Friday, 13 March 2009

IWPR: Armenia Gays Face Long Walk to Freedom

Society remains as relentlessly homophobic here as elsewhere in the Caucasus, but activists say there some grounds for hope.

IWPR (Institute for War & Peace Reporting)

By Vahan Ishkhanian in Yerevan

The recent publication of Azeri writer Alekper Aliev’s gay novel Artush and Zaur, dealing with an Armenian-Azeri love affair, rocked the conservative and mainly Muslim society of Azerbaijan.

It broke a double taboo – love between Armenians and Azeris and same-sex love, at the same time.

But while the furor cast a harsh spotlight on homophobia in Azerbaijan, on the other side of the ethnic and religious divide, in Armenia, gays face just as much prejudice.

Hovhannes Minasian found this out to his cost. Now 27, he is one of a small minority of gay men in Armenia who do not fear to give out their real names in interviews.

He gained this freedom – involuntarily – after being sent to jail for his sexual orientation. After that, the whole of his former neighbourhood and his relatives learnt about it and there was nothing to hide.

His nightmare began in 1999, when police arrested him and accused him of sodomy. A man who had once had an affair with him apparently betrayed him, and four others, to the authorities.

Minasian, then 17, says he immediately admitted he had had a sexual relationship with a man. “I never thought it was a crime, so when they asked me if I did it, I confirmed it,” he said.

He says the police who arrested him beat him violently, demanding that he name other homosexuals, which he refused to do.

He was one of six persons charged for the then crime of sodomy under Article 116 of the Armenian penal code, receiving a relatively short jail sentence of three months as he was under age.

While in prison, Minasian says he came under constant pressure.
“The prisoners were as cruel to me as the jailors, I was like a toy for them, they used to bully me and throw me around the cell,” he said.

After his release, the lads living next door to him chased him around, throwing stones at him and screaming “gay” at his back.

That is not all. He says a policeman tried to blackmail him into confessing the names of wealthy homosexuals he knew about.

When he failed to extract this information, he told the manager of the bar where Hovhannes worked of his sexual orientation, and Hovhannes and his gay friend were fired.

Nine years since his conviction, the local boys have stopped chasing Hovhannes. They got used to him. He has a job. Still, he is going to leave the country, tired of the general climate of hostility.

In 1922, a few years after the Bolshevik revolution, homosexuality ceased to be a penal offence in the newly formed Soviet Union.

But it was reintroduced as a crime in 1933, and eventually removed from the penal code in 2003.

In spite of the official change in the letter of the law, discrimination and intolerance against Armenian gays remains widespread.

A year ago, Khachik, a 21-year-old student at university, was thrown out of his home when his parents found out about his sexual orientation.

Khachik says he realised he was different from the rest when he was 13 or 14 and accepted he was more interested in boys than girls.

“At that age, when you start to masturbate, I used to imagine guys,” he confessed. “I thought I was alone with all this but then I found people just like me on the Internet.”

He waited until he was 20 to have his first sexual encounter with a man whom he met on the Internet and introduced to his family as a friend.

Trouble erupted after Khachik’s mother discovered that their relationship was not entirely innocent.

“We were watching a film in my room and I didn’t know the door was open. Mother came and saw us kissing,” he recalled.

At first, she wept, but later, once his father was home, the two of them became far more aggressive.

“Dad got really angry and said, ‘Aren’t girls enough for you? You want to start dating guys? My son can’t do that!’

“Mother started screaming that it would be better if I died. It would be better not to have a son than to know he was gay.

“She even tried to hit me. I tried to hold her back, but dad began to help her. Then they told me I was no longer their son and that I had to leave the house. So I went away.”

Khachik has been living in lodgings ever since and has to work in two jobs to support his studies.

Two months after being thrown out, he was exempted from military service because of his “deviant” sexual orientation.

According to the Helsinki Rights Committee in Armenia, in 2004 an internal defence ministry code effectively bans homosexuals from serving in the armed forces.

“When I told the army psychologist I was a gay, he threw the pen on the table and exclaimed ‘Damn it!’” Khachik recalled.

He says another officer struck him with a folder, saying, “You are not a man! How can an Armenian claim he’s limp wristed?”

He was then dispatched to a medical institution for official diagnosis – which duly described him as possessing a “non-traditional sexual orientation”.

On the subject of the deferment of conscription for homosexuals, Colonel Seyram Shahsuvaryan, representing the defence ministry, sent a written response to IWPR.

In it, the colonel denied the existence of any unofficial ban on homosexuals serving in the army, “The law on compulsory military service in Armenia does not allow the exemption from military service of homosexuals.”

In Aliev’s controversial novel, Artush and Zaur, the two lovers eventually decide to take their own lives, jumping from Baku’s Maiden Tower, a symbol of doomed love in Azerbaijan.

