The Caged Voices of Azerbaijan

“Every gay and lesbian person who has been lucky enough to survive the turmoil of growing up is a survivor. Survivors always have an obligation to those who will face the same challenges.”

-Writer/actor Bob Paris

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), beginning in September, the Azerbaijani police force began a violent campaign against civilians presumed to be gay, bisexual, and transgender women.

The campaign began in mid-September when police in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, arrested members of the LGBTQ+ community when other citizens of Azerbaijan filed a complaint that “non-heterosexual people were engaging in prostitution.” However, according to human rights activists, detainees were not prostitutes, and the “accusations were used as a pretext for persecution.” In an interview with Samed Rahimli, a lawyer assisting detainees, “the police targeted homosexuals in general, not the prostitutes as they have claimed.”

Interviews conducted by HRW reveal those arrested were subject to beatings and electric shocks in an attempt to arrest other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Lawyers representing the detainees report 83 men and transgender women were confirmed to be arrested. However, the lawyers also said, “the overwhelming volume of arrests means there are many other cases they are unable to address or document,” and the media has reported up to 100 accounts of unconfirmed arrests.

protestors holding anti-hate signs
LGBT love is stronger than anti-gay hate. Source: Allsdare Hickson, Creative Commons

Most of the victims were publicly arrested at work, on the streets, or even at home, thereby exposing their sexuality to their co-workers, family members, and other community members. A majority were falsely charged with prostitution resulting in 30 days of detainment.

Azerbaijan decriminalized same-sex relations in 2000, but discrimination and violence against the community continue to be dire. Azerbaijan was also labeled as the worst European country to be gay in, according to a survey conducted by the Guardian. There are currently no active LGBTQ+-friendly organizations in all of Azerbaijan, and the government is known to manifest false charges to detain openly gay men. The Minority, an anonymous magazine in Azerbaijan that reports on gay and transgender issues, cited those who were arrested were forced to ‘out’ other gay men. Another method utilized by the police to track down members of the community is the tracking of gay-dating apps. The police would create profiles and lure gay men to meet with them, at which point the app-user would be arrested.

Members of the Azerbaijan government shifted their stance from attempting to control prostitution to cracking down on public health issues; this indicates the government knowingly switched tactics to target an already marginalized group. Ekhsan Zakhidov, of the Azer Interior Ministry, announced the arrests were justified. He claims 16 of the 80+ arrested were infected with AIDS, but only six have been found to be infected. He also claims the mass detainment was to protect children, as “anyone infected with AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases were a threat to children or people who come into contact with them.”

By making these claims, the government perpetuated two derogatory narratives surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. The first is: “all gay men have AIDS”. While proven to be statistically untrue, this is a stigma that has stood the test of time and facts. Gay men are still not allowed to give blood in America on the grounds of being “more susceptible” to HIV and AIDS. The second stigma is: homosexuality is rooted in pedophilia. Because AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, by saying “it is for the safety of our children,” the Azerbaijan government is spreading the false rumor that gay men are child-rapists.

Protestors holding anti-hate signs
LGBTs and Muslims unite – oppose all hate. Source: Allsdare Hickson, Creative Commons

Unfortunately, the Azerbaijan government is not alone in the tracking of LGBTQ+ folk. Reports of the Egyptian police force also creating fake profiles on gay-dating apps and websites surfaced in 2016. At a concert earlier this month, a rainbow flag, which represents pride for the LGBTQ+ community, was flown. When photos of the flag spread across social media, the Egyptian government began tracking down those who were responsible to arrest them on charges of “promoting prostitution” and “immorality.” The Egyptian government designated waving the flag as an “incident,” and used gay-dating apps to track down those involved in said “incident.” Once arrested, anal examinations were reported to have followed, which is protocol in Egypt for such claims. Those arrested for waving the flag at the concert face trial on October 29th.

