Ramil writes about the urgency of intersectionality by studying the narratives of Azerbaijani LGBTQI+/queer individuals who have been facing multi-layered discrimination in Azerbaijan. Thanks to intersectional theory, through this article, by showing and analysing the narratives of queer individuals with various backgrounds, they aims to contribute to this process of making academia and everyday queer lives a step closer to each other. In this process, I ask ‘how does intersectionality shape their lives? Furthermore, how can these experiences help us to understand the bigger picture of LGBTQI+/queer communities in Azerbaijan?’
Intersectionality has become one of the major theories within feminist scholarship during the last forty years (Crenshaw 1989; McCall 2005; Al-Faham et al. 2019; Cho et al. 2013; Lederach 2020). The concept has been built on the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991), a legal scholar who understands intersectional oppression as something that “promotes inequalities at the personal level and division at the social level” (p. 1242). This article aims to analyse the significance of intersectional lenses for the LGBTQI+/queer individuals in Azerbaijan. By focusing on intersectional theory, I bring the sensitive issues of gender, ethnicity, language, age, sex work, and disability into a critical analysis of Azerbaijani LGBTQI+/queer communities and individuals. The Azerbaijani LGBTQI+ community is a broad collective of individuals but in the context of this article I use the term to describe the diverse and inclusionary/exclusionary practices of a selected group (through data analysis) of LGBTQI+/queer research participants whom I have already spoken with about these issues. In this process, I ask how does intersectionality shape their lives? Furthermore, how can these experiences help us understand the bigger picture of LGBTQI+/queer communities in Azerbaijan? By analysing the stories of several LGBTQI+/queer individuals, I attempt to demonstrate how intersectionality is mainly ignored or not taken seriously in Azerbaijani gender and queer studies, which, as a field of study, is in its early stages of development. With the aid of intersectional theory and by showing and analysing the narratives of queer individuals with various backgrounds throughout this article, I aim to contribute to the process of bringing academia and everyday queer lives a step closer to each other.
What is intersectionality?
I came to Baku in May of 2021 to get to know queer communities and understand their everyday challenges. During this period, I witnessed the death of many queers and trans women and physical and psychological attacks against LGBTQI+/queer individuals (Gender Resource Centre 2021; Zamanov 2022 (a); Voice of America 2022). This was not an easy process for me to digest since such events were beyond my and other queers’ control. Despite undergoing physical and psychological trauma, the LGBTQI+/queer communities in Azerbaijan find a way to survive within this discriminatory system.
During my time spent with the queer community, I realised how LGBTQI+/queer identities are not only about the ‘gender’ issue in Azerbaijan. Some LGBTQI+/queer individuals have disabilities and various ethnic identities, come from working-class backgrounds, speak different languages (Russian and Azerbaijani, for example), and represent different generations. These important characteristics helped me rethink the concept of intersectionality in the context of Azerbaijani queer individuals and communities. Therefore, I decided to dig deeper and uncover how an intersectional lens could function in the everyday narratives of Azerbaijani LGBTQI+/queer individuals.
When critics first pointed out that feminism could not speak universally for all women, feminist researchers became aware of the boundaries of gender as a monolithic critical category (McCall 2005). I agree with Lesli McCall when she argues that intersectionality has become the most significant concept in women’s studies (and other related fields) for many feminist scholars (ibid). To unpack queer issues in Azerbaijan, I use intersectionality as an analytical tool. The heuristic assumption is that an intersectional sensibility will help address the contradictory character of the current state of Azerbaijan’s queer community.
The concept of intersectionality has emerged as a significant method for understanding the complex levels of discrimination and exclusion in a society whose members with complex racial, gender, or sexual identities can experience oppression in multiple ways (Crenshaw 1989; Crenshaw et al. 2019). Though I am an intersectional feminist, I still see the limitations of intersectional theory and how one category can easily be overshadowed by another (McCall 2005; Al-Faham et al. 2019; Cho et al. 2013; Lederach 2020). For instance, gender or race might be erased by class issues in an intersectional analysis that centers Marxist theory and views class issues as primary, placing the rest in secondary positions (Crenshaw 1989; Duyvendak 2018; Bohrer 2019). Therefore, I aim to be aware of this possible flaw in analysis and attempt not to overpower one category with another.