Psychologist Davit Galstian says societal pressures in Armenia have driven some gays to take their own lives in a similar desperate fashion.

Within the past three years, he knows of at least ten homosexual men who threw themselves off the Kiev bridge in Yerevan, the capital’s biggest.

He cites several tragic cases that he has come across in his practice. A man’s life that was destroyed when his family discovered his orientation; a woman who rejected her own children and sent them to an orphanage after learning that their father, her husband, is gay; and a father who threw his 14-year-old gay son out of the house, who then turned to street prostitution.

“There is a real phobia against homosexuals in our society, people consider them beasts,” he said.

“My [gay] patients learn about me from each other and come here. They say at least I listen to them.”

Politicians do little to dispel the fog of ignorance and prejudice around the subject. Indeed, some make it worse.

One former member of parliament, Emma Khudabashian, even used to say that people should throw stones at homosexuals.

Armen Avetisian, head of Armenian Arian Union, an ultra-nationalist grouping, issued a bizarre attack on homosexuals – and on Europe – in July 2006, which was published in three newspapers.

“We should form a community for them, called Hamaserashen (literally, ‘Homosex-burg’),” he said.

“Of course, it should be located in Europe, as homosexuality is a part of the European values, so let them gather there.”

The church is another conservative factor. The Armenian Apostolic Church – like most traditional Christian churches in the world – views homosexuality as a grave sin.

Gay bashing is a popular pastime among Yerevan yobs. In the city’s Komaygi park, where homosexuals sometimes gather, groups often attack and beat them.

Galstian says homophobia is harmful to society, depriving it of potential talent.

“We lost a talented singer, a computer programmer and an excellent student who could have become a chemist,” he said, mulling past suicides. Others have simply left the country.

Yet, on December, 9, 2008, the Armenian government endorsed a United Nations statement outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

That only prompted a greater outcry from homophobic elements in Armenia, however.

“This is a global plan worked out by masonic structures to destroy the world,” Khachik Stambolcian, a well known figure said in one public discussion.

The right-wing Iskakan Iravunk newspaper accused the UN document of glorifying what it termed “human driftwood - those sodomites and lesbians”.

Hrair, a 26-year-old activist, says the government’s endorsement of the UN statement may not have helped gays much in Armenia in the short term.

“Before that, we just lived our lives and worked but then they made a fuss, and it became tense,” he noted.

Avetik Ishkhanyan, chair of the Helsinki Rights Committee of Armenia, and member of Independent Observers’ Group of Penitentiary departments, says homosexuals experience the worst troubles within closed spaces like prisons and barracks.

“In prison, they have a separate cell and it’s a taboo to shake their hands, take cigarettes from them or even touch their stuff,” he said.

“If a detainee uses homosexual’s plates, even by accident, the criminals consider him а ‘pervert’ too.

“They are given the most humiliating work to do, like cleaning toilets and drains.”

According to Ishkhanian, it is hard to defend homosexuals, as few are willing to publicly complain about their lack of status.

Arsen Babayan, of the justice ministry’s penitentiary service, denies gay detainees in prison are singled out for the most humiliating tasks. Every prisoner, he says, chooses his own type of work.

“The fact that gays live separately in penitentiary departments is due to their wish. It’s the same with Jehovah’s witnesses, who also live separate lives,” he said.

Meanwhile, Galstian says things may be starting to change – albeit slowly.

Since Armenia became a member of the Council of Europe in 2001, people generally have started to more actively defend their rights, and more and more homosexuals are open about their identity.

The NGO PINK, short for Public Information and Need for Knowledge, founded in 2007, openly advocates for gay rights, as well specialising in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

PINK member Hrair broke up with his Iranian boyfriend when the latter wanted to leave for Europe.

“He couldn’t live in Iran, as they hang homosexuals there, but he felt depressed here too, so he was trying to talk me into going to Europe, but I didn’t want to,” he said.

Though well aware of the climate of intolerance in Armenia, Hrair says he is not ready to abandon his homeland now things are starting to shift a little.

“When I was a child, I suffered, trying to understand myself and nobody was there to help me,” he recalled.

“But now we are a big team, and we are trying to help the weaker ones to stand up.

“This is very important to me. I would feel defeated if I went to live in a European country, hiding my head in the sand like an ostrich.”

Vahan Ishkhanian is a freelance journalist and correspondent for Armenianow.


shushan a. / queering yerevan said...

as usual the rhetoric in this article manifests the absence of women's experiences. it is not that women aren't facing violence and harassment in armenia, it is the fact that nobody talks about this issue, not even vahan who would much rather exoticize and sensationalize our experiences, thus making our experiences not real, not urgent and not serious compared to male experience. or what's more -- women's experiences are not considered worthy of discussion when the question comes to human rights. cultural and psychological violence against lesbians, bisexual and queer women, in addition to physical violence, has been a fact in the long struggle for human rights around the world, and it is a major issue in armenia as well. and censoring this part from the larger issue of problems that the homosexual population in armenia is faced with is, to me, an act of ignorance and unprofessionalism. but then again . . one must be objective to be a professional, and this is non-existent in armenian journalism.

artmika said...

