After months of anti-gay propaganda laws, discussions on outlawing lesbianism, and continued votes preventing same-sex marriage, the LGBT community in the former communist world suffered another setback this week. Isa Sahmarli, one of the most prominent LGBT activists in Azerbaijan, was found dead in his apartment Wednesday, a victim of apparent suicide. He hanged himself with a rainbow flag.
Sahmarli, only 20 years old, served as the head of Azad (Free) LGBT, one of the few gay-rights organizations in the country. He also organized multiple LGBT movie nights for the community in Baku, and had begun organizing an LGBT radio station, according to those who knew him.
“Isa was so proud to be an openly gay young man in Azerbaijan. He wore it as a badge, sometimes literally, and nothing made him smile more than educating people about LGBT rights,” one of Sahmarli’s friends, who lives in Azerbaijan and requested anonymity, told The New Civil Rights Movement. “He was repelled by hate. Any kind of hate.”
A video posted by RFE/RL showed Sahmarli’s friends gathered around his grave, laying a rainbow flag amidst the mourning:
“Sometimes, I think he came into this world to help others and to give them support and encourage them realistically,” another friend, who also requested anonymity, told The New Civil Rights Movement. “Isa was the main person who was raising awareness about LGBT rights in the country. [His suicide] was a shock to me. I never thought he could do such an act. … in Azerbaijan, acceptance of LGBT people is zero percent.”
On his Facebook page, Sahmarli left a final note:
I am leaving you. God bless you. This country and this world are not for me. I am going to be happy now. Tell my mother I loved her very much. I blame you all for my death. This world is not colorful enough for my colors. Farewell.
There still seems to be no direct connection between any state-sponsored, anti-LGBT pressure, and Sahmarli’s apparent suicide. According to Vugar Adigozalov, who once worked with Sahmarli at Azad LGBT, the main cause for Sahmarli’s death stemmed from relations with those close to him. “The main reason for his suicide was that he had bad relations with his family,” Adigozalov told AFP.
Last year in an interview, according to Gay Star News, Sahmarli (also spelled Shakhmarli) “said his family could not accept his sexuality.”
“Though psychologists explained it to my family, they still call it an illness,” Shakhmarli said, adding it is the family that is the most common reason for LGBT people to commit suicide.
However, that’s not to say there isn’t anti-LGBT pressure extant in Azerbaijan. Like many of its former Soviet neighbors, LGBT rights movements in Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority nation wedged between Russia and Iran, have been met with staunch opposition. While Russia’s recent propaganda laws and Kazakhstan’s attempts to bar “lesbianism” have generated the majority of headlines, there appears little reason to believe that Azerbaijan will buck the anti-LGBT trend ossifying across the region.
Now, with Sahmarli’s death, the LGBT movement in Azerbaijan has suffered one of its biggest setbacks to date.
“[Isa] is pure heart. Every project, every idea, every walk, every conversation, he approached with unmatchable enthusiasm,” Sahmarli’s friend said. “In many ways, Isa was the LGBT community in Azerbaijan.” - The New Civil Rights Movement