The mere existence of lesbian couples in Azerbaijan is rarely talked about or acknowledged. Out of sight of the public and even queer rights activists, some women still live together and raise children as families.
An ordinary family
Elvira and Amina (not their real names), who live in Baku, met two years ago. A year later they started living together, and a month ago they went to Sweden, where they were officially married. The marriage certificate given to them holds no official power in Azerbaijan, but it might serve them if they decide to emigrate.
‘In all fairness, I must say that so far we have not faced any serious discrimination. Perhaps this is because we are surrounded by people who are progressive, including our colleagues at work’, Elvira says.
The women’s lesbian and straight friends treat their family in a normal way, and visit often. The couple still prefers to keep their relationship low key in front of strangers and unfamiliar people, for example, neighbours.
‘When I met Elvira, we both already had experiences dating women, and we both understood that we wanted to have a family, to live with a loved one, to have a common home. In general, we had these ordinary desires and dreams that heterosexuals have’, says Amina.
‘Many in Azerbaijan consider gays and lesbians to be complete perverts, who change their partners every day. But in fact, we are normal people, with quite “traditional” feelings and needs. And we build the same families as everyone else’, Elvira adds.
Elvira’s parents know about her sexual orientation, and although at first they were dumbfounded by it, they now they accept it, even seeing Amina as a member of their family.
Amina has never openly discussed the topic with her parents. ‘Of course, they realise that Elvira is not just my friend. But they still don’t want to accept the obvious, and still haven’t abandoned hope of marrying me off, and suggesting to me potential suitors. On the one hand, it’s amusing, but on the other, it depresses me, and I still cannot learn to react to it calmly.’
One of them has a child. The three-year-old boy does not yet understand who the woman his mother lives with is. He loves his mother’s “friend”. Elvira and Amina worry what will happen when he starts preschool, when other children and their parents learn about their family.
Few queer women in Azerbaijan are ready to declare this openly — nobody wants this to become public knowledge. This was the case with a recent wedding between two women in the US of the daughter of a State Oil Company of Azerbaijan employee and an assistant to a US senator.
Once knowledge of the wedding became public in the spring of 2015, it was discussed widely among Azerbaijani internet users. While some tried to interview the Azerbaijani woman’s father, others divided into two camps and passionately argued on Facebook. One group vehemently condemned the woman while the other advised them to stop snooping into other people’s affairs.
Sam- sex marriage not legally possible in Azerbaijan, but there are no laws preventing two people of the same sex from living together. This preventive function is usually reserved for parents and society. This is why same sex couples often mask their relationships as close friendships and try to avoid attention.
Sometimes their existence is unknown even to organisations focusing on the rights of queer people. Local queer rights group Nefes say they have never encountered a lesbian couple living together in the country. ‘Usually these people do not support LGBT activism, they do not engage in any public activities. They do not need unnecessary problems. They just live quietly’, a representative from the group told OC Media.
Excessive candour can be a time bomb. A very common way to harm a former lover or friend is to tell her father or boss that she is a lesbian and lives with a woman. Sometimes this can be used to blackmail a person. Queer rights advocates advise people to immediately contact the police if this happens.
‘Blackmail is a crime no matter who the victim is, a heterosexual, a homosexual, or a transgender person. In our experience, there were cases when the victim of such blackmail appealed to law enforcement agencies and they were given appropriate assistance, regardless of their orientation’, Ramiz, from Gender and Development, another Azerbaijani queer rights group, tells OC Media.
Representatives of the group say they know many lesbian couples who have lived together for years. This includes those like Elvira and Amina, who have married abroad.
‘As a rule, the parents of these people have already accepted their orientation. Some couples do not hide their relationship either from close ones or even from anyone at all. I think if people behave within the limits of propriety, they will be treated normally in any society, including in Azerbaijan’, says Ramiz.
Emigration — a way out?
For many in Azerbaijan, it is unacceptable for young single women to live separately from their families. For 30-year-old Tamilla (not her real name), building a life with a woman is only a dream. Her main obstacle is a fear of disappointing her parents.
‘For my dad and mum, no matter how modern and understanding they are, it’s still important what people say. And I really don’t want to upset them and put them in an awkward position. But sooner or later, when I have a really serious relationship, I will announce my decision to my family’, she says.
Tamilla believes that there is more tolerance for queer women in Azerbaijan than for queer men. Almost everyone at work knows about her sexual orientation, but they do not care much about it, respecting and appreciating her for her professional qualities. However, she feels dejected by the fact that it is impossible to officially bind same-sex relationships. That is, partners living together remain complete strangers to each other in the eyes of the law, which can cause many difficulties and inconveniences.
‘A marriage certificate is just a piece of paper. But this piece of paper, alas, plays a very important role in the modern world. If, for example, one partner ends up in hospital, the other will not even be able to visit them because officially they are nobody to them… Therefore, I personally see only one way out — to go somewhere where same-sex marriage is allowed and where everyone got used to it’, says Tamilla.
Most of the lesbian couples OC Media spoke to while researching this story say they are increasingly thinking of leaving the country. The same thought, however, comes to the minds of many heterosexual people in Azerbaijan. But this is a completely different topic.