Life in the Shadows for Armenia’s Transgender Community
Recent murder highlights widespread discrimination and violence against LGBTI people.
On August 20 this year, the fire brigade was called to a blaze in an apartment in downtown Yerevan. When they extinguished the fire, they found the dead body of the tenant, Adriana. The police stated that the 28-year-old transgender woman had been stabbed to death and her flat set on fire.
Police arrested a 26-year-old suspect at a checkpoint in Bavra, along Armenia’s northern border with Georgia, as he attempted to flee. He confessed to committing murder and faces trial.
Adriana had been attacked in the past and when the news broke, the murder was widely deemed to be gender-based. Three days later, however, investigators stated that the perpetrator and the victim had an argument over drug trafficking, which escalated into the stabbing.
News reports of Adriana’s death were met with hateful comments on social media which praised the murderer and called for the death of all trans people.
Posts included, “You should award the killer, not arrest him,” “You should burn them alive, not protect them” and “He did it right, clean the dirt!”.
Lilit Martirosyan, a friend of Adriana, is familiar with such slurs. A transgender activist, Martirosyan has regularly been targeted with hate speech. In 2016 she founded Right side, an NGO working to support trans rights in Armenia, and has been at the forefront of defending transgender people.
“Adriana was killed and a section of the society has put aside the fact that a human was killed and only speculates about her sexuality, saying that they did well, it was right,” Martirosyan told IWPR.
On August 21, 2023, Right Side organised a candlelight vigil for Adriana in Yerevan’s central Komitas Park which was attended by over 100 LGBTI activists and a few representatives of diplomatic representations. The vigil was disrupted by a group of agitators who threw eggs, bottles and stones at the mourners. The police present at the event reportedly did not intervene.
“Adriana, like other transgender people, had gone through a difficult journey, including sex reassignment surgery,” Martirosyan told IWPR. “I don't understand why society does not accept transgenders people born with a different body who just want to live as what they know they are.”
In a 2011 survey Pink Armenia, the country’s leading LGBTI rights organisation, found that 50 per cent of Armenians would “walk away indifferently” if they witnessed violence against a LGBTI individual.
Martoryan explained that discrimination pushed many transgender people to the margins of society, turning to sex work or illicit activities, including drug dealing, to survive.
“Finding a job is almost impossible,” said the activist, whose NGO also support the needs of sex workers and advocate for the change of public policy around these issues.
“Either you have to hide your own self or accept yourself as you are and adapt to reality. We struggle all along.”
NO LEGISLATIVE PROTECTION
Armenia decriminalised homosexuality in 2003 but intolerance against LGBTI people remains rife. In December 2008, Armenia endorsed the UN declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity but has so far failed to adopt anti-discrimination legislation adding these characteristics to the prohibited grounds for discrimination, despite calls from international bodies like the Council of Europe.
The criminal code does not recognise animus due to sexual orientation or gender identity as aggravating criminal circumstances in hate crimes. As a result, law enforcement forces do not collect data related to such crimes.
A 2021-2022 survey Right Side conducted among 400 LGBTI individuals across Armenia showed that out of 113 incidents of harassment only 27 cases were reported to the police. None of them was considered a hate crime.
The Ministry of Justice is currently working on a draft action plan to reform the country’s human rights protection. In an email to IWPR, the ministry stated that the plan, still in the discussion phase, acknowledges the changes that have taken place in Armenia in recent years. It aims to develop and implement state policies to effectively guarantee and protect human rights and freedoms, to improve mechanisms and structures and raise public awareness.
For Martirosyan, the legislative framework is a key tool but does not go far enough.
“We have to, step by step, achieve a change in society’s attitude towards transgender individuals,” Martirosyan stated. “It is complicated, but I think it is not impossible… [otherwise] no matter how many laws are passed transgender individuals will continue to be targeted.”
In 2019 Martirosyan addressed the National Assembly, calling for protection and respect for her community. In response, she became the target of online death threats and calls, even by lawmakers, for her to be burnt alive.
Karine (not her real name) has been living in the shadows for half her life. She was 15 when she realised that the male body she was born into was not hers. She was also aware that Armenia’s society would not accept this, in particular the conservative rural area in the country’s south-west where she grew up.
“I really liked make-up and I started doing make-up and posting photos on the internet. People saw them, they recognised me in them and told my mother... Those were hard days. At first, I denied that it was me, then I had to accept the fact that it was me,” Karine told IWPR, adding she needed to put distance between her and her family.
“At 20 I left and moved to Yerevan. So, my family lives in one region, I live in another,” she said.
Unlike most of her peers, Karine managed to find a job as a hairdresser and manicurist.
“I will lie if I say that everybody is against us,” she noted, while adding that discrimination was a daily issue. “[Once]] I didn’t manage to go to my hairdresser and entered a random beauty salon, where the specialist refused to serve me. Recently, a waiter also refused to serve me in the cafe. But I know my rights and I called the manager. The director informed me later that it was their failure and that the waiter was fired for discriminatory treatment.”
Karine said that she was not ready to fully transition as she remained close to her family and did not want to hurt them.
“I can’t live only with my ‘self’, I love my mother and my only little brother more than anything else. For them I am a man. Of course, my mother knows about my life, but whenever we meet, I show up ‘as a man’, they see a man,” she said. “I have many friends in different countries. It is the same everywhere. It's just that Armenia is small, here they find out about you sooner; here they target you sooner."
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.