Friday 15 August 2014

Opinion: “The reality of gay Armenians and our collective shame”

I have to say, I am pleasantly surprised with the Armenian Chronicles. While it’s their recent LGBT related postings that primarily grabbed my attention, I quickly glanced other pieces too and some contained refreshingly challenging points of view.

Back to the LGBT related postings, the latest piece by Kyle Khandikian follows nicely previously posted by Shant Jaltorossian My Life As a Gay Armenian [x-post on Unzipped: Gay Armenia Armenian Chronicles: "If you are an LGBT Armenian, speak up”], and more specifically explores the very familiar to every Armenian issue of “shame”, or “ամոթ”, and how it affects and fuels a “larger system of oppression” in Armenian communities both in Armenia and Diaspora.
Selected extracts via the Armenian Chronicles below:

[…] The existence of gay men and women in our community has yet to be fully acknowledged and is a reality that many of us still approach with hostility. Why have we yet to come to terms with this reality? The answer is a difficult one, but one that I believe is closely related to our shared value of shame. 

I’ll never forget the words uttered with remarkable incredulity by one of my peers in high school as I sat on the floor in between the shelves of our school’s bookshop one afternoon. I overheard the tail end of the conversation, but it was all I needed to hear. “Gay Armenians? I’ll kill them.”

Violence is something not uncommon for those who identify as LGBTQ, but as the arc of morality bends toward justice for many in America, there are pockets of communities where to be openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer still means to live in constant fear for your life. The Armenian-American community is one such place where the closet door could not be shut tighter or locked up better. In the Republic of Armenia, the situation for LGBTQ people and other minority groups is deplorable to say the least, as noted in an Amnesty International report released last year entitled, “Armenia: No Space For Difference.” But what is striking to me is how a culture of shame still engrosses even the youngest and brightest minds of our communities here in America, and for those who must experience and live with that shame, how it is internalized.

The extent at which homosexuality and socio-cultural deviance is vehemently combated in our communities is exemplified by another personal experience. I had the pleasure of serving as the student body president of my private, Armenian Apostolic high school during my senior year. Every year the student council organizes a spring formal, and as per school policy, students are welcome to brings guests from other schools if they provide a signed note from the other school. When a male student brought back a note for his male cousin who attended another Armenian school and had many mutual friends at our school, homophobia reared its ugly, aggressive head. I was told repeatedly by an administrator that those things were “not natural” and that even though the students were cousins and not romantic partners, the rule was clear: boys do not bring boys to a school dance. This is the same school where “Yes On 8” flyers were distributed in 2008 in support of the California ballot proposition that successfully outlawed marriage equality in the state for five years, and where paper topics on the gay marriage debate were rejected in English language class because, to paraphrase a teacher, “it would anger the church.” There is something to be said about a community that chooses a clear side in a debate it has no interest in participating in. On most things LGBTQ, this community is largely silent.

There is a very false myth surrounding Armenian identity. It is the myth that we, regardless of religious creeds, national identities, political leanings, spoken languages, etc., are all Armenians. The truth, however, is that to deviate from the mainstream in this community means to be shunned and persecuted for not living up to fabricated norms and expectations. Identifying as LGBTQ is one such deviation, arguably the most abhorred by our fiercely patriarchal and heteronormative culture. Armenians are a diverse people, and that diversity does not suddenly end when it comes to sexuality or gender. There is an undeniable taboo surrounding homosexuality, and that taboo is just one part of a larger system of oppression that is fueled, in my opinion, by shame. […]

It pains me to say it, but we are an intolerant people. It is ironic too considering that intolerance has taken its most evil form against us: genocide. Our intolerance for things that are different or unfamiliar, I think, is closely related to the perceived shame it brings to the family and community. Emotion researchers have distinguished shame from other similar emotions like guilt by noting its external orientation; shame typically involves being negatively assessed by others and is most often felt in the presence of others, an important point for gay and lesbian Armenians which I will touch on later. […]

Ask yourself this simple question: how many gay Armenians do you know? The answer for almost all of us should be nearly none, because shame has left no space for them to exist openly. If we recall that shame is an emotion experienced in the presence of others, meaning that those of us who are prone to shame feel it most when we are with the communal group, and that in our culture shame is associated both denotatively and connotatively with words like “dirt,” where else do LGBTQ Armenians have to go but far away from the community? Perhaps I am pessimistic when it comes to this subject; of course there are openly gay Armenians, but none that we hear of. They are not a part of our community or our nation, because our community and nation has singled them out and excluded them as an Other, as gyot-s (faggots). There are no openly gay Armenians in our institutions or in our schools, none that are creating a culture that is welcoming and safe, who are fighting for our youth and shouting the good news from the tops of the iron ladder of hopes: that it is not shameful to be gay and that it will get better and that you can be Armenian and gay at the same time and that those two identities are not antagonistic even though everyone around you is telling you that they are…

I most certainly recognize the unique position diasporan communities hold as culture bearers around the world, especially having attended a school whose purpose was the preservation of the Armenian language and culture. But at what costs will we cling to certain aspects of our culture that no longer serve us, aspect of our culture that curse and destroy us? As diasporans we have the luxury of being able to move in and out of our community. We should not have to, but the option exists. But let it be a sobering reminder for those who continue to force some of us out that for our brothers and sisters living in Armenia and other countries where the closet doors remain firmly shut, that option does not exist. They must live in constant fear for their lives. That is truly shameful. 

I was in Turkey three years ago where I attended Istanbul Pride. To see a gay pride parade in a country that has struggled for almost all of its existence to strike a balance between Western modernity and religious tradition was remarkable in itself, but something else caught my attention, something that was so surprising that I struggled at first to make sense of it. Among the sea of pro-gay signs held by marchers were ones in Armenian! One of the signs was simple and clear: hos enk varjuhvetsek («Հոս ենք վարժուեցէք»), meaning “We are here, get used to it.” It is happening in even the most unlikely places. It is time we let go of our shame.