Shushan jan, I may only assume that the focus of the article on gay men experiences was because it was triggered by Artush and Zaur (gay men) love story. In my opinion, this report by Vahan, from the point of view of gay men experiences, is pretty professional. We simply do not have much other examples of similar level reporting on gay issues in Armenian media. Therefore, I would commend Vahan on that.

However, I agree with you, it’s regrettable that gay women were not reflected there. I have suspicion that Vahan is now afraid of writing of gay women experiences after your critical feedback. I am not justifying this, just thinking of what could be the reasons...

And remember discussions surrounding the 'burial of Red Apple' action. Armenian macho society is probably more afraid of women rights issues than even gay rights per se.

Mamikon said...

hmmm, nice report but I don't like the name Hrair, why he choose it for me:)))
I am a bit tired to write something esle, go head guys, do it!!!

artmika said...

I knew that it was you, Mamikon, and I thought you asked him to call you "Hrair" in the report. How weird! :)

hr_g said...

The female speaker at the AGLA NY event about BRUTUAL HOMOPHOBIA IN ARMENIA mentioned, based on her anecdotal evidence, that lives for lesbians were easier than gay male lives (she said she didn't know any transgenders to give evidence on that topic). She said Armenian society doesn't feel threatened by female sexuality but very threatened by gay male sexuality--which was very much the case in North America years ago and to a lesser degree now.

Shushan, I would love to ask you if you think that is true.

shushan a. / queering yerevan said...

I don’t know Lala Aslikyan, Hrag. But what she and her NGO does is extremely important and urgent for the society in Armenia, both homophobes and homosexuals alike. When I was in high school in Yerevan and not out yet, we had a young woman in our school who was a butch lesbian (she never hid her sexuality) and was harassed daily to the point where boys would often beat her in front of the girls, torment her and called her names that were hurtful and extremely traumatizing. I think we would be falling into a bottomless pit if we were to start comparing and grading traumas and separating genders to show whose trauma is more important or worthy of our attention. There are young women out there in schools and universities who have no place to go to and nobody to talk to, which is why people like Lala Aslikyan need to go into schools and start from there. A nation can only become tolerant if we start educating people from young age. The generation of our parents cannot really change, or perhaps they can but it’s very difficult for them. Indeed, the Armenian society is very much threatened by both male and female homosexuality, as it is a threat to “our national security", as Karine Danielyan put it, it is a threat to procreation and the survival of a nation that is rapidly “dissolving” and losing its identity . . . My parents, unfortunately, agree with her. Many of our parents (siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents) think this way. And silencing queer women’s experiences is not helping the global issue of homophobia: by not acknowledging that young woman’s trauma we in fact condone homophobia. I see the task of NGOs in education -- not by organizing conference after conference, round table after round table, but by going into schools, colleges and universities and starting from there. We have heard enough of statistics and "heart-wrenching" stories in the papers that perpetually characterize us as these "tragic" heroes -- it is time for us to bring a real change.

Anonymous said...

I like Shushan's comments about working with the new generation to start teaching them understanding and acceptance.

We just need to educate the people and get them to understand that people are people and their sexuality is not a justification for hate.

One of the main issues in Armenia is not just the lack of understanding of homosexuality but sexuality in general. Sex is a taboo that has too much negativity. This mindset of men can have sex and women can’t makes no sense to me… if all the girls are not having sex who are all the guys doing… each other? [I wish]

Armenia needs a lot of help in dealing with RIGHTS issues the first thing is education followed by transparency. Things will only get better once people learn and understand why things are. With knowledge things will improve there. As long as issues like homosexuality and sexuality remain in the dark and are left as taboo issues that no one talks about then no one will start to understand it and bring it into the public eye. People are smart and understanding they just need to be given the right information. The tittle of the article is perfect because it is going to be a long hard road. Even in America with all of its “tolerance and understanding” there are still so many cases of homophobia and hatred. So I can only imagine how difficult it must be. We need to work together on this issue and no separate gays and lesbians. We deal with the same issues and need to fight for the same rights together we are stronger.


shushan a. / queering yerevan said...

finally, i would like to respond to artmika's remark that "we simply do not have much other examples of similar level reporting on gay issues in Armenian media. Therefore, I would commend Vahan on that."

don't you think that this means setting a very low standard? must we compromise? again? for how long? just because there are no good journalists in armenia doesn't mean that we have to settle. if we don't criticize and if we don't aspire for the best (what does "good" journalism really mean?) -- then i guess we deserve the mediocre . .

hr_g said...

