BAKU — A slight 19-year-old student sat in one of Baku’s few gay-friendly bars, telling how he pretended to have a girlfriend in the highly conservative ex-Soviet country.
“A year ago I pretended I had a girlfriend because my close friends made a deal that I had to go to a psychologist and not to be gay,” said Anar.
He asked not to publish his real name for fear of possible attacks.
“After this, I decided to go against all my friends and say I am gay: if you want you can take me like this or not,” he said.
“Now we’re studying in the same group at university but they turn their faces and don’t even shake hands or say hello.”
As Azerbaijan hosts the Eurovision Song Contest with its large gay following, the country continues not to acknowledge the need for gay rights, with officials insisting that the problem simply does not exist.
“We don’t have such a problem, there is no such question on the agenda,” insisted Hadi Rajabli, chairman of the parliament’s committee for social policy.
“Maybe there are two or three sick people in all countries; sometimes this is popularised by some people. Here in Azerbaijan, we don’t have such a problem.”
Ironically, though, Azerbaijan has been dragged into a bizarre row with its more observantly Muslim neighbour Iran, which reacted angrily to an absurdly unlikely rumour that the country would hold a gay parade during Eurovision.
Senior presidential administration official Ali Hasanov retorted that Azerbaijani does not even have a word for gay parade — unlike Iran.
With a largely secular culture inherited from Soviet times, Azerbaijan nevertheless has a traditional society with patriarchal values and a trend for marrying and having children young.
“Being gay in Azerbaijan is like hiding from everyone,” Anar said. “Trying to be an enigma, not to appear in public places.”
He said he has now made gay friends, but has not come out to his family, fearing they would throw him out of the house or even “have a heart attack.”
Vugar Adigozalov, 21, is one of the few openly gay men in Azerbaijan, heading a group called Azerbaijan Free LGBT, which has a Twitter account and a Facebook page,
The aim of his group, which now has around 90 members, is to try to show that “LGBT people are normal members of society, they are also citizens of this country,” he said.
Many people do not know what being gay means, he said.
“People think when you say gay of men wearing female clothes and living on prostitution,” he said.
That means most Azeraijanis who are gay take pains to lie low and conceal their orientation, he said.
“People are not showing their orientation mostly and they are also afraid to be pointed out. That’s why it sometimes seems to people that there are no gay people.”
In fact he works at a major international company that sponsored Baku’s Eurovision and attended events as a representative.
British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell in a statement this month slammed the holding of Eurovision in a country where he said “social prejudice is rife.”
Nevertheless, Adigozalov was optimistic that hosting the contest would help change homophobic attitudes.
Winning the right to host Eurovision made Azerbaijan feel that it is “also part of Europe,” he said.
“Now Eurovision will help people understand that gay people also have equal rights.”
By Paul Gypteau (AFP