From Prague to London, LA to NYC and across Azerbaijan itself, photos are pouring in from all over the world with 3 simple words: Love Is Love.
It is a powerful message that Sabina Kurgunayeva, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) Mike Raybourne and Jake Winn, and a number of their Azerbaijani colleagues wanted to see spread like wildfire across the Internet following the tragic loss of their friend and LGBTQ-rights activist Isa Sahmarli. Sahmarli, cofounder of Azad LGBT, took his own life on January 22, 2014. Although only 20 years of age, Sahmarli was proudly openly gay and one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent activists.
Social stigma against the LGBTQ community in Azerbaijan is deeply entrenched and treatment of LGBTQ people remains severely oppressive, especially outside of the capital city of Baku, where confidential spaces for support are almost nonexistent. It is Sahmarli’s death that has prompted those closest to him to turn to online digital spaces in order to seek support and begin a dialogue about the repression faced by LGBTQ people and allies in Azerbaijan and abroad.
The online photo campaign ‘Sevgi Elə Sevgidir’, translated into English as ‘Love Is Love’, is meant to pay tribute to Sahmarli and send a message to other LGBTQ individuals in the country that they are not alone. On Valentines Day, the campaign began releasing hundreds of photographs of people from all over the world holding this message.
Thus far, the results have been extremely encouraging. To date, over 400 photos have been shared. Many Azerbaijanis have bravely shown public support for the campaign by submitting photos of themselves, some even anonymously for safety reasons. A young college student in the UK, with no prior connection to Azerbaijan, submitted 75 photos of her classmates holding the sign.
For Sabina, Raybourne, Winn, and Azad LGBT, this heartening start is only the beginning. From entering film festivals to opening a new website to offering anti-bullying classes and course material, the Love Is Love has big plans moving forward. The founders also hope to expand the project into other Peace Corps countries.