Although feminism has contributed such a great concept to feminist and queer studies, intersectionality has also become a tool of the neoliberal capitalist system, with large corporations using it in their “Diversity & Inclusion” programmes to demonstrate to the world “how diverse they are” (Illing 2019). In recent interviews, Crenshaw has also highlighted that such changes directly influence the initial direction of the concept of intersectionality (Coaston 2019). Intersectionality is devalued by the neoliberal capitalist system, which can turn it into a very commercialised concept - something many intersectional feminists and researchers are also concerned about.
Before moving to the narratives of research participants, it is important to highlight the fact that , in this article, I work with queer individuals instead of queer NGOs, initiatives, or activists to understand their intersectional identities. I began to realise the lives of ordinary queers (who are not part of any queer initiatives or who do not identify themselves as activists) are mostly ignored even in grey literature. What I attempt to do is to understand how these ordinary queers see their identities and to what extent they are aware of the concept of intersectionality, and more importantly, whether they can locate their multiple identities in the patriarchal Azerbaijani society. I believe that becoming aware of the theoretical concepts and works around intersectionality (moving from a practical level to a theoretical one) may help queers become more mobilised and organised in their fight against multiple levels of discrimination in Azerbaijan. In order to do this, they do not need to become a part of existing queer initiatives or NGOs. To put it differently, intersectionality should not remain only as a theoretical concept; it should be embraced in the everyday lives of queers. As I have mentioned in the introduction, by showing and analysing the narratives of queer/LGBTQI+ individuals with various backgrounds, I aim to contribute to this process of bringing together the academic sphere and everyday queer lives.
Intersectionality of gender: a working-class woman becomes queer
Generally speaking, I observed that research participants were not intensely aware of their multiple/intersectional identities. Nevertheless, every time we talked, they could sense that their everyday challenges were not only about their queerness. Intersectionality has not had a frequent use in social sciences and humanities (neither in academia nor in grey literature) of the post-Soviet region (except for the works of Madina Tlostonova), and therefore, many queers are not aware of this concept. However, this should not elicit criticism. I highlight this to show how queers from Eastern Europe/Western Asia (Azerbaijan) manage to locate themselves in some specific situations which are named and produced in the “Western context”. This might be better understood with the aid of Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1916) discussion on the signifier and signified. For instance, Alb, who considers themself non-binary, told me about how they did not distinguish their ‘woman’ identity from the non-binary identity.
“For a long time, I did not understand that being a woman and a man are different. After discovering my lesbian identity, I thought being a gay man and a lesbian woman were not different from each other [stops and thinks for a while]… Over the years, I realised that being a lesbian and a woman is more challenging in Azerbaijan.
Alb, 20-25 years old working-class non-binary – pronouns: they/them
In this narrative, I could see how Alb was able to understand the challenges of being a woman and a lesbian at the same time. Without signifying them with the concept of intersectionality, they could see the problem and its long-term consequences in lesbian women’s lives. While analysing this narrative, I highlight the problematic nature of living in a patriarchal regime where lesbian women’s and non-binary lives are under the control of cis-heterosexual-male domination. The patriarchy can be perceived as a mega concept here, and I do not want to link everything directly with patriarchy.
However, living a life as a woman already sets some conditions for individuals in Azerbaijan, and mostly, these rules are forced by the patriarchal system (Militz 2019; Militz 2020; Zamanov 2020; Zamanov 2022 (b) ). These rules mainly include having a happy heterosexual marriage, pro-natalism (having children), and maintaining your family. Meanwhile, living a life of a lesbian woman makes the situation even more complicated because lesbian women reject heterosexual relations with cis-heterosexual men. Even though they reject the heterosexual model, their rights are extremely limited within Azerbaijani legislation and society (ibid). In this sense, their identities intersect at the crossroad of being a woman and a lesbian. In Alb’s case, they do not face these challenges only for being non-binary; they constantly struggle because of their “woman” non-binary identity. “Woman” here is an image constructed by heteronormative society against Alb and many non-binaries and lesbians to remind them that “no matter what, they have a woman identity.”
