Queer folks fleeing Azerbaijan: Alone, but liberated

Image by Sharaf Nagiyeva. Shared under partnership agreement.

This article was first published on Chaikhana Media. An edited version has been republished here under a content partnership agreement.

In recent years, dozens of queer Azerbaijani citizens have fled their homeland due to persecution for who they are. There are no official statistics on LGBTQ+ people leaving Azerbaijan, however anecdotal evidence indicates they seek safety in countries near and far.

Pari Banu (she/they), a queer activist and artist, is one of those who recently resettled in Tbilisi, in the neighboring country of Georgia. A visual artist and performer, Banu experiments with photography, performance, video, sound, and fashion to talk about issues such as identity, violence, and transformation.

People always tell you, “You have a penis. Act like a man!” or “You have a vagina. Behave like a woman!” But I have always been curious about what it means to be a man or to be a woman. Isn't it simply possible to move away from this primitive binary stuff? Does it really matter if somebody has a penis but they are effeminate and caring, or if you have a vagina but you are masculine and dominant? When I was a child, I passionately loved to put on makeup, wear a shirt, and perform belly dance. However, my parents were extremely strict about it, especially my father. But I've always had a brave personality. Then, I got punished for doing it. So I always just asked myself… Why? Is femininity a curse for a boy? And now, I found the answer… My absolute emancipation has always frightened others!

Banu comes from a conservative family who considered even a floral tote bag an issue. They would say things like, “the neighbors will see you, what will they say? It is so shameful!” recalled Banu in her conversation with Chaikhana Media.

After reaching the age of compulsory military service, Banu's mother convinced her that she must serve. But her military service was defined by terror and depression. In addition to hazing and bullying, soldiers tried persuading her to have sex. When she refused, they would punish her by locking her in the toilets and storage facilities and beating her at night. One of the soldiers threatened to find her after she left the army and kill her.

Banu told Chaikhana Media her mother tried convincing her to marry a girl. But despite Banu's attempts to explain that it would only hurt more people, her mother was more concerned about what others would say. Banu decided to leave her parents’ house and move to Tbilisi in neighboring Georgia, where she hoped no one would pressure her just because of who she is. She recorded her struggles with her identity and her family through diary entries:

It is so strange that after all that my family has done to me, I still feel guilty. I guess I have Stockholm syndrome. I just want to get rid of that odd feeling.
Yesterday I contacted two model agencies in Tbilisi. They require my headshots. I should take them somehow and send them. It can also be a job opportunity. But I guess I am a bit old for modeling.
My alcoholic father wanted to hit me after seeing my new green shopping bag with the pronouns she/they. He was holding a knife. I don't know why. Maybe he wanted to cut me. He just was concerned about the neighbors again.
Today I told my mom that I will leave home soon.

The move was not easy. Banu had to switch apartments multiple times until she found a kind landlord and the two became friends. She feels less lonely in the city now. Finding employment has also not been easy. Banu does not speak Georgian, which makes it harder, but she eventually had some luck.

Image by Sharaf Nagiyeva. Shared under partnership agreement.

Before coming to Georgia, Banu came across an open call for queer artists for an exhibition in Berlin. She was accepted and took part in showcasing her work of Polaroid pictures. In Tbilisi, a curator from the same exhibition invited Banu to perform in a theatrical play. She had a successful performance playing the role of the serpent goddess Shahmaran who had been betrayed by her lover. “According to legend, whoever eats Shahmaran's meat becomes immortal, so her lover tells the king where she has been hiding, and the king kills and eats her,” explained Banu.

And although Banu thought she has left her family and relatives back in Azerbaijan, they keep sending her messages expressing their concern over her new life in Georgia. Once, she was even accosted by some Azerbaijani women on the street who were unhappy about a transgender woman from Azerbaijan. They said it was shameful.

Yet, a month after the move, Banu feels liberated. She expresses herself freely even though safety remains a concern. Banu was attacked by two men near her house recently. She was badly beaten. And although an older man came to her rescue, Banu is now in search of an apartment closer to the city center, where it is safer and where people are less homophobic.

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