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Armenia’s Velvet Revolution is yet to bring change for the country’s LGBT community

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.

Ekaterina Fomina
27 June 2019
November 2018: rally in support of introducing a ban on "gay propaganda", Yerevan
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(c) Ekaterina Fomina. All rights reserved

Very few people live an open life in Armenia. There are always relatives and neighbours to keep a close eye on young men and women’s personal lives.

But where do lesbian and gay people go to meet one another in Armenia? As in other countries, people in Armenia use apps and online dating sites, but no one posts any photos there. If you manage to arrange a date, it’s usually presented as something casual, as though you’re two people just meeting for a beer. Acquaintances made like this sometimes end in blackmail and extortion over photos and messages. Going to the police carries risks, and there’s little point: Armenia’s Constitution may talk about gender equality, but there’s no guarantees of protection from discrimination on grounds of gender identity or orientation.

Despite Armenia’s approval of the UN Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2008, the country is one of the most homophobic in Europe. According to ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Europe country ranking, Armenia occupies practically the penultimate place, 47th out of 49, in terms of respect for LGBT+ rights. And according to a survey by the Pew Research Centre, 95% of Armenians under the age of 35 disapprove of gay marriage.

In 2012, for example, the only gay club in Yerevan, DIY was burned down, and the arsonist, two Iranian-Armenian brothers, received a suspended sentence. The episode triggered an attack on the LGBT+ community by pro-government media, and a ruling Republican Party MP described the attack as “proper and justified”.

Armine Oganesova, owner of Yerevan's DIY pub, 2013.

That same year, the LGBT+ community attempted to hold a Diversity March, but it was broken up by supporters of “traditional values”. In 2014, the popular Iravunk newspaper printed a list of 40 Facebook users which, it claimed, “serve the interest of the international homosexual lobby”. Since then, Armenia’s LGBT+ community has conducted no open events or activities.

At the same time, Armenia voted to join the Eurasian Economic Union, and continued to draw closer to Moscow. And since Russia passed what became known as its “Gay Propaganda Law” in 2013, incidents of homophobia-instigated violence in Armenia have been on the increase.

“There has been an escalation of homophobia since the ‘anti-gay propaganda’ protests in Moscow,” an Armenian politician, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells me. “People here watched what people were telling them on TV and did the same – Armenians have always followed Russia’s lead.”

These days, outbursts of everyday homophobia are common. The last known incident took place in February 2019, when gay activist Max Varzhapetyan was beaten up in the centre of Yerevan. His attacker said that Varzhapetyan had no right to call himself an Armenian and a man, he was, apparently, just a “sister”. According to Varzhapetyan, police officers told him that “Gays have no business being in our country – that’s why this happened to you.”

Sergo and Narek

Sergo and Narek’s stories are identical. They are the same age, 24, and both are gay men living in Armenia. They grew up in very different families, but life has been equally difficult for them.

Narek’s family emigrated from the US to Armenia when he was six. “I was always an outsider, otar in Armenian: I didn’t speak the language well and was also rather ‘camp’ [manernyi, the only word Narek spoke in Russian during our entire conversation]. But I was unaware of this. I was a target of violence and cruelty at school nearly every day – just because I was different. I went to school in Yerevan, which had more of a village than a city atmosphere at the time. I realise why I got picked on: defending their nation from ‘outsiders’ is in Armenians’ blood.”

Sergo, unlike Narek, was born in Yerevan, but this didn’t mean he was accepted. The only reason he didn’t get beaten up too much was that he allowed his classmates to copy his work in class. Both young men recall how in the breaks at school the kids would discuss the latest local news, including the attacks on those who were suspected of being gay.

“At one point, the big story was how one guy had killed himself after being beaten up and raped,” says Sergo. “Nobody said anything out loud about what happened, but they didn’t need to. If a lad had got himself raped, he was obviously asking for it. At the time, I had no idea why it really got to me. The kids at school would spend their breaks looking at photos of naked women, but I wasn’t interested in that.”

Narek and Sergo, who were both involved in the 2018 revolution, are now planning to leave the country

“We were members of a computer club,” Narek tells me, “but do you know what went on there? We were supposedly playing computer games, but in fact everyone was quietly watching pornography. When I was in Year Seven [aged 14-15], I’d never even heard the word ‘gay’, and I looked up ‘sex between two men’ online. And when I saw the word, it made a big impression, set off a spark of awareness in me. I started looking into it further, researching the issue, studying the terminology – I was a curious child.”

Narek kept his revelation a secret for a long time, but after a few years he shared it with a girl classmate. The next day, the whole school knew about it, and his classmates tried to make him pay for it.

“It was very traumatic for me.”