Hence, being a lesbian woman in Azerbaijan points to how intersectional identities matter in such specific scenarios. Lesbians and non-binaries do not only face discrimination because of LGBTQI+ identities but also their “woman” identity, which has been given to them by the heteronormative society. Such intersectional challenges lead to psychological breakdowns, self-isolation, and other types of emotional traumas in the long term (Grabe 2020; Crenshaw et al. 2019). Being a lesbian woman already carries two identity markers within it, and in most cases, I observed that lesbian women and non-binaries additionally come from working-class families. This observation is a result of my long-term involvement with the Azerbaijani queer community but due to the lack of literature, there is no qualitative or quantitative data to refer to at this point. It is also true that there are some middle and upper-class lesbian women and non-binaries who visit only “elite” places in Baku. However, this does not invalidate my argument that lesbian women and non-binaries come from working-class families. Alb also comes from a working-class family and this class identity highly influenced their everyday relations with other queers in Baku, as well.
I can see how my economic issues influence my life. I do not go out and hang out with others that much… Because I do not have enough money to spend… Many queer friends are like me too… When it is summer, we hang out in the parks and gardens, but in winter, we cannot afford to meet every day [laughing]. I do not work … I should be more careful with my money... Also, I think being poor makes people think that I cannot be LGBT.
Their economic condition (being working class) adds an entirely new layer to Alb’s intersectional identity as class issues also become a part of their forced womanhood and queerness. Here, I uncover how being working-class directly influences Alb’s and many other queers’ mobilisation in their small circles and communities. Coming from a working-class family and being a non-binary “woman” in Azerbaijan creates a different level of oppression where many queers like Alb become direct targets. For instance, as Alb points out, society does not want to accept that working-class/ordinary people can also be queer (Gill 2021; Quarry 2015; Dews and Law 1998). Queerness does not have any direct connection with being middle or upper-class in Azerbaijan, but the majority of local society thinks it is not for working-class families and their children. Since such problematic associations exist in society, it is incredibly complicated for many Azerbaijani queers to overcome these intersectional challenges where their one identity is erased by another.
Therefore, Alb’s case suggests that their identity is shaped around their “womanhood”, queerness, and working-class position, which intersect in a way that helps Alb realise their interconnected nature. As I mentioned earlier, intersectionality begins when we realise that discrimination or social exclusion does not happen because of one monolithic concept (Crenshaw 1991; Crenshaw et al. 2019). Intersectionality starts when we see the links between several identity markers and how class, gender, and queerness have always been deeply connected. Hence, their relationships should be investigated in-depth to understand the long-term effects of social exclusion or discrimination.
As a practice, intersectionality means understanding and locating the issues of social exclusion on a personal level in order to map the situation on a societal level (Crenshaw 1989; McCall 2005). Mapping on a societal level helps us to see exclusionary practices from economic, social, legal, cultural, political and other, larger perspectives. These perspectives contribute to uncovering the narratives of many queer individuals like Alb and understanding how to change the living conditions of many queers in Azerbaijan. This may help gender and queer activists in Azerbaijan to comprehensively investigate the discriminatory cases against queers and take more concrete actions to reduce or even, in the long-term, end them. It brings me back to the main argument of this work which I mentioned previously. This article aims to bring academia and everyday queer lives together through an intersectional analysis of these queer narratives. Since this is a short article and I am to work within its boundaries, I highly advise other researchers (and also gender and queer activists) to employ intersectionality as their theoretical concept and analyse the categories of traditional gender, class, and queerness in a more critical and detailed way to contribute to this process of bringing academia/activism and everyday lives closer.
When ethnic identity meets gayness
Similar to Alb’s case, I also spoke with two gay men who carried the burden of being queer in Azerbaijan, but their identities were more complex than just queer. The first, Farkhad, is a Russian-speaking gay man from an ethnic community who lives in Baku. The second, Rustam, is a gay man with a disability from the same ethnic community as Farkhad, who also lives in Baku. During my conversations with Farkhad and Rustam, I attempted to understand whether they were aware of the intersectional issues of ethnicity, gender, being a Russian speaker, or having a disability.
I have never faced any discrimination because of my ethnic identity, but being LGBT is not easy in Azerbaijan… Sometimes, I hear jokes about my ethnic identity…I do not pay attention to that. I hear many things about LGBT… I do not react to that either. I want to keep my gayness a secret from society… I have never thought that my ethnic identity and gayness have something to do with each other… I can say that separately they are important for me. Together, they do not mean anything… I am a Russian speaker, and my circle is full of Russian speakers. Thus, I can say that I am not friends with many Azerbaijani speakers… We are different from Azerbaijani speakers, so we do not hang out together. Honestly, Azerbaijani speakers do not want Russian speakers in their circles.
