“Live as you wish, but make sure other people do not know”
Discrimination in the healthcare system, exclusion from society, limited job opportunities - in South Caucasus LGBTI persons are still victim of discrimination and violation. An owerview of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
On November 25, a transgender woman was assaulted on the street in Tbilisi. On the same day, in the capital of a neighboring country – Baku –, a gay person was attacked in the subway. Three days prior, on November 23, a transgender woman passed away in a Tbilisi hospital following a violent attack. In the South Caucasus, we hear such news almost constantly, and sometimes I get the feeling that when we talk about violence against LGBTI persons, there is less empathy in society towards them.
Natia, Beka, Samad, Mamikon, Koba are typical people that you can meet in the South Caucasus. Their appearance is also very ordinary for our region. There is nothing extraordinary about them. But for the majority, they are peculiar, and repeatedly excluded from society. They are not criminals; they are not dangerous – their only “crime” is belonging to the LGBTI community. Despite the fact that Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are three countries with different histories, cultures, and current problems, one of the things that is shared by all three is the negative attitude towards LGBTI people.
“A real Georgian cannot be gay” is a common perception and very telling in and of itself. The same can often be heard about “a real Armenian” or “a real Azerbaijani”.
The annual tolerance ranking of ILGA Europe (the European Branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) showed that in 2016, out of 49 countries, Georgia ranked number 31. Armenia was 47thand Azerbaijan took the last, 49th position.
Discrimination in the healthcare system and military
During the Soviet era, male homosexuality in South Caucasus was criminalized as throughout the Soviet Union. The law was annulled in Georgia in 2000, in Azerbaijan - in 2001, and in Armenia - in 2003. Of course, this was a step forward, but the attitudes in the societies remain almost unchangeable.
The problems that LGBTI individuals face in the region, especially if they are “out” publicly, can be generalized into the following: violence inside or outside the home, discrimination faced while seeking employment or at the workplace. Very often, LGBTI persons have to limit themselves to working in the service sector: beauty salons, bars, clubs or commercial sex-work.
They often face discrimination in the healthcare system and in the military. They are also subject to hate speech in the media, and from public figures coupled with hostile language and treatment from people who surround them in everyday life, such as parents or relatives.
It is noteworthy that the media in all three countries is equally covering LGBTI topics – with the positive aspect that it is no longer perceived as a taboo topic. However, some journalists frequently write scandalous pieces to attract ratings. Despite that fact, in all three countries, there are also few media outlets that provide balanced and objective coverage of topics related to the LGBTI community.
The organization “Public Information and Need of Knowledge” (PINK) compiled data on human rights violations from 2012 till 2014. They registered 13 instances of hate crimes, 3 cases of domestic violence, 33 instances of hate speech, 8 cases of violation of employment rights and 24 cases of failure to observe the right to equality and non-discrimination.
In 2012, in the center of Yerevan, a club considered a meeting place for local members of the LGBTI community, “DIY Club”, was firebombed. The attack on the club divided the society into two groups: those who justified the attack against the club and against homosexuals in general and those who were outraged by the blatant display of intolerance and hatred.
The NGO “Society Without Violence” prepared the report “Human Rights Situation of LGBTI Individuals in Armenia” within the frames of the EU-funded Project “Solidarity Network for LGBTI in Armenia and Georgia” implemented by the South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation. This report also stresses that the issues of protection of LGBTI people in Armenia are especially poignant in such closed institutions as penitentiaries and the army. Another perplexing piece of data is provided by an opinion poll, featured in a comprehensive homo/bi/transphobic attitudes study conducted by PINK Armenia, which reveals that 84 percent of the interviewed strongly agree that LGBTI parades should be banned in Armenia.
In 2013, the Armenian police presented a bill “On the prohibition of non-traditional sexual relations and the promotion of LGBT issues amongst youth”, which failed to pass. In today’s Armenia, as well as in the two other South Caucasus countries, civil unions and same-sex marriages are not recognized by law. The Church has taken the view that homosexuality is a grave sin. Through media communication, Church representatives portray LGBTI people as a threat to Armenian society, mentioning that it is a direct result of imposing “European values and traditions”.
The approach of the Church toward homo/bi/transsexuality in general is that the notion has been imported to Armenia by “Western powers” aiming to destroy Armenian traditions and values (PINK Armenia, 2011). The anti-gender movement in Armenia is strongly linked to Russian political movements and Russia’s application of “soft power”. In particular, the “Pan-Armenian Parent Committee” organizes events against the gender-law framing it as “propaganda of homosexuality”. As a result of ideological interference and political manipulation, the term “gender” and the related discourses have been put in the spotlight of public debate and still carry a strong conflict potential.
