Monday, June 22, 2009

Abused, Mistreated, and Stigmatized: Yet, there is still hope at store for Armenian homosexuals

Published in The Armenian Reporter on June 20, 2009:


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 “non-traditional” sexual orientation. He said his mother walked on him and his male friend, whom he had met over the Internet, while they were kissing in his room.

“Dad got really angry and said, ‘Aren’t girls enough for you? You want to start dating guys? My son can’t do that!” Khachik told the Institute on War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), a multi-language reporting service from the Caucasus. His parents told him he is no longer their son and that he has to leave the house. In its March 13, 2009 article, IWPR reports that Khachik has been living in various lodgings since, and has to work at two jobs to sustain himself and his studies.

Khachik is not the only one in Armenia to face such 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 his 14-year-old gay son out of the house, who then turned to street prostitution.

Doctor Galstyan also told IWPR that intolerant societal pressures in Armenia have driven many homosexuals to suicide. He said he knows at least of ten gay men who jumped off the Kiev Bridge, Yerevan’s tallest, within the past three years.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that “the public opinions on homosexuality are rather tough: traditional Armenian society rejects displays of non-heterosexual relations.” Homophobia and violence seem to be omnipresent in every aspect of the Armenian life.


Social outcasts

In Armenia, the word homosexual is both, used and heard as an insult and has even been used to attack political opponents. At a societal level, homophobia seems to be deeply ingrained in the Armenian psyche, just as it has been for many centuries.

The first and foremost reason, of course, is religion. The Armenian Apostolic Church, just like most other traditional churches, views homosexuality as a grave sin. In an online program “My Priest,” whereby the Araratian Patriarchal Diocese has provided answers to about a thousand questions regarding the stance of the Apostolic Church on various issues, Deacon Tigran Baghumian has addressed the issue of homosexuality as well. Deacon Baghumian wrote that “homosexuality is a spiritual vice and sin” and, since such relations are “unnatural,” they should be condemned. He cites various chapters from the Bible where homosexuality is referred to as an “abomination,” and deserving of death.

This all would probably be a smaller problem if the fundamental issue of the family, in its traditional understanding, were not at stake. Interviewed in 2003 by GayArmenia.com, Chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Association Michael 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."

A similar view was expressed by Dziunik Aghajanyan, Head of the Department for International Organizations within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who, in an online interview, described the Armenian society having strong traditional values. “That very much explains the attitude towards all issues that tend to threaten the foundations of family in its traditional sense,” she said.

Such a view was expressed by a 17-year-old Armenian teenager, who was asked about his views on the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) issues for this article. He replied that he sees homosexuals as vampires: “One bites the other and makes him a pederast, too.” He said he is worried that if the “spread [of homosexuality] all around the world [continues] with such celerity,” soon men might not need women anymore.

Still, there have been more interesting suggestions and theories proposed. The Chairman of the Armenian Aryan Order Armen Avetisyan, for example, has in the past proposed to form a special community/town for gay people, which would be located in Europe, “as homosexuality is a part of the European values.” While Khachik Stamboltsyan, a prominent political activist, has suggested that all international conventions and attempts on protecting LGBT rights are a “global plan worked out by Masonic structures to destroy the world.” Another political activist, Karine Danielyan, has joined in voicing the concern that homosexuality is a matter of national security, given the current demographic decline in Armenia. Even a psychologist, quoted in Aravot daily’s September 27, 2008 article, says that “homosexuality is against nature, and therefore, it is evil.” In order to stop its spread in the society, he proposed promoting the idea of homosexuality as perversion.

One would think that younger people would be more tolerant towards LGBT people; however, in a 2005 study, the Armenian Socio-demographic Initiative found that only 16.5 percent of the surveyed youth described themselves as tolerant of sexual minorities. What is more, 70 percent said they are not ready to acknowledge equality of rights for sexual minorities. The 17-year-old teenager described homosexuals as “abnormal, unmanly, and disgusting.” He said he views it as a disease, and suggested creating “special hospitals for awakening the manly part in men,” so as not to use violent measures in resolving the problem.


Man-man vs. Woman-woman

The Forced Out: LGBT People in Armenia report, 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), suggests that historical denial of female-to-female sexuality meant that sexual relations between women were not criminalized in Armenia. The case was not the same with men, who, before 2003, could be prosecuted under Article 116 of the Armenian Criminal Code. However, repealing the Article did not prove to be of any advantage for women: sexual relations between women continued to be ignored, while those between men started to be actively discussed within the society.

Micha Meroujean, the founder and president of the former Armenian Gay and Lesbian Association (AGLA) in Paris, said in an online interview that in a patriarchic society the first victims of homophobia are men. “The female homosexuality was and is tolerated to a certain degree by many straight men, [to the point where] lesbian porn scenarios entertain them.” However, he pointed out that the situation might be even worse for a gay woman, than for a man, since the overall situation of women within the Armenian society is not easy. “Gay women are subject to double discrimination: as a woman first, and [then] as a gay.”

