A wave of homophobia in Armenia is playing on pro-Russian and pro-European sympathies. Gender has become geopolitical, and the LGBT community is fearful.
On 15 February, a group of unknown men beat up and harassed five LGBT activists in the centre of the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The following day, one of the activists, a transgender person, was mocked by hospital personnel when he attempted to seek medical aid.
The incident prompted a fresh round of public discussions on LGBT rights and “traditional values” in Armenia — on social networks and in the media. Six weeks later, the outbreak of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh on 2 April strengthened the proliferating nationalist discourses in Armenia, generating a new dramatic gender backlash.
In some cases, LGBT people are even called “Turks”
Hostile attitudes towards LGBT people in Armenia have become caught in a tug of war between pro-European and pro-Russian constituencies. To the dismay of Armenia’s LGBT community, gender and gay rights have become geopolitical.
The cold shoulder
“People are aggressive,” begins Armen, a young gay man I spoke to. “We are denied housing, communication with our families or friends, and are subject to physical and psychological violence.”
Armen’s experience isn’t unusual for LGBT people. Armenian society is aggressive towards anything outside the culturally accepted binary of gender and sexual behaviour. Inside Armenia’s conscript armed forces, homosexuality is treated as an illness or pathology.
Indeed, militarised patriotism is polarising an already taught gender binary even more, with hegemonic heroic masculinities on one side and supportive femininities on the other. Women are now called to deliver boys — national heroes and fearless soldiers to ensure state security.
“Perverts” or “deviants” are just two terms of abuse that people can face. In some cases, LGBT people are even called “Turks”. (The hatred must run deep: Turkey is still seen as an enemy as a result of the 1915 genocide.) Today, as Armenia experiences constant depopulation of rural areas — a threat to population growth — Armenia’s LGBT people are seen as an existential threat to the nation, agents of enemies past and present.
Some are not above publicly humiliating their fellow citizens. In February, a homosexual man, Edgar, appeared on Kisabats Lusamutner [Arm: “Half-opened windows”] a popular TV show, to share his experience of discrimination in the labour market.
Over 90% of Armenians want homosexuality to be restricted by law. A third believe it’s the result of a “wrong upbringing”
Edgar was jeered. Psychologist Mariam Mehrabyan even attempted to “heal” him live on air. But Edgar’s humiliation didn’t end there. Lawyer Garik Galikyan openly threatened to prosecute and torture all homosexuals in Armenia. “I will smash them and trample on them” declared Galikyan, adding “and yes, they must be burnt.”
“Artificially imported western perversions”
I spoke to Nvard Margaryan, president of PINK Armenia, an NGO advocating for LGBT rights, about these hostile attitudes. Margaryan quotes forthcoming research showing that over 90% of Armenians want homosexuality to be restricted by law. Around a third of respondents believe that homosexuality is the result of a child’s “wrong” upbringing.
Founded in 2007, PINK Armenia promotes public awareness of LGBT rights — its mission is to create a safe space for LGBT people in Armenia by promoting legal, psychological and social protection. But NGOs like PINK Armenia are in a delicate situation.
PINK and associated LGBT activists and allies have experienced hate crimes and security threats because of their work. The most chilling case came two days after heated parliamentary elections in May 2012, a group of young neo-nationalists firebombed DIY, a gay-friendly pub in Yerevan.
More worryingly, the bombing and its aftermath put an end to the desire of opposition groups to mobilise around the alleged election frauds in 2012. Suddenly, both the media and the public were fixated on either “justifying” or “condemning” this hate crime. Public discussion about the credibility of the election results became marginal in relation to disputes around the private life of the pub’s owner, the punk rocker Tsomak.
Pro-natalism is central to any nationalist worldview, so bringing more Armenians into the world is a patriotic duty
The attack appeared to be a rehearsal for a new wave of hate speech. That May, the Armenian parliament had adopted a new law on gender equality as a result of its commitments before the EU. It was drafted to ensure equal participation of both sexes in social, economic and political life. Nevertheless, some presented it as a triumph for the legalisation of same sex relationships and even paedophilia.
Two months later, “gender hysteria” had taken over, shaking Armenia’s LGBT community and paralysing the operation of women’s rights organisations for a relatively long time. The main dispute focused on the definition of “gender” in the law. By October, defenders of “traditional values” were positioning themselves more aggressively against LGBT rights, calling them “artificially imported western perversions”. Western donor organisations and Armenian NGOs came under attack.
Newly-formed groups such as the Pan-Armenian Parents’ Committee and “Stop Gender in Armenia” initiative began to misrepresent the concept of gender, associating it with propagandising sex change, pedophilia, incest and bestiality. The word “gender” itself became an adjective, an insult to humiliate LGBT people or their allies. A number of derivatives such as “genderast”, “genderner” or “genderik” even entered into everyday language.
Certain experts explained away this “gender backlash”, referring to the public’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the term, as well as the state’s incapacity to properly inform citizens of the necessity of the gender equality law.
While homophobia is nothing new to Armenian society, the timing of this “gender hysteria” was peculiar, possibly implying a broader political strategy.
A Eurasian family
Armenia’s gender equality law was adopted on 20 May 2013. However, while the media did publicise its adoption, and the law was accessible at large, there was no immediate large-scale public opposition. That came later, against the backdrop of a tricky political choice for Yerevan. In August 2013, the Armenian government was caught between signing an association agreement with the EU, or joining the Russian-led Customs (now Eurasian Economic) Union.
“Pro-family” groups insisted that were Armenia to join the Russian-led Customs Union, the country would save itself from western perversions such as “gender”
“Pro-family” groups insisted that were the country to join the Customs Union, Armenia would save itself from western perversions and the dangerous “gender ideology”. In September 2013, president Serzh Sargsyan returned from Moscow, and announced that Armenia would join the Customs Union despite several months of negotiation with Brussels. Unsurprisingly, few people complained — the strategy had worked.
