Armenia’s LGBTQ Problem and Signs of Hope on the Horizon

Armenian diaspora, the Internet, and the European Union could be factors that change attitudes in the former Soviet nation

Landlocked and wedged as it is between Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, the Republic of Armenia is a nation with an LGBTQ problem. It used to be that you couldn’t even discuss LGBTQ people; until recently, the general attitude in Armenian society was that queer people simply didn’t exist in the tiny ex-Soviet Republic. But as fraught as the situation is, there are glimmers of hope that a slow evolution is underway.

Queer people are routinely derided, attacked and jailed if for no other reason than their sexual orientation or gender identity. A 2012 survey carried out by the country’s leading LGBTQ group PINK Armenia found that 55% of those queried would cease their relationship with a friend or relative if that other person were to come out as gay. Furthermore, this study found that 70% of Armenians find LGBT people to be “strange.” A whopping 89% found it unacceptable for same-sex couple to hold hands in public and the same percentage thought that homosexuals of any gender should not be allowed to work with children.

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Yet Armenia is a nation of contradictions in this matter. It is signatory to several treaties with the European Union, including a 2013 Enhanced Partnership Agreement, which means Armenia must adhere to all European Union laws, including those concerning gay rights and marriage. To wit, homosexuality was officially decriminalized in 2013. In 2017, Armenia became the second Asian country where same-sex marriages performed abroad are recognized—and in 2011, Armenia signed an anti-LGBTQ violence act at the United Nations. But the legal reality and de facto existence for queer people clash, and LGBTQ people are routinely harassed, sometimes beaten—and gay marriage is non-existent.

KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/GettyImages
KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/GettyImages
Armine “Tsomak” Oganezova, owner of gay bar DIY in 2012, following a fire-bombing that sparked fear and anger in Armenia’s small gay community.

Vic Gerami, an ethnic Armenian who lives in Los Angeles and hosts “Queer Frontier with Vic” on Public Radio Pacifica Network’s KPFK notes: “Human rights in general, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and transparent democracy were not major concerns in Armenia’s former Soviet model. Corrupt oligarchs have been ruling the country since 1991, keeping the masses poor, oppressed and powerless.”

For a country that prides itself on being a democracy amidst autocracies, and for one that underwent the first genocide of the 20th Century in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, Armenia’s treatment of LGBTQ people isn’t exactly tolerant. In fact, in 2012 a local bar called DIY which catered to a bohemian crowd and was known to have LGBTQ patrons, was firebombed by Iranian-Armenians living in Armenia. Its owner was forced to flee the country and to this day lives outside Armenia. No one was prosecuted: Government members publicly approved of the attack and one of them—Artsvik Minasyan—actually paid for their bail.

Even though many of Armenia’s greatest figures—such as the poets Yeghishe Charents and Vahan Tekeyan and the renowned filmmaker Sergei Parajanov—were gay or bisexual, this part of their lives remains untalked about within the Republic of Armenia. Armenia attitudes towards LGBTQ people stems partly from tradition and partly from sheer ignorance. Children routinely live at home until past their teenage years preparing for the central event of their lives—heterosexual marriage. The Armenian Church has always been homophobic, and during Soviet times, homosexuality was considered a mental illness.

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Yeghishe Charents

Writer and LGBTQ rights supporter Nancy Agabian speaks to the slow evolution of LGBTQ rights in Armenia: ”When I lived in Armenia from 2006–07, very few if any LGBTQ people were out…The establishment of Pink Armenia and Queering Yerevan over the next few years, gave more spaces for queer Armenians to meet each other, to know they were not alone, and to slowly establish and vocalize their identity. As they became visible to the rest of the population, they faced intense backlash such as attacks by homophobic youth at a diversity march they perceived as being supportive of queer people.”

Thanks to the Internet and the general access to information that young people now have, the situation has ameliorated somewhat in the past few years. As diasporans continue to visit the country and bring more tolerant views with them, and as Armenians themselves increasingly travel to Europe and North America, their views are changing, if at a glacial pace: “Today I have LGBTQ friends in Armenia who report that they don’t feel their lives are in danger,” notes Agabian: “ They are mostly accepted by their families, friends, and co-workers. But they cannot live openly in public as queerness is still mostly invisible and maligned. When you have a situation where a national newspaper Iravunq published the names of 60 LGBTQ individuals, instructing readers to shun them from daily life, everyone is in danger. Probably the most vulnerable are transgender people who have suffered violent attacks on the street.”

Progress may accompany the May 8 election of Nikol Pashinyan (below) as Prime Minister. A former journalist, Pashinyan successfully pulled off the non-violent coup known as Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution.” Pashinyan overthrew the reigning Republican Party of oligarchs and hopefully stemmed the tide of the past twenty years that have been a drain economically and otherwise on Armenia—including a brain drain that has extended to its LGBTQ population. Pashinyan has openly called for an end to corruption and an emphasis on human rights for all; he is also purported to be LGBTQ friendly.

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Agabian comments: “I only heard of one homophobic incident during the protests, when police beat up a protester they knew to be gay. Otherwise, it seems LGBTQ people who were out on the streets for the Velvet Revolution were embraced along with every other segment of the Armenian population.” People are waiting to see how much of a change Pashinyan will really make, but most are optimistic. Observers in the human rights community weren’t comforted however when Pashinyan appointed Artsvik Minasyan as his Minister of the Economy. If the new Prime Minister does indeed want to bring Armenia into the 21st century, then that includes honoring everyone’s human rights. It may well be a new dawn for Armenians—and that includes LGBTQ Armenians as well.

Christopher Atamian is a writer, director, and creative producer, and contributor to The New York Times Book Review, HuffPost, Scenes Media, and The Weekly Standard.