“If you look at our region in general and what has happened in Armenia and is happening throughout the post-Soviet space, then we can speak of Russia’s use of soft power. Russia positions itself as a country that protects traditions and with such positioning wants to find allies among the post-Soviet countries… They emphasize that Europe and the West are destroying traditional values and are corrupt. You’ve probably heard of the well-known phrase ‘Gayrope’”, – says a representative of the NGO “Tanadgoma”.
So, LGBTI issues in Georgia also become politicized. The period preceding the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2016 also saw a higher proliferation of homo/bi/transphobic sentiments and hate speech. Discussions around a pending referendum that would define marriage as a union between a woman and a man in the Constitution, acquiescing it to the Civil Code of Georgia, became a source of heated debate, but shortly before the elections, the issue was closed, at least temporarily.
LGBTI activists point out that the church as an institution, referring to the Georgian Orthodox Church, is homo/bi/transphobic. While, officially, there is a separation of church and state, they are very closely connected making up part of the problem. For many Georgians, adherence to the Orthodox Church is one of the most important aspects of national identity.
Another move through which the Georgian Orthodox Church demonstrates its power is maintaining close ties with its Russian counterpart. “Spreading homophobia is not only religiously but also politically motivated. For example, they support the hawkish ‘Union of Orthodox Parents’ and have ties with the Russian branch of this organization. So we can see a clear connection here”, believes Gabadadze.
A significant event revealing the attitude of the Georgian Orthodox Church toward the LGBTI community took place on May 17, 2013 on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBiT), when a thousands-strong mob overran a small rally of supporters leaving 28 people injured in the clashes.
A lawyer from the NGO “Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center” (EMC) Lika Jalagania speaks about the situation in the country in her recent work “Legal Situation of LGBTI Persons in Georgia”, which was supported by the Heinrich Boell Foundation within the above EU-funded action.
“The state deliberately denies the existence of hate crimes against members of the LGBTI community. After May 17, 2013, only four people were detained and sentenced to an administrative fine of 100 Georgian Lari, while another four were sentenced under the Criminal Code of Georgia. However, due to the fact that the prosecution supposedly did not provide enough evidence, the accused were released, including a priest who used a stool to smash the windshield of a bus carrying the participants of the rally. We all remember these notorious events. It shows that the trial was biased”, – said Jalagania.
The celebration of family
From 2014 onward, the Patriarch of Georgia Ilia II announced May 17 to be celebrated as the “Day of Family Sanctity” to counteract any attempts to mark IDAHOBiT. In addition, in mid-May 2016, Tbilisi hosted a “World Family Congress”, a four-day summit dedicated to issues of the family. In reality, this was a well-attended “anti-gay” symposium.
The representatives of the LGBTI community in Georgia refused to organize any public events on May 17, 2016 dedicated to IDAHOBiT since the authorities were not ready to provide security guarantees for the participants. Georgia’s Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili made a statement in which he expressed his regret that events dedicated to IDAHOBiT were not held.
Due to the lack of official statistics, NGO representatives conduct their own studies which show a prevalence of physical and psychological violence, intimidation, and bullying against LGBTI people. In the 2016 study “From Prejudice to Equality”, carried out with support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus and the EU, the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG) presents the 2012 data on discrimination against LGBTI people in Georgia, which revealed the following: 32 percent of surveyed respondents experienced physical violence at least once and 89.93 percent had experienced psychological abuse. On average, among the 134 respondents who experienced psychological violence, 73.13 percent had become victims three or more times, 13.43 percent had experienced it twice, whereas 13.43-once. All six respondents from the 16-18 age group admitted that they had often become victims of bullying at school.
Among 48 respondents, who had been victims of physical violence, 73 percent never reported to the police. However, official statistics are silent on this issue as well, reporting 0 cases. The adoption of laws providing for the protection of LGBTI rights was the result of integration into European structures and the obligations that came with it. On June 1, 2000, Georgia adopted a law on the decriminalization of homosexual intercourse. In 2006, Article 2(3) of the Labor Code of Georgia was adopted, prohibiting discrimination at the workplace based on sexual orientation.
The 2012 amendments to the Criminal Code of Georgia made crimes motivated by bias against the sexual orientation of the victim an aggravating factor, which should lead to a tougher sentence. These legislative reforms were concluded by the anti-discrimination law passed by the Parliament on May 2, 2014 prohibiting all forms of discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
In Azerbaijan as well, negative attitudes are not unique to the legislative field; they are present in the society in general and are similarly politicized. In 2014, the “Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance” conducted a survey to identify attitudes and possible incidents of aggressive behavior against LGBTI people at the workplace. Sixty-four percent of respondents (aged 18-35) were unwilling to work with LGBTI people, and 60 percent showed a negative attitude towards them (lgbtaz 2014).
