For Ruslan Balukhin, the hardest part about being a young gay man in Azerbaijan is living what he calls a "double life."
Balukhin, the 22-year-old founder of the gay.az support website
, has lively online friendships with fellow Azerbaijanis who understand his lifestyle.
"Artists, journalists, actors," he says. "You know -- adults."
But at home with his parents, or in the courtyard with neighbors, Balukhin tries to keep his sexual identity a secret. He's been spared the violent attacks and discrimination suffered by many members of Azerbaijan's homosexual and transgender minority. But he says his sense of isolation is profound.
"The main problem is loneliness," he says. "Society doesn't accept you or your friends. And that's very difficult to deal with."
Living In Shadow
The social stigma attached to homosexuality is hardly unique to Azerbaijan, whose mores are forged from a conservative mix of Muslim faith and Soviet-style squeamishness.
But as Baku prepares to host next week's 57th Eurovision Song Contest
-- a bejeweled meringue of a spectacle, with unabashedly gay overtones -- the country's unyielding stance on sexual minorities is coming under fresh scrutiny.
Activist Ruslan Balukhin: "Society doesn't accept you or your friends. And that's very difficult to deal with."
The oil-rich nation decriminalized homosexuality in 2001. But discrimination and harrassment remain day-to-day facts of life for many members of Azerbaijan's gay community, who have no legal protection and almost no representation in civil society.
On May 17, as gay-rights groups staged protests in nearby Georgia
, Ukraine, and Russia to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia, Baku's streets remained silent.
Hossein Alizadeh of the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission
says Azerbaijan's gay population has been intimidated to the point of invisibility.
"In the case of Azerbaijan, we feel that the community of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) activists and individuals do not feel comfortable, at this stage of development, to go public about their existence," he says. "There is not an openly out LGBT group in that country."
'Big Propaganda Show'
Azerbaijan, under the regime of President Ilham Aliyev, has come under mounting censure for its dismal rights record, particularly its jailing of critical journalists and crackdowns on public protests.
International watchdogs like Amnesty International have used the Eurovision Song Contest -- which features 42 country-contestants and is expected to draw upwards of 125 million viewers worldwide -- to refresh global outrage
over government repressions.
Volker Beck, an openly gay German lawmaker, traveled to Baku this week to meet with opposition activists and members of the gay community.
"The Aliyev regime should not be allowed to turn Eurovision into a big propaganda show," he said. "We have no choice but to kick this dictator in the shin -- verbally, at least."
The controversy has led some to question whether Eurovision was wrong to grant hosting rights to a country whose indifference to human rights is well-documented.
The government in Baku spent $134 million to build the 23,000-seat Crystal Hall for this year's Eurovision contest.
Eurovision, which was founded in 1956 as a Western European talent-sharing extravaganza, has gradually spread eastward to the countries of the former communist bloc, with Ukraine, Russia, and Serbia all playing host in recent years.
Eurovision's communications manager, Sietse Bakker, says while Eurovision can help shed light on unwelcome policies in host countries, the contest itself has no political agenda. He expressed confidence that gay visitors to the Azerbaijani capital would meet with a warm reception.
"I think it has to be said that gay people are normal people," he says. "They can freely walk around here in Baku, and I'm sure they will all take into consideration the [Azerbaijani] culture as well."
'Land Of Flames'
For European fans making the trip to Baku, confusion over visas and travel plans are proving as complex as concerns about what reception homosexual or transgender tourists may hope to receive.
One long-standing British Eurovision fan, who asked that his name not be used because of continued uncertainty about his own visa, says his upcoming trip to Baku is "a bit of a leap into the unknown."
"It's difficult to gauge what the reception will be," says the fan, who has traveled to past contests in Kyiv, Moscow, and Belgrade and is familiar with the challenges faced by gay and lesbian tourists along Europe's easternmost edge.
Narguiz Birk-Petersen (left), Eldar (Ell) Gasimov (center), and Leyla Aliyeva are this year's Eurovision hosts.
"We've had some advice from embassy people about etiquette and dress, which makes it a little bit different from previous locations," he adds. "There was one story where people were saying that men shouldn't wear shorts if they're going to Baku, which we certainly haven't heard before. Even getting a guidebook hasn't been that easy."
But while guidebooks have been in short supply, Azerbaijan's main preparations for Eurovision conform impeccably -- perhaps unwittingly -- with the contest's traditional penchant for glitzy camp.
The country has already broken spending records with an outlay of $134 million on its massive Crystal Hall venue alone -- plus a fleet of purple taxis
and a promotional campaign
that proudly labels Azerbaijan as a "land of flames."
But there have been serious missteps, as well. When Iran recently launched a series of anti-Eurovision protests that falsely accused activists
of planning a gay pride event to coincide with the contest, Azerbaijan shot back -- not by defending gay pride but by holding its own series of anti-Iran protests.
The New York- and London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Center on May 17 issued a warning
to visitors to the country against having sex while visiting the country, arguing that the Aliyev regime has routinely used hidden-camera footage from hotels to blackmail its opponents.
Such publicity could hurt Azerbaijan's aim of buffing its image as a player worthy of the world's respect and a prime travel destination for moneyed tourists.
If the Azerbaijani government wishes to be perceived as a modern European country, this is a golden opportunity.
Ian Johnson, the managing director of Out Now, a European agency specializing in LGBT markets, says Azerbaijan's stagnant social policy may leave it locked outside the European club of nations -- not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from Europe's upwardly mobile homosexual and transgender tourists.
"The reality for the majority of Europe's citizens is that anything less than genuine acceptance and respect for people who just happen to be born lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is seen as outdated and really old-fashioned," says Johnson, whose group last year released a first-ever survey
of Eurovision's gay fan base. "It's not to be admired. If the Azerbaijani government wishes to be perceived as a modern European country, this is a golden opportunity."
Balukhin, who says he was "shocked" when he learned his country had won the world's most-famous song contest, sees no golden opportunity for his country's fellow gays.
"It's just a song contest," he says. "Tourists will come to Azerbaijan and we'll treat them well, because you always treat your guests well. But after they leave, I don't think anything will change. Because first we need to work with the public, to educate society. But nobody does that, and nobody wants to."
RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report