Key among these was the Pan-Armenian Parents Committee, which claims to fight for “family values”. “It’s a parents’ committee that doesn’t seem to do anything besides putting out anti-gender propaganda,” notes Armen, when I ask him about the organisation.
A similar “parents’ committee” was also formed in Ukraine (founded in 2012) at roughly the same time when the European Union was negotiating with Kyiv over the Association Agreement.
Nevertheless, the Pan-Armenian Parents Committee has denied any political affiliation. Arman Boshyan, chairman of the organisation, has emphasised several times during interviews to Armenian media that he does not lead an anti-European struggle, but instead tries to save “national values”.
Yet Boshyan has a political past. A former software developer at Dom-Daniel, a company with neither a history nor current activities, Boshyan is the author of several political articles under the pen name Alexander Gayents. Boshyan also leads the Yerevan Geopolitical Club, “an organisation for free-thinking people who love their homeland and family and who care about Armenia and its fraternal nations.” The club, which is a Russian-language platform, produces analytical articles on geopolitics with a bold criticism of European values and western democracy.
This warrior for Armenian family values now interprets Armenian-Russian relations with a clear focus on denouncing the EU and praising Russia. “In the world today, there is a clash between two geopolitical poles, one is the west and the other is the Russian Federation with its allies in the Eurasian Economic Union (the new name for the Customs Union). Today, only this eastern bloc has in this or that way presented a challenge to the values of dehumanisation.”
The price of “gender hysteria”
LGBT organisations have paid the price for this “gender hysteria”. In May 2014, an article entitled “they serve the interests of international homosexual lobbying” appeared on the website of Iravunk (Arm: “Rights”), a newspaper owned by an MP from Armenia’s ruling Republican Party faction. Iravunk is well-known for its severe criticism of European policy and the human rights movements in Armenia.
This article included a blacklist, including links to the Facebook profiles of 60 individuals who “supported the LGBT cause” in Armenia. The author called on his readers to stop communicating with these “lobbyists”, state officials to stop hiring them for public service jobs, and if they already did work in the public sector, to fire them under any convenient pretext.
Usage of the term “gender” is unofficially banned by the state
A Yerevan district court later rejected the claims of 16 activists who reported the publication for hate crime. Meanwhile, Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan even attended the event dedicated to newspaper’s 25th anniversary and awarded Hayk Babukhanyan, the board chair at Iravunk Media, a medal for his “great personal contribution to the newspaper’s success”.
The Iravunk article reflected a broader attitude. “LGBT organisations are now perceived as foreign agents disseminating western propaganda,” Margaryan told me.
Biology is destiny
The word “gender” in Armenia has now been replaced by the word “sex” in all official documents. While Armenian delegates continue to use the word in international conferences, it is a taboo at home. Indeed, the usage of the term “gender” is unofficially banned by the state.
Armenia’s humble progress in women’s rights has been forced back into the “biology is destiny” concept, which defines, confines and reduces women to their physical sexual characteristics. Thus, calls to protect “traditional morality” maintain hierarchical and unequal gender roles, restricting women’s reproductive rights in the name of population growth. Pro-natalism is central to any nationalist worldview, so bringing more Armenians into the world is a patriotic duty.
On 6 December 2015, Armenia held a referendum on constitutional changes. During the pre-referendum campaigns, groups supporting the changes announced that the new Constitution would define marriage as a unity between a man and a woman.
They argued that the current Constitution did not have such a clause, thereby allowing same-sex marriages. The newly amended Article 34 now reads, “men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry with each other”. Hence, the new Constitution now prevents any form of legal recognition of same-sex couples.
LGBT issues are low-hanging fruit for Armenia’s politicians
While debates over same-sex marriage dragged on, the LGBT community and its allies continued to fear for their safety. One of the 60 blacklisted people is a doctor who, after the publication by Iravunk, is now unable to find a job. Another is a citizen of Iran, where homosexuality is a criminal offense. His name and profile were circulated online: if he ever returns to Iran, he will be subject to imprisonment or execution.
Armen mentions that the Pan-Armenian Parents’ Committee shared videos identifying these people, who suffered personally and professionally. “Some had no option but to leave Armenia,” he added.
A crowd pleaser
Hatred and discrimination against LGBT people is clearly not a foreign import to Armenia. However, the country’s “gender hysteria” cannot be understood without a look at its broader political (and geopolitical) situation.
Armenian organisations such as Boshyan’s may be using the geopolitical situation to advance their own agenda. For its part, Moscow may be playing on such social conservatism to discourage Armenians from a European path. Whoever is using whom, the result is much the same — gender is now geopolitical, and Armenia’s LGBT people have lost out.
An emotive and sensitive topic, LGBT issues are low-hanging fruit for Armenia’s politicians. It is easy to unite people around nationalist claims — even more against a supposed “perversion”. Gender expression and sexuality are becoming more policed and regulated, significantly exacerbating the existing climate of fear experienced by Armenia’s LGBT community, which is now a threat not only to public morality, but also national security.
Nvard Margaryan sees this as a process of divide and rule, in which people fight against their fellow citizens rather than corrupt politicians. She adds that people are governed by fears. Through a political campaign of fear, “gender is coming to get your children and give them to homosexuals” became one of many motives for Armenians turn their backs on the EU.
While it is still not certain how exactly the Eurasian Union will affect LGBT rights in Armenia, human rights defenders and LGBT people expect a number of threats.
“We expect that Armenia will start to follow Russia’s example,” says Armen. “We expect temptations to pass similar legislative measures. We live in constant fear of the unknown.”