Throughout the summer of 2022, Queer Art Festival Baku carried out workshops on filmmaking and urbanism for around 40 participants. The workshops addressed the challenges marginalised communities face in city design and the built environment. Participants started with exploring the theoretical focus of issues affecting vulnerable/marginalised communities in the local context and understanding the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (particularly the “Leave No One Behind” Agenda) at the local level and how they are reflected globally. The activities continued with the practical workshops on filmmaking. At the end of the process, the participants produced short films addressing the lack of inclusivity in city design in Azerbaijan and could translate the challenges of diverse underprivileged groups into short films.
As the continuation of the project, in early autumn, QAF organised three community meetings to discuss the queer experiences of city planning, share the knowledge gained during the workshops, and to have discussions about inclusive city design. The first topic of the meeting was “Do You Feel Safe in Baku?” and participants reflected on questions about safety in public transport, toilets, and leisure facilities.
According to the participants, most LGBTI+s experience stress and anxiety in public due to the ongoing systemic and social violence and discrimination in the country. Being in the public eye of cishet toxic men makes most queers uncomfortable. Some participants mentioned that the police are also very discriminative against them during security control in public spaces. Queer people are more likely to go through security check-ups at the entrance of metros (which is a general practice since the pandemic and war) and some mentioned that others could carry a cold weapon, yet it is people who are seemingly “different” to go through the security control. Some brought up the example of a hate speech: once a man filmed footage of himself carrying an axe in the metro and mentioned “I will attack anyone who is seemingly queer”. Thus, the police also do not make LGBTI+s feel safe in public and there are many situations where police officers dismissed reports of gays being chased and did not help the survivors against the harassers.
Later discussion followed with a strong statement that “Nobody without patriarchal and class privileges could feel safe in Azerbaijan, the public infrastructure is not suitable for that”. One very interesting point was made on public transport that it feels l safer in buses where people are not sitting face to face, yet metro trains are more uncomfortable spaces for women* and LGBTI+s as you are seated face to face with the other passengers. Many mentioned that it is very challenging for them to use public transport when they newly moved to Baku for their studies. An example was brought up – “During my freshman year, I took a metro to university and almost burst into tears after leaving the train because I felt like all eyes were on me”. Also, there is a toxic social etiquette in public transport that young people should give space for elders to take the seats. However, some people experiencing menstruation feel really uncomfortable during their period in public transport because of this social pressure. Due to the overpopulation, lack of bus lanes, and poorly organised public transport, citizens experience severe crowds usually during rush hours. Consequently, overcrowded buses and trains worsen the situation for women* and queers, leaving them more vulnerable to harassment, attack, and verbal/physical abuse.
To avoid the challenges of other public transport means, most LGBTI+s and women* prefer taxis for their own safety and security. However, taxi drivers are also very likely to create unpleasant situations for the community. The majority of the participants agreed that there is no fully safe and convenient public transport in Baku for them. An example from the audience was as they pretend to be talking to a lawyer or their parents on the phone to avoid interactions with the drivers which are usually very uncomfortable, discriminative, and belittling. Additionally, it is not only public transport but also other public entertainment facilities are not safe for the community. Few of so-called “queer-friendly” public spaces in Baku are very trans-exclusive. A participant brought up an example of owners either voluming up the music or artificially creating some other inconveniences for the trans guests to make sure they leave the facility as soon as possible. The gay entertainment scene is very underground and the organised exclusive gay parties are commercial. One mentioned that they do not even allow to open the LGBTI+ flags and usually trans folks face challenges to have access to the clubs.
Last, the audience concluded that they do not feel safe in Baku and it is very challenging to find space for collective entertainment. Dark public spaces are the most dangerous for them, and they do not feel safe and secure in the neighbourhoods they reside, public toilets are not queer-friendly. It is an unpleasant experience for most to use public toilets, and all eyes are almost on queer folks when they enter, pass through or just simply exist in public spaces. The situation is very challenging for the community and the audience agreed that most of the problems are very systematic and lack of education, policies, and ignorance of the community by the state create space for most of the issues.