Active Citizens, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Europe, Gender Identity, Human Rights, LGBTQ

Suicide Brings Azerbaijan’s LGBT Community Out of the Closet

Shakhmarli is laid to rest the day after his suicide. Credit: Free LGBT

Shakhmarli is laid to rest the day after his suicide. Credit: Free LGBT

BAKU, Feb 7 2014 (EurasiaNet) - The suicide of a gay rights activist in Azerbaijan is prompting the country’s LGBT community to become more assertive in fighting for civil rights.
Isa Shakhmarly, the head of the Free LGBT non-governmental organisation, died on Jan. 22, using a rainbow flag to hang himself in his Baku apartment. He was 20. In a suicide note, he faulted Azerbaijani society at large for pushing him to take his life. “This world… is not able to hold my colours,” the note stated.

“Isa has died, but his fight for equality of all people in Azerbaijan will continue.” -- Javid Nabiyev

The LGBT community until now has kept a relatively low profile in socially conservative Azerbaijan. But Shakhmarly’s death catalysed Azerbaijani activists to take public action. On Jan. 27, over 20 activists held a news conference in Baku to announce plans for a signature drive for fresh legislation to protect sexual minorities, and for an outreach campaign and a hotline that could provide psychological counseling. They also designated Jan. 22 as a “Day of Pride in Azerbaijan’s LGBT Community.”

The Jan. 27 news conference marked the first such event held in Baku by LGBT activists, and took place without incident. A flash-mob event in downtown Baku area to memorialise Shakhmarly also did not experience any disturbances.

In planning their civil rights campaign, LGBT activists intend to capitalise on the fact that Azerbaijan will assume the chairmanship in May of the Council of Europe, one of the continent’s leading human-rights watchdog organisations.

“We will use this opportunity to demand further reforms in this area,” said Javid Nabiyev, a friend of Shakhmarly and the leader of Nefes (Breath), an LGBT non-profit organisation.

On Jan. 24, the Council of Europe’s rapporteur on LGBT rights, Robert Bedron, issued a statement of concern about Shakhmarly’s suicide.

The civil rights campaign in Azerbaijan is fraught with the potential for civil tension to spill over into confrontation, similar to that which occurred in neighbouring Georgia last May. Homosexuality has not been a criminal offence in Azerbaijan since 2000, and the constitution proclaims the “equality of all people.” But most Azerbaijanis are not accepting of public displays of same-sex relationships or identity. Gay clubs do not exist.

“We are not accepted by society — by parents, relatives, neighbours, classmates and so on,” Nabiyev declared at the news conference. “Some people avoid us, while others show open intolerance.”

Shakhmarly’s friends claim that the young man lived alone – an unusual status in this communal society – since his family did not accept his homosexuality. His suicide did not appear an impromptu decision; the day before his death, he reportedly paid off all of his debts.

A member of parliament who asked not to be named suggested that new legislation, as proposed by the LGBT activists, would do little in practice to gain LGBT Azerbaijanis a greater degree of mainstream social acceptance.  “The law cannot change people’s attitudes. Better educational work is needed,” the MP said.

Azerbaijan’s legislation already is in sync “with European [Council of Europe] standards for LGBT-rights’ protection,” asserted the MP, who works on social-welfare issues. “There is no need to approve a new law.”

Parliament will not discuss any bill on the topic, he predicted.

LGBT activists directed their public frustration more at society than at officials, but causes for concern about the government do exist. While several LGBT-rights groups exist in Azerbaijan, none have been registered officially as non-governmental organisations, including Shakhmarly’s Free LGBT group.

Although no official record of violence against sexual minorities exists, police do not always listen to complaints about prejudice or harassment, commented Free LGBT activist Gulnara Azimzade. She said going to the police was “often useless because the police attitude toward us is often humiliating.”

The government has not commented on Shakhmarly’s death or responded to the activists’ remarks contained in his suicide note.  Azerbaijani media reports about Shakhmarly’s suicide and subsequent events have tended to be either sympathetic or neutral. But the mood is different online, where many social-network and forum users, particularly those stressing their Islamic beliefs, have left aggressively homophobic denunciations of Shahkmarly and other members of the LGBT community.

Similar hostility was on display at Shakhmarly’s funeral in the strongly conservative Baku suburb of Bina. Some residents threw stones at Shakhmarly’s friends and their cars as a protest against burying a gay man in the local cemetery. The burial occurred only after a Bina mullah stated that a person’s past cannot prevent his interment.

For LGBT activist Nabiyev and others, thrown stones and name-calling won’t deter them from agitating for their rights. “Isa has died, but his fight for equality of all people in Azerbaijan will continue,” Nabiyev said.

Editor’s note: Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.
 
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