Farkhad, 33 years old, a middle-class gay man from an ethnic community living in Baku – pronouns: he/him
Farkhad’s narrative is fascinating, bringing various levels of intersecting identities to the picture. First, even though Farkhad is a part of two communities (gay and ethnic), he still refuses to see the links between them. He wants to separate these two identities by keeping gayness secret within Azerbaijani society. Secondly, Farkhad does not seem to embrace his ethnic identity as much as his gay identity, but he is still interested in keeping gayness a secret from the Azerbaijani society, especially from the ethnic community he belongs to. Many ethnic communities in Azerbaijan are conservative (Kotecha 2006; Souleimanov and Kraus 2017) and they may not accept Farkhad’s identity. Thus, Farkhad does not want to lose his ethnic identity because of his gay identity. In a hierarchy, ethnic identity is ranked higher than his gay identity even though his gay identity is part of his everyday life and activities. Lastly, since Farkhad is a Russian speaker in Baku, this strongly influences his daily life and actions. For instance, he mainly hangs out with other Russian speakers, among whom he has many LGBTQI+ peers and friends. In this sense, I can say that Farkhad’s ethnic identity becomes fragmented since he is a part of a substantial Russian-speaking urban community where indigenous issues are no longer concerns of people in urbanised Baku. Their identities were assimilated, and somehow, concerns about rural life began to disappear. Therefore, Farkhad’s ethnic identity disappears, and his gay and Russian speaker identities remain to be part of his intersectional identity. At some points, he may even hide his gay identity within his Russian-speaking circles (when he is not among LGBTQI+ friends) and keep only the Russian speaker identity. For instance, recently, Dirçəliş 22/30 (Revival 22/30), an online Russian-speaking social media page, began to attack queer and LGBTQI+ individuals and activists on their social media plaforms (Minority Azerbaijan 2022). Even though Russian speakers are portrayed as more tolerant towards the queer community in Azerbaijan, Dirçəliş 22/30’s approach suggests that Russian speakers are a diverse group as well.
In broader terms, I suggest that some Russian speakers cannot be openly gay in their own circles, either. Therefore, in Farkhad’s case, it might be one of the reasons that he would hide his gay identity even within his comfortable Russian-speaking circle. The fact that our identities are never fixed is something an intersectional lens helps us understand. Saying this, I do not aim to produce and strengthen identity politics. Instead, I want to draw attention to the performativity and dynamics of each identity; in other words, I want to show how one or more of these identities can easily be erased due to another. This brings me to the issue of power relations and how power dynamics influence queer individuals’ diverse identities.
While putting these pieces together, it is possible to say that Farkhad’s different levels of identity are fluid. He embraces being a member of an ethnic community, gay and a Russian speaker. However, these identities do not have to co-exist with each other, in his opinion. This proves that intersectional theory is critical to our understanding of how such narratives are never monolithic. As McCall (2005) argues, intersectionality helps to uncover how power relations are manifested in hegemonic societies. Without intersectional lenses, the concepts of gender, ethnicity, language and other categories become strongly monolithic (ibid). For instance, without understanding the power relations among the categories of ethnicity, language and queerness, it is impossible to say whether or not Farkhad wants to embrace his gay identity. While analysing through intersectional lenses, the issues of power dynamics and hegemonic concepts are clearly visible in the personal narratives of Azerbaijani gay men. In this example, I observed that Farkhad cannot bring his various identities together since they do not allow him to openly construct himself within Azerbaijani society. Being a member of an ethnic community and an openly gay man forces Farkhad to choose one of his identities and in this case, being gay becomes a part of him that needs to be kept secret. Neither being a Russian speaker nor an ethnic minority allows Farkhad to be who he is because ethnic issues are not the concern of most Russian speakers who live in Baku. Farkhad needs to leave his ethnic identity behind him to become a part of the Russian-speaking community. Finally, being gay and being a Russian speaker may go together, but I suggest that Farkhad still believes that his circle is homophobic (or queerphobic) despite the fact that they are Russian speakers. Ultimately, Farkhad is forced to believe that these identities must exist separately from each other.
