Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenian Gays get Organised

A self-help group is a tentative step towards getting society to recognize homosexuals.
By Zhanna Alexanian

Eight gay men and a transsexual met in a Yerevan café recently to discuss plans to form what will be Armenia's first gay and lesbian rights organisation and start to lift the taboo on homosexuality in the country.

None of them were from the capital. Although invited, Yerevan homosexuals declined to attend the first meeting. Those who did show up were from four other Armenian cities: Gyumri, Idjevan, Goris, and Echmiadzin.

The gathering was prompted by an announcement posted on the website of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Armenians of France, calling on the gay community in the home country to get together and discuss how to best protect their rights.

"We formed a group we called the Self-Help Group, Grigor Simonian, a 23-year-old gay man from Gyumri, told IWPR. "We must come out and openly admit we're gay. How can we complain, or assert our lifestyle, unless we publicly admit we're gay?"

But the majority of Armenian gays and lesbians think it is too early to institutionalise themselves, as neither the wider community, nor they themselves, are ready. They say the first goal is to foster awareness and tolerance in society at large. "They must accept us for what we are, acolytes of same-sex love," said Grigor. "We must embrace our true identities. It's our life, and no one has the right to interfere."

Armenian gays and lesbians find each other on the internet, but many are then too afraid to meet in person. For many, furtive emails are their first attempts to come out of the closet.

"I was brave enough to take charge of organisational matters," Grigor said. "I feel no need to hide the fact I'm gay, but no need to flaunt it either."

Grigor said the main reason he initiated the self-help group was his determination to overcome his own fear and shame. But even he has not told his parents that he is homosexual. After graduating from the sociology department at Yerevan State University, Grigor lives and works in Gyumri, where he has been living in a rented apartment, separately from his parents, for the last five years.

When his parents inquired about his frequent trips to Yerevan, Grigor did tell them that he goes there to organise gay and lesbian gatherings. "They think I'm doing this out of my excessive organisational zeal. I'm not going to tell them more than that. They'd be very upset." Gyumri is a city where conservative traditions are very deeply rooted.

Grigor is pessimistic about the likelihood of Armenian society ever accepting homosexuals. "As a nation, we have zero tolerance for men and women who do not procreate. This cannot be changed, not even if all the barriers - intellectual and other - are removed," he said, wistfully.

But a self-help group may be just what Armenian gays and lesbians need at the moment. The more people join, the more secure and accepted they will feel. At the same time they are receiving information about sexual health and HIV/AIDS.

Grigor is convinced a sense of togetherness will make gay and lesbian Armenians feel much better. More and more people are attending the gatherings. The third meeting drew some 50 participants, including 15 lesbians and transsexuals from Yerevan. The organisation has not been formally founded, but the participants say that is the next step.

Gays and lesbians say they have always had a hard time in Armenia in the face of deep-rooted prejudice and bias. "Although I have never experienced violence, I often find threatening notes on my door when I come home. Threats are a part of our daily lives," said Grigor.

In August 2003 Armenia abolished an article in its penal code prescribing severe punishment for male homosexuals. The infamous Article 116 recommended five-year prison sentences for men found guilty of homosexuality.

Although the article had not been applied since 1998, seven men were sent to prison under Article 116 in 1996, and four each in 1997 and 1998. In effect, as long as homosexuality remained a criminal offence, a gay and lesbian rights organisation was out of the question.

Armenian gays and lesbians say that the abolition of Article 116 has removed a key justification for seeking asylum in foreign countries. But many still complain of police brutality and complain they are not treated on an equal footing with other citizens.

Aram, 19, an artist and teacher, said he had been humiliated and beaten up frequently by his peers since they found out he was gay. "They go around in groups, and it's useless to talk to them," Aram said. "When your paths cross, it is almost impossible to avoid a conflict."

Few gays ever report offences against them to the police, fearing their families will be notified. The new self-help group hopes to offer advice and protection for vulnerable people. At the moment their only feeble recourse to justice is through international non-government organisations, NGOs.

Christine Mardirossian, human rights officer at the Yerevan office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told IWPR her office has not received any complaints from individual gays or lesbians.

The Armenian Helsinki Group is probably the only local NGO that gays and lesbians trust. They frequently involve the NGO and its head, Michael Danielian, in their troubles.

"They call me when they get in trouble with the police. I go and bail them out," Danielian told IWPR. He cited about two dozen cases when the police, knowing that someone is gay, have tried to extort money from him. Danielian said gay people much prefer to pay rather than let the police inform their families and employers they were gay, and bear the stigma.

Homosexuals face a tough time when they do military service, said Danielian. "Once, a whole regiment went without food for several days, because they did not want to sit at the same table with a homosexual," said Danielian. The taboo against homosexuality is so strong that if a conscript openly admits he is homosexual, then his tableware is kept separately and gay soldiers are not allowed to do any kitchen work, cook or handle food.

Another problem is that army doctors have been known to send conscripts to mental institutions after "diagnosing" them with homosexuality, after which they are exempted from military service.

"I believe homosexual men have the right to do their civic duty and serve in the military," Danielian said. "But fellow soldiers and officers must learn to treat them with respect. They are regular citizens just like the rest of us."

Zhanna Alexanian is a reporter for the weekly Web bulletin

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