The idea to write about transsexuals came to me first in 2003, when a friend mentioned that a sex change operation was going to take place in Azerbaijan. The rumour turned out to be false, but it intrigued me and I began to research the subject.
It seemed to me that society’s lack of information was to blame for this intolerance, since people could not understand transsexuals’ problems if they were not fully informed.
By asking around, I managed to track down a plastic surgeon who had conducted these operations. Jamal Azimzade initially refused to give me an interview, but in the course of our discussion I managed to explain to him that I did not want to write a sensational article, but conduct a serious investigation.
I had by that time read many publications on transsexuals, and spent time on international internet forums where transsexuals discuss the problems they face. I understood that their biggest problem is a lack of understanding in society.
They were already missing a lot of what ordinary people take for granted, and they did not even get sympathy. Many transsexuals were close to suicide.
“I decided to write this article so as to explain to society who transsexuals are, what difficulties they have to face and how they need human sympathy,” I told Azimzade, and he agreed to give me an interview, which opened my eyes to many issues I had not considered before.
“Many of them hide their identity from the people around them, because they’re ashamed. Their whole lives are an unbroken sequence of suffering and bitter disappointment and the weaker of them sometimes kill themselves. In most cases, neither their friends nor their relatives accept them,” the doctor told me.
After speaking to Azimzade, I wrote an article about the problems Azerbaijan’s transsexuals face. However, although it had a very straightforward tone - almost like a medical article - the newspapers that I worked for at that time refused to publish it, saying that such a theme was against our national way of thinking.
The tabloid press would have grabbed it with both hands, adding a lot of extra “details”, but I was determined to avoid publishing there, and decided with regret to give up on the idea of writing about transsexuals in an Azeri publication.
Five years passed, and I did not pursue the story until, by chance, I read a post on an Azeri website by a blogger who said one of her co-workers had announced that he wanted to become a woman.
“Yesterday evening, Alexei, one of the salesmen, a bit embarrassed, told me that he is a girl called Inga … Alexei asked me to speak to him only as a woman. He will wear only women’s clothes to reflect his internal self,” wrote the blogger.
“Within a day, I had got used to the idea. But I still don’t know how to avoid saying things like ‘Alexei, take this step-ladder to the kitchen’ and how to get used to looking at Inga’s perfectly done, lightly made-up face.”
I felt any journalist would be delighted to meet this person, so set to work tracking her down. I got Inga’s email address from the blogger, and made her acquaintance. A year later, after her operation, she agreed to be the heroine of my article for IWPR.
When the article was published, I was the target of several unpleasant comments.
“You are shaming our country, writing such filth,” one letter said.
“People who think transsexuals bring shame on the country are a disgrace to humanity themselves,” I replied to him.
Transsexuals’ problems are an urgent human rights issue for the whole world. Such people exist everywhere and almost everywhere they have to suffer just because they are different. All transsexuals suffer from people’s prejudice, and are victims of discrimination and suspicion. But despite this they go ahead with their operations, because only by changing their sex can they make their lives acceptable.
We need to create tolerance in society and journalists like me are responsible for doing this.
Leyla Leysan is a freelance journalist.