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Armenia’s LGBTIQ activists fight on under shadow of war

Weeks after Azerbaijan’s attack, queer activists won support from a member of Turkey’s parliament at annual forum

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Lucy Martirosyan
1 November 2022, 4.37pm

Activists, community members and parents of LGBTIQ children at Pink Armenia’s Rainbow Forum, 28 October 2022

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Pink Armenia

Armenian activists gathered at the end of October to discuss ways to strengthen the country’s LGBTIQ movements, six weeks after Azerbaijan’s 12 September attack on Armenia.

“We were thinking about cancelling the forum, especially after September,” said Lilit Avetisyan, chair of Pink Armenia – an NGO founded 15 years ago to support the community, protect human rights and advocate for public policy changes around LGBT issues.

Pink Armenia activists, like others fighting for human rights, feel discouraged and hopeless as the conflict continues. Azerbaijan’s September incursion was one of the most violent since the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Would Armenia really pay attention to LGBTIQ issues at this point of time? On the other hand, said Avetisyan: “When is an appropriate time to talk about human rights?”

In the end, more than 140 people registered for Pink Armenia’s three-day Rainbow Forum in the capital, Yerevan. Supported by the Swedish government, it was the seventh annual forum, and it attracted attention and much-needed expressions of support.

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Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian member of Turkey’s parliament, made an impromptu visit to the forum on 30 October after meeting Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan that day. “If Armenia wants to be a democratic country, it should respect LGBTIQ rights,” he said.

Armenia ranks low on the Rainbow Map, the annual benchmarking tool used by the independent NGO ILGA-Europe to rank 49 countries in Europe on their LGBTIQ equality laws and policies. The ranking, which considers a country’s legal and policy practices for LGBTIQ people, ranges from 0% to 100%.

The 2022 Rainbow Map has Armenia at 8%, just ahead of Turkey (4%) and Azerbaijan (2%). That suggests there has been little or no change in Armenia’s attitudes towards LGBTIQ people since the peaceful, anti-government ‘Velvet Revolution’ protests of 2018. At the time, ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Europe country ranking showed Armenia practically in last place – 47th out of 49, the same as this year.

Garo Paylan (right), an ethnic Armenian member of Turkey’s parliament, made a surprise visit to the Rainbow Forum, 30 October 2022

Garo Paylan (right), an ethnic Armenian member of Turkey’s parliament, made a surprise visit to the Rainbow Forum, 30 October 2022

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Pink Armenia

The lack of progress came up at this year’s Rainbow Forum, where discussion panels included women’s and LGBTIQ issues during the war, burnout, security threats, and visibility challenges facing gay and trans people in Armenia. Panellists said the conversations were often emotional.

There were many references to the 20 October suicides of a gay couple in Yerevan, which resulted not only in hateful, homophobic comments on social media, but also in a “debate” about the men’s deaths on the state-controlled TV channel Armenia 1, featuring a lawyer who has posiitioned himself as a defender of ‘family values’.

Pink Armenia was asked to take part in the programme, but declined.

“Suicide is not a topic of organised debate,” said its head of communications, Mamikon Hovsepyan. “Cases of suicide should be addressed in the media with sensitivity.”

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During the Rainbow Forum, Pink activists reminded the audience of its 24-hour hotline and the psychological, social and legal resources available for LGBTIQ people and their parents.

Acknowledging that most portrayals of LGBTIQ people in Armenia are negative, Pink also attempted to introduce lighter moments. The opening ceremony featured photos of previous Rainbow Forum meetings and a drag performance by an activist of the 1980 Diana Ross song ‘I’m Coming Out’.

There were giveaways too: six people won copies of the 2016 Armenian-language gay novel ‘Mommyland:Flag’ by Armen of Armenia, for attending three or more Rainbow Forum sessions..

One audience member said the forum had helped him feel “this big power” from being surrounded by members of the LGBTIQ community.

He added: “It’s really important, especially in such a small and sad country [like Armenia].”

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