When Sergo was 20, he came out to his mother. He wrote her a letter, saying: “I can’t carry this burden alone any longer. If I can’t accept myself as I am, I’ll just eat myself up inside and end up taking my own life.” He recalls how his mother burst into tears as she read it and started persuading her son that he was going through a “transitional phase” and just needed to “work on himself”.

“She asked me not to say anything to my dad. I showed her scientific articles, explained that it wasn’t just a whim, but my nature, but her Soviet upbringing and religious faith, not to mention Russian TV propaganda, all conspired to my failure to change her opinion. Her position was simple: if something was at variance with her ideas, it was Western propaganda. We still live together, the aggression has passed, but she is still worried that one of her neighbours or friends will find out, and that would bring shame on the family.”

Sergo and Narek are quiet young men who wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. During Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution, they both went out on the streets – the protests were supported by a lot of LGBT+ people, although nobody raised a rainbow banner. They were fighting for a new Armenia – an Armenia for everyone – but it doesn’t look as though there is any place for them in it.

“Since the revolution, Armenians have felt that their voices can be heard, and that has created numerous nationalist movements,” Narek tells me. “Even Nikol Pashinyan’s slogan DUXOV [“With spirit” – ed.] is nationalist in spirit. The LGBT+ community has certainly not benefited from it.”

“I’m fed up,” says Narek. “I’m tired. I don’t want to fight any more. Twelve of my activist friends have left the country this year already. And that’s not counting ordinary members of the LGBT+ community.”

Sergo echoes his thoughts: “I don’t want to live a secret life all the time, I want to be normal. I want to go to Lovers’ Park and hold hands like everyone else. The new administration certainly includes gay and lesbian officials – and there will be change. But the change won’t happen during my youth.”

Narek and Sergo, who were both involved in the 2018 revolution, are now planning to leave the country. According to figures from the PINK Armenia human rights organisation, 5,891 people identifying as LGBT+ emigrated from Armenia in the three years between 2011-2013. No statistics have been available for the following years.

The human rights professor

A man in his forties with a chiselled profile is sitting on a bench in Yerevan’s Lovers’ Park, not far from Armenia’s Parliament building. An older woman and her grandson approach him hesitantly.

“Excuse me, are you Armenian?” she asks. The man nods. “And you’re gay? I recognise you.” Being openly gay in Armenia is depressing – few people are prepared to openly admit their orientation.

Vahan Bournazian moved from California to Armenia 14 years ago, after homosexuality stopped being a criminal offence. He held a public coming-out ceremony and wrote a letter to the independent Hetq publication, saying that “to live an honest life, we have to be bold enough to admit to our true nature”.

Vahan relays the conversation to me: the woman said that she had seen a photo of him on the internet and asked whether he thought that he was turning young men gay. He answered her in Armenian, which he still speaks with an accent:

“No one can turn gay. I never wanted to be one. But I realised that I couldn’t deceive myself.”

Vahan Bournazian | Personal archive

The woman deluged the professor with questions. Her interest was evidently stronger than her prejudices. Vahan remembers how she would lower her voice to a whisper when one of the park wardens went past.

“She had invaded my personal space,” he said, “but at the same time protected me from other people, so that nobody could hear what we were talking about. It was like she was examining me. People need knowledge, but it’s nowhere to be found.”

Then the woman said to him: “I hope my children won’t have to go through what you went through. I realise now that you are a very sensitive individual, and that you had no other choice.”

Most Armenians believe that you can’t be an Armenian and a homosexual, but that’s nonsense. Vahan disproves the myth.

“I am proud to have adopted the identity of my forebears. My grandmother was a survivor of the 1915 genocide. That’s why I have made my home here, and teach human rights. And it’s why I’m openly gay.”

The nature of Armenian homophobia can be explained by the country’s history, says Bournazian. Armenia has had to fight long and hard to preserve its identity, and was always at risk of invasion. For centuries, it had no political unity. The main thing that held it together was its church and the values it held. The worst assault on Armenia’s existence was the genocide of 1915 and the subsequent forced annexation of the First Armenian Republic by the Soviet Union. Both of these events reawakened the country’s fear of losing its national identity, and the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has fed and - still feeds this fear. And one administration after another frightened Armenians with the threat of “homosexuality that can destroy a nation”. Who would then fight? Who would give birth to new Armenians?

“Armenia is a nation of villages,” Vahan tells me. “It is a small population that lived for a long time without a state. Family relations are the main thing here; people still call each other ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’. The public sphere is not yet developed in Armenia; people don’t trust wider social mechanisms. They prefer personal conversations – like the one that I had with that woman.”

The only way to put a stop to homophobia in Armenia is to speak openly about one’s sexual orientation, says Vahan

The only way to put a stop to homophobia in Armenia is to speak openly about one’s sexual orientation, says Vahan. Which is why he has got involved with a film, Listen to Me, about openly LGBT+ people. It’s première was due to take place during the 2017 Golden Apricot Festival, but was dropped a day before the opening without any explanation. And Bournazian didn’t have his contract with the American University in Armenia extended after he came out publicly; he now teaches a course in human rights at Yerevan State University.