As I mentioned earlier, intersectionality aims to understand how multiple identities exist without placing them in a hierarchy. In addition, intersectional theory also attempts to shed light on how having multiple identities forces individuals to face layered structural exclusion and discrimination (Crenshaw 1991; McCall 2005). Therefore, to understand how multiple identities work in Farkhad’s case, it is essential to analyse these identities separately and then bring them together into the broader picture. Without bringing these multiple identities together, it becomes impossible to understand the situation of many queers like Farkhad. Additionally, intersectionality was developed in the Global North, where the welfare system and development levels cannot be seen as equal to post-Soviet states like Azerbaijan. In this sense, analysing identities separately may contribute to hiding the vital details of the broader picture of everyday homophobia, racism and elitism that exists in the Azerbaijani context. That is why intersectional lenses, by bringing the multiple identities together, help me understand how Farkhad and many other lives. Moreover, bringing academia and everyday queer lives closer means that knowledge will not come from top to bottom. It must come from the bottom (the society/community) to the top (academia/knowledge producers) in order to project the ideals and challenges of each society.
Rustam’s story differs from Farkhad’s narrative even though he is also detached from his ethnic identity. Unlike Farkhad, Rustam represents the younger generation of this ethnic community and must come to terms with his gay and disabled identities.
My mother and father are from [X] ethnic community, and I grew up in Baku. I heard many disgusting jokes about my ethnic identity, but I have never seen direct discrimination. Maybe, I have faced it, but I did not consider it [laughing]… I am a gay man, and my family knows about this… I mean, my mother and sister know. It is complicated to live as a gay in Azerbaijan. It is more complicated than living as an ethnic minority because being an ethnic minority is not dangerous, but being openly gay is dangerous in Azerbaijan… I also have a mild disability, and I have faced bullying because of this by many gays. They made fun of my disability on LGBT dating applications [feels a bit emotional]… I am who I am, and I live my life… I think my disabled and gay identities are connected to each other, but I do not relate myself to the ethnic identity that much… I am sensitive about ethnic issues, but these things do not matter to me.
Rustam, 20-25 years old, a middle-class gay man with a disability from an ethnic community living in Baku – pronouns: he/him
Rustam’s story has different layers since it brings the concepts of gender, ethnicity and disability together. While analysing this narrative, I look at how Rustam constructs his identities around existing concepts. Disability and gayness are an essential part of his intersectional identity (Crenshaw et al. 2019), and here he must deal with his oppressed sexuality and humiliated disabled body by the ableist and heteronormative Azerbaijani society. In this sense, I understand how disability and queerness turn Rustam into a more aware gay man when it comes to his multi-layered identities. Since his disability and queerness directly affect his everyday life both on the streets of Baku or on the online LGBT dating applications, Rustam can see the interwoven relationship between his disability and queerness.
Rustam also wanted to show me how his narrative is not a singular case and that there are more people with stories like him on the intersections of disability and queerness (e.g. Egner 2018; Kimball et al.. 2018; Rodríguez-Roldán 2020), but they cannot be as open as Rustam. As Rustam mentioned, being openly queer puts your life at risk in Azerbaijan, where many trans women and gay men have been brutally killed (Gender Resource Centre 2021; Zamanov 2022 (a); Voice of America 2022). Also, being a “poor boy” who suffers from a disability is seen as more humiliating than being poor or disabled separately (e.g. Zeynalova 2017; Kazimov 2018). As Rustam mentioned, even within the gay community, abled gays refuse to date disabled persons and bully them because they find disability “abnormal”. Hence, these two identities intertwine with each other and help Rustam to see that discrimination does not happen only because of his gayness or disability but because of his gayness and disability together.