Sweden-based Kvinna till Kvinna women’s foundation, in a report on the Armenian case, writes that homosexual women have been denied existence altogether, or condemned for not fitting into the image of a “proper” Armenian woman.

Legal matters

In 1922, homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offense in the newly formed Soviet Union. However, it was later reintroduced into the Armenian Penal Code, and since 1961 has been there as Article 116: “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 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe set decriminalization of homosexuality in Armenia as one of the major conditions for joining the Council of Europe. What is more, in December 2008, the Armenian government endorsed a UN statement against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, the move had the opposite effect, at least in the short run, as it caused a massive public outcry from the conservative parts of the society.

Ms. Aghajanyan of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in the online interview that the endorsement of Armenian government was fully in line with its international commitments and national legislation. “Armenia is already a party to all human rights-related international agreements and there are no outstanding ones to be acceded to,” she said.

Yet, the UN statement is just another declaration, and does not have the power of other legally-binding documents or signatures. What is more, it seems that even legal provisions that look so good on paper are hardly put to practice. Although Freedom House Freedom of the World Report: 2006 states that the status of protection of human rights in Armenia is better than in most of the post-Soviet states, or that “on paper” Armenia can be considered a model for the Southern Caucasus (after ratifying most of the human rights instruments and modifying the law), the situation is still very different “on the ground.”

The ILGA-Europe/COC report 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 even one’s own family.

What is more, harassment and abuse by supposed law-enforcing agents, along with institutional discrimination have been reported to persist. Mr. Danielyan of the Armenian Helsinki Association, who often has to deal with the issues of LGBT rights protection, has talked of many cases of attempted extortion and blackmail by the police. In another 2004 IWPR article, Mr. Danielyan said that the police, knowing that gay people would much prefer paying the sum they demand, rather than let the officers inform their families and employers that they are gay, extort large sums of money from them. Furthermore, they can be arbitrarily detained, which is usually accompanied by beatings, name-callings, or other forms of mistreatment.

Mr. Danielyan, as well as many gay men who have dared to speak up, have also reported many cases of discrimination and abuse in the army. The interesting fact is that they might not be allowed to do military service in the first place, as homosexuality is regarded as an illness or pathology, not an orientation. Thus, army psychologists might designate them as “unfit” for performing their military duty. In the best case, they are exempted from service; in the worst, Mr. Danielyan says, they are “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. Cases include their tableware being kept separately; their entire regiments going without food for several days because they did not want to sit at the same table with a homosexual; beatings; rape; and, in the worst cases, murder.

The picture is not too different in prisons, Avetik Ishkhanyan, chair of the Helsinki Rights Committee of Armenia, told IWPR. He has also said that homosexuals are placed in separate cells, or given the places next to the toilet; they are made to undertake the dirtiest and most degrading jobs; and that it is a taboo to shake their hands, take cigarettes from them, or even touch their things.

And yet, very few gays dare to come out and stand up for their rights, mainly because of the fear of being stigmatized and further harassed, later on.


Visibility?

Almost none. However, the situation seems to be improving, since, after decriminalization, increasingly more LGBT people are willing to come out or fight for their rights. 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 getting new acquaintances, participating in discussions, sharing news and information, and providing mutual support.

Mr. Meroujean, who is originally from Armenia, said in the online interview that despite several attempts of 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 in Armenia. “You may say that the organization is there, but it is still very fragile,” he added.

The ILGA-Europe/COC report also talks about PINK Armenia opening the-first-of-its-kind Information Center in Yerevan, in September 2008, and about an emerging advocacy group, We For Civil Equality, which works on raising awareness specifically about LGBT issues. However, these organizations are still in their infancy, and no other major organizations have come forward so far.


So what is the problem with the media?

That the media can have a substantial influence over the masses is a very well-known fact. One would think that, being such, media would be utilized for raising awareness and attempting to promote the rights which the Armenian state supposedly undertook to protect. Yet, the ILGA-Europe/COC report says that Armenian LGBT people have little or no ability to influence the messages that are conveyed about sexual orientation, because their words and experiences are generally ignored or not asked for. Only 2.3 percent of national coverage referred to LGBT persons, the report says.

A simple search for the words “gay” or “homosexual” in the major Armenian news websites, such as A1+ or Hayastani Hanrapetuyun, for example, returned three to four results in total; and these, in Armenian. Most of these articles are not available in English or Russian, so the search results in other languages are practically zero.

An interesting fact is that searching for any references to LGBT people in Armenia within Panarmenian.net returned zero results in all the three available languages: Armenian, Russian, and English. In its “About” section, Panarmenian.net says that the objective of the project is “the establishment of a pan-Armenian common information field and adequate presentation of Armenia to the world community.” Apparently, the representation of LGBT issues would not befit an “adequate” presentation of the Armenian society to the world. What is more, Panarmenian.net has confirmed such a stance, according to a March 4, 2009 interview with Alekper Aliyev, the Azeri author of Artush and Zaur, a book about forbidden gay love between an Armenian and an Azeri. (The book has caused outrage both, in Azerbaijan and in Armenia, as it touches upon two taboos at once: gay love, and love between representatives of two enemy nations.) In the interview, published by the BBC Russian Service, Aliyev said that he received a note from the Yerevan bureau of the Panarmenian.net, saying: “It is impossible. There are no gays in Armenia.”

