterosexual girls do the same – do they not hide their relationships with men? Can they live in a civil marriage? Is it possible for every girl to marry the one she wants?”

The only thing that bothered Narmina was the idea of her family knowing.

She did not want her parents and close relatives to know her secret. Although she was born and raised in a modern, secular family and had a happy childhood, Narmina knew her family would not be able to accept her homosexuality.

“The police had all my data. They knew everything about my family. They knew perfectly well that I would be afraid that this video could fall into the hands of my relatives …”

Narmina promised the police to say what had been demanded of her. But, having left the police department, she decided to escape.

“The loss of conscience for the false testimony would have been much stronger than the sense of guilt in front of my parents … and so I decided to run away. I thought: they will not find me, that’s all. It will not make sense to show the video to my family.”

Thus, Narmina sent herself into exile in the course of a day. Now she lives in France and has entered university.

But her life is not the same as before. Narmina does not have enough of her familiar surroundings, friends – of whom she had many – and Baku.

“Had there not been this issue of blackmail with the video, I would continue to live there. I had good friends, an interesting environment, a bright life. But now I do not regret that I left. I would not be able to create a family there, or live with the person I love…”

Artist Babi Badalov is already approaching 50. He left Azerbaijan ten years ago, and received refugee status in France. Babi was born in the Talysh-settled province of Lerik.

In his youth he served in the Soviet army, after that he lived for a long time in Russia. In the nineties, when a wave of nationalistic and anti-immigrant speeches swept through Russia, Babi returned to Azerbaijan in search of a quieter life. But he did not find peace in his homeland.

“For many years I lived in Russia. In the nineties I returned to my homeland and wanted to settle there. But I only got on for a few days: life in Azerbaijan was tragic for me. Because of my sexual orientation, I faced blackmail, threats. I had to escape from there, to stay alive, to continue my activities. I received phone calls from strangers who made appointments with me and then intimidated me and tried to blackmail me. Once I learned that someone was trying to kill me: my own brother and nephews were the organizers. They wanted to kill me. They said that you are homosexual, you have AIDS, hepatitis, you infect and destroy our youth. They said that I should be isolated from society.”

Babi turned to different international and cultural organizations to leave the country. In 2006, Oxford İnternational Workshop Babi was selected from 500 artists, and he was invited to France. Babi at the end of the program applied for asylum and remain there forever.

Babi says homosexuals in the Soviet era had no idea how LGBT peoples lived in Western countries: they thought that such people everywhere live in fear and hide their orientation.

“I loved my mother very much. The tattoo on my neck is her portrait. My mom for me was … a universe apart, a whole universe. But no matter how much I loved her, I could not open up to her, I couldn’t come out to her. I didn’t even consider it. It was impossible”.

Babi says gays can’t live openly in Azerbaijan.

“In Azerbaijan, I have never felt free. I could not wear the shirts I want, or choose the color of my clothing. In Azerbaijan, everything – your clothes, your behavior, your life – is controlled by society. The people, like dictators, write the script of your life. Now I live in France. Due to the fact that I lived all my life while under someone else’s control, now I’m using the freedom that this country has given me…”

Amelie is transgender. She is a woman in a man’s body. Amelie left Azerbaijan when she was 20 years old, and she studied medicine up through her third year.

From an early age, Amelie realized that she does not feel like a boy.

“When I was three or four years old, I already felt like a girl. Playing with dolls, I showed them maternal tenderness. I liked girls clothes. When I started going to school, when my parents took me to their weddings, I looked at the girls, at their clothes and thought that I, too, should dress like that, but for some reason they dress me differently… I did not understand many things, but I felt that I was not a boy. I felt closer to girls and their behavior – I wanted to be the same”.

As a child, she did not talk about her feelings to her family and is now confident that she did the right thing. Amelie believes that if her relatives had previously learned that psychologically she was a woman, she would have been made to take hormones as a child. Well, or have done something else to turn her into a “real boy”.

In the seventh grade, Amelie began to secretly use cosmetics. She wanted to dress up like a girl, but when the house noticed this, scandals began. Her parents made her do sports so that she looked more like a boy. Took her to a psychiatrist, who told her to talk more with boys. But none of this lead to anything.

“I was badly beaten when they found out about the cosmetics. I wanted to kill myself. I drank a lot of pills. I was not even taken to the doctor, so that no one would know about the attempted suicide. At that time, I did not understand what was happening. I did not know that there are transgender people, whose physiology is different from the internal, psychological state. When I was in the ninth grade, I learned from the Internet what it means to be transgender was and finally understood what was ‘wrong’ with me. Since then, my most cherished dream was to change my body into that of a woman and to become a doctor – a successful transgender doctor who would then teach people to understand and recognize people like myself”.

Amelie’s desire to enter medical university in the family was not understood. Relatives said the medical institute receives girls, and we, they say, will give you into the army or the police, as a man. Her relatives began to hide textbooks from her. But Amelie’s perseverance won, and she entered university with high scores.

“In the first years I was already experiencing new problems. I wanted to grow long, beautiful hair, to put on makeup, to dress up. At the institute they mocked me, called me a girl, even the professors and doctors were on the side of my abusers”.

In the second year, Amelie admitted to fellow students and family that she wants to have an operation to correct her sex. From that moment her life turned into a nightmare.

“The family called a man, a close relative. He shaved my hair and brutally beat me. I was told that they would kill me, and the police would be given a bribe, and nothing would happen to them. At the institute, classmates went to the dean’s office and complained about me: said that I was a pervert, I had to be urgently expelled from the university. I was summoned to the dean’s office and asked to behave decently. One time my classmate tried to strangle me in front of other students. Holding me by the throat he told me he would rape me, kill me and throw my corpse in the trash. He said that his father was rich and could easily pay off the police with money. He did it in front of everyone, and no one protected me. Even when I complained to the dean, the dean said that this is how I really should be treated…”

Then the family kicked Amelie out of the house. For two weeks she wandered around the city without money, without a place to spend the night. She had two choices – to commit suicide or engage in prostitution.

“But I told myself that I will not do this. I found another way out of the situation. I returned home, and swore to my family that I would be as they want. However, the money I eventually got from them – tuition, pocket money, tutoring – was saved for the operation I would eventually have…”

However, Amelie’s family did not stop trying to turn her into a “real man”. “Once I learned that members of my family were going to pay for me to go to a psychiatrist and get a document from him that I was crazy in order to imprison me in a psychiatric clinic. Then I got really scared. I applied for a visa to the German embassy. I waited for the answer on the street, and did not go home out of fear. I got the visa, and now I’m in Germany”. Here Amelie plans to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor and having a sex-change operation.

“We transgender people have it worse than homosexuals. They [homosexuals] struggle merely with homophobia in society. But we have to fight with our own body. I’ve always hated my body. And I hope I can change it…”

LGBT individuals find it difficult to find their place in Azerbaijan’s conservative-minded society. Despite the fact that homosexual acts have been decriminalized since 2000, persecution due to sexual orientation is still a relatively common occurrence. It starts in the family and continues into school, universities, work…the street.

This harassment forces LGBT individuals to seek life abroad, where society is more accepting.

The editor-in-chief of the magazine Minority, which specializes in LGBT issues, Samad Ismailzadeh, says that statistics on how many people seek refuge in other countries are not kept. But according to the magazine’s editors, every year 55-60 LGBT-Azerbaijanis leave Azerbaijan for good.

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