LGBTIQ+ inclusive environment in therapy…. Is there any?

“Psychologists told my mother that my interest in men is only temporary and it will go away with time,” recalls 23-year-old Salim (not a real name), who currently lives in Lankaran. Approaches like this have caused him to mistrust psychologists.

One of the most serious challenges faced by LGBTIQ+ people in Azerbaijan is related to psychological support services. There is a shortage of specialists who could work with this kind of social group.

Salim says he has faced psychological pressure both in high school and by his family and relatives because of his sexual orientation since he was a teenager. Later, he turned to several psychologists at his mother’s insistence. According to him, the psychologists convinced his mother that his sexual orientation was like a “disease” and that it would go away on its own.

Although homosexuality was recognized as a mental disorder for many years, it was removed from the International Classification of Diseases by the World Health Organization in 1994 and is no longer considered a mental disorder. Accordingly, the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Azerbaijan has also referred to this classification since 2005 not recognizing homosexuality as a disease any more.

Despite this, queers who turn to psychologists and psychiatrists, face a different reality.

“They referred me to a female psychologist in Baku who had experience with LGBTIQ+ people before. I told her about my problems for months and spent money on it. In the end, she told me that it is not normal that I am attracted to men,” says Salim.

He says he no longer trusts psychologists because he had similar experiences with previous ones, too.

“Now I stay with my mother in the district. My mother’s attitude is neutral as compared to previous years. But I still suffer from the effects of psychological pressure and trauma that I received. There is no way you will be able to explain your problems to incompetent psychologists,” says Salim.

According to gender activist Lili Nazarov, most psychologists in Azerbaijan believe that they can still change someone’s orientation. The activist says that since the methods of working with queers in the field of psychological support are not taught in the educational institution, most psychologists’ approach is based either on mentality values or their own personal views.

“Although the experts specialized in this field in Azerbaijan are theoretically knowledgeable about gender issues, they lack practical skills. In general, it is difficult to find a psychologist who is open to queers. Even those who are open are not fully knowledgeable about non-binary, transgender people,” says Nazarov.

The activist believes that for the psychological services to become accessible, the work with queers should be taught in educational institutions and a state control over this process is crucial.

It is transgender people who face the most difficulties related to psychological services among other vulnerable groups in Azerbaijan. 28-year-old Banu notes that following her unsuccessful experience with psychologists and psychiatrists, she came to the conclusion that specialists in Azerbaijan, especially those working with transgender people, are very ignorant and their approaches are wrong. This is the reason why psychological support is inaccessible to them.

“I wanted to receive my therapy as a transgender. One of the local NGOs referred me to a psychiatrist. Everything was smooth during the first sessions. Then the psychiatrist said that he had no experience of working with transgender people before. He was not aggressive towards me, but it was evident that he was not knowledgeable enough,” Banu says, adding that the psychiatrist repeatedly “dead-named” her, referring to her by her birth name.

“Or the psychologist I was seeing earlier used to ask me intimate questions about whether I was “active” or “passive”. I was disturbed by his remarks and questions that were not based on any science. That’s why I stopped seeing him later,” she says.

This problem was also highlighted by the ILGA-Europe report for 2021. The report states that in a video “Why is sexual education important?” shared by psychologist and social media phenomenon Samira Baghirova on her Instagram account, she responds to her own question saying that  “it is important in terms of eliminating same-sex relationships and sex change.” She also recommends a conversion (reparative) therapy under the name of sex education.

However, these are not the first remarks of this kind by Baghirova. In her interview with a local media in September 2021, she described homosexuality as a habit and a direct psychological disorder stating that those who experience same-sex relationships are actually not like that at all.

“It’s just a subconscious mind… Whether they’re lesbians, transsexuals, gays, bisexuals, they all have childhood traumas. The common name is parental neglect. Either they didn’t have someone who would explain those matters during their teenage years, or they were exploited, abused and abandoned by their parents,” she stressed.

QueeRadar representative Leyla Hasanova says that psychologists, politicians, doctors and others with a similar status are perceived as dominant figures in society and therefore their discriminatory views are taken more seriously.

“Especially, queer-inclusive ideas cannot be communicated in conservative countries like Azerbaijan, because there is no queer-inclusive environment. Therefore, phobic views are spread as a norm. In this sense, it seems safer not to circulate queer phobic ideas and content,” she notes.

According to psychologist Jamila Rahimli, one of the difficulties LGBTIQ+ people face in the field of psychological services stems from the lack of expertise in this field.

“If a psychologist claims that homosexuality is a disease, it can be treated, and if he “cures” it, then he is going to receive many more requests to do so. However, this is not a disease,” Rahimli notes, adding that it takes time to gain expertise to be able to work with vulnerable groups.

Aykhan Osmanli, the coordinator of the psychological support project at the Gender Resource Center, says that the Center has launched a free psycho-social consultation and support program since mid-2020.

“Half a year ago, we conducted a survey covering 1 year. Some 90% of the beneficiaries noted that the psycho-social support provided by our Center had a positive effect on them.” The project coordinator also notes that around 160 queer persons have benefited from the support program so far.

Activist Lili Nazarov says that although not at the ideal level, there is an increase in the number of specialists who are open to queers compared to previous years.

“The reason is that queers no longer hide their identity, and this requires the availability of psychologists who would work with them.”

The article was developed as part of the mentoring program of the QueeRadar platform.