In fact, not only are issues concerning sexual minorities avoided, but are treated with mockery and ridicule on their very occasional appearance. The ILGA-Europe/COC report correctly suggests that whenever a gay person is referred to in most of the Armenian media, they invariably become an object of some joke or irony, or they are presented as sick or morally deranged. What is more, references to them often occur in pieces of news related to crime, HIV/AIDS, drug addiction, or commercial sex.

Aravot daily had some of the most outrageous comments about LGBT persons. A simple search (in Armenian) shows articles referring to LGBT rights activists in a context of “exotic officials,” or making statements which attempt to explain the nature of homosexuality, stating that “as a rule, homosexuals work as hair-dressers, actors, singers, reporters, and models.” One of the most shocking articles read: “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.” The author of the latter also expressed her concern about having to protect homosexuals in Armenia.

Yet, the most stunning section of the article, entitled “Armenian lesbians get active,” is the following: “Now, probably, the principles have changed, and Armenian women either have become more ‘modern,’ or have thrown aside timidity characteristic to our nation.” The author then went on to discuss the personal profiles of Armenian lesbians in several social networking sites – their photos, friends, and comments – continuously stressing the “immorality” of such behavior, and how unacceptable it is within traditional Armenian ideals.

Thus, journalists themselves often become victims of prejudice and stereotypes, feeding the vicious cycle of intolerance and rejection. A quick scan of the news publications available online shows that the coverage of LGBT issues ranges from strongly negative to neutral, in the best case (there are some exceptions, however, just like to any other rule).

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 course, there is always the danger of drifting in the exactly opposite direction, i.e. presenting them in an overly-positive or overly-sympathetic manner. And yet, even in that case, it would help to strike a better balance, to offset all the other negative coverage, and to provide an alternative look at the issue.

Mr. Meroujean said, “The 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.”

One may ask, then, what is the role of the media, if not to provide the very venue for this public debate?


Action, action, action!

Laws, by themselves, cannot change the situation, unless there is no proper climate to help the progress. LGBT Armenians need changes beyond simple legislative reforms: the process of changes is related to many cultural and educational factors, Mr. Meroujean said. He suggested, for example, that the government should introduce special awareness programs for schoolchildren and university students. “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, just as already discussed; public awareness campaigns; and, most certainly, lobbying the political and cultural leaders within Armenia.

As Ms. Aghajanyan of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs put it in the 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.” Selective understanding or acceptance of human rights, of their applicability, as well as the lack of trust in all spheres of Armenian life, indeed plague the prospects for Armenia ever breaking out of the vicious circle of intolerance.

Certainly, the improvements in the Diaspora have been more visible, particularly in the communities in Paris (thanks to AGLA), New York, and California, where Armenian LGBT have started to be accepted in the community holiday celebrations or April 24 Genocide commemorations. And yet, as the experience of the past couple of years has shown, there is some gradual improvement in Armenia as well. All Armenian human rights NGOs, LGBT individuals, who would be the primary beneficiaries, as well as sympathizers, should join in a concerted effort to hasten the progress and promote the attainment of equal rights for everyone in Armenia.

Yes, Armenia is currently experiencing a demographic crisis, with a seemingly persistent high rate of emigration, and a continuous decline of the fertility rates. And yet, imposing the “traditional Armenian family” model upon the entire society is not the solution to the problem, because its absence is not the cause, just as homosexuality is not. It is high time for officials to stop finding scapegoats and spending supposedly valuable time on all that hate speech. They should rather focus on solving the problem by ensuring real and fair economic growth, providing real incentives for young people to get into wedlock, and ensuring that rights of women and children are not violated within the “traditional Armenian family.” Most importantly, the society should understand that homosexuality is not a disease. Forcing one to pretend as “converting” into a heterosexual and creating a “traditional family” can have the opposite effect. It will most certainly create a bigger problem for the society, as there will be more unhappy people around: oppressed individuals, betrayed spouses, and many more children from broken homes. What is more, if gays and lesbians were given the chance, they would have contributed to the population growth, since, just as Mr. Meroujean correctly pointed out, they are not sterile, and they can have children through artificial insemination, or simply, through adoption.

The 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?

5 comments:

  1. well done pretty good insights

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  2. Awareness program for what? There is a difference between preventing mistreatment (and its forms) and embracement. Don't see why you should target both.

    ~Ivaylo

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  3. Ha. The other day we had a lecture and a guy interrupted asking a question, "But how do you explain that?!" and the speaker said, "The way I just did."

    Similar here. :p

    ~Ivaylo

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  4. People never change, do they? :))

    ReplyDelete