Lili: Why can't the artist return home?

LGBTQI+ activist attracts attention of Azerbaijani intelligence service with anti-war remarks

LGBTQI+ activist attracts attention of Azerbaijani intelligence service with anti-war remarks

Lili: Why can't the artist return home?

Lili Nazarov is an artist and LGBTQI+ activist from Baku. They have been forced to roam around the "visa-free" countries because they don't feel safe in Azerbaijan.

In each country Lili visits, they paint murals in which the problems of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups are highlighted.

Lili left home at 17 because their gender identity (queer) made them feel unsafe. Their conservative family didn’t even allow their sisters to attend school. Lili rented an apartment and has been living independently ever since.

“I met a lot of activists and people like me. Some have problems with their parents, others have difficulty accepting themselves. In Azerbaijan, queer people often run away from their parents because the family does not accept them.

“I settled for a while in my apartment and started to help them, because I myself once was in their position. I’ve always had a lot of people at home. I’ve spoken actively and openly about LGBTQI+ rights issues. We don't have any rights at all. We can neither freely assemble nor freely express ourselves. Activists are always under threat of arrest and violence.”

“Why am I depicting war?”

Lili always liked to draw and was considered talented at school, but didn't like the use to which their talents were put by teachers:

“On commemoration day of the Khojaly tragedy, I was forced to draw posters. I asked myself why I should depict war, blood, dead people, to show who the enemy is and who isn’t? I didn’t consider Armenians to be enemies. There is no right and wrong in war. War is not a decision of the people, but of politicians.

“When the Second Karabakh War began in 2020, I was shocked. Several of my friends were drafted into the army; I was afraid my boyfriend would be as well.

“I and some other activists began to speak out against the war and use the #nowar hashtag. There were just over a hundred of us, not many. We tried to convey to people that peace is the only solution to the conflict. It was a difficult time for me as well because I had to sever ties with some friends who supported the war.

“Unfortunately, most queer people were supportive of what was happening and often argued with me because they’d grown up on propaganda. Many who were against the war remained silent, fearing that the police would threaten their families. They condemned us, calling us ‘traitors’ and ‘Armenians’.
“Homophobia in society has gotten worse. Society considered us worthless because we couldn’t or didn’t want to fight.

“One guy, openly gay, died in the war and some strange discussions began about this. People shared his photos and said for example “look, gays are not bad, they too die for the country.” Others answered: “This is just one case and it proves nothing. Nobody asked him."

“This person was a volunteer. Someone used his for propaganda, saying that Azerbaijan is such a tolerant country that even gays fight for their homeland. So this case did nothing to improve attitudes toward LGBTQI+ people. People think that a gay person is only acceptable if he died for the country.”

“We are watching you”

Lili tweeted a lot, spoke out against the war, and tried to demonstrate its futility. For example, they created a poll on whether people would vote for Ilham Aliyev after the war:

“I believe that he started the war in order to regain popular support, which he has been losing quickly of late. Most of the respondents answered ‘yes’.

“During the war, I wrote a post saying that we have the right to know how many Azerbaijani soldiers had been killed. These data were not disclosed, and the media discussed only losses on the Armenian side.

After that, I was called in by the state security service. I went there with my lawyer. We were accompanied by men with machine guns as we walked down the corridor, and I thought ‘how is it that I call for peace and I am treated like a terrorist?"

“There were printed screenshots of my posts on a table in the room where I was brought. They pointed at each one and asked, "Why did you write this?" Then we got to the post where I demanded that data on the dead soldiers be published: ‘Why do you want to know about the losses of Azerbaijan? Do you work for Armenia? Why are you interested in whether they will vote for Ilham Aliyev?’ I was surprised, and replied that it was my right as a citizen to ask these questions.

“I was told that I was upsetting people with my posts, because now everyone was sensitive, their sons were at war. They asked me not to write such things anymore and to delete the posts. I refused, but my lawyer advised me just to agree so we could leave. They did let me go, saying: “Be careful. We're watching you."

2019, Baku. The police are detaining Lili Nazarov for participating in the rally. Photo by Veli Shukurov
The escape
“When I got home, my boyfriend told me he wanted to break up. We fought a lot due to the pandemic, quarantine, stress and money problems. He didn’t like my activism, because he was worried about me and didn’t want problems with the police. He himself sat for two months in prison for opposition activities, and this shook him.

“I felt like my whole life had collapsed. I even thought about suicide. Moreover, I learned of the death of two of my friends in the war and this just pushed me over the edge. An activist friend from Turkey suggested I move in with her, and two days later I was there.

“When I left I saw what was happening in the country from the outside and realized how bad everything was. I couldn’t go back knowing that the state was tracking me. And because of my appearance, I was regularly subjected to aggressive attacks. I wouldn’t have left if there’d been more like-minded people standing with me, but there were no more than a hundred throughout the country.”

New wave of hate
According to Lili, in the period before the pandemic and the war, awareness of LGBT rights in Azerbaijan was slowly improving. There was a small LGBTQI+ community that held events, parties, and training.

After the war, a new surge of hatred toward the LGBTQI+ community emerged, and the number of brutal murders of gays and transgender people increased.

“One blogger said that we needed to be gotten rid of. She shared a video of a birthday party of a trans woman wearing a wedding dress ⁠— who was burned alive some time later.

“The killer was arrested, but nothing was done to the blogger. Other activists and I wrote many letters to the state security service and to the European Union, but to no avail.

“After this murder, many gay and trans people in Azerbaijan feared they’d be next. Journalist Avaz Hafizli, an openly gay journalist who covered LGBT rights issues, also wrote about the case. Last year, Avaz was threatened and insulted by transphobic and homophobic blogger Sevinj Huseynova, attempted suicide, then chained himself himself in front of the Prosecutor General's Office to protest the authorities' indifference.

Recently, his cousin killed him, cutting off his genitals and head.

“Trans people are more likely to be killed because they are visible. Many work in the sex industry because they are not hired elsewhere. The killers corner them by being disguised as clients.

“Many queer people left Azerbaijan after the war, or are still trying to get out. Most of my friends have left too because things are only getting worse.

“Over the past year, I've been approached more often by queer people asking me to help them leave. I managed to support some, but we need an organization that can help them leave, as there isn’t any.

“Only those in mortal danger are being helped. For example, a gay couple I know has been attacked three times over the past couple years. And only after the last attack, which ended in rape, were they helped by foreign organizations.”
Bashir Kitachaev
Trajectories is a media project that tells stories of people whose lives have been impacted by conflicts in the South Caucasus. We work with authors and editors from across the South Caucasus and do not support any one side in any conflict. The publications on this page are solely the responsibility of the authors. In the majority of cases, toponyms are those used in the author’s society. The project is implemented by GoGroup Media and International Alert and is funded by the European Union
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