In Azerbaijan, the main argument against LGBTI persons comes down to the following: “homosexuality is against our national mentality”; “religion denies, condemns, and prohibits it”; “it is artificially spread by the West”; “it is foreign to Azerbaijan”.
Although the three republics are not very far from each other in the ILGA ranking, Azerbaijan is on the last, 49th place. This is the result of crimes that happened in 2015. The 2015 index shows that LGBTI persons were subject to violence, and there were also several murder cases. According to the “Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance”, which has compiled the “Criminal Database in Azerbaijan for 2015”, hate crimes committed within the past several years include a wide range of cases.
According to the 2015 data, 3 people were killed: a 24 year-old trans person, Bakhtiyar, a gay man, Hamlet Elxaniglu Cahangirov, and a 27-year-old trans person Ayla; and two people committed suicide: Mirvasif Hashimov, a trans person, and Hamida, a lesbian woman.
The Criminal Code of Azerbaijan does not have a separate article which would provide protection for LGBTI people against hate crimes. While Azerbaijani legislation does not explicitly prohibit marriage between LGBTI people, it does not recognize it either as marital unions are permitted only among opposite-sex couples. Thus, basically LGBTI persons are denied the right to a family in the traditional routine sense.
"The most difficult is to be yourself"
The chief editor of the first LGBTI profiled magazine “Minority”, Samad Ismailzadeh says that “the most difficult in Azerbaijan is to be yourself. But if you are not hiding your orientation, your life can turn into hell. At every corner, you come across harassment, discrimination… some people cannot withstand this and it drives them to suicide”.
The LGBTI topic became widely popular after 2014 when a 20-year-old gay activist Isa Shahmarli committed suicide. In 2012, together with some of his friends, Isa established an organization called “Azad LGBT” (“Free LGBT”), so that he could protect himself and others from harassment. He openly talked about himself when interviewed on TV and did not conceal his sexual orientation. But being rejected by his family, the pressure from society broke him down and drove him to suicide on January 22, 2014.
Samad Ismailzadzeh studies in the United States. After he left Azerbaijan, he experienced the relative freedom afforded to LGBTI individuals beyond its borders and realized how truly unhappy and unprotected one is inside the country. So he decided to help the LGBTI community there and became an activist to raise awareness in the Azerbaijani society about this issue. Together with his colleagues and friends, he publishes the first quarterly on-line magazine “Minority”, where they try to cover many aspects: scientific, psychological, and, of course entertainment. They also try to raise awareness among the Azerbaijani society about this topic.
Similar to Georgia and Armenia, the religious factor plays a negative role in the attitudes towards LGBTI individuals in Azerbaijan. According to statistics, 96 percent of the Azerbaijani population is Muslim. Homosexuality is banned in Islam (being considered a sin – haram). While there are no restrictions in the law on registration of organizations with an LGBTI profile, in fact, neither one of the three existing Azerbaijani LGBTI organizations are registered, leaving vast room for improvement.
For a broader research on LGBTI rights in South Caucasus please see here: caucasusedition
Another transgender woman attacked in Tbilisi, DF Watch. See: http://dfwatch.net/another-transgender-woman-attacked-in-tbilisi-46706
Transgender Zizi dies in hospital after brutal attack, DF Watch, See: http://dfwatch.net/transgender-zizi-dies-in-hospital-after-brutal-attack...
The Human Rights Situation of LGBTI Individuals in Armenia. A Practical Assessment. Society Without Violence, 2016. See: https://ge.boell.org/en/2016/06/16/human-rights-situation-lgbti-individuals-armenia-practical-assessment
From Prejudice to Equality: Study of societal attitudes towards LGBTI people in Armenia. PINK Armenia, 2016. See: https://ge.boell.org/en/2016/06/17/prejudice-equality-study-societal-att...
 Meaning the Law on “Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities for Men and Women”, which, due to the “gender hysteria” at work in Armenia, was incidentally stripped of its title as the “Gender Equality Law”. See: http://armenianweekly.com/2013/09/20/the-gender-equality-law-hysteria-in...
Legal Situation of LGBTI Persons in Georgia. Lika Jalagania, Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, 2016. See: https://ge.boell.org/en/2016/06/17/legal-situation-lgbti-persons-georgia
Statement of Public Defender on International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, see: http://www.ombudsman.ge/en/news/statement-of-public-defender-on-internat...
From Prejudice to Equality: Attitudes, Knowledge and Information Regarding the LGBT Community and Their Rights. Ekaterine Aghdgomelashvili, Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group, 2016. See: https://ge.boell.org/en/2016/06/17/prejudice-equality-attitudes-knowledg...
 Right before the adoption of the law some drawbacks were asserted, regarding the monitoring of implementation and the role of the Orthodox Church. The law is stripped of any enforcement mechanism, making it difficult to apply effective punitive measures to perpetrators.