Shushan, I feel your frustration but I do not think Armenia will ever have good reporting about LGBT issues until openly LGBT people are themselves reporters in Armenia.

Btw, thank you Shushan for sharing your story about high school in Yerevan. I think those of us in the diaspora are still trying to figure out what the situation in Armenia really is. We have so little information and every little bit helps us piece together the reality.

shushan a. / queering yerevan said...

you are welcome, hrag.

perhaps you are right -- we need people who are more knowledgeable about these issues and who are more empathic.

artmika said...

Shushan, I would never ever advocate for ‘not criticising’, and yes, we should aspire for the best. My point is, however, the following. Perhaps, I should have clarified this earlier.

First, I do not think that this particular article by Vahan is of “very low standard” or “mediocre”. Quite the contrary. While I would love to see reflections of gay women experiences (in fact, LGBT as a whole), and more positive examples there too, I think it’s quite professional and an example of good reporting. I actually encourage people to read it.

[off-topic FYI - I do not share Vahan Ishkhanyan’s political views, and consider his articles on political life in Armenia biased towards one party. However, I find interesting and encouraging his reports of investigative journalism nature, on minorities, and alternative sub-cultures.]

Now let me clarify my opinion of this particular article. Look, he did not write an abstract article but conducted a real life interviews with gay men, i.e. those whose this article reflects. As a gay man from Yerevan, I could relate to and recall experiences and stories provided there. He sought clarifications from some relevant government officials, and regardless of their responses per se, it’s a good sign. There are no judgemental remarks (so common in Armenian media) from the journalist’s (i.e. Vahan’s) side there. He interviewed a psychologist who actually deals with gay people, instead of pseudo ones, which are so many out there and in media. Also, despite the negativities described in the most parts of the report, the title and the ending of it are effectively positive and hopeful, and contain messages of rights and freedom. This is so important, and so rare, when it comes to gay related reporting in Armenian media.

We cannot afford scarring off those very few journalists in Armenia who actually do cover the issues. Instead, we should support and encourage them. We should provide constructive criticism, if necessary, pointing out positive and strong sides, and indicating missing ones and mistakes. We should engage with them, and educate them, using more positive and flexible language, rather than outright rejection when spotting mistakes.

This is how I see it, anyway.

shushan a. / queering yerevan said...

yes -- to constructive criticism.

John said...

This was really an excellent article, though I have to share shushan's critique of the lack of female voices in it. The topic of LGBT rights simply can not be detached from the wider discourse on gender equality and openness to sexuality in general.

The one point that struck me, however--and this was simply something "Hrair" said, not something necessarily that can be counted as a critique of the article--and that I wanted to bring up. It's the following piece:

"Hrair, a 26-year-old activist, says the government’s endorsement of the UN statement may not have helped gays much in Armenia in the short term.

“Before that, we just lived our lives and worked but then they made a fuss, and it became tense,” he noted."

Now, Mamikon, since that's apparently you I guess this comment is directed towards you somewhat, and I'd like to gauge your thoughts on it, or simple ask you to clarify if I've taken something out of context.

I'd argue that it's actually quite the opposite; that, in fact, it's public silence on the issue that is more harmful. Of course, yes this is a long term point instead of, as noted, the short term, but to me this is too close to what was happening in the Mattachine Society in the US back in the 1950s, where essentially the argument was to try to fit in as much as possible and not be vocal about sexuality. I would argue that until the LGBT community in Armenia begins making noise really publicly about its rights, and begins refusing to hide itself, that it will be holding itself back from acceptance in society. I think that things like the controversy over Artush and Zaur are, and should be, pushing the LGBT community out of its comfort zone.

Now, I have to of course admit that it may be hypocritical (or culturally imperialistic) of me to make this point, since my job as a volunteer from a different country leads me to live a closeted life in my own community here in Armenia. While I argue that the Armenian LGBT community should start to make noise and proclaim itself, I'm sitting in my own metaphorical closet because that's the only way I can work effectively in my community. I think my circumstances make it different for me, since if I were going to live in Armenia forever or were Armenian I would like to think that I'd be out and open, regardless of the consequences--but then that's fairly convenient on my part.

Anyway, I'd like to get your thoughts on that.

Mamikon said...

You know waht I mean, people are more aggresive now, media is making horrible articles washing Armenian society's brain, people are more homophobic. And you know that Armenian government likes to sign different papers which don't have any vcalue. When Foreign ministry sign the UN document it was just one od those simle papers for them to be closer to EU priorities.

Also Vahan wanted to write about women homosexuals though he couldn't manage, at first WFCE denied him telling that they are not an LGBT related organization or something like that. And our girls were not in Yerevan those days

artmika said...

ArmeniaNow reposted this IWPR article on its 3 April issue here

artmika said...

Armenian 'Independent' (Ankakh) re-published its editor's IWPR article on gay Armenians