“We don’t look at gender in our language, so why do we look at it in life?”
So runs the opening query from the “O” Campaign launched by the Azeri organization Azad. Founded in 2012 to create a safe space for Azerbaijan’s LGBTQ community, Azad takes a holistic approach to creating progressive change in the country.
After briefly scrolling through the campaign’s opening montage, the opening line springs quickly into view. It represents the starting point for a series of videos designed to encourage Azeri viewers to analyze gender and sexuality in the context of their own language and culture. At the end of these videos, visitors are directed to Azad’s Toolkit, which features research devoted to LGBTQ life in Azerbaijan.
The campaign draws heavily from Azeri’s unique nuances. In the Azeri language, the letter “O” stands in for the gendered pronouns that exist in many other languages, including English. This subtle nod to the fluidity of gender and sexuality is one Azad hopes to capitalize on. By emphasizing the LGBTQ-friendly components of Azeri culture, the organization hopes to remind the country of its tolerant foundations.
A large component of Azad’s work involves building bridges with all parts of Azeri society. This much is reflected in the organization’s mission statement, which expresses a commitment to developing ties with local artists and NGOs, as well as working with educators and media to improve LGBTQ representation in all walks of life. This community-based approach is probably one reason Azad’s outreach efforts have been so successful.
But this success also highlights the nation’s growing pains when it comes to protecting the rights of its non-heterosexual and transgender population.
Azerbaijan has a mixed history when it comes to the LGBTQ community. In 2000, an old Soviet law forbidding homosexual interactions between men was repealed, a move which many Azeris applauded. The country has also passed laws allowing lesbian and gay citizens to serve in the military, with similar allowances for transgender individuals.
Such progressive indicators aside, homosexuality and gender fluidity remain controversial within Azeri society. Religious and cultural norms die hard, and while Azerbaijan has a far more tolerant record on LGBTQ rights than Russia, it also has much in common with its notoriously homophobic neighbor. Some anti-gay laws are still on the books in Azerbaijan, dating back to when the country was under Soviet control. Many blame this Russian influence for the country’s persistent homophobia.
Then there are the individual stories of persecution. In 2014, a gay couple was forced into hiding after holding a small engagement ceremony in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. Local news networks broke the story of the couple’s engagement, after private Facebook photos were publicly distributed. Subsequent hate mail and threats prompted the couple to hastily disappear. “We received homophobic verbal attacks,” Javid Nabiyev, one of the two men involved, told The Guardian. “Some people said ‘You should die, I’ll kick you in the street, I’ll kill you.’”
Incidents like these are hardly uncommon. Many LGBTQ Azeris report experiencing violence at the hands of their families and fellow community members, while others suffer harassment and discrimination.
In the decades since the USSR’s collapse, it has proven challenging to create safe spaces for LGBTQ communities in ex-Soviet states, whether in Azerbaijan or its neighboring countries. Kyrgyzstan has, for example, long been considering a bill comparable to Russia’s anti-LGBTQ propaganda law. Kazakhstan only recently rejected a similar piece of legislation. These struggles speak to the polarized climate in which many LGBTQ individuals live, as well as the precarious nature of legal systems that both support and undermine their rights in Central Asia’s former Soviet nations.
In the midst of this complex environment, websites like Azad are an invaluable resource for increasing tolerance toward Azerbaijan’s LGBTQ community – particularly since the government has done little to protect this community from discrimination and persecution.
Projects like the “O” Campaign are a core component of Azad’s work. Through these concerted, phased efforts at engaging Azeri society, Azad is working to spark a national dialogue that leads to broad acceptance of LGBTQ citizens. Incorporating the Azeri language into this campaign for equal rights is only one ingenious method for achieving this goal.
Still, it may be quite some time before systemic homophobia is routed from Azerbaijan, as witnessed by the past two years, which have been particularly challenging for LGBTQ Azeris. In January 2014, İsa Şahmarlı, Azad’s former chairman, hung himself with a rainbow flag after experiencing years of discrimination. Radio Free Europe reported his suicide note as reading, “This world is not colorful enough for my colors. Farewell.”
While devastating, Şahmarlı’s death served to unify many Azeris. Two of Şahmarlı’s friends began a photo campaign entitled “Love is Love”, which promoted solidarity with the country’s LGBTQ population.
In relying on domestic, grassroots support, Love is Love and the “O” Campaign create sustainable activism driven by Azeris themselves. They also carry transnational implications. The Love Is Love movement attracted support from all over the world, including from many ex-Soviet nations, a heartening sign in a region that has struggled to define itself apart from Russia.
Despite the many challenges ahead, Azeris are working to build progressive and open spaces for their LGBTQ community. Azad’s “O” Campaign is only one example of these efforts, and clearly highlights the power of Azeri culture and history in these endeavors. While drawing connections between linguistics and gender norms may not immediately erase homophobia and transphobia, it has already prompted many Azeris to reconsider their own attitudes and prejudices.
It is through small achievements like these that Azerbaijan’s LGBTQ community will ultimately achieve equality.