by Jake Winn
"Valentine’s Day is traditionally an occasion to celebrate love, but for far too many worldwide, this is just another reminder of the daily repression they face, the secrets they hold and the love they cannot express.
The LGBTQ community in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan is currently mourning the loss of one of its bright, young leaders, Isa Sahmarli. Sahmarli, the co-founder of Azad LGBT took his own life on 22 January 2014. Although only 20 years of age, Sahmarli was one of the country’s most prominent and openly gay activists, and as such, his death sparked debate about LGBTQ rights in Azerbaijan. These debates run alongside a deeper critique among those affected by Shamarli’s death, both within and beyond Azerbaijan’s borders.
This critique, as explored through the Sexuality, Poverty and Law (SPL) Programme at IDS, centres on the powerful ways that policies reach into the most intimate and everyday spaces of people’s lives and their relationships – through laws and policies, for example, that regulate people’s bodies along sex binaries, that limit people’s capacity to exert autonomy in their sexual relationships, that criminalise certain expressions of sexuality and restrict the kind of education or employment opportunities available. These issues are brought together in the most recent publication from the SPL Programme, which offers a synthesis of five legal case studies.
In addition to looking at how policies and the law regulate people’s bodies and sexualities and the material implications for their livelihoods, it is important to consider the strategies that people draw on to raise awareness and challenge the spaces in which they experience social, economic and political marginalisation.
In Azerbaijan it is primarily through online digital spaces that people and organisations are safely able to offer support and resources to those who experience these multiple and intersecting forms of marginalisation in their home, workplace, or school, for example.
It is Sahmarli’s death, in particular, 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. As part of this process, they have launched an online photo campaign entitled ‘SevgiElə Sevgidir’, translated into English as ‘Love Is Love’, to pay tribute to their friend and leader and send a message to other LGBTQ individuals in the country and abroad to say, ‘You are not alone’. On Valentines Day, this online photo campaign will release hundreds of photographs of people from all over the world, all saying ‘Love is Love’, through online activist sites in solidarity with LGBTQ people in Azerbaijan.
When considering sexuality through the lens of the law, historic and contemporary geopolitics become salient: in order to join the Soviet Union, in 1920, Azerbaijan was required to introduce Soviet laws criminalizing homosexuality. It was only when seeking to join the Council of the European Union in 2000, that Azerbaijan finally repealed this law (Article 121). In practice, however, the historic policy infrastructure that flowed from Article 121 remains firmly in place. Although same-sex relationships are not legally punishable, social stigma persists and economic discrimination is entrenched in policies that do not offer the same legal protections to same-sex partners - or their families, as heterosexual partners." -Knowledge, Technology and Society blog at IDS