Wars, state failure, social and economic problems – for more than one decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the three states of the South Caucasus, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan were faced with existential challenges. With the consolidation of state structures, the at least transitional freezing of territorial conflicts, and the strengthening of ties with Western Europe, attention to the rights of sexual minorities also increased. At the beginning of the 2000s, in the course of becoming part of the Council of Europe, all three countries began the process of decriminalizing homosexuality. But all three former Soviet republics remain far from having eliminated discrimination. Only in Georgia do two paragraphs in a law exist that forbid discrimination. At this point, in the countries of the region, it is impossible to conceive of recognition of LGBT partnerships or even their equal treatment with heterosexual couples.
The abbreviation LBGT includes different sexual minorities: lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. “Trans” is used as an umbrella term for more groups: transgender are people who call the clear distinction between men and women into question; transient people identify with the opposite sex from that which was assigned to them at birth, but do not want a gender reassignment with medical intervention and medication; and finally transsexuals, who change their gender in order to live according to the gender to which they would like to be perceived.
Those who advocate for the rights of sexual minorities in all three countries are confronted with staunchly conservative stereotypes and deep-seated resentment towards all those who challenge or could be seen to break up the traditional social and family structures. The weakly developed understanding of democratic values and minority rights is not just inherited from the Soviet Union. In addition comes the experience of threat to the culture, language and religion during the foreign rule of the previous centuries. The wars over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan are still active parts of the collective memory.
In the society’s perception, already strongly influenced by patriarchy, the sense of being well guarded against outside enemies plays an enormous role. Masculine characteristics such as strength and courage are important. As a result of these perceptions, women must be protected and be only marginally present in public. It is also seen as fundamental to safeguard the survival of the family and the society in subsequent generations. For example, most families see homosexual women and men as bringing shame to them, also because, in the view of their relatives, they threaten the continuity of the family and social unity. As a result, LGBT people often first experience violence from their own relatives. This can also involve death threats.
Gay or transsexual men are also often seen in the society as a danger to the strength of the army. As a result of a lack of knowledge comes the fear that young people can get “infected” with homosexuality or will be led astray in this direction and thereby destroy society from the inside out. Those who work against democratization and the protection of minorities often point to homosexuality as a negative example of western values being imported.
With the three territorial conflicts remaining unresolved and the comparably strong neighbor states of Russia, Turkey and Iran seen as a threat, there remains a strong feeling in all three countries that the people must defend themselves. In the previous years, the governments in the three states have used the fear of outside threats in order to stoke their domestic power, Armenia and Azerbaijan more so than Georgia.
In regard to their rights, LGBT people have the strongest support in Georgia, whose democratic development is also most advanced. This year, activists went onto the streets for the first time in order to openly demonstrate for LGBT rights. This can be evaluated as a step forward, even though ultra-orthodox Christians attacked activists and the police initially only reluctantly stepped in.
In Azerbaijan no one has yet dared to protest on the streets for LGBT rights. But the government supports an organization that works on health and disease prevention for sexual minorities. In addition, as a result of the oriental influences in the Azerbaijani culture, a few professional and social niches exist in which sexual minorities like gays and transsexuals are accepted. Bodily contact in public among men, such as hugging or walking arm in arm, and between women as well, is also common – as long as it is a symbol of a close friendship, but not seen as affection between same-sex partners. Homosexuality is raised in public but almost only with the intention of discrediting unpopular people.
The situation for LGBT people in Armenia is certainly the most difficult. The country is politically and historically purposely very isolated, and, as a society made up almost exclusively of Armenians, it is very closed. Even Armenians from the diaspora have found it difficult in previous years to find their place in society. In practically all sectors of society, there exists a rejection of any acceptance of LGBT rights.
A “Diversity March” in the spring of 2012, which involved no mention of LGBT rights, had to be broken up even with police protection. Many politicians supported an attack against a bar known to be gay-friendly. Financially and politically influential circles within the Armenian Diaspora are also very conservatively influenced and promote obsolete ideas of their homeland among their families. Only few activists have the courage and the energy to further advocate for LGBT rights in Armenia. Up to ten LGBT persons and activists left the country after these events in the spring. A number of activists believe that the government will try to use the widespread resentment against LGBT people for its benefit in the 2013 presidential election.
Given the deeply ingrained stereotypes against LGBT persons along with the significant political and social problems, it is unlikely that the situation in Georgia, Armenia and in Azerbaijan will fundamentally change in the short term.
As in Armenia, a presidential election will also occur in Azerbaijan in 2013. Is it expected that the government will try to maintain control over the situation and undermine any activities critical of the government, as they did in the previous elections. Even if a generational shift were to occur within President Ilham Aliyev’s administration or if an opposition party were to win, it is almost certain that one could not expect any protection against discrimination of LGBT people. The young generation in the government and the opposition is also more conservatively influenced.
Armenia can be characterized similarly. The deepest fears and reservations against LGBT people in the population can in the long-term only be dispelled through education first among journalists and politicians, along with human rights activists, and later also the broader population. But it is still likely that the opposite will occur, with resentment against minorities continuing to be used as a means for maintaining power.
The opportunity for implementation of LGBT rights seems most likely in Georgia. This is not only the place where the democratic development is most advanced. It also has quite an active scene and a young generation, especially among students, that promotes social equality. The new government under Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has also committed itself to adopting more European values. Further legal measures protecting LGBT people could send a clear signal in this regard. The new opposition towards the current president, Mikhail Saakashvili, could also exert pressure in Parliament on promoting minority rights in order to highlight its western and democratic orientation.
About the author
As a freelance journalist, Silvia Stöber has specialized for more than five years on the South Caucasus. She writes regularly for various publications such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the Tagesspiegel, Zeit Online, tagesschau.de, and other media sources. She travels in all three countries regularly. For this report on LGBT rights, she interviewed activists, concerned citizens, politicians, and others. Not all are cited with quotes or names in order to protect their privacy.