Can transgender people speak in Armenia?

When it comes to hate crimes, impunity still reigns in this South Caucasus state.

Anna Nikoghosyan
15 April 2020, 12.01am
Lilit Martirosyan speaking in parliament, April 2019
Screenshot A1+

With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, people across the world are experiencing frustration from living under lockdown. Many report panic attacks due to a constant feeling of isolation, uncertainty and fear. Taking advantage of their states of emergency, several countries are harnessing governmental surveillance, adopting laws and policies which affect personal privacy and threaten civil liberties on a global scale.

People are scared of being watched, inspected or harassed by the police. They are frightened their personal data will be disclosed to authorities or the media. They have seen what is happening in South Korea, Israel, Italy or Ecuador in terms of tracking mobile phone location data, using credit card purchase records and CCTV footage in order to ensure compliance with government’s lockdown rules and identify contact chains. People’s mental health is deteriorating as they feel increasingly exiled, imprisoned at home and alone. They dream of a time when they can freely walk down the streets whenever they want - without fear of risking their lives.

They are gradually starting to experience what an average transgender person feels in Armenia.

In trans people's shoes

For transgender people, the “new” forms of control and coping strategies adopted as covid-19 progresses are far from novel. Trans people have struggled from discrimination and abuse long before the pandemic crisis. They already know what social distancing, surveillance and anxiety mean.

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But as the pandemic continues to dramatically affect poor and disadvantaged communities in Armenia, trans people are being hit from all possible sides. Predominantly rejected by their families and turned to be homeless, they rent out apartments individually or in groups - apartments which they now can’t pay for. Those who take hormones do not have means to acquire necessary drugs. Deprived of basic education and employment rights, most trans women in Armenia are engaged in sex work and are no longer able to earn their living. Those who still live with their families face a high risk of domestic violence and abuse.

While the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” promised a “New Armenia”, it gradually became clear that for many the country would stay the same. Not only do LGBT people in Armenia continue to be harassed and subject to violence, but homophobic and transphobic actions have become more directed, organised and intensive.

Related story

Since Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution, life has become easier for its citizens. But members of the country’s LGBT community have seen little improvement in their situation.

Armenia’s state of emergency, introduced on 24 March, has exacerbated the position of the country's trans people during the coronavirus crisis. Now, every person who wants to go outside must fill in a special form and present identification to police officers in order to avoid being fined. Trans people are scared the police will see that their passport name, “sex” category in the ID and appearance do not match. This new procedure certainly increases their security concerns and risk of being subjected to further violence. It also inevitably affects trans people’s right to buy food, medicine or hygienic products. Many people do not want and are scared to disclose their personal information to institutions who have never been held accountable for violating their rights.

More pressingly, the Armenian parliament recently made amendments to the law on personal information, giving the authorities new methods of surveillance to track direct contacts of confirmed coronavirus cases using cellphone data. These legal changes significantly increased trans sex workers’ fears and anxieties: they are frightened that their personal information, particularly contacts and links to clients, will be disclosed to third parties, leaving them in a fragile and uniquely dangerous situation.

The recent history of public campaigns against trans people in Armenia shows how precarious and unprotected LGBT individuals are in the country - and how easily they become puppets in political maneuvers.

Human rights aren’t for everyone

Earlier this year, a member of a minor nationalist party tried to “clean up” Armenia’s National Assembly during a public hearing on amendments to the judicial code. “Since the lectern of the National Assembly has been desecrated,” Sona Aghekyan announced, “I’m going to burn incense here.” Aghekyan was referring to transgender activist Lilit Martirosyan, who made a historic, if brief speech in parliament from the same lectern exactly a year ago.

In April 2019, Martirosyan, a young transgender activist and president of a trans rights organisation, delivered a three-minute statement during a parliamentary hearing on human rights, aiming to raise the erased voices of the transgender community in the “New Armenia”.

“I embody the image of an Armenian transgender - tortured, raped, kidnapped, subjected to physical violence, burned, immolated, knifed, killed, migrated, robbed, subjected to assassination attempt, stigma and discrimination, unemployed, and poor,” announced Martirosyan fearlessly.

Lilit Martirosyan's speech in parliament, April 2019.

Martirosyan’s organisation, the Right Side NGO, recorded 283 cases of violence and discrimination against trans people over 2016-2018. But as Lilit pointed out in her speech, the number of cases reported to the police was far smaller. This means the real scale of violence is unknown.

“If you accept these 283 cases as the number of trans people in Armenia whose human rights have been violated,” Lilit continued her speech, “for me this means that 283 perpetrators live in Armenia next to me and you, and the 284th perpetrator may commit a crime tomorrow.”

Indeed, violence and impunity are important considerations when it comes to LGB and trans rights in Armenia. Ironically for Sona Aghekyan, who alongside two other members of her party were subjected to violence in Yerevan City Hall in 2018, Lilit Martirosyan helped organise a protest to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Another politician, Naira Zohrabyan from the conservative opposition party Prosperous Armenia, said that Martirosyan had “violated the agenda” of the hearing, and that her action was not conducive to the protection of human rights. Zohrabyan is head of Armenia’s parliamentary human rights committee.

Unpunished death threats and hate crimes

Lilit Martirosyan drastically changed the visibility of trans people in Armenia with her speech, but she faced increased security risks as a result.

A year has passed since her historic speech, but Lilit still lives with fear in her heart. “I’m still afraid to go to certain places such as restaurants or clothes shops. I often see people staring at me and saying: ‘Look at her’. I keep walking, knowing I can be followed. There have been way too many times when that happened.”

