Let’s imagine a society where you live with such a frightful secret that if you are to reveal it, your family could disown you.
The neighbors will call you sick and look at you as a source of disease.
Everyone you know – or even anyone you don’t – will hate you if they find out. They’ll accuse you of being in violation of not only society’s rules, but nature itself.
Welcome to Azerbaijan – the land of fire.
Religion and patriarchal values, toxic masculinity in society and stigmatization is the core of marginalization here.
It’s also important to mention the homophobic, biphobic and transphobic state policies at play in Azerbaijan, getting their influence from neighboring countries like Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Territorial conflict with Armenia also escalates the hate speech towards us. People think: ‘We need a real man to fight against the enemy’.
Considering the political climate, even ‘democrats’ who are fighting for human rights will marginalize LGBTI people.
There is no sense of allyship. There is an opinion, if you support LGBTI people, it means you are also one of them. The ruling regime routinely uses this as a tool to discredit the opposition.
When it comes to debate around LGBTI rights, it’s titled not as right of the individual, but as ‘gay propaganda’ from western countries.
The hostile situation for LGBTI people escalates
In September 2017, the LGBTI community in Baku – the country’s capital – witnessed a series of sudden arbitrary arrests.
Their crime? For existing as LGBTI.
The authorities beat them, tortured them with electric shocks, forced them to undergo traumatic medical examinations, shaved their heads, sexually abused them and were then forced to reveal the locations of their LGBTI friends, as well as sign fake statements.
The move caused an even greater lack of trust between LGBTI people and law enforcement in Azerbaijan. Fear of revealing their identity makes it impossible for LGBTI people in general to have access to the justice system.
Our very existence causes us to be excluded from social, economic and political life. Azerbaijan continually places towards the bottom of countries in Europe for LGBTI rights.
Last year, Azerbaijan came last, with just 4.7% progress on LGBTI issues.
We look to the Stonewall riots for inspiration
And now imagine there being a way out.
What if you could share with someone this secret? What if people gave you a huge hug when they heard your great secret and still accepted you as who you are, as an equal, and respected your existence?
The fight that began 50 years ago on the streets of New York City continues around the world, as well as in Azerbaijan.
Just like at the Stonewall riots, the fight for LGBTI citizens’ rights in Azerbaijan is about these two distinct worlds. This fight is a call for acceptance.
I cannot recall another LGBTI rights movement in recent history that had such an impact. People at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago set the foundation for LGBTI people working towards equality around the world today.
Learning from Stonewall helps to shape our own movement – to move from the margins to the mainstream.
The fight of LGBTI rights in Azerbaijan
In 2006, the root of mobilization of the LGBTI community in Azerbaijan began with the creation of the first organization established under the name Gender and Development.
Since then, the pervasive discrimination and inequality motivated a group of activists to mobilize further.
Back in 2012, two organizations – Azad (Free) LGBT and Nafas (Breath) LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance – also came about, to work for social change and political reforms.
But in January 2014, Isa Shahmarli, founder of Azad LGBT died by suicide by hanging himself with a rainbow flag.
This tragedy sparked an increase in LGBT activism in Azerbaijan.
From that moment, we brought our underground work out into the public and organized a press conference. We marked the day of his death as National Day Against Phobia.
In 2014, we organized a pride march and this led us to our first LGBT-Gender Forum.
In 2016, we established US-based NGO Minority Azerbaijan, which covers education, entertainment and current affairs issues about LGBTI people in Azerbaijan.
Our work contributes to awareness and visibility of LGBTI citizens, while also empowering individuals to come out safely, mobilize and speak for themselves.
In May 2014, we conducted the ‘President, Answer!’ campaign during Azerbaijan’s term as the chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.
Then in 2015, European Parliament addressed the issues of LGBTI people in Azerbaijan in its resolution.
In 2018, we campaigned the United Nations for change and Azerbaijan received eight sexual orientation and gender identity-specific recommendations by member states.
My activism affected my ability to stay in my home country.
I faced persecution for my activist work, so I had to leave Azerbaijan in 2015. When I left, I continued my fight in Germany, but now as a refugee.
I was honored and felt support from my community when I delivered the statement at the UN, during the 39th Human Rights Council session.
‘The spirit of Stonewall is calling’
It’s important to always remember the Stonewall riots. Hate and norms in our societies have become a source of struggle for many LGBTI individuals.
For the rest of us, regardless of who we are, this fight should matter.
Violation of one individual’s freedom and right for life means that everyone’s rights are threatened.
In the next 50 years, we can make our communities inclusive for all if everyone just understands that LGBTI rights are vital. To live freely and equally is the right of each individual.
Over the next 50 days, Gay Star News will be marking this 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall Riots.
Our Stonewall 50 Voices series will bring you 50 guest writers from all around the world, with a focus on the diversity of our global LGBTI community. They will be discussing the past, present and future of our struggle for love and liberation.