Like Azerbaijan, homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but acts of marginalization and repression continue to happen. Both of these instances bear similarity to the mass incarceration of LGBTQ+ folk in Chechnya that took place earlier this year, which was compared to the concentration camps in the Holocaust. Violence against the LGBTQ+ community is a trend that is repeated throughout history, even to the present day. While it is not easy to pinpoint when it officially surfaced, homophobia is seen even in B.C. times. The West still has its share of homophobia, but we see the most concentrated and severe acts of homophobia in the Middle East. This is likely due to the fact religion has a more prominent role in Middle Eastern society and government.

Azerbaijan was once a part of the Soviet Union, just as Chechnya was. That colonial legacy of oppressing the LGBTQ+ community, the religion, and the government all play into the modern-day culture and how their respective societies view the LGBTQ+ folk. The topic of homosexuality is taboo in Azerbaijan’s society, and the unacceptance of the gay community is shown by the aggravated reports made by citizens that prompted the arrests by the police.

What makes oppression in Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and Egypt different from LGBTQ+ oppression in the world? Dignity. While oppressed in other regions, the LGBTQ+ community in Western cultures has freedom of expression. In the aforementioned countries, freedom of expression is a myth for LGBTQ+ folk. Based on available data, these three countries are the most dangerous places in the world to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. Based on anecdotal accounts, other countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, also present obstacles for LGBTQ+ persons. The voices we hear are not the only voices who matter.

“Life would be much easier if we were all just less horrible to each other.”

– Ellen Page, actor and activist

Rainbow heart with "love" spelled out in the middle
LGBT Rainbow Heart with Love Inscription. Source: b_earth_photos, Creative Commons

Article 3 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) declares that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. When people are arrested for being the person that they are, this article is violated. Without the security of being able to express the person one is, flourishing is nearly impossible. How can one expect another to live their life to the fullest without being able to live comfortably? We all have a right to live our life as loud as we want; how we need and want to express is not up for dictation.

Article 5 of the UDHR sets forth that “no one shall be subjected to torture…” This has obviously been violated by the Azerbaijan government. When trying to get the names of other gay men, the police resulted to using electric shocks to coerce the victims to give them information. This is inhumane and is an unfounded violation of human rights.

Article 7 reads: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” When the government allows discrimination against an individual or a community, this article is violated, as it has been in all cases mentioned in this post. The police have been allowed to arrest citizens based on their sexual orientation. No laws were violated, but human rights definitely were.

Without these laws being enforced by a governing legal entity, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Chechnya show no sign of following the UDHR for the safety and security of their LGBTQ+ citizens. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Watch have given a megaphone to the tortured voices of Azerbaijan. Now the job falls upon us as informed citizens to continue to spread awareness. It is also our job to make our companions feel comfortable in the world that we live in. We all want to be accepted, to prosper, and to love. Each of us is human; each of us deserves the same rights.

The Transgender Military Ban, Part 2: Costs to the American Transgender Community

A bathroom sign titled "All Gender"
Asheville’s response to NC Bathroom Bill. Source: Bradley Griffin, Creative Commons.

On July 26th, 2017 President Donald J. Trump tweeted the following:

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to  serve in any capacity in the U. S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you”

The Real Cost to Transgender Americans

Transgender individuals, many of whom already face daily harassment and discrimination for their gender identity, have been shown to actively avoid situations where hostile confrontations may arise.  In 2016, after a political storm erupted out of North Carolina and the then-governor Pat McCrory’s “Bathroom Bill”, a landmark study on the lives of 27,715 transgender persons documented several startling changes that occurred in the lives of transgender persons.  These include:

  • 59% of transgender persons avoiding bathrooms for feared confrontations
  • 12% report being harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted
  • 31% avoiding eating or drinking to avoid needing to use public restrooms
  • 8% contracting a kidney or urinary tract infection as a potential consequence for avoiding the use of public restrooms

Similar studies also document the prolonged and repeated stress endured by transgender individuals, when using public restrooms, after the “Bathroom Bill” was proposed.  Situations in which their minority status is negatively highlighted or emphasized, such as the use of public restrooms, are loaded events for transgender individuals. Until recently, the link between a culture of antagonism towards issues related to transgender individuals and the subjective experiences of these individuals themselves has been suspected but unsupported. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology examined the gravest mental health crisis experienced by transgender persons: suicide.

