We should (re)consider how the homophobia, transphobia, and fear of queerness of the colonial past are incorporated with our social and cultural environment and subsequently shaped domestic discourse of sexuality and gender. Therefore, we have to choose queer emancipation that includes socio-economic transformation rather than assimilation to existing societal and structural norms.
For years, I have been in conflict with myself and questioning if there is a need to share the pain caused to me by others, because of who I am. I have always thought that this approach could only be seen as self-victimization and weakness, contributing to a victimhood identity, and therefore there was no room for speaking out about my pain. Instead, I have been struggling to show others how strong I am. Perhaps, I was raised and taught that ‘men are not allowed to look weak in patriarchal settings.’ Although I am in a different place now, putting words together is difficult for me. I have suppressed these thoughts in me for years. In fact, bell hooks’ thoughts helped me, especially when she points out how the pain played a huge role in coming to academia by saying, “I came to theory because I was hurting – the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend – to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away” (hooks, 1991, pp. 59). These words touched me profoundly and empowered me at the same time, and while contemplating different topics for this article, I have realized that I did not want to write about anything else.
Those words evoked my memories of how I came to activism. I have been taught that some people are “deviants”; they are the very chain of that “social wrongness.” To not become one of them, I should assimilate my existence, feelings, and bodily expression to those traditionally constructed gender norms and become part of the chain that perpetually reproduces it. I had to wear an identity that did not belong to me. In other words, I have been living to become the subject of recognition that was vital for survival. I found myself in a dichotomy of doable things to fit in their intelligibility and undoable things that might endanger them. Maybe that was the life-changing moment when everything that stood as bearable, such as norms, settings, and surroundings, all became unbearable. Their wrongness that shaped my social standing and their righteousness hurt me a lot. Thus, things that once were unspeakable for me became speakable.
I came to activism to prove them wrong. Most importantly, I wanted to make the unbearable pain go away, not only mine but also others’ pain. I knew that I was not the only one who tolerated the pain caused by them, and someone had to confront the status quo in Azerbaijan, which spells pain for many people in everyday life – at home, school, work, in the streets. I did not consider the pain of people in my geography as the source of healing for many of us. I did not think of my experience as powerful evidence in the policy-making process. In every advocacy venue, I used to say that “Taking appropriate actions in line with international obligations is not just a matter of changing numbers in some reports.” Yes, I am not just a number in some report’s paragraphs. Indeed, it is the matter of struggle that I faced, and that the LGBTIs face every day, in my home country. I wanted my, our struggle to become the source of empowerment that leads to change.
But what struggle? Back in Azerbaijan and after moving to Germany in 2015, if truth be told, I have suppressed thinking about it as something unspeakable. Maybe I was avoiding the self-victimization, or the fear of shame that it might bring. I remember the anger at my partner’s ignorance whenever he heard lived experiences of LGBTIs on TV and labelled it as self-victimization. I remember the moment when I had enough guts to tell him that I was one of them as well, I was raped eight years ago by a police officer, or I had to give money to someone who blackmailed me continuously. But now, I do acknowledge that these life experiences are more than just painful or unhappy memories, and I should not remember them with anxiety. These lived experiences need to be told, and told loudly. They represent the real-life evidence that I can adapt to every single political avenue, policy-making settings, advocacy work.
However, the state, as one of the causes of my pain, should not be neglected. When I seek to find the solution to end this pain, I tend to see it at the state’s hands through its policies. I have been convinced that the state has the power, resources, and capacity to solve my problems, and to some extent, this is true. When I advocate for LGBTI rights, I make a call to that state, which itself responds predominantly through the lens of heteronormativity in its policies. Very ironic, isn’t it? A good friend of mine once said that seeing the state as a source of change depends on the ideologies or how you understand it: positive change in which you rely on the state or negative change that you do not rely on the state and search for alternatives.
But befriending and seeking for change from an institution that normalizes and perpetuates the reason for my painfrequently closes eyes to the cause of my unhappiness and is, indeed, very difficult. One might think that the problems will be solved by changing the policy. As a matter of fact, essential policies such as anti-bullying, hate speech, and hate crime laws could be adopted in one blink if there is political will. However, changing policies might only have an impact on people to the extent of regulating their behavior, while the hatred and condemnation remains in society. It will solve the problem seen just on the surface. However, there is a need to dive deeper into the root of the cause and heal the society itself from the constructed destructive norms.
Coming back to bell hooks, she says that “the production of theory as a social practice can be liberatory” (hooks, 1991, pp. 67). I wondered how I could apply this approach to my work as an activist. I need such a theory that can take away the pain caused by the patriarchal society and the homogeneous norms that feed it. I need an essentially important theory that could enable me to recover and, on the other hand, to empower me towards revolutionary social and political change (hooks, 1991, pp.74). But, that theory and its practice have to represent me. I need a de-liberationconcept that derives from my pain, not from others’.
Today the LGBTI community in Azerbaijan confronts the status quo – domestically and internationally. Yes, the community strives to enact policies in a socio-political environment that is resistant to any change. We have achieved significant results in some international advocacy settings. Unfortunately, domestically, I see the trend of acknowledging only the interests of “some.” It is worrying to see how the community is policing itself in the same way that the society is policing them – as good gay or morally debased gay.
