In August 2022, Nafas LGBTI Azerbaijan Alliance organised a Networking Camp that brought 17 LGBTI+/feminist activists from different local Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and young people from the queer community. During three days, participants discussed and brainstormed to identify the challenges of CSOs and explored paths toward solidarity in the future. Additionally, general problems such as social inclusion, mental health faced by the community, and the rights of LGBTI+s were discussed during the event. Throughout the camp period, the participants also had a chance to discuss recent problems of the community more clearly, which would be considered as opportunities for possible collaboration in the future. The workshop helped the participants learn more about the social rights of young people and how to get help from local organisations regarding their rights when they are in need. Below are the main takeaways from the event.
More work toward underprivileged communities
Initially, the discussion was around the privileges and participants have agreed that some community members who are already able and available to come to the events that are organised for the community are privileged to a certain extent. It is of great importance for LGBTI+ organisations in the country to challenge themselves to reach out to underprivileged groups, to make sure that they are involved in activities and could benefit from the services of CSOs. During the discussions, participants mentioned that it is crucial to put more effort toward working with and for trans sex workers. Some argued that trans sex workers have other basic priorities and struggles such as financial stability and housing, thus they would not be interested in the events for the community. However, some participants suggested designing and organising events in a format and topic attractive to the trans community, which could potentially solve the issue. In the course of the discussion, Nafas members added that in 2018, the organisation invited a guest gynecologist from Turkiye who explained the safe and healthy ways of hormone replacement therapy and there was a huge interest from the trans community to be part of the event. However, for the majority of participants who work for and with trans folks, the biggest challenge they face is the community’s financial instability. It is the result of the epidemic levels of discrimination and the transphobic job market of the country that leaves many trans folks in precarious situations.
Later, it was discussed that many people from the community are closeted and do not have the ability to engage with the community comfortably. Some participants brought examples of internalized phobias they experienced communicating with closeted people on dating apps. The discourse showed that people who come here self-select because they feel safe around their community and have a certain understanding of their own identity. However, people who are in need of education, networking, and a safe space to feel more comfortable about themselves and explore their identity are very hard to reach, and they would also (in their turn) refuse to engage with the community to protect their public image. Living in very hostile and discriminative settings, the worries and the choices of closeted people are understandable and later it was agreed that we need to put efforts toward widening our reach out. An example was given that a queer rights activist, Ali Malikov initiated “Qiy Var!” platform, an exclusive social media outlet where only LGBTI+ people are part of the group, is a great example for people to follow and (whenever they feel comfortable) engage with the community without exposing their identity to the public.
The importance of attending protests and how to support the community in the process
Slowly, the discussion continued around the topic of public protests. Unfortunately, public and peaceful protests in Azerbaijan are not very welcomed by the ruling regime and although it is legal, protests are often interrupted and stopped by the police forces. One of the participants mentioned that activism requires sacrifices. You need to sacrifice your own security, safety, family, social relationships, and unfortunately your own life to be brave enough to go out into the streets and publicly advocate for your own rights. An unfortunate case of Avaz Hafizli (queer Azerbaijani journalist) was brought into the discourse, that he was one of the brave activists who chained himself to the gates of the Prosecutor General’s Office in September 2021 to protest government inaction against homophobic and transphobic incitement by popular public figure Sevinj Huseynova. Avaz was later found dead in his home in Baku, allegedly murdered by his cousin for being queer. Following a very challenging and unfair trial of the alleged murderer, Ali Malikov was one of the activists who was actively involved in the case and attended the protests to require a fair sentence. Ali Malikov, an activist involved in the case, protested a very challenging and unfair trial, demanding a fair sentence. A question was addressed during the workshop: “If we do not go out in public and protest for a fair trial, or for our own rights, who will do it for us if they are the next victim”?
The discussion was very emotional for the participants and some raised concerns about their own security if they ever join a public protest. Some brought examples of the challenges and pressure they faced from their family, workplace, colleagues, and friends after joining certain protests. Many participants of the 8th of March protests in Baku stated that they were followed or visited by the police after attending the event, and it raises great concerns for their future participation. As a solution, it was recommended that the first priority is always the safety and security of activists, and acknowledging that not everybody could sacrifice as much as some other activists. However, it is crucial to support people who participate in the protests, support doesn’t always have to be public. Support could include helping people in the background with technical issues or asking for the needs of activists and providing resources.
In conclusion, the event was very beneficial for Nafas, other organisation representatives, and participants to understand the most important problems of the community. The majority of the participants agreed that the takeaways of the event will be very helpful for them to formulate their future actions. Nafas also learned many great lessons and will take the discussed specific needs of the community into account in its upcoming work plan.