“How should I describe you in my text?”

“Professor of human rights, gay man.”

“Sisters”

If Armenian society is intolerant towards gay men, many don’t even recognise the existence of lesbians.

“It’s easier for us to live in Armenia,” says Mariam. “Little girls traditionally walk hand in hand; they are sisters, best friends.”

Mariam is 26 and dressed in a severe style, with short hair, but she has a very childish face. She wasn’t a wanted child; her parents, like most Armenians, wanted a son. Having a son is seen as preferable for many reasons: he will be a soldier and will support his parents in their old age. Armenia occupies the third highest place in international tables for sex-selective abortions.

Mariam spent her first school years in Russia, but then moved to Armenia. More precisely, she moved to a small town in the Sevan valley, founded by Russian Molokans, members of an Orthodox religious sect. “It’s a very depressing place,” she says. “Very closed off, like some kind of Twin Peaks or something.”

Mariam’s appropriately conservative grandmother disapproved of even ordinary friendships with male classmates. Mariam tells me that this gave her a very twisted attitude towards the male sex. And bullying by her boy cousin didn’t help either.

“They still say: ‘You organised a revolution at school’. The boys were always falling in love with me and chasing me. All this attention got on my nerves”

She laughs:

“I was in love with one boy at school, and I got a black eye because of him – I fell while chasing him. That also helped: life made me a lesbian.”

Mariam was always a rebel. When she went back to Russia, she started wearing short skirts to school, which was unacceptable in Armenia.

“They still say: ‘You organised a revolution at school’. The boys were always falling in love with me and chasing me. All this attention got on my nerves.”

Then one day Mariam realised that the games weren’t children’s ones anymore and when the boys grabbed her - it wasn’t in play.

“Armenian boys make a clear distinction between girls: those you will create a strong patriarchal family with in the distant future and those you can spend time with now,” she tells me. “I wasn’t happy that I was seen as the second sort. I turned my glance away from men, because I was afraid of criticism. I realised that if I stayed in this town, I would be married off to someone chosen by my family. I started seeing young men as a threat, and now I find it hard to speak to a man, even if I need to at work.”

She cut her hair short and started wearing baggy clothes.

“A girl in Armenia is always under someone else’s control – her parents, other men. There’s an unspoken formula at my work: if a woman’s project is approved by three men, it’s a good one. I earn less than my male colleagues and find it hard to make ends meet.”

But at the same time, Mariam seems to condone this inequality: “The guys aren’t sexist on purpose. It’s just they’ve been told from childhood that girls need more attention because they are weak. They often really do want to help.”

Event organised by Pink Armenia, 2016 | Нарек Алексанян

When Mariam was 16, she fell in love for the first time – with a friend of her older sister. She admits that she knew that lesbians existed, but for her they were some kind of aliens that didn’t exist on earth, let alone in Armenia. Few people know about her sexual orientation to this day. She lives quietly and doesn’t get involved in relationships. Life in Armenia for Mariam and other LGBT+ people is already an act of protest.

I ask Mariam what kind of life she would like.

“I don’t have any idea,” she says distractedly. “It’s been a long time since I lost my ability to dream, make plans for the future or think about what I would like. I don’t exist anymore.”

“Gilded youth”

Last summer, Zara was raped. She was 17. Her rapist was a male friend who had come to visit her. In Armenia it’s considered that if a man has sex with a lesbian, she will immediately fall in love with him and be “cured”. Zara wasn’t cured. They didn’t bother calling the police.

“Why traumatise her again?” asks Zara’s mother Narine. “They’ll just say she asked for it.”

Narine didn’t know how to support her daughter, so she shaved her temples and dyed her hair in a bright colour, like Zara’s. According to her mother, Zara always stood out among her contemporaries, glamorous young women who believed in colouring their hair and wearing identical clothing. So she got slagged off a lot at school. But it was the boy she trusted who cheated on her.

Finding out that her daughter was a lesbian was a real trial for Narine: she had already faced something similar. In the 1990s, she had met a boy she liked, but after a while he admitted that he had only done it to get closer to her brother. So the family discovered that Narine’s brother Ruben was gay – a real tragedy for the family. Their mother was so angry that she threatened to whack him with the frying pan for bringing such shame on the family.

“All the relatives put pressure on Ruben to marry, and he tried to meet up with women. He changed immediately, became coarse – it was obvious that he felt out of place. We once argued about it all, and I said: ‘I love you for the fact that you are gay. Because you’re only real that way.’”

Ruben stood out from other Armenian men – he was ruggedly handsome and had tattoos. He was beaten on the streets and once raped like Zara, but Narine won’t talk about it – it’s too painful. He left Armenia five years ago, made a career abroad and hasn’t returned home since. And naturally Narine fears that the same thing may happen with Zara.