Transgender individuals, as compared to the general public, are 14 times more likely to think about committing suicide and 22 times more likely to attempt suicide.  This horrifying trend holds in countries outside of the United States, and these rates may even be higher in transgender adolescents.  With this new data and analysis, the role of culture, across 2 different theoretical models, was shown to significantly impact the rate of suicide ideation in transgender individuals.  Suicide ideation was significantly predicted by factors such as victimization (specific attacks on an individual for their status as transgender), rejection (social reluctance to engage with transgender individuals), and non-affirmation (the active reminding of a transgender individual their gender identity is not accepted or validated).  To restate the findings, transgender individuals were more likely to seriously contemplate suicide, or wantonly envision a future in which they are not alive, if surrounded by a culture characterized by isolation, discrimination, and outright antagonism.  An important caveat remains: researchers will never be able to interview transgender individuals who have completed the act of suicide.  The ‘edge point’, or the final motive impelling a transgender individual to successfully end their own life, can be hinted at but will never be known with absolute certainty.  However, combining previous research on the statistical likelihood of suicide and suicidal ideation in transgender individuals, coupled with the recently supported theory that culture is a major implicator in the suicide risk of transgender individuals, presents the concerned public with startling information.  For these victimized individuals, a culture of transphobia can exacerbate a predisposition for suicide, potentially resulting in a public health crisis with deadly results.

a spray painted sign of Trans Lives Matter
Source: Dimitra Linardou, Creative Commons

Culture, according to Riane Eisler, is in constant flux.  People choose both their internal response to the forces of culture around them and their externally exertion of control over culture in future interactions with others.  According to Eisler’s Cultural Transformation Theory, a culture of transphobia (the ignorance, fear, or outright hatred of transgender individuals) can change to a culture of empathy, partnership, and mutual understanding.  Likewise, a culture of tentative acceptance can be quickly reversed to one of arbitrary discrimination and empowered domination.  One way a pro-social Eislierian cultural transformation for transgender persons can occur is through the creation, maintenance, and protection of human rights for transgender individuals (Eisler, 1988).  In the United States, transgender rights have a high degree on variance, mostly along state or jurisdiction lines (a graph displaying specific issues related to transgender rights in the US can be found here).  The scant federal rulings on the rights of transgender persons have involved only a few aspects of life for transgender persons, including discrimination in the workplace, marriage equality, and conversion therapy.  The rights of trans persons are still in flux, and the Trump Administration may indeed roll back these protections as their time in governance continues.  Rollbacks of trans rights might, as is supported by Testa et al.’s and the National Center for Transgender Equality’s research, create a public health crisis for transgender persons.  Creating a culture accepting of and empathic to the needs of transgender persons must include comprehensive human rights legislation protecting this vulnerable group without fear of retraction from a hostile administration, such as the Trump administration.

President Trump, under the guise of “medical costs” and unit “disruption”, attempted to used his public platform to instill a culture of blatant disregard for the patriotism, self-sacrifice, and protection of freedom offered by transgender persons who volunteered, volunteer, and may yet volunteer to serve in the United States Armed Forces.  The costs he associated with transgender persons serving in the military are non-issues, and a sober analysis of his proposed logic illuminates a stunning disconnect from the actual militaristic consequences of allowing transgender persons to serve in the US Armed Forces.  The literature, including both personal and academic accounts, reveals a population within America severely prone to self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts in the aftermath of public controversies regarding a fundamental part of their very identity.  The oppression of the transgender community has been shown to have far-reaching and oftentimes permanent consequences for trans persons- such as suicide.  The cost to the trans community from attacks such as these far outweigh the illusory costs to the Trump Administration in allowing trans persons to live a life unencumbered by blatant discrimination.

 

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or self-harm, here are resources to contact:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (press 1 if you are a US military veteran in crisis): 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

The Trevor Project (youth service): 1-866-488-7386

GLBT National Help Hotline: 1-888-843-4564

 

Call 911 if you believe there is an immediate threat to your and / or someone else’s physical safety and wellbeing.

 

References

Eisler, R. (1988).  The Chalice and the Blade.  San Fransico: Harper.

