“I am going away: this world and this country are not for me. I am going away to be happy. Tell Mom that I love her,” wrote 20-year-old gay rights advocate Isa Shahmarli before he apparently hanged himself on January 22 in his apartment in Baku. His death has sparked a debate about LGBT rights in conservative Azerbaijan.
In his suicide note, posted on his Facebook page, Shahmarli, who chaired the LGBT group Azad (Free), blamed “everyone” for his death. “This world is not colorful enough to accept my color too. So long,” the message reads.
One local outlet carried footage of an ambulance team trying to resuscitate Sharmarli. Some news reports suggested that problems with his family and Azerbaijan's largely homophobic society drove the young man to suicide.
Though authoritarian, Azerbaijan is often viewed as the world’s most socially liberal Muslim country, and less homophobic than its Christian neighbors, Armenia and Georgia. A small rally in support of gay rights was held in Baku last year. A similar event was thwarted by mob violence in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
But being liberal is a highly relative concept in the South Caucasus. As discussants at a Heinrich Böll Foundation conference on the LGBT situation in Azerbaijan put it, while a degree of tolerance exists for men with feminine appearances in such professions as hair-styling and show business, Azerbaijan’s sexual minorities live in a suffocating world of discrimination and rejection.
Hate crimes and hate speech are not rare and are not properly addressed by local laws, found a report by The Danish Institute for Human Rights. Some parents reportedly cut off their children, if they come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, human rights groups say.
Against that backdrop, some Azerbaijanis see Sharmarli's suicide as a motivation for change. “All of us are guilty of his death,” whether by ignoring the mistreatment of gays or not speaking out in defense of their rights, wrote journalist Nigar Fatali in an epitaph for Shahmarli on Meydan TV’s website.
"The last time [Azerbaijan] made use of being free, rich and comfortable, we created the first opera in the East, built the first school for girls and established the first democracy in the Muslim world," she argued. "Now it is time to champion other things that truly matter, like tolerance, understanding and acceptance – the most human colors."
Online debates and reactions to the commentary suggest that many Azerbaijanis agree.