Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azeri Transexuals Face Social Stigma

Sex change just the first hurdle as society fails to accept gender reassignment.
By Leyla Leysan

Inga Ivanova seems like a normal 23-year-old woman as she sits in central Baku in light make-up, a jumper and jeans, but her story is one rarely heard in Azerbaijan. She was born a boy.



“I felt like a woman in a man’s body ... passers-by used to avoid me. I was never flamboyant, I did not shock people, I tried to hide who I was, that I was breaking away from normal modes of behaviour, but all the same I was different,” she said.



On leaving school, like any young Azeri male, she had to report for military service, and was sent for a hospital examination. Experts declared her unfit to serve in the army, clearing the way for her to do what only 100 or so Azeris had done before her – undergo gender reassignment surgery.



She turned to the internet for information on the procedure, since the Azeri health authorities offered no help. Without medical supervision or support she put herself through the necessary hormone therapy. A year later, the Funda medical centre completed the physical operation to remove her male sexual organs.



But that was not the end of her troubles. Azerbaijan has inherited the bureaucracy-heavy system of the Soviet Union, and she must gain a new passport in her new name to have access to any state services. There is no legal regulation of gender reassignment surgery or transsexuals, so this is proving difficult, not least because doctors refuse to conduct any tests on her.



“Now I am trying to get a psychiatrist to give me the correct diagnosis – transsexualism – and even this is proving very hard. It is a rare case, and legally there is nothing written down about the basis or conduct of sex reassignment surgery and the rights of a citizen afterwards. To get a passport, I will need – after getting a certificate – to appeal to a court,” she said.



Transsexualism was classified as a psychological illness early in the 20th century, and there has been no modernisation of the state’s position since.



“All attempts to ‘normalise’ transsexuals have always failed. The only successful way to ‘treat’ such people is for them to live as a person of the other sex, which is what they psychologically are,” said Jamal Azimzade, the senior specialist at the Funda medical centre. He said the first sex change operation in Azerbaijan was conducted in 2002.



“A 26-year-old man, who completely felt himself to be a woman, appealed to me. He thought of his sexual organs as revolting. The operation was conducted over three stages and ended well. However, the ‘new’ young woman was forced to leave the country for social reasons. People who change their sex in our country are forced to live with their old documents, to undergo military service and struggle with a load of other unpleasantness as a consequence of their lack of documents.”



He said transsexuals were also often the target of aggression and hatred, for example when they try to work or have to present their documents.



“Before undergoing the gender reassignment operation, the patient must go through several stages, including talking to a psychiatrist, since this is a serious step in a person’s life that cannot be undone,” Azimzade said, adding that he normally refused to talk to the media about his work.



“Representatives of the media normally are looking for sensation, and report this problem non-objectively, misinforming their readers and viewers, thus plunging the problem into even deeper misunderstanding.”



Azerbaijan has very few resources for transsexuals, although one man trying to help is Kamran Rzayev, chairman of the Union for Gender Development and Enlightenment, who said around 60 people had turned to his organisation for help.



“Of course, there are many more of them, but many do not know that there is somewhere they can go for help. In Azerbaijan, people with ‘gender denial syndrome’ are completely without rights. The level of discrimination against these people is very high, since transsexuals lose their right to work, to leisure and even to security. Going outside they risk not only being mocked, but also being beaten,” he said.



“It’s not just that these people suffer from childhood and made to feel outcasts, they do not even have the right to a normal life. Because of the ‘disagreement’ between their external appearance and what is written in their documents, they cannot get a decent job. Therefore they are often forced to earn money from prostitution, which turns society against them even more. Many turn to this to earn money for the operation and the hormone therapy, which does not come cheap.”



He said the government needed to change the law to allow transsexuals to gain new documents without the humiliation they currently face.



“Specifically, we need a new law on gender identity, which would regulate the process of getting new documents. Then a transsexual could gain a new passport without a court decision, just on the basis of a psychiatrist’s decision,” he said.



“Even in Islamic Iran, where homosexuality is prosecuted, they address gender dysphoria issues normally. According to Islamic law, transsexuals are considered acceptable on the basis of religious teaching.”



Leyla Leysan is a freelance journalist.


Also see Story Behind the Story, published  CRS Issue 528, 26 Jan 10.

The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.

This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.

It also shows the difficulties writers can face as they try to get to the heart of a story.