The Transgender Military Ban, Part 1: Costs to President Trump

President Donald J. Trump tweeted the following on July 26, 2017:

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to  serve in any capacity in the U. S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you”

President Trump shrugs at a political rally
Source: Curt Johnson, Creative Commons

A History of Inclusion

The service of members of the LGBTQIA community in the US military has remained a highly contentious and passionately-fought issue on all sides of the political (and gender) spectrum.  The battle for inclusion in the American Armed Forces first involved inclusion along ethnic lines, then involving lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, and more recently the rights of transgender persons to openly serve.

On July 26th, 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed into effect Executive Order 9981: Establishing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.  The order essentially desegregated the United States Armed Forces, stating “… there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin”.  President Trump’s tweet banning the service of transgender American soldiers comes on the 69th anniversary of President Truman’s executive order.  This Executive Order jumpstarted the battle for inclusion in the American Armed Forces, first included ethnic lines, then sexual orientation, and finally gender identity.

President Bill Clinton, in October of 1993, executed a new law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, and Don’t Harass”, though it’s commonly referred to as “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT).  DADT reversed the long-standing statutory ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from serving in the United States military. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals had long served in the US military with their sexuality largely kept secret.  DADT was first met by suspicion and hostility from many politicians and military personnel alike, citing fears of ‘undermining morale’ if gays, lesbians, and bisexuals were permitted to serve in any capacity.  Again, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals had long served the US military, but not to the explicit knowledge of their commanding officers or fellow servicemen and servicewomen.

President Barack Obama, in December of 2010, after both the House of Representatives and US Senate successfully voted to repeal the practice, signed into law a full reversal on DADT. The practice of forbidding gay, lesbian, and bisexual service-members to be ‘out’ about their sexuality and serve in the US military was effectively over.

Throughout the battles fought for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to openly serve in the military, transgender individuals were explicitly told they must ‘pass’ as their biological sex if they wished to serve in the US military.  Transgender persons have myriad ways of expressing their sexual orientation, including: dressing in accordance with their gender identification, changing their name, hormone treatment, and medical procedures that alter their body to conform with their gender identity.  So far as the military was concerned, transgender individuals could be threatened with discharge for an enlistment violation if they did not ‘pass’ as their sex assigned at birth.  That is, until June of 2016, when Secretary of Defense Ash Carter lifted the ban on transgender individuals from openly serving.  In his public statement on the reversal, Carter explains:

“Our mission is to defend this country, and we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who can best accomplish the mission.  We have to have access to 100% of America’s population for our all-volunteer force to be able to recruit from among them the most highly qualified – and to retain them.”

Taking our lead from Carter, Obama, Clinton, and Truman, a question remains if military service is a civil right, civil liberty, or both.  The distinction between these terms can be found here.  Under current US federal law and military policy, American citizens over the age of 18 of sound body and mind can volunteer to serve in the US Armed Forces.  As it relates to transgender persons, the civil right to serve in the military without discrimination and the civil liberty to openly serve have been supported by legal precedents.  If President Trump’s blanket ban is codified in policy, any resulting legal action will clarify how civil rights and liberties are applied in the case of transgender Americans wishing to serve.

Trump’s Argument

President Trump’s transgender military ban was conveyed to the public via tweet, and tweets are not legally binding nor are they official US policy (though they have been ruled legal stream of consciousness).  The day after Trump tweeted on the issue, the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford stated the Department of Defense was not changing policy on the President’s tweets alone- an official policy directive must be issued.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, update the media on the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria during a joint press conference at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 19, 2017. Source: Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Creative Commons

The President’s tweets may indeed be a precursor to an executive order (such as the case with President Truman and military desegregation), a bill-turned-law (Presidents Clinton and Obama with the creation and repeal of DADT), a policy change (Secretary Carter and the service of openly transgender soldiers), some other legally binding option, or it may remain what it is today: a tweet.  The likelihood of the president issuing a policy directive is arguably uncertain.  However, based on the information the American public has on President Trump’s proposed transgender military ban, we can make an educated analysis of his arguments for a ban.  A thorough and exhaustive examination of his full public statement (341 characters, not including spaces) reveals two justifications the president offers for his transgender military ban: “tremendous medical costs” and “disruption that transgender in the military would entail”.

