Proposal for march ahead of Eurovision contest meets strong opposition.
A proposal to hold a gay pride parade during this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Baku has sparked anger among conservatives in the mainly Muslim state of Azerbaijan.
A delegation from Dusseldorf, Germany, handed over a key on January 25 to symbolise Baku’s status as this year’s capital of Eurovision, a contest in which singers from all across Europe compete.
Hosting the flamboyant competition is a mark of international pride for Azerbaijan, but gay activists fear it lacks the credentials for the event, which in western Europe has an enthusiastic gay following.
Pink News, Europe’s largest gay news service, reported broad concerns last year that Azerbaijan gay rights record “makes it deeply unsuitable” as a host country.
The international gay website www.nighttours.com initially floated the idea of a parade taking place between March 22 and March 26, in the lead-up to the finals in May, but then removed the proposal days later.
Since then, 113 people have joined a Facebook page opposing the plan and a local gay group has received a death threat.
Fuad Mirgulamli, who joined the page, insisted the Facebook campaign was not homophobic.
“We don’t have anything against gays, we just don’t want this to be held in Baku,” he said. “Say what you like, but Baku is a centre of Islamic culture. This goes against our way of thinking.”
Ruslan Balukhin, co-founder of the Azeri website www.gay.az, said gay people in the country would theoretically like to hold a parade, but it was out of the question in the current climate.
“To take on the organisation [of a parade] you would need guarantees of your safety,” he told IWPR. “Basically, among Baku’s gays and lesbians there is no one even dreaming of demonstrations or parades.”
Although local gay rights activists say they had no involvement in the proposal, a man identifying himself as Iman Mammadov emailed www.gay.az threatening to kill gay Azeris if they organised a pride event.
“There are reports your community is planning to arrange this [expletive] carnival during Eurovision. I want to warn you – if this happens, then we will beat you all to death,” Mammadov wrote.
He claimed to have the Azerbaijan culture ministry’s support, a suggestion the ministry strongly denies.
“We do not know this Iman Mammadov, and the organisation or otherwise of such a parade is not the responsibility of the ministry,” ministry spokeswoman Zohra Aliyeva said.
One 19-year-old gay man in Baku said he would happily join a parade but feared for his safety, adding that many gay Azeris only came out of the closet if they wanted to seek asylum abroad.
“If you just walked through the streets with a rainbow flag you could forget about your career, your family and a normal life,” he told IWPR. “Even if the government allowed the march, you’d still have to fear our homophobic fellow citizens.”
Outside Baku, at least one official has reassured foreign fans that the contest won’t take place in a homophobic environment.
Responding to concerns about gay rights in The Times newspaper last year, Baku’s ambassador to Britain Fahraddin Gurbanov said the country’s laws did not discriminate against sexual minorities. The country is resolutely secular and all Eurovision fans would be welcome, he added.
In Baku, officials said a gay parade would stand a fair chance of approval.
Adil Kerimli, head of the Eurovision-2012 working group, told the APA news agency that people were free to organise parades as long as they complied with the law.
“If someone wants to organise a parade or other mass event then they can do so, as long as they obey current laws and apply to the relevant authorities,” Kerimli said.
But permission for marches and demonstrations is rarely granted, according to Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy think tank. She said the authorities had not granted approval for protests of any kind since November 2005. The last approved demonstration, against alleged fraud in a parliamentary election, came to a violent end that year when police armed with truncheons and water cannons broke up a sit-down protest.
“All attempts to hold an unsanctioned protest have led to injuries and arrests, with those arrested sentenced to between two and four years in prison,” Yunus said.
“If an application for a gay parade is submitted, you can be sure the Baku authorities will turn it down without giving any explanation, and without worrying that this is in violation of the constitution.”
Aliya Haqverdi is an IWPR-trained freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.