isa shakhmarli was a brave 20 year old guy in azerbaijan. i had interviewed him in 2011, and he was supposed to appear in my book “queer jihad,” but i decided not to at the last minute… because i realized it was too dangerous.
although azerbaijan does not have laws against homosexuality (they repealed the soviet-era anti-sodomy laws in 2000 because the e.u. required it for them to join its council of europe, which they did the following year), this former soviet union country’s nearly 10 million population is mostly shia muslim. azerbaijan, like many former soviet states, remains very homophobic.
despite the homophobia in his culture, isa was determined to live his life to the fullest. we laughed over ali akbar’s novel “artush and zaur,” which is considered to be the first azeri novel to have positive gay main characters. and he really enjoyed music, and loved to listen to all the latest tracks from all over the world.
but, more than anything, isa wanted to change his culture. that is why he started the “azerbaijan free lgbt,” with friends who were also willing to change society. his family have had trouble accepting his sexuality, and, like many azeris, they believed their son was sick.
“if you hear that enough,” he told me in 2012, half joking, “you start to believe it.”
at the time, isa seemed so in control of it. he started a twitter page, a blog, and was now ready to actively participate in the world of lgbt rights. but, like many young people, isa was also haunted by his society, his culture, his religion.
on january 22, he committed suicide. his anguish was clear from his suicide note, which held the world responsible for his death… because he just couln’t take it anymore. his friends, both straight and queer, came togehter at his funeral and placed the rainbow flag over his grave after his family had left, a last tribute to a brave soul.
wherever you are today, isa, i thank you for your wonderful contribution to my life and to the world.