It is impossible to find out even approximately how many people there are in the LGBT community in Azerbaijan because most of them thoroughly hide their sexual orientation. In Azerbaijan, which has been named Europe's most homophobic country for a fifth time, homosexuals not only do not openly talk about their sexuality but hide it even from those closest to them and have serious reasons for doing so.
"Tell my mom that I love her very much"
Isa Shakhmarli, the only homosexual in the country who came out as gay, openly defended LBGT rights. He hanged himself in 2014. Shortly before he committed suicide, he wrote his last post on Facebook: "I am leaving… This country, this world are not for me… I am leaving to be happy. Tell my mom that I love her very much… Farewell."
The 20-year-old's family did not allow his friends to attend his funeral, and they had to visit Isa's grave secretly after he was buried. Acquaintances said Isa committed suicide because of conflicts between him and his family. Shortly before he committed suicide, his parents had disowned him, with his mother saying that she did not have a homosexual son.
Gulnara Mehdiyeva of the Organization of Azerbaijani Minorities speaks about what may happen to LGBT people if they come out as gay:
"There was a gay guy from Sumgayit. After learning about his sexuality, his father beat him up, kicked him out of their home and even went to his son's workplace and got him fired. There was also a case where a mother tried to set fire to her child. It happened in 2014. They beat him using a belt, and there were awful abrasions to the boy's body after he was beaten. There was also a case where a mother totally disowned her son and refused to meet with him."
"I will kill you if you do not change"
Samira (name changed), 23, from Baku, says that she came out to her mother when she was 15, almost immediately after she realized that she was gay. Her mother did not take her seriously and said that it would all pass when she grew up. However, her brother's reaction was absolutely different. He lived in Moscow back then and, with his parents agreement, took his sister to live with him. There, Samira, who was a teenager then, went through all circles of hell.
"He gave me a hard time, beat me and insulted me for a year. He said – I will kill you if you do not change. He gave me tablets, he said that I was sick and that he would cure me," she says. "A year later I pretended that I was allegedly 'cured', that I had feelings for boys and that I wanted to get married when I grew up. He believed me and took me to Azerbaijan."
At present, Samira is hiding her sexuality from everyone, even from her mother. She believes that if she tries to talk about this to her mother or her brother once again, she would have to go through the same suffering as she did before. Her father, who left their family several years ago, stopped talking to her right after she first came out.
"I think that the main reason why parents in Azerbaijan disown their children is not religion but the fear of what people will say. This fear rules our entire life. Parents are even prepared to sacrifice their children because they fear that they will come down in the opinion of their relatives and society," says Gulnara Mehdiyeva.
"Would you be able to kill him? No. Then accept him"
However, we did manage to find two families that have not rejected their LGBT children and continue to talk to them, although it was not easy for them to accept their children’s homosexuality. The mothers spoke with tears in their eyes about their reaction to their sons coming out. They thoroughly avoided words like "homosexuality", "sexual orientation" and replaced them with "this" and "that". For both mothers, their children coming out as gay was a breaking point.
"I spent a long time crying, I could not calm down, I did not go outside, I did not know how to live on, and I nearly killed myself," says the mother of 36-year-old Shamil (name changed). Right after that conversation he left home. The mother told her husband that their son had come out as gay and both found the strength not to turn away from him. At present, the only ones who know about Shamil's sexuality are the family – his father and mother and two sisters. "My daughters said right away that Shamil would remain their brother, as he previously was," the mother says.
Our other heroine, too, went through that "trial" with the help of her daughter. Her son came out as gay in a letter six years ago. He was 21 back then.
"I just couldn't accept it. We lived in the village back then, and Rauf (name changed) was living in Baku. I arrived at his place. He was living with a guy. And then he told me – mother, I am like that, you have to either accept me or not. I went back home, my daughter calmed me down. She was the biggest support for me at that time. She said he could not be changed then. Will you be able to kill him? No. Then accept him."
"I fear for my husband and my daughters"
Both families thoroughly hide Rauf and Shamil's homosexuality even from their close ones, even though their sons have been living outside Azerbaijan for several years now. The parents say that they very much fear the reaction of people around them, they fear for the other kids, and they are afraid of becoming outcasts and a laughingstock.
"If it was up to me, I would even today yell to the whole world that my son is like that, I would tell all my relatives and acquaintances – it is up to you to accept it or not. But I fear for my husband and my daughters," Shamil's mother says.
Shamil and Rauf left Azerbaijan at almost the same time, after the
"September pogroms" of 2017
Back then, police detained LGBT people in the street or took them to police stations right from their flats. Within several days about a hundred people were detained, insulted, beaten and raped. The government of Azerbaijan argued that the raids aimed to fight prostitution. However, Shamil, a graduate of Moscow State University and a lawyer by profession was persecuted, too. He was forced to resign and vacate his apartment and ended up leaving Azerbaijan altogether.
Back then, even the domestic opposition, which normally does not leave flagrant human rights violations in Azerbaijan without attention, did not stand up for the LGBT community.
"If we had started defending LGBT, we would have met with a lack of understanding from the conservative parts of society," Yadigar Sadigli, deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat party, said then.
"Let him live freely"
Rauf now lives in Norway. His mother misses her son a lot, but she does not want him to come back. All that she wants for her son is for him to build his life there and never come back to Azerbaijan.
That is also approximately what Shamil's mother dreams of. "He could not feel free here. He felt like he was a stranger here. This is the reason why he left. I appreciated his reasons for his departure. I said to myself – let him live freely, let him live the way he wants," she says.
Samira, who does not have an opportunity not only to leave the country but even to go outside without asking for permission (it was not easy for her to come to meet with us), still hopes that society will show an understanding. "I am asking everyone – please try to understand people. Put yourself in their shoes and think that your son or your daughter may be like that, too," she says. However, she addressed her main words to her mother: "Mom, I love you very much. Please, do not listen to my brother or my sister or anyone else. Please, listen to me. Just think that if you people do not accept me, I may kill myself. Think about that, too, please."
With the support of "Mediaset"