Azerbaijan's first LGBT magazine

Photographer and editor Samed Ismayilzade has been living in the U.S for several years. In December of 2015, Samed and his friends launched a magazine called “Minority.” The paper, one of the first of its kind, discusses issues of the LGBT community in Azerbaijan. Samed agreed to answer some of Meydan TV’s questions about the paper and the LGBT community in Azerbaijan. 

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Cover page of first copy of 'Minority'
Cover page of first copy of 'Minority'

Samed, when did your interest in LGBT issues begin? Could you give us a brief history of your activities in this field?

I’ve been interested in LGBT issues since 2013. The turning point for me was the death of Isa Shahmarli, and our society’s reaction to it. It was as if I had woken up from a dream. Before this event, I had not really felt the hatred around me that much. Then I started to take part in international seminars on LGBT and human rights. Activists from various countries inspired me. I had already decided what sector I wanted to be in when I came to America to study, and as a first step, we launched the magazine “Minority”, which specializes in LGBT problems and issues.

What can you say about LGBT representatives in Azerbaijan, their number, situation, workplaces and main activities?

Azerbaijan is not a favorable place for LGBT representatives. You can live a so-called standard life in Azerbaijan, you can have pleasant enough days, but you will never be happy. One cannot be happy without fully expressing himself/herself, or by constantly feeling fear, hatred and many other negative feelings. However, I can say with confidence that the LGBT community in Azerbaijan is quite big. It is hard to give a precise number, because LGBT people do not talk about themselves. Their life is
divided into two parts: the one that they show to everyone and the one that only their close circle of friends knows. Everyone is simply in their own shell, busy with problems in their own micro-world. They are not engaged in uninteresting issues such as uniting, changing things and serving common interests. Most of them find themselves by working in arts, beauty salons or as sex workers. This is related to their way of thinking, life conditions and choices.

Is there homophobia in Azerbaijan? If yes, how is it expressed? 

There is a general phobia in Azerbaijan: being scared of everything and everyone. These include  business women, intellectuals, people living free lives, people who do not pay attention to what their neighbors say, those who are not dependent on their parents, and of course of the LGBT community. Homophobia is shown in its most primitive way by women, and it sounds approximately like this: “Soon there will be no men left to marry!” 

Men’s biggest fears of gay - related themes arises from the possibility that their future son might be gay. Because in Azerbaijan, most men take pride in how many women their son’s sexual organ makes “happy”.

Other people base their views on religion and say that homosexuality is sinful, and think that every insult and abuse they show toward LGBT people is added to their good deeds in preparation for Doomsday, and that this is a way for them to get into Paradise. These people think that LGBT people will go to Hell anyways, so why don’t they get used to it now…? But Islam calls this type of behavior sinful, and that it goes against the teachings of the Qu’ran.

Do LGBT people have problems such as having to hide or finding partners?

As I mentioned before, there is quite a large LGBT community in Azerbaijan. That is why they do not have problems finding partners. They have a life behind the curtains, which can even be interesting. But making this life public can lead to huge problems. 

What is the outcome of the pressure placed on LGBT people? Are there a lot of cases of suicides, immigration, withdrawal from society and others?

This is a very individual issue. Everyone has his/her own level of immunity to these pressures. Some LGBT people take insults in stride, but some are fatally traumatized by them. In most cases, if their finances allow for it, they try to immigrate to other countries. But, I think these emotional traumas remain with them for life. Suicide cases are wide spread, but lives that are lived behind closed doors also end behind closed doors and the real reason remains unknown. 

Apart from Isa Shahmarli, there have been dozens of suicide cases in Azerbaijan on the grounds of sexual orientation. But
parents do not allow these records to be put in police reports. Only their friends and family know about this. Recently, a woman killed herself because she was a lesbian,. At least, that’s what her close friends said - but her family rejected this version. Do you understand how miserable it is to be rejected even after one’s death? That is why I am saying with confidence and determination that people who want to commit suicide because of sexual orientation have to stop. Death will not change anything, you can only change things for yourself and for others, by living.

What can you say about LGBT people who are creating organizations, and engaging in public activities? 

There are two organizations in Azerbaijan that do a lot of work in this field: one is “Nefes” (Breath) LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance” and “Azad (Free) LGBT” which was established by Isa Shahmarli and which became a symbol of fighting for all of us. Registering these organizations is problematic. Organizations that have LGBT in their names do not get registered and this puts a huge barrier in front of their activities. Because international organizations cannot support them financially; their activities become limited to small projects, or they pay for their own costs. I am also talking about security support. For example, recently, the Dutch Embassy in Baku showed the movie “My Child” – produced in Turkey and talks about the parents of LGBT people – and guaranteed full security in the venue.  That is why those who came to watch the movie were not afraid of anything. For an individual to express himself/herself, the sense of security is as important as oxygen and water.

Isa Shahmarli, the founder of Azerbaijan's LGBT NGO, 'Azad' (free), committed suicide in early 2014
Isa Shahmarli, the founder of Azerbaijan's LGBT NGO, 'Azad' (free), committed suicide in early 2014

Does the media use correct language when publishing news about LGBT people? Does the media refrain from homophobia when writing about LGBT people? 

The language used in the news about LGBT people is directly proportionate to the news entity’s credibility and its overall image. In order to draw attention, some websites share irritating articles and ignore journalistic objectivity. However, there is an unexpected positive aspect to this: regardless of the specific content of this news, people start thinking about the topic and to express their views – right or wrong, and accept the fact that LGBT people exist, and that they live in the same country with them. 

A marriage proposal video of an American gay couple caused wide discussion in our media. What girl in Azerbaijan has been proposed to by a guy who bent down on one knee in the centre of the city, or which guy can do this without being afraid of a public scolding? This is a rhetorical question and this is the real reason for negative attitude to that video.

And finally, what do those who write for your magazine want to talk about?

Mostly, it is people who want to tell their stories. We read all of them, we haven’t shared any yet. There are those who share their advice or say they want to help. Interesting fact is that those who want to help are mostly heterosexuals. This makes us very happy and inspires us.