Turning to the issue of ethnicity, it is interesting to see that Rustam does not consider his ethnic background as a critical element of his multi-layered identity. I began to think that it might be because of his assimilation within urbanised Baku, as was in Farkhad’s case. According to Richard Alba et al. (2002), it is common to see second and third-generation migrants not feel as close to their ethnic roots as the initial generations, especially as they lose the ability to use their native languages. Rustam does not associate himself with his ethnic community and their issues do not matter much to him. Unlike Farkhad, he does not even feel the bond between his queerness and ethnic identity. Therefore, ethnic identity becomes intensely fragmented within queer and disabled identities, similar to how intersectionality theory suggests that sometimes identities can shift and or become unavoidable (Crenshaw 1989; Crenshaw 1991; McCall 2005). I also observe that some of the concepts become hegemonic and other categories of identity become secondary. This brings me back to the issue of power relations again and how one identity can easily be erased by another one.
I would like to put these two stories (Farkhad and Rustam) together to understand how ethnicity and queerness are extremely important to grasp the intersectional thinking in these specific narratives. Firstly, Farkhad and Rustam do not see or appreciate the links between their gender and ethnic identities. This is a powerful narrative because both groups are oppressed in Azerbaijani society. Ethnic communities are not oppressed as much as the LGBTQI+ individuals, but still, both groups face discrimination and everyday challenges in Azerbaijan (Kotecha 2006). One of the reasons they do not want to link these two identities, thus, can be about how ethnic communities and queers are treated in Azerbaijan. In a way, how the state creates and reproduces the monolithic Azerbaijani identity becomes a problem for people with intersectional identities who want to embrace their queerness and ethnic identities. In the end, I see how intersectional identities are fragile in such contexts where the state either wants to erase your identity or re-construct it through its own agenda. In this sense, power relations are inseparable from these multi-layered narratives of Farkhad and Rustam. Their ethnic identity is not as strong as other identities due to the hegemonic perceptions or power dynamics in Azerbaijani society. Being a member of an ethnic community might be seen as worse than being gay in Farkhad and Rustam’s narratives. In other words, without analysing these concepts together, it is almost impossible to see why they want to reject their ethnic identities.
Secondly, as I mentioned when discussing Farkhad’s narrative, the ethnic community may not accept his queer identity as a part of his ethnic one. In Azerbaijan, many right-wing nationalists claim that ‘being gay and Azerbaijani do not go together’ (Zamanov 2020; Zamanov 2021). Thus, it is very likely that we would see many narratives similar to those of Farkhad and Rustam, in which ethnic queers do not want to connect their intersectional identities. However, keeping identities separate does not always work because they are part of an individual’s everyday life. Thus, they may attempt to hide each identity in different situations. As I have said earlier, without understanding the challenges of having multi-layered identities it is impossible to comprehend why Farkhad is forced to give up one of his identities in certain situations. That means multi-layered identities are flexible for some queers like Farkhad in Azerbaijan.
Lastly, as I highlighted in Rustam’s narrative (and to some extent, in Farkhad’s case), the second or third generations of ethnic communities do not associate themselves with the ethnic identity, especially those who live in urbanised Baku. In both cases, I observed that they are fully “integrated” into the urbanised Bakuvian lifestyle and bringing up issues of ethnicity may keep them from this ‘integration’. Hence, Farkhad and Rustam find themselves more secure when they hide behind their ‘integrated’ identities. It is a combination of forced and natural assimilation processes that happen under state pressure and, simultaneously, because of the expectations held by Azerbaijani society (ibid).
These narratives produce critical knowledge about gay men coming from various backgrounds in Azerbaijan. By analysing these narratives through an intersectional lens, I attempt to bring different social categories together in order to understand multi-layered identities and their reciprocal relations. These stories are not only academically but also politically and economically important in understanding the challenges facing gay men with multiple identities in Azerbaijan because they demonstrate the links between practice and theory of intersectionality, which, at this point, seem to be separated in the Azerbaijani context. Additionally, these links have the potential to strengthen the visibility of multi-layered gay identities in Azerbaijan. In other ways, they can also fight against structural homophobia/queerphobia in Azerbaijan.
Intersectional trans identities: being a trans woman and a sex worker
Unlike ethnicity, disability, language and class issues, sex work remains to be one of the less analysed categories of intersectional theory and feminist studies (Mullins 2021; Ham 2018; Pocock 2015). In Azerbaijan, sex work is illegal, and people involved in this field can be sentenced to up to 6 years in jail under Azerbaijani law (Criminal Code of the Azerbaijan Republic n.d). However, most Azerbaijani trans women make their living by working in the sex industry, where they can earn enough money to survive. In Azerbaijan, most workplaces do not hire trans workers because trans women are primarily associated with sex work (The Danish Institute for Human Rights n.d). Therefore, many trans women cannot find jobs other than in the sex industry in Azerbaijan. Considering these conditions, Lam told me about her life.
