It was sad to announce the closure of AGLA France a month ago, but it's pretty symbolic that with this interview, there will be an announcement of the re-launch of the website of another prominent Armenian LGBT organisation – Armenian Gay & Lesbian Association of New York (AGLA NY), with exciting and broad agenda.
Today Unzipped: Gay Armenia is speaking to Christopher Atamian, President of AGLA NY, to discuss the changes in the organisation, gay rights and life in Armenia and Diaspora, and a groundbreaking conference on LGBT rights in the Caucasus, which is being organised by AGLA NY. He has been President of AGLA NY for a little over one year (15 months) now.
Before going to the questions, I asked Christopher Atamian to introduce himself, provide with a brief biography. I am glad that Chris agreed. It amazes me how many talented people we have in our community and how little we know about them (if know at all).
I was born in New York City. I attended Harvard University, USC Film School and Columbia Business School. I am a former Fulbright, Gulbenkian and Bronfman Scholar. After working ten years in corporate media, where I was last CMO of BKL Media, I started True Faux Productions two years ago: we produced Trouble in Paradise which won a 2007 Obie (!) and are planning to move it to Off-Broadway and eventually Broadway. I have made three short films that have screened from LA to Armenia and I write for leading publications including The New York Times (This past weekend I had a feature in Arts and Leisure) and The New York Press where I was the Dance Critic for two years. I was recently included in “Forgotten Bread: First Generation Armenian American Authors” and translated Nigoghos Sarafian’s “Vinceni Andaruh” from Western Armenian into English. I have just completed a first novel and I am working on a book called “Deconstructing Ararat: Aesthetization, Diaspora and Identity in Armenian Film” I also started Nor Alik, a leading cultural organization which produces Making an Armenian Difference, a Film, Performance and Lecture series. I am single and live in NYC.
Christopher Atamian: "We need to tell bigots and people who would pretend we don't exist that it’s not all right to ignore us. "
Artmika: This Thursday (15 November) sees the launch of AGLA NY new website. However, my take is that it is not just a revamp of the website, say, making it more functional or changing colours/design, but rather a re-launch of the Association per se with a broader agenda.
Christopher Atamian: That is partly true. We’re lucky to have had five past presidents who kept the flame alive, so to speak. But up until now, we’ve remained mainly a social organization. And although that is one very important function for a gay and lesbian association, it seemed to me that we could do a lot more. So in a short period for time with the help of a committed group of core members, we’ve started a Coming Out Committee; an enhanced web site; a newsletter and all sorts of fun, interesting, upcoming events. I’m most proud of the Conference that we are organizing in 2008 on LGBT Rights in the Caucasus, which will be the first of its kind in the world.
A: AGLA NY has recently changed its status to "non-profit". Could you tell a bit more about it and what would it mean to your members and broader LGBT Armenian community?
C: It simply means that we will be able to raise money and that the moneys raised will be tax-deductible. Hopefully that means that we will be able to build a healthy endowment for the organization and increase the breadth and depth of our programs.
A: Who can become a member of AGLA NY? I noticed you have two membership levels – "friends of AGLA NY" which is free, and "AGLA NY member" for a small fee. What is the difference between these two levels of membership?
C: Like any organization, there are costs for events, meeting spaces, websites and other activities. We wish that weren't the case but it’s a reality for any non-profit organization. As a result, we request that members pay a membership dues to join. But we also recognize that not everyone can afford that nominal fee, so we also offer another level of association with our group. However, only dues paying members may join the executive or vote.
A: What about plans for scholarships for deserving Armenian students which you announced on your website? Who will be eligible for it?
C: We are taking our cue from GALAS LA, though this is something that I have wanted to do from the beginning. We may or may not name the scholarships after one or more gay and lesbian Armenians who have unfortunately passed away. As of now, the plan is just to eventually establish these scholarships. We have to first raise the money and then endow the scholarships. That being said, anyone reading this interview who would like to endow a scholarship should feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
We assume that any member of our community - gay or otherwise - will be able to apply. I am a firm believer in education and can’t stress how important I think it is for Armenians to increase their presence in our nation’s leading educational establishments.
A: For the fifth year now you participated in Gay Pride parade in NY this summer, and you plan to have your own float next year, for the first time. How important is it for you to participate in Pride events in NY? Could you picture similar event in Yerevan, say, in a year, 10 years…?
C: It’s very important. Our presence, no matter how small, sends a message to the general public and to the Armenian community as well. This year we plan to have a float and over 25 people participate. It ‘s going to be quite fabulous.
Yerevan has a long way to go. There are so many problems in Armenia, from poverty to lack of democracy to a looming renewal of conflict with Azerbaijan. But people continue to live and gay people deserve to live open, free lives as well. In this respect - and in others - the Armenian government says one thing and does another.