Indeed, Lilit’s three-minute speech - her very being and speaking in the Armenian parliament - resulted in angry outbursts from transphobic people and continuous attacks on her.

"We had a revolution, but the police are the same"

For example, on the day of the 2019 speech, Martirosyan ordered dinner online from a local supermarket. The man who delivered the food recognised Lilit’s face from the media. He later shared her address and phone number on social media - his post soon went viral.

Lilit reported the situation to the police, but the case, along with several other reports, was closed due to lack of evidence. “All these cases were closed. We had a revolution, but the police are the same,” Martirosyan told me. After her personal information was disclosed, Lilit had to temporarily relocate to protect herself as well as her mother, who was psychologically pressured by her neighbours.

Protest outside Armenian parliament after Lilit Martirosyan's speech, 2019.

The backlash continued when a protest was organised outside the Armenian parliament three days after Martirosyan’s speech. Attendees, which included several priests, condemned the fact that “perverts have climbed up the parliamentary lectern”. As the cameras rolled, one protester opened his bag, took out a knife and stated that he was “ready to liquidate sexual minorities with it” and made a sign of cutting one’s neck with his hand. A police investigation into this incident was also closed “due to lack of evidence.”

As stated in Human Rights Watch World Report 2020, Armenia still does not have anti-discrimination legislation. In May 2019, a legal amendment was initiated by the Prosperous Armenia party aimed at criminalising “non-traditional sexual orientation propaganda”, but the government did not approve the draft. In November 2019, there was another attempt by the same party to make amendments to ban same-sex marriages under Armenia’s family law. The proposal was dismissed on the grounds that the Armenian constitution already defines marriage as a union between “a woman and a man”.

According to a joint report prepared by Pink human rights defender NGO and Eastern European Coalition of LGBT+ Equality presented at the 35th Universal Periodic Review session, Armenian “legislation does not provide for comprehensive substantial and procedural regulations for prevention, investigation, and responsibility for hate crimes.” It further stated that Armenian “criminal law does not define any core concepts related to hate crimes, specifically what hate crimes are, which are protected characteristics, or specifications and other issues for responsibility and punishment of such crimes”.

A movie about a transgender athlete

Armenia was shaken by another wave of transphobia in fall 2019, this time around a documentary film about Mel Daluzyan, a transgender Armenian weightlifter.

Mel Daluzyan, formerly known as Meline, is the first weightlifter from Armenia to win a world medal in the female category of World Weightlifting Championship. He also received two gold medals and one silver medal at the 2007, 2008 and 2010 European Weightlifting Championships, thus being the first Armenian to become a European Champion in weightlifting, repeating this success twice. Representing Armenia at the 2012 Summer Olympics, he later came out as transgender and moved to the Netherlands in 2016.

News about the upcoming movie by Armenian filmmaker Inna Sahakyan triggered huge controversy in social media. The documentary became an easy target for political manipulations and maneuvers. Sahakyan participated in a competition for feature-length films organised by Armenia’s National Cinema Center and won a $42,000 grant to partially cover the production costs. This fact was used by several far-right and anti-Velvet revolution groups, which tried to prove the “hidden anti-national” agenda of the current government.

Against a background of organised and proliferating attacks in social media, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan personally addressed the issue in a parliamentary Q&A. “Refusing to participate in the creation of this movie would be a stigma on the forehead of Armenia and its government,” Pashinyan announced.

Although Pashinyan pathologised transgender phenomenon, comparing it to congenital disorders, he nevertheless rigorously and openly defended Daluzyan, pointing out his victories brought to all Armenians: “We are next to a person during their glory time, but not when they have a problem – this is not my viewpoint. This person is under my personal protection,” he declared.

Referring to the attacks on social media, Pashinyan claimed “it is cheap propaganda" organised by those who have been deprived of means of corruption and use every possible method to come to power again.

Manipulations to regain power

That LGBT rights and feminist struggles are manipulated by Armenia’s anti-revolution and nationalist groups is not a surprise.

The last decade has proved that in Armenia, gender is geopolitical. “National values”, “traditional families”, the “future of our children” are all concepts that tie into Armenia’s various geopolitical trajectories. As the dynamics that followed the “Velvet Revolution” show, the political forces working against the revolution build up their rhetoric in two directions: state security to “prevent” exacerbation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and campaigning against LGBT people to “save” Armenian traditional values from the Pashinyan government.

In this vein, two public campaigns dominated 2019 – one against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention and the “anti-Soros” campaign. The first group of campaigners announced that the Istanbul Convention had a hidden agenda to spread “LGBT propaganda” and legitimise same-sex marriage. The latter targets both institutions that have received funding from Open Society Foundations Armenia and activists who fight for sensitive socio-political issues.

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Screen Shot 2019-09-03 at 11.45.42.png
Armenia’s 2018 revolution may have pushed a kleptocratic regime out of power, but today the country’s conservative agenda is radicalising under new conditions.

One campaigner created a “wall of shame” where he put the names and photos of several blacklisted activists, human rights defenders and politicians, thus trying to create linkages between the “perverted”, “un-motherland” public figures with the new government of Armenia.

With this, LGB and trans people, in particular, have become a means of discreditation in the hands of Armenia’s opposition, leaving them in a situation of constant fear of violence and insecurity. While regime change promised groundbreaking democratic changes, political manipulations made the lives of LGBT people simply unbearable.

Lilit Martirosyan does not know what will happen to her in the future, but she is certain she will not leave Armenia. “I could ask for asylum in other countries, but I feel my place is here and my mission is to fight for trans people’s rights. If not me then who? I have to roar. I prefer radical activism over ‘please pity me’ methods. Enough is enough.”

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