“I call them my gilded youth,” says Narine. “They have a higher IQ than us. But I don’t think someone would become so gilded by choice. It’s a hard road, full of thorns. These children have traumatised souls. It wasn’t up to them.”

Narine’s house has become a refuge for Zara’s friends.

“I’ve had so many young people living in my house,” she tells me. “They’ve run away from home, their mothers and fathers beat them and treat them like dirt. I’m tired of them treating my house like a hotel, but I’m really sorry for these kids – they are defending themselves as best they can.”

At the instigation of Narine and other mothers, the PINK Armenia organisation, which has been engaged in defending LGBT+ rights for 12 years now, has started running counselling sessions for the parents of LGBT+ young people. You might still feel ashamed to tell a friend or relative that your son or daughter is gay – it’s much easier to open up to a stranger who’s in the same position.

Narine has broken all ties with her relatives. Or, to be exact, they broke off their ties with her when they realised that Zara wasn’t a typical Armenian girl who could be married off to the son of friends of friends and start a family straight away.

“Many gay men and lesbians get subjected to ‘cures’: they’re sent to psychiatric hospitals or taken to church, to be returned to a ‘normal’ life"

“Zara and I were on holiday in Spain and a transgender person got on the bus. No one batted an eyelid – and that’s how it should be: nobody should give a damn,” she says.

Not every family can accept that they have a gay child, says Ruzanna Aslikyan, a psychologist who works with the parents of LGBT+ children.

“Many gay men and lesbians get subjected to ‘cures’: they’re sent to psychiatric hospitals or taken to church, to be returned to a ‘normal’ life. Parents are driven by impeccable motives: they want their children to have a family. Some can be convinced that their sons and daughters aren’t ‘ill’. But they are still afraid of what people will say. They tell the neighbours that their son has gone off to university or work: they don’t want anyone to know that he left because there would be no life for him here.”

Ruzanna has been working with PINK Armenia for two years and has noticed some slight progress:

“Parents have begun to accept their children; there are fewer cases of young people being thrown out of the family home. And the subject is beginning to be discussed in public. But politicians aren’t speaking out yet – they’re afraid they’ll lose votes. But that can’t go on much longer.”

Ruzanna believes that you can beat homophobia if you talk about LGBT+ issues openly, including discussing it on TV.

“People have been indoctrinated to believe that being gay is a sin. The church has a lot to answer for in this respect: clerics keep saying that gays should be burned alive, but plenty of them are gay. Everyone knows who’s who in Armenia – it’s a small country.”

Coffee in Paris

In the year that he has been in power, Armenia’s post-revolutionary prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has raised the LGBT+ issue a number of times. Last November, for example, an LGBT+ forum organised by “LGBT+ Christians of Eastern Europe and Central Asia” was due to take place in Yerevan, but Armenian MPs decided that this event “would present a serious threat to the Armenian state and national interests” and passed the responsibility over to Pashinyan.

“I can say that for me personally the family and its Armenian model represent the highest values,” said Pashinyan at the time. “I have always said and will go on saying this. There is no doubt in my mind.”

But Pashinyan made it clear that in Armenia, as in every other country, there are “people with a non-traditional sexual orientation” – and that this is a headache for the government. As an example, he told the story of a young Armenian man whom he met during a diplomatic visit to France. The young man brought coffee to Pashinyan’s room and, in response to the Armenian premier’s questions about his life in France, told him that he had fled Armenia because of its homophobia.

“If you are a gay man in Armenia, you have no rights,” says Musho, the young man in question. “And if you are gay and HIV-positive, you aren’t even allowed into the country.” The young waiter’s contract forbids him from discussing interactions with the hotel’s visitors and he asked for his name to be changed: “If you want to have a family, you have to make sure no one finds you out.”

Musho has a good life in France now. In Paris, he still has friends among other Armenians who, like him, have fled the country. He has even helped some of them do it.

“One guy arrived from Armenia more dead than alive, and was whisked off to hospital straight away in an ambulance: he had HIV, but in Armenia he was being treated for TB and it nearly killed him. He’s happy now – he’s well, has a job. He survived.”

HIV is a taboo subject in Armenia, says Musho. He is proud that he grew up in an educated family and he remembers how his parents explained the death of Queen frontman Freddy Mercury to him. But despite this relative free thinking, Musho’s family still could not accept him.

Musho got married in Paris a few years ago. He phoned his parents in Armenia to tell them the news. His father said nothing and has never raised the subject, and his mother just said: “Please don’t tell our relatives. I don’t have the nerve to explain it to them.”

During his speech to parliament, Nikol Pashinyan said he wouldn’t reveal Musho’s home region “so as not to hurt the feelings of the local people”.

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