Like its neighbor the Republic of Turkey - I'm sad to say - it pays lip service to Council of Europe/EU laws, in this case civil rights legislation which guarantees LGBT people equal rights under the constitution. In reality gay people are persecuted there, although a small somewhat "out" group exists. I can’t say that much progress has been made, though to be honest I have not been back to Armenia in 3 years. But reports are not overly positive. We in the Diaspora can put some pressure - not much perhaps - on the government there to respect the laws they are sworn to uphold. And as a persecuted people, it behooves us as Armenians to be models of tolerance.
A: For me, the most important project AGLA NY put forward for the coming year is organization of a conference on LGBT rights in Caucasus. If successful, it would be one of the most significant events for gay rights movement in Armenia and the region. Could you provide more details? Also, is there any date set up for the conference?
C: Yes, we hope it will be a groundbreaking event. We plan to have sponsors and to hold it in a University setting. The Conference will be guided by a committee that is yet to be decided and will include an array of members from the New York-area Armenian and non-Armenian communities. That’s all I can say for now. Details to follow.
[from AGLA NY website (as of 14 November 2007): "AGLA NY is organizing the first-ever conference on LGBT rights. This is a crucial event and a first in the history of Armenia and the surrounding region. As you can imagine, given the persecution that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people face in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Abkhazia, this conference is of vital importance. We will be partnering with leading national and international organizations and bringing as much visibility as possible world-wide to issues of discrimination and human rights in the region. The conference will also draft an open letter to the Presidents of all four republics demanding that they apply EU laws regarding LGBT rights that they already have on the books, and publishing conference findings in the local and Armenian press. We need people to help organize the event, do PR for it and to (wo)man the event. It's a great learning opportunity as well, and as we are now a non-profit organization, we will offer college internship or community credit for our younger volunteers!"]
A: Maybe I am wrong, but my impression is that until now the main focus of AGLA NY was on local issues with LGBT Armenians. However, now you are shifting your attention to broader Armenian and outer community issues. What is behind this shift?
C: Again, up until now, AGLA NY was mainly a social organization and I think that this disappointed certain people. So we are doing all sorts of things now and enlarging both our social events (we’re holding a bang-up fundraiser in 2008) and other events, like the conference. Last year, under my impetus, we also participated with the Armenian Network, the ASA and the AGBU YP’s in the annual Armenian Thanksgiving Dance and donated over $1,000 raised to Fund for Armenian Relief’s efforts to help Armenians who suffered during the Israeli bombings of Lebanon. And why shouldn’t we? We are both Armenian after all and gay, so we should be active in both those aspects of our identities.
A: What was your reaction to the closure of AGLA France announced in this blog a month ago?
C: It’s very sad, but I am not surprised. Our communities are small, so keeping organizations alive is a Herculean task at times. (Also, we have to learn to be more politically active: we can be more active in every respect than we currently are, both in terms of the number of people who participate in Armenian cultural and fundraising activities and in terms of the amount of money we donate to support our organizations.) But I can’t speak specifically to Micha’s particular situation in France. I hope that AGLA France will re-open if possible.
A: I'd like to ask you the same question I asked Micha Meroujean of AGLA France. What are the most urgent and practical steps need to be done to develop gay rights movement in Armenia and Diaspora?
C: To speak out! To be present and in everyone’s faces. We’ve been taught to hide and that is wrong. We need to tell bigots and people who would pretend we don't exist that it’s not all right to ignore us. We have a right to be present, and to be married and to have families if we so choose. And if you look at Armenian cultural production, our people owe a great debt to LGBT people, from Tekeyan and Paradjanov on down to the current generation of writers and artists. In the recent book "Forgotten Bread: First Generation Armenian American Writers," for example, there were three contributors out of 15 who are members of our small AGLA NY Group. That's an amazing statistic, if you think about it.
A: NY is one of the most liberal cities in the world in terms of equality and visibility for gay people. I suppose, for gay Armenians in New York the main problem will come from their 'Armenian' part, rather than New Yorker. How easy is it to be gay Armenian in NY?
C: You know being gay is difficult, period. Everything from marriage laws, to health insurance issues, to the passing on of wealth is made difficult for us. Meeting people is more difficult. Gay people still are discriminated against and my generation - people roughly 35 to 45 - were taught that there was something wrong with them, that being gay was bad, so that there is a high rate of depression, addiction and self-hatred in our communities which makes things very difficult. I think younger people in their 20s have it slightly easier now. But I still think it’s not a cake walk. Look at Matthew Shepard. And you can still get attacked in NYC or called a faggot in the street: not pleasant things.
A: And back to the re-launch. On 15th November you will honor the contribution of past presidents of the Association. How many presidents has AGLA NY had, and are they still connected with the organization? What would be your message to them
C: My message to them is simple: thank you. There are 5 past presidents and myself and I think at least 4 will be present on November 15th, at last count. And yes, three of them still come to meetings on a regular basis. They and other members of the group have become like family to me.
A: Many thanks, Chris! And congratulations to you and to all of us for this new exciting agenda of AGLA NY.