In 2016, the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank offering research and analysis in operational strategy related to the US Armed Forces, published a report titled Assessing the Implications of Allowing Transgender Personnel to Serve Openly; the full text can be read here.  This report, commissioned in response to growing questions about the reality of allowing transgender individuals to openly serve in the military, assessed: 1) the health care needs of transgender individuals, 2) the population size of transgender individuals in the US military, 3) the likelihood & potential costs of gender-related healthcare services to the US military, and 4) the ‘potential readiness’ of the US military to allow transgender individuals to openly serve.  This report helped inform Secretary Carter’s decision to allow transgender individuals to openly serve.  This widely-respected and cited report directly addresses both of President Trump’s justifications for banning military service of transgender individuals: medical costs and “disruptions” to unit cohesion.

The medical cost President Trump is likely alluding to is the extension of healthcare coverage to transgender individuals in the US Armed Forces to cover gender-transition related treatment.  As previously stated, this includes procedures such as hormone treatment, surgeries such as hair removal or breast implantation, and gender reassignment surgery.  Given the ongoing and bitterly contentious debate in the US Congress on Obamacare repeal / reform, President’s Trump’s focus on costs accrued from health does make sense, given the current political climate.  Politicking aside, the RAND Corporation did indeed find an increase in costs to the military in extending healthcare to include gender-transition related treatments.  Using cost estimates based off public employers, private employers, and treatments likely to occur in transgender persons in the military, allowing the health extension would cost the military between $2.4million and $8.4million per year (by comparison, the US military spends $84million / year in treatment for erectile dysfunction for US servicemen- 10x the amount of gender-transition related treatment). The US military currently spends $6.2billion per year in healthcare-related costs.  Therefore, allowing transgender soldiers to have access to gender-transition related treatment would see a 0.13% or 0.0013 yearly increase in the US Armed Forces healthcare budget.  These specific estimates can be found between pages 33-37 of the RAND Report.  To put this in further perspective, one of President Trump’s foundational arguments against the military service of transgender individuals is an unwillingness to spend a potential $2.4m-$8.4m / year, for individuals committed to protecting the United States from enemies foreign and domestic, in healthcare procedures that are entirely optional and may or may not be utilized.  For the president, these “medical costs” are simply too high.

Protesters hold a sign in front of the White House stating "Trans people are not a distraction"
2017.07.26 Protest Trans Military Ban, White House, Washington DC USA. Source: Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

President Trump’s second and final argument against the military service of transgender individuals is the “disruption” they present to their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.  This very argument has been used before, most notably in the follow-up to President Obama’s repeal of DADT.  Critics of the repeal feared if other members in the unit found out an individual was lesbian, gay, or bisexual, this would inhibit unit bonding, and therefore negatively impact unit cohesion and situational readiness.  This argument has long been dismantled, and data indicate this trend holds for transgender individuals serving in the military as well.  In fact, individuals with negative attitudes towards transgender individuals are more likely to change those attitudes towards a positive outlook, given more interactions with a transgender person.  This specific instance of Mere Exposure Effect (or as social psychologists would say, “Familiarity Principle”) has been found in militaries across the world, including in the US.  The RAND Report summarizes these studies (pages 39-47), stating the presence of one or more transgender individual in a military unit has no significant impact on cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness.  “[D]isruption that transgender in the military would entail”, cited by President Trump as a reason for the transgender military ban, is simply not supported by the evidence.

Reaction to President Trump’s tweet was mostly surprise. While conservative circles welcomed the move, news outlets, advocacy groups, members of the US Armed Forces and private citizens have all expressed their ire, frustration, and disbelief at the transgender military ban.  What is more disturbing than this sudden announcement are the potential effects of President Trump’s statement on the lives of transgendered Americans.  It serves as an illustration of discrimination and oppression of transgender people in general.  This attack and other attacks like it, while disguised in seemingly innocuous rationale such as “medical costs” and unit “disruption”, do real and tangible damage to transgender persons. Reaching equality for transgender persons has just become more difficult.