I am a transgender woman and have been doing sex work for more than ten years. It was not easy in Azerbaijan, but I survived... Being a transgender woman is not easy because people look at you like you are abnormal or sick… Being a sex worker is a long story… They think sex workers are making society immoral. If their husbands have morals, why do they come to us [sex workers]? Sometimes, I meet very unclean men, and I pray to God [Allah] that I will not catch a disease from them…I do not know what will happen to me in the future, but thanks to god [Allaha min şükür], I earn money.
Lam, 30-35 years old, a working-class transgender sex-worker woman living in Baku – pronouns: she/her
I can see how Lam is aware that her trans woman and sex-worker identities have something in common when she considers all the challenges she has been facing in Azerbaijan. Even though she is unable to name this identity, Lam understands the bigger picture. This bigger picture is mainly about how being a trans woman in Azerbaijan forces you to become isolated from society (Hajiyeva 2021). Without jobs and often an inability to pursue university degrees, trans women become detached from the everyday life of Azerbaijani society. Unlike other citizens of Azerbaijan, trans women cannot enjoy the benefits of becoming independent and empowered women and being employed at state offices or private startups (The Danish Institute for Human Rights n.d). As Lam mentions, trans women are not accepted as “normal” because they are seen as sick or mentally disabled (Zamanov 2020).
Consequently, trans women are forced to survive under challenging conditions, and thus, they are mainly employed in the sex industry. It is not an easy path for many trans sex workers, and I believe sex workers’ lives are in danger in countries like Azerbaijan, where no law protects the rights of trans and cis women involved in sex work (Hajiyeva 2022; Parsons 2020). As Lam highlights, Azerbaijani society is the one that blames trans women and does not offer job opportunities to them, and when trans women are forced to choose sex work, they are considered ‘immoral’. Meanwhile, the same society that names trans sex workers as ‘immoral’, also provides customers for trans women in sex work. It is incredibly hypocritical of privileged heterosexual Azerbaijani men to talk about ‘traditional values’ and then visit trans sex workers. Additionally, these women’s lives are in danger because people who visit them can often be violent, hitting and, in extreme cases, killing them. Lam also notes that there is a danger of coming in contact with someone who has a sexually transmitted disease (STDs). In other words, from being killed to getting STDs, the spectrum of violence and fear is broad for many trans women in sex work who try to make money under these challenging circumstances.
After putting these details together, I conclude that trans sex-worker women can be considered part of the precariat. According to Guy Standing (2014), the precariat’s labour is insecure and unsteady, associated with casualisation, informalisation, agency labour, part-time labour, and phoney self-employment. In this sense, trans sex-worker women belong to the self-employment precariat and their everyday security is not guaranteed under the current conditions in Azerbaijan. Lam’s and many other trans women’s narratives demonstrate that the issue is not about “either…or”. Systematic violence and discrimination do not occur because of being a trans woman or a sex worker. They take place because these two identities intersect. These identities are inseparable, and hence, the intersectional nature of systematic violence should be investigated more. At the same time, the intersectional nature of these identities should be highlighted as well. This would help us understand how trans sex-worker women’s problems cannot be equated with those of the general queer community in Azerbaijan. Even trans women who do not work in the sex industry in Azerbaijan (few and privileged) do not face the same challenges as trans sex-worker women. Thus, differences in their narratives should be precisely analysed to see how intersectional theory can help us.
In this sense, intersectional theory assists me in contributing to queer Azerbaijani studies by focusing on the narratives of trans sex-worker women, as well. These narratives suggest that intersectional theory should not only focus on the issues of class, ethnicity and disability. I believe that trans identities and sex work should also become important categories of research since they are mainly ignored in intersectional feminist scholarship and queer Azerbaijani studies. Additionally, my analysis brings the links between practice and theory of intersectionality together and increases the visibility of trans individuals in Azerbaijani society.
