Haft-sin: The impact of conflict on trans and queer lives in Azerbaijan

In this interview, Nargiz Mammadli delves into the profound impact that conflicts have on trans and queer communities, particularly within the context of Azerbaijan. The discussion with Leyla Hasanova, LGBTQI+ rights defender and expert on gender issues, highlights the exacerbated challenges faced by marginalised groups during times of conflict, addressing the compounded difficulties in accessing basic rights and resources. She offers a comprehensive analysis of the unique hardships encountered by trans and queer women, including the fragmentation of their rights, the barriers to essential services, and the societal and political obstacles that hinder their visibility and support. 

How do conflicts generally affect trans and queer communities?

The answer to the question of how conflicts affect trans and queer communities is actually inherent in the question itself. In the sense that, if the situation of the trans and queer community is unsatisfactory during a period without war or conflict, that unsatisfactory level doubles during a conflict period. Because typically, the problems of LGBTQ+s are not a second priority in Azerbaijan, they perhaps come fourth or fifth.

During the conflict period, all rights are fragmented, meaning they are eliminated. Whether it's healthcare access, housing, or health itself, all rights essentially disappear. I'm pessimistic about this topic because resources are quite limited, and by resources, I mean social and political rights, as well as access to economic resources, and they face very serious obstacles in accessing these resources. These obstacles are both natural and man-made. What does man-made obstacles mean? It means that even in normal periods, society's attitude towards queers and trans individuals is bad. This bad attitude further manifests itself during conflict periods. That is, aid coming to that sector is not distributed equally, and equal access to that aid is prevented.

What resources and services are trans and queer women unable to benefit from due to conflict?

I think the limitations are due to two reasons: both political and sociological, cultural reasons. Firstly, because the visibility of LGBTQ+s in Azerbaijan until recently, i.e., until the past one or two years, it was so low that specialists did not know how to work with LGBTQ+s. In their experience, there is no understanding of how to serve LGBTQ+s, how to communicate with them. Another question is how much LGBTQ+s can reach out to specialists. This is very limited, because due to cultural pressure, they cannot enter the job market and, as a result, they do not have monthly salaries or financial well-being. Without financial well-being, they cannot access any services, whether sociological, psychological, or legal. Secondly, the cultural problem also reflects on specialists in such a way that people do not want to be associated with LGBTQ+s. For example, there are cases where doctors, lawyers, etc., do not want to openly state that they serve queer beneficiaries. This is also a political problem. Why is it a political problem? Because LGBTQ+s were so invisible as citizens in Azerbaijan that no one could imagine that they exist and that those individuals should have access to some support. In public memory, LGBTQ+s are not given a place as citizens or identities, and their histories are being erased.

How can we ensure the safety of trans women and queer citizens during conflicts?

Most, if not all, of the organisations currently operating mainly work on a voluntary basis. I generally thought about whether I should mention the names of queer organisations operating in Azerbaijan here. On one hand, I thought I should because it means access to these resources, but on the other hand, those hotlines themselves also face challenges and disruptions during these boom periods in the Azerbaijani context due to safety issues and limited resources. In normal conditions, the access of queers in Azerbaijan to legal and psychosocial support is already quite limited. I can't imagine how it would be during these boom periods.

How can we highlight the voices and experiences of trans and queer women to ensure their needs and rights are not overlooked during conflicts?

Considering that trans women are the most disadvantaged group, I think it might be good to question ourselves a bit on this topic of privileges. You put your privileges aside and step back because you can already make your voice heard in normal times, but now we don't need to hear your voice. Please step back and let trans individuals take the stage. Just stand a few steps back so that the trans woman can demand and voice her needs and rights herself. Solidarity is about focusing on the needs of the other side and staying in the background. Support is hierarchical, but solidarity is standing side by side with that person and being a comrade. Sometimes, during conflict periods, they might be more concerned with ensuring their physical safety. At this time, you can show a support line. You can fulfil the role of a support line to ensure that the needed support is provided to the trans group or individual in need.

How does militaristic policy affect the trans community during conflicts?

Since trans identities are not recognized as legitimate profiles in Azerbaijan, those citizens are not given ID cards. When they try to change their ID cards, it doesn't happen because surgery is required to change the ID card. However, surgery is not possible in Azerbaijan. In general, transition surgery is practically banned in Azerbaijan, even though it is not explicitly stated in the legislation. The Ministry of Health has completely banned transition surgeries. No trans individual can undergo transition surgery in Azerbaijan. This creates huge problems both for continuing their lives and during military conscription. For example, a trans woman might have to go for military conscription and prove her existence to some institutions and individuals. Hence, militaristic policy creates a dystopian reality for trans individuals, turning their entire lives upside down and forcing them to live according to norms assigned to them. Can you imagine a trans individual in the army?

How can we cope with the increased stress and anxiety caused by conflict? How can we protect our mental and emotional health?

I wouldn't say mental health fully, but mobilisation might make people feel better because coming together and seeing that you are not alone can make you feel better. Because you are both seen and heard there, and you make your voice heard. This is proven in practice to make people feel better, i.e., communalisation, mobilisation. On the other hand, if you have queer platforms, it might be good to reach out to support lines. I know that socialising itself is one of the main problems for many of us. As much as possible, maybe socialising, creating our own safe channels, and sharing things there might be better, or I would recommend that if there is internet access, maybe making your voice heard online, blogging, tweeting. Connecting with queer platforms might make you feel better.

What should be done to create a safe space?

I think everyone should create their own safe space, deciding on their own safe time and location. General advice may not always be inclusive, because what is safe for one person might not be safe for another person with the same identity. Additionally, my first advice when facing these problems is to prioritise your own needs first. Don't just go somewhere because everyone else is going there, or don't protect yourself in a certain way just because everyone else is. Prioritise your own safety first, which is also prioritised in feminist and queer ideology and theory. Ensure your own safety first and then try to reach the channels you need.

Unfortunately, since there is no support from the state for LGBTQ+s, this support falls to queer organisations, the queer community, and civil society. Therefore, I think civil society, together with the queer community, should be prepared for these conflict periods. It's unlikely to create these systems during war or conflict periods, so it's necessary to be prepared beforehand. The names of the platforms can be published so that people know where to call or contact to get that support.

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