Officials in Azerbaijan insist gay visitors are welcome to the 2012 Eurovision song contest when the event, which has an enthusiastic gay following, is hosted in the capital, Baku.
However, such assurances jar with those who have had first-hand experience of how homosexuals are treated in Azeri society.
“My brother has vowed to kill me, and then kill himself,” says Babi Badalov, a radical gay Azeri artist who has recently been granted political asylum in France.
“The day I was ‘outed’, my sister screamed at me on the phone and told me to stay out of Azerbaijan. I don’t think I will ever be able to speak to any of them again.”
Mr Badalov grew up in a remote area of Azerbaijan and moved to Baku when he was 15.
There he lived in fear, hiding his sexuality from everyone, including his best friends.
‘Worse than prostitution’
“We knew he was gay,” says his friend Tora Aghabayova, also an artist.
“But he never talked about it, so we didn’t mention it either. When he got married everyone was surprised. He was trying hard to conform, he was under a lot of pressure.
“In the end, he chose to stay true to himself, so he had to leave. Like a cherry with a stone inside, if you press it too hard, the stone will fly out.”
After years of trying to hide his sexual orientation, Mr Badalov tried to claim political asylum in the UK in 2008.
But his application failed on the grounds that homosexuality was not illegal in Azerbaijan.
A campaign started in the UK in his defence led to his outing back home, to the horror of his family who live in the most conservative part of the country, on the Iranian border.
“Homosexuality here is seen as worse than prostitution,” says Yadigyar Sadykov, a human rights activist from Mr Badalov’s native region.
“If a family decided to kill a gay relative, most people would approve. I have heard of many suicides of suspected homosexuals – I have never met an openly gay person around here.”
“During Eurovision, no-one will bother gay foreigners in Baku,” says Alekper Aliyev, a writer and an author of a controversial book about a gay relationship between an Azeri and a man from Armenia, the country’s historic enemy.
“People here don’t mind, as long as it’s not in their family.
“There are several openly gay celebrities in Baku who have money and bodyguards, and they are safe.
“But nothing will change for the majority of gays, particularly in the provinces. This society will never accept them.”
Azeri officials disagree, pointing out that Azerbaijan decriminalised homosexuality in 2001.
“Recently there has been much ill-informed speculation by some expatriates about how we treat our homosexual community,” says Elnur Aslanov, a senior official from the presidential administration.
“We consider all this nothing more than an unsuccessful attempt by those naysayers to gain a better reputation in their respective countries in the light of the upcoming Eurovision song contest in Azerbaijan.”
‘Almost an alien’
Babi Badalov has a different take on it.
“Eurovision will be held in the five-star Hotel Europa,” he says.
“Everyone knows that after midnight not far from this hotel you can get gay sex with a transvestite prostitute.
“Married men go there for fun. And yet homosexuality to them is disgusting.”
He remembers Baku with sadness: “I was a loner, a foreigner, almost an alien”.
After his asylum claim failed in the UK, Mr Badalov tried France.
Two years later he was finally granted political asylum.
“It was the most fantastic, happy news in my life,” he says.
“I screamed, cried and rolled around the floor of the post office. I was out of control.”
Although he is living in a hostel, he is an established artist and will soon be free to travel around Europe exhibiting his work.
But he feels his home country will never be part of Europe.
“Everybody’s rights are violated in Azerbaijan,” says Mr Badalov, “and gays are not an exception.
“I doubt that I will live to see my country join the modern world.”
by Dina Newman – BBC News, Paris
Source – BBC