A gay couple in Azerbaijan has been forced into hiding after a video of them kissing went viral in the conservative Eastern European country of Azerbaijan.
The controversy began when Ravan Nasimi, 27, bought his boyfriend, 20-year-old Alvi Aghabeyov, a cake to celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14. In a short video captured by a friend, Nasimi surprises Aghabeyov with the gift, and the two share a short, romantic kiss to mark the occasion. The couple posted it on Facebook shortly after, believing that only close friends and immediate family members—who had been widely supportive of their relationship—would see it.
In the morning, friends messaged to warn them that conservative groups had begun sharing the video on Facebook and Instagram overnight, leading to immediate threats against the couple’s lives. “Those people should be killed,” some critics of the video said, while others offered information about their whereabouts and even cash rewards to anyone who murdered them.
Nasimi and Aghabeyov also feared they would face violence from family members. Vahid Aliyev, an LGBTQ advocate who translated the conversation between VICE and Nasimi, said, “Ravan's uncles and aunts were calling his mom and telling them, ‘He's dishonoring our family's name. Why don't you control him?’”
The fallout was immediate. Aghabeyov was fired from his job, he said, and Nasimi was placed on leave while his employers encouraged him to submit a letter of resignation. The couple couldn’t leave their apartment in the city of Ganja—which Aliyev describes as a tight-knit, socially conservative city where “everyone knows everyone”—without being recognized, so they began wearing masks everywhere they went.
Disguising their identities, though, didn’t halt the discrimination they faced. When the couple went to the local bread store where they shop every week, they were told there was no bread for them.
Eventually, the two stopped leaving the apartment altogether. “I've lost weight because I’m scared and depressed,” Nasimi said.
Police in Azerbaijan—which is ranked as the least-LGBTQ friendly country in Europe by the global equality group ILGA—declined to get involved in the incident. Because the country doesn’t have any laws barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, law enforcement officials told the couple it “isn’t their business” to investigate and said they would have to take it up with the court system.
Last week, Nasimi sent letters to the prosecutor general and also the local prosecutor in Ganja to investigate the case. In the letters, he pled for his safety. “Please find the people who are sharing [the video],” he begged.
Samad Ismayilov, co-founder of the LGBTQ advocacy group Minority Azerbaijan, is not hopeful that prosecutors will intervene in the case, noting that Nasimi went to the police station several times to make a report about the incidents and described getting mocked and harassed each time. Ismayilov said reports of homophobic mistreatment from authorities is “very common” in Azerbaijan, estimating that police decline to intervene in “99 percent” of cases of anti-LGBTQ violence and abuse.
“That's one of the reasons why LGBTQ people don’t even go to police because they know what will happen,” Ismayilov said. “They will be humiliated, and there will be no result.”
The rampant brutality to which LGBTQ people are subjected in Azerbaijan received international attention in September 2017 after Baku police arrested more than 50 individuals accused of prostitution. Attorneys for the detained told the New York Times that the allegations they were involved in sex work were false and that the police were merely trying to harass LGBTQ individuals.
“People were humiliated and had their heads forcibly shaved,” said Aliyev, who added that, in actuality, as many as 150 people were rounded up and detained by police. “It happened again in 2019.”
LGBTQ advocacy groups are hoping to appeal to the British and American embassies in Baku to assist in the case, fearing that the couple will be forced to leave the country if authorities do not stop the persecution they are facing. But as they take additional steps to ensure their safety, Nasimi and Aghabeyov fled Ganja on Sunday and are currently staying at a safe house in Baku. Because they have no jobs and no money, friends and community members are helping to support them financially.
Ismayilov hopes the case serves as a “turning point” for Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country which has been slow to evolve on LGBTQ rights after decriminalizing sodomy in 2000. Some of the pages that had shared the video took it down after the couple got in touch, and Ismayilov said the fallout has helped people understand why it’s important LGBTQ people are treated equally under the law.
“Those people who leaked the video, now they understand that this is a serious thing,” he said. “Maybe when they did it, they thought it was a joke. They would just laugh about it, but now they’re seeing that it can create this dangerous situation.”
Nasimi is not optimistic that he and Aghabeyov will ever be able to return to Ganja, though their families remain supportive of the couple. Even before this latest incident, he had been targeted and harassed numerous times by local police for being gay; once he was arrested for doing nothing more than wearing a rainbow T-shirt on the sidewalk.
The couple, though, continues to pray that things change someday. “I want to live in a country where people have the right to wear colorful clothes,” Nasimi said.