The social stigma attached to homosexuality is hardly unique to Azerbaijan, whose mores are forged from a conservative mix of Muslim faith and Soviet-style squeamishness.
But as Baku prepares to host next week's 57th Eurovision Song Contest -- a bejeweled meringue of a spectacle, with unabashedly gay overtones -- the country's unyielding stance on sexual minorities is coming under fresh scrutiny.
The oil-rich nation decriminalized homosexuality in 2001. But discrimination and harrassment remain day-to-day facts of life for many members of Azerbaijan's gay community, who have no legal protection and almost no representation in civil society.
On May 17, as gay-rights groups staged protests in nearby Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia, Baku's streets remained silent.
Hossein Alizadeh of the New York-basedInternational Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission says Azerbaijan's gay population has been intimidated to the point of invisibility.
"In the case of Azerbaijan, we feel that the community of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) activists and individuals do not feel comfortable, at this stage of development, to go public about their existence," he says. "There is not an openly out LGBT group in that country."
'Big Propaganda Show'
Azerbaijan, under the regime of President Ilham Aliyev, has come under mounting censure for its dismal rights record, particularly its jailing of critical journalists and crackdowns on public protests.
International watchdogs like Amnesty International have used the Eurovision Song Contest -- which features 42 country-contestants and is expected to draw upwards of 125 million viewers worldwide -- to refresh global outrage over government repressions.
Volker Beck, an openly gay German lawmaker, traveled to Baku this week to meet with opposition activists and members of the gay community.
"The Aliyev regime should not be allowed to turn Eurovision into a big propaganda show," he said. "We have no choice but to kick this dictator in the shin -- verbally, at least."
The controversy has led some to question whether Eurovision was wrong to grant hosting rights to a country whose indifference to human rights is well-documented.
Eurovision, which was founded in 1956 as a Western European talent-sharing extravaganza, has gradually spread eastward to the countries of the former communist bloc, with Ukraine, Russia, and Serbia all playing host in recent years.
Eurovision's communications manager, Sietse Bakker, says while Eurovision can help shed light on unwelcome policies in host countries, the contest itself has no political agenda. He expressed confidence that gay visitors to the Azerbaijani capital would meet with a warm reception.
"I think it has to be said that gay people are normal people," he says. "They can freely walk around here in Baku, and I'm sure they will all take into consideration the [Azerbaijani] culture as well." -Radio Free Europe