Ali Malikov is an queer activist and journalist. They are also one of the founders of the feminist-queer platform "Qıy vaar!" and 'Femkulis'
Ali shares stories of queer teachers in urban and rural Azerbaijan and clearly shows the challenges they face on a daily basis, both in their professional and personal lives.
An administrator made the following statement to Rufat*, a lecturer at one of Azerbaijan’s universities**: “You have been seen in the city with people who do not befit your position as a teacher and are not suited to be around you.” This was coupled with Rufat being followed by members of the Special Control Department at his institution. Rufat was completely unaware of the department’s existence and finds its interference in his private life entirely without basis.
Today, members of the LGBTQIA+ community in Azerbaijan are threatened and discriminated against based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or family background but queer lecturers remain silent about the mistreatment they experience from the administration in order to maintain their positions. Currently, workers’ rights in Azerbaijan are not sufficiently protected, even though, according to Article 35 of the country’s constitution, labor is the basis of individual and public welfare. According to Article 3.10 of the Labor Code, employees may collectively defend their labor, but such attempts are often hindered by employers and other social or structural forces. As a result, many people (especially open-minded members of the LGBTQIA+ community) have to endure their managers’ exploitative behavior and work without a contract for low wages, all while fearing termination. Queer workers in Azerbaijan are forced to remain silent when it comes to instances of queerphobic acts. In some cases, such instances can involve intrusions into and censorship of lecturers’ personal lives due to LGBTQIA+ identities being recognized as “incompatible with a teacher’s status’’ by Azerbaijani society and state.
Throughout the process of writing an article about LGBTQIA+ students in Azerbaijani schools for “Chai Khana” - a multimedia platform, it became apparent that LGBTQIA+ teachers are also trying to contribute to the struggle for queer visibility in educational institutions. Despite the fact that they are aware of the dangers this may create for their professional careers, queer educators are trying to raise awareness among their students on marginalized issues. Rufat* is one of these educators:
“There was a queer student who openly expressed his identity. He was always treated as a “Martian” by teachers and students. So, I tried to pay special attention to that student, often being with or around him to ensure he was safe. Some students noticed this and scolded me by saying “Teacher, he is a faggot. Why are you respecting him?”. I even thought about coming out to him after classes ended, but of course, I was afraid that this would be understood by the students in a negative light.”
Currently, sexism and heterosexism strongly shape Azerbaijan’s education system. At a time when having role models is important for students, this situation becomes rather alarming. As a result of the state-wide propaganda, students have begun to normalize the violation of their rights. Queer identities are being ignored and this is noticeable in many areas, especially during the recruitment and interviewing processes. Queer individuals have to deal with hate speech and knowing that others are gossiping about them. It takes enormous strength to exist in such conditions and often leads to queer persons resorting to unemployment, working in positions below their skill level, or, if they can afford it, leaving the country entirely.
Charlie, who currently teaches English in one of the country’s language schools, says that there is a large amount of LGBTQIA+ students in his junior courses. He also notes that his courses are much more queer-friendly than those at public institutions.
“In the courses, students treat me more like a mentor rather than a teacher; they accept me for who I am. I have never felt the need to come out nor have I hidden my identity from my students. I have always tried to speak without using any names. I use both boyfriend and girlfriend when talking about partners and generally try to refrain from using gendered expressions. In contrast, the situation in secondary schools is worse than we think. I did not complete my military service solely because of the laws prohibiting homosexuals from doing so, and because of this, I can’t work governmental jobs. This directly shows the discriminatory nature of the system.”
Charlie also emphasizes that openly expressing his queer identity could be the end of his career. According to him, although he has the right to speak on any topic during the lesson, it is necessary to be more careful and redirect the conversation when queer themes come up so that he does not attract too much attention. He further notes that private institutions also work in the interest of the state. According to Emin, who teaches at a high school, just as women who wear hijabs face discrimination in the process of recruitment, so do LGBTQIA+ individuals, sometimes being denied the position entirely. Emin says that school psychologists do not have enough information to talk to students or teachers about this topic. He also adds that currently, there is “no place” for LGBTQIA+ individuals in schools and the situation is very dangerous.
“You can’t escape bullying if you claim an LGBTQIA+ identity here. I am pretending to be hetero in the workplace. If I come out, I am sure that they will treat me differently and do everything to fire me from my job. There are students with all kinds of values in classes; so, if we sit and talk about it, some might consider it nice and others would understand it as propaganda.”
The situation in rural schools is even worse than in Baku. Here, there is less access to information and a report from the ILGA-Europe/COC fact-finding mission written by Dennis van der Veur also found that openly LGBTQIA+ people are moving away from rural areas due to security concerns. According to Jamala, an art teacher in Lankaran, the school she is employed at does not have a psychologist at all. Instead, they have someone very religious employed in a position called “head of nurture”. Jamala has piercings and her hair is colored. She says that the teaching staff and assistants treat her strangely. However, since they associate certain stereotypes with art instructors and Jamala is perceived to be feminine, they don’t create obstacles for her self-expression.
“Once, a child (6th grade) drew a rainbow on his notebook. His classmates bothered him by saying “What, are you gay? Why did you draw an LGBTQIA+ flag?”. I do not know how I can educate those children safely. It would probably be easier to talk about the subject in an urban school rather than here. If I talked about it now, I’d create problems for myself since I am not considered an ‘exemplary teacher’.”
Jamala also has 2-3 queer teacher friends and they state that it is generally impossible to express their identities openly in the region. According to others interviewed, there are many teachers who work under the state and are not allowed to be themselves, even in their private lives. For example, male LGBTQIA+ teachers who do not have a strictly masculine way of expressing their gender work mostly in private schools and also censor their identity. Interviewees further reported that there is a high risk of a coworker seeing them outside of working hours and later exposing them at their shared workplace.
*Names have been changed for the safety of the respondents.
**The names of educational institutions are not mentioned for the safety of the respondents.
van der Veur, Dennis. Forced Out: LGBT People in Azerbaijan. Amsterdam: ILGA-Europe and COC Netherlands, 2007.
 Dennis van der Veur, Forced Out: LGBT People in Azerbaijan (Amsterdam: ILGA-Europe and COC Netherlands, 2007).