By utilizing the intersectional lens (Crenshaw 1991; Crenshaw 1989; McCall 2005; Al-Faham et al. 2019; Cho et al. 2013; Lederach 2020; Zamanov 2020) in this article, I attempted to answer ‘how does intersectionality shape the lives of queer individuals? Furthermore, how can these experiences help us understand the bigger picture of LGBTQI+/queer communities in Azerbaijan?’ Through this process, I employed various social categories and identities, including gender, queer, disability, ethnicity, sex work, and class issues, to analyse respondents’ narratives.
The narratives of Alb, Rustam, Farkhad and Lam helped me to understand how intersectional theory has not been taken seriously by researchers in Azerbaijan, especially in the field of Azerbaijani queer studies. However, such an essential analytical concept can reveal the reciprocal relations of different socially constructed identities in the future, especially when incorporating the identity markers that are largely ignored and underestimated by Azerbaijani society.
Through an analysis of these narratives, I understood that embracing the intersectional nature of an individual’s identity (as in the case of Farkhad) may not only depend on the research participants. They may need external validation when it comes to being accepted as a gay man representing a specific ethnic community in the Azerbaijani context, especially considering the conservative nature of their ethnic communities (Kotecha 2006; Souleimanov and Kraus 2017). On the contrary, they may reject this identity because they do not feel any bonds with it (as in the case of Rustam). This also suggests that oppression in Azerbaijani society can also directly influence the process of understanding the self through intersectionality; thus, some people with intersectional identities may refuse it. At the same time, respondents like Lam can see their oppression and its long-term effects when they analyse the current situation of trans sex-worker women in Azerbaijan. The issue of being trans and in sex work should, thus, be seen as interwoven.
All in all, these narratives help me to comprehend how considering multiple identities is essential when looking at a broader picture of Azerbaijani society and investigating homophobia, racism, classism, disability and other issues. This proves that different identities are not seperated (Crenshaw 1991; Crenshaw 1989; McCall 2005). My analysis displays how these identities are interlinked with each other and produce different living conditions and challenges for each queer individual. Therefore, as researchers, we should not aim to center one category or overpower another. Detailed analysis and deep consideration of intersectional theory are needed to understand how people with multiple identities deal with structural issues in Azerbaijan. Hence, for further research, I highly recommend that interested scholars consider intersectional theory instead of reducing all the issues to the mega concepts of an authoritarian system, patriarchy, capitalism, and class. These concepts are fundamental, but they do not allow us to analyse the details of individual stories, and they may erase the narratives of queers with layered identities.
The interviews that inform this paper were part of a broader study. Informed consent was obtained from the participants. All names and other identifying features were removed from the research material, and pseudonyms have been used.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
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 In Azerbaijan, LGBT is the key frame that individuals prefer to identify with. However, QI and plus also gained popularity in the last ten years thanks to activism and consciousness-raising.
 In this article, I mainly employ the term ‘queer’ to describe the LGBTQI+ research participants. However, queer and LGBTQI+ are used interchangeably in this work.
 The respondents agreed to participate in the research project on the condition that their names and sensitive details would be kept anonymous.
 Saussure discussed the association of a specific object, feeling or process with specific words. For instance, if an Azerbaijani does not have the word or ability to picture a rose, it will be impossible to explain a rose to that person because the signified (concept) cannot detect the signifier (the sound or image). In this way, I attempt to understand how, without knowing about intersectionality (but in practice having multiple identities), Azerbaijani queers locate themselves within the queer experience?
 All of the interview materials have been translated from Azerbaijani into English by the author.
 All of the research participants’ real names have been replaced with pseudonyms.
 Unlike Western societies, lesbian women cannot adopt children together and thus, the pro-natalist policy is not an option for many of them in Azerbaijan.
 Farkhad is the only Russian-speaking respondent in this paper. The other participants are Azerbaijani speakers with either limited or no knowledge of the Russian language.
 In Azerbaijan, there is still a considerable separation between Azerbaijani speakers and Russian speakers due to USSR imperialism and Russian colonialism. Mostly, Russian speakers have access to better jobs and education in Azerbaijan; this creates a different level of conflict between these two groups. This phenomenon is more evident among young and middle-aged generations in Azerbaijan. The majority of these groups dislike each other, and there are some places where only middle-class Russian speakers are welcome.
 Explaining Rustam’s disability in detail may reveal his real identity, and thus, I will not provide further details.
This article was first published here: feminism-boell.org