Despite his unwavering smile, the young man in my Hyatt Park hotel room appears to be a little nervous. He is 30 years old, but looks much younger. At about 5'-8' and 140 pounds, this unemployed economist is slender, with large dark eyes and jet-black hair, trademarks of the handsome features of Azeri men. His English is surprisingly good, considering he learned it primarily by listening to Western music. (Tina Turner is his favorite.)
We are in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a central Asian country that is a former Soviet republic. Anar has agreed to meet and speak with me about what it is like to be gay here, but only in the privacy of my hotel, which caters to Westerners. Out in public, he says, he might not be so free to speak, as many people now know English. 'And this is a nosy country. Someone would listen.'
It is far from the days when secret police used to trail both Westerners and local citizens, and Anar's hesitation does not stem from some holdover fear of the government. 'Today, whatever you want to say, it is very free,' he says. What keeps him secluded in my hotel room—and what keeps the country's gay and lesbian population firmly in their closets—are social attitudes toward homosexuality, not government penalties.
In 2000, the parliament here lifted a Soviet-era law that criminalized anal intercourse between men, previously punishable by up to seven years in prison. Lesbianism and non-anal sex between men were also specifically mentioned as crimes, and each could carry up to three years in jail. Though Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, it took nearly a decade to repeal the old laws, and their demise had less to do with any cultural acceptance of homosexuality than it did with international politics.
At the time, Azerbaijan had applied for membership to the Council of Europe, a political and human-rights organization. To gain entry, the government undertook a series of suggested reforms, including erasing anti-gay laws. Currently, there are no laws prohibiting homosexuality in Azerbaijan.
That doesn't mean there aren't a lot of constraints, says Anar.
The primary obstacle to coming out, he says, is that 'we will be laughed at, and that is not so good for you here.'
can't help but wonder if religion plays an important role, too. Azerbaijan is not only an overwhelmingly Muslim country, it is also one of just two nations in the world that are primarily Shiite. The other is Iran, its neighbor immediately to the south. And rightly or wrongly, Shiites have a reputation for being more conservative, more 'fundamentalist,' than Sunnis, who make up the majority of the world's Muslim population.
But the religious differences between Shiite Azerbaijan and Iran couldn't be starker. Sure, there are pockets of conservative Muslims throughout the country, but overall, Azerbaijan, and particularly its capital city, Baku, is remarkably secular. There are plenty of mosques, and despite hearing the Muslim call for prayer five times a day, in the short time I spend here I do not see a single woman who covers her hair with a scarf. Alcohol, forbidden by the religion, is plentiful and widely consumed. Azerbaijan's secular nature is largely an influence of nearly seven decades of Soviet rule. Still, Azeris never completely adopted Soviet thinking, and though the country is secular, it is still conservative.
But Anar, as well as Zaur, another gay Azeri man I meet on my trip, both insist that religion is far less a factor for gays here than social customs and traditions.
'Oh no, I am sure it is not about religion,' says Zaur, laughing at the suggestion. 'It's about fear of shame, not fear of God.' The tall, broad-shouldered 26-year-old with hairy arms speaks to me as we down spicy donner kebabs just bought from a street vendor on Fountain Square, a tremendous public area in the heart of the city. On hot summer nights, when the afternoon humidity finally breaks and the famously cool wind can be felt coming off the nearby Caspian Sea, Baku's residents turn out by the thousands to stroll the streets here, and shop at stores open as late as 10 p.m.
It's not surprising that such a great 'people watching' arena has cruisy areas, particularly some of the well shaded and poorly lit patches of parks that branch off the labyrinthine walkways. Other cruisy areas include the square in front of the majestic ballet, and a bathhouse far outside the city center.
Neither Zaur nor Anar, however, are fond of the cruisy areas. They are not dangerous, and physical violence would be unusual, both agree. (A gay American living in Baku confirms this, saying, 'It's one of the safest places I've ever lived. It's a lot safer than New York City!')
But meeting someone at a cruisy spot is 'undesirable,' says Anar. There are no gay bars, per se, but one night spot, called 1033 Club, draws a mixed crowd.
Both Anar and Zaur prefer to go to one of the dozens of Internet cafes that populate the city, and talk to people online for 2000 manat (about 40 cents) per hour. Even in cyberspace, you have to be careful. There are no local gay sites, and the two men have honed their cyber-gaydar. 'You learn to hear code,' when exchanging messages online, says Anar. There are also several dating sites that accept men-for-men ads. It was through these sites that I initially made contact with both men. As requested, I have changed their names to protect their identities.
One day, dreams Anar, 'I'd like to have all the conveniences you have in America for gay life. There is gay life here, but it is invisible.' Even at the Internet cafés, Anar is cautious. 'I always look for a computer in the corner so no one can see my screen.'
'We have no sense of a gay community,' he says, 'because we have no place we can feel free to be ourselves.'