In order to be accepted by the larger society, the LGBTI community itself sets a list of norms such as intolerable behaviors, “femininity” in public, drag, or engaging with sex. Those whose social performance does not fit into those “appropriate norms” become the target of blame by other “good mannered” community members. “Morally righteous behaving ones” see others as the cause of their rejection by the entire society and the reason for their forced hidden life. This trend leads to in-community marginalization, and subsequently, it leaves many voices silenced.
There is also a pervasive affliction from some late 20th and early 21st centuries’ Western liberatory movements. For instance, the globalization of LGBTI identities, and the influence of mainstream movements, drive individuals to identify with and embrace those mainstream concepts. This way of mobilization, its modus operandi, does not examine the local socio-cultural forces or institutional and political contexts. From my point of view, the invisible neo-colonial lens and domination of Western gay liberation concepts contribute to the homogenization of LGBTI movements globally. It might sound harsh, but this does not just neglect the domestic forces that shape and direct the discourse of sexuality and gender politics in my geography, but it is also destructive. Indeed, Western LGBTI might be the ones who threw the first stone in Stonewall; however, as I said before, I find it inaccurate to build the healing concept of my pain on someone else’s pain. Furthermore, it also causes me to be confronted by further condemnation, such as “imposing Western values into our society.”
The way out
At this point, we have to question the starting point of that order as well – hate. As Karl Marx said, “in every epoch, the ideas are the ideas of the ruling class” (Marx and Engels, 1845, pp. 39-40). To make my point clear about the hate, here I would like to interpret the word “ruling class” as a ruling knowledge. It denotes the knowledge that has been derived from assumptions based on faith for centuries and has been fed by social, cultural values and often by systematic colonial power. That knowledge empowered patriarchy and institutionalized the norms that ignore our existence within society. It gendered our physical presence by dictating, punishing, and shaping our behavior and expression. Inherited propaganda machinery of heteronormativity continues to cause pain as we have no place to stand in society, and our existence and our pain is not recognized. Rather than challenging this hate, I suggest we have to question the pillar that constitutes it. In this way, we can break apart the chain of reproduction.
Furthermore, we have to deconstruct the existing liberatory concepts by taking into account the notion of context and reality, and this deconstruction requires critical theory. In my view, assimilation to Western gay liberation concepts, in turn, limits the prospect of discovering effective alternatives. Although the notion of cultural relativism is controversial within human rights discourse, I sincerely believe that differentiating the context and reality of each geography and society, most importantly of each individual, is needed. Much as the pain of every LGBTIs across the globe has a common source, that pain is different despite its close affinity.
We should (re)consider how the homophobia, transphobia, and fear of queerness of the colonial past are incorporated with our social and cultural environment and subsequently shaped domestic discourse of sexuality and gender. Therefore, we have to choose queer emancipation that includes socio-economic transformation rather than assimilation to existing societal and structural norms. As we advocate for access to equal rights for all, for instance, equal marriage, we have to also be able to welcome the critics on how such a commence might be affected by neoliberal sexual politics and may contribute to homonormativity. A trajectory that takes into account our pain, does not neglect domestic forces, and is open for critical analysis will indeed enable us to explore our own way of establishing sustainable queer emancipation discourse and practice.
Thus, de-liberated queer emancipation practice will lead to policy change and deconstruct mainstream sexuality, gender discourse, and allied politics in our geography. For this reason, we have to overcome self-victimization as well. Our pain is the account of this deconstruction – the transformation of lived experiences. However, we should not let our pain be used in the act of societal and political mobilization that reinforces the identity of the victimhood. In fact, being raped was not the source of my pain. In contrast, the cause of my pain was the disappointment of a system that failed to be there with its preventive protection; the pervasive norms that constituted that attitude; and the society that labeled meas a threat to the authority of their norms.
Above all, we have to let de-liberation sprout in our minds. When it begins to grow, unspeakable things become speakable, strikes roots through theories built on mine, yours, our pain. Although this path is paved with adversity, de-liberation will ramify when that theory heals, recovers our pain, and empowers us through practice.
Cavid Nabiyev (original: Cavid Nəbiyev) is a diversity rights defender from Azerbaijan who resides in Germany. The preferred pronoun is [O]. Since 2012, Cavid works towards the improvement of the human rights of the LGBTI persons in Azerbaijan. O is an International Advocacy officer at Nafas LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance focused mainly on the UN’s human rights and development mechanisms. In 2016, O was awarded by the British Council as a global LGBTI rights influencer. Currently, Cavid is studying for a master’s degree in Human Rights at the Central European University.
hooks, b. (1991) ‘Theory as Liberatory Practice’, Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, 4(1), pp. 1–12.
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1845) ‘The German Ideology / Theses on Feuerbach / Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy’, in, p. 584.
Cavid, N. (2019) ‘Azerbaijan’s $15 billion education policy has failed LGBTI individuals’, Baku Research Institute, Berlin, Available at: bakuresearchinstitute.org/azerbaijans-15-billion-education-policy-has-failed-lgbti-individuals/