Published: Saturday June 20, 2009
Yerevan - Last year 21-year-old Khachik, a university student from Yerevan, was thrown out of his home when his parents found out he has a "nontraditional" sexual orientation. Khachik told the Institute on War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) earlier this year that his parents said he was no longer their son and that he had to leave the house.
Khachik is far from being the only one in Armenia to face such an attitude, even from close relatives and friends. The same IWPR article quotes psychologist Davit Galstyan, who, throughout his career, has come across cases such as a mother rejecting her own children and sending them to an orphanage after learning that their father, her husband, is gay; or a father throwing out of the house his 14-year-old gay son, who then turned to street prostitution.
On a social level, homophobia seems to be deeply ingrained in the Armenian psyche.
At least some representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Church have taken the view that homosexuality is a grave sin. In an online program "My Priest," where the Araratian Patriarchal Diocese provided answers to about a thousand questions regarding the stance of the Church on various issues, Deacon Tigran Baghumian wrote, "homosexuality is a spiritual vice and sin" and, since such relations are "unnatural," they should be condemned. He cited various chapters from the Bible to support his view.
Interviewed in 2003 by GayArmenia.com, chairperson of the Armenian Helsinki Association Mikael Danielyan said, "Our society is either illiterate and believes that homosexuality is a disease to be treated, or people simply do not wish to accept something which is different from their traditional understanding of morality and family."
Predictably, fringe groups like the "Armenian Aryan Order" have proposed sending gay Armenians to Europe, "as homosexuality is a part of the European values." But the attitude is not limited to the right wing.
A prominent environmental activist, Karine Danielyan, has described homosexuality as a national security problem, citing demographic decline in Armenia.
In 1922, homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offense in the newly formed Soviet Union. However, as Soviet mores grew socially conservative, it was later reintroduced into penal codes. Article 116 of the Armenian Penal Code (1961) said: "Sexual intercourse of a man with another man (sodomy) is punishable by confinement for up to five years."
The article was repealed in 2003, after the Council of Europe set decriminalization of homosexuality in Armenia as one of the requirements for joining the organization. What is more, in December 2008, the Armenian government endorsed a UN statement against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That move caused a public outcry from some parts of the society.
The UN statement is just a declaration, however, and does not have the power of other legally binding documents.
A report, Forced Out: LGBT People in Armenia, released in February 2009 by the ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Inter-sex Association) Europe chapter and the Centre for Culture and Leisure (COC), states that the protection of human rights in Armenia is very limited in practice. The report notes that "failure to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of the LGBT people pervades all levels of society," be it the government, the community, or the family.
What is more, harassment and abuse by law-enforcement agents, along with institutional discrimination, still persist. Mr. Danielyan of the Armenian Helsinki Association, who has dealt with LGBT issues, has reported frequent cases of attempted extortion and blackmail by the police. In an IWPR article published in 2004, he said that the police have often taken advantage of gay men who would prefer to pay bribes rather than let the officers inform their families and employers about their sexual orientation. Furthermore, gay people can be arbitrarily detained, which is usually accompanied by verbal and physical abuse.
There have also been many reported cases of discrimination and abuse in the armed forces. Since homosexuality is regarded as an illness or pathology, most gays are barred from serving in the military. Those who are drafted, Mr. Danielyan says, can be later "diagnosed" with homosexuality, and sent to mental institutions for "special treatment."
If they get to perform their service, gay conscripts face humiliation, harassment, and violence.
Most gay Armenians live in fear and few dare to come out and stand up for their rights.
Problem with the media?
There is very little publicity for gay people in Armenia. Although the ILGA-Europe/COC report suggests that to date there are no publications, radio, or TV programs about the LGBT issues in Armenia, as well as no visible movement or community activities, there has been a lot going on over the Internet. Many social networking sites and blogs (GayArmenia.com; Unzipped: Gay Armenia Blogspot; Yesoudo.com) have become LGBT venues for making new acquaintances, participating in discussions, sharing news and information, and providing mutual support. Overall, since decriminalization, the situation seems to have improved at least for some of Armenian gays.
Micha Meroujean is the founder and president of the former Armenian Gay and Lesbian Association (AGLA) in Paris. He is originally from Armenia. He said in an interview with this author that despite several attempts at creating an openly LGBT organization since 2003, PINK Armenia (Public Information and Need for Knowledge) NGO is the closest so far. Although PINK primarily focuses on HIV/AIDS-related issues, it also promotes equality for LGBT people in Armenia. "You may say that the organization is there, but it is still very fragile," he added.
When these issues are addressed by the media, they are often treated with mockery and ridicule. What is more, references to gays often occur in news related to crime, HIV/AIDS, drug addiction, or commercial sex.
Aravot daily is one of the most popular and also one of the more independent newspapers in Armenia. In one place, it resorts to stereotyping: "As a rule, homosexuals work as hair-dressers, actors, singers, reporters, and models." In another, in writes: "Apparently, homosexuality is already regarded as normal even in Armenia; so normal, that we have even endorsed a UN statement against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."
Representing sexual minorities in a fair, accurate, and balanced way would not only help to promote the rights of these groups, but could also promote the awareness necessary for breaking that vicious circle of victimization.
Mr. Meroujean said, "Armenian society needs to see, listen to, and discuss [the people it has considered] outcasts. When there is no public debate or contradictory information, the old clichés and prejudices persist and continue dominating public opinion."
Laws, by themselves, cannot change the situation, unless there is a proper climate to help progress. LGBT Armenians need changes beyond simple legislative reforms: the process of change is related to many cultural and educational factors, Mr. Meroujean said. He suggested, for example, that the government should introduce special awareness programs for university students and schoolchildren. "This needs to be done now. And the changes will come later," he added.
Other means can include more LGBT visibility, both, in terms of activism and public involvement; greater media coverage; public awareness campaigns; and, most certainly, lobbying the political and cultural leaders within Armenia.
Dziunik Aghajanyan, Head of the Department for International Organizations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview, "We need to advance the human rights protection with an emphasis on respect and tolerance toward another human being, irrespective of political or any other orientation that he or she might have."
Society should overcome its own stereotypes, and should try getting over the idea of accepting "European-imposed" human rights. After all, Europe is where Armenia is striving to get one day, isn't it?
*Thanks to O.K. for the link.