Armenian Gays Face Long Walk to Freedom

Institute for War and Peace Reporting, UK
March 13 2009

Armenian Gays Face Long Walk to Freedom

Society remains as relentlessly homophobic here as elsewhere in the
Caucasus, but activists say there some grounds for hope.

By Vahan Ishkhanian in Yerevan (CRS No. 484, 13-Mar-09)

The recent publication of Azeri writer Alekper Aliev’s gay novel
Artush and Zaur, dealing with an Armenian-Azeri love affair, rocked
the conservative and mainly Muslim society of Azerbaijan.

It broke a double taboo ` love between Armenians and Azeris and
same-sex love, at the same time.

But while the furor cast a harsh spotlight on homophobia in
Azerbaijan, on the other side of the ethnic and religious divide, in
Armenia, gays face just as much prejudice.

Hovhannes Minasian found this out to his cost. Now 27, he is one of a
small minority of gay men in Armenia who do not fear to give out their
real names in interviews.

He gained this freedom ` involuntarily ` after being sent to jail for
his sexual orientation. After that, the whole of his former
neighbourhood and his relatives learnt about it and there was nothing
to hide.

His nightmare began in 1999, when police arrested him and accused him
of sodomy. A man who had once had an affair with him apparently
betrayed him, and four others, to the authorities.

Minasian, then 17, says he immediately admitted he had had a sexual
relationship with a man. `I never thought it was a crime, so when they
asked me if I did it, I confirmed it,’ he said.

He says the police who arrested him beat him violently, demanding that
he name other homosexuals, which he refused to do.

He was one of six persons charged for the then crime of sodomy under
Article 116 of the Armenian penal code, receiving a relatively short
jail sentence of three months as he was under age.

While in prison, Minasian says he came under constant pressure. `The
prisoners were as cruel to me as the jailors, I was like a toy for
them, they used to bully me and throw me around the cell,’ he said.

After his release, the lads living next door to him chased him around,
throwing stones at him and screaming `gay’ at his back.

That is not all. He says a policeman tried to blackmail him into
confessing the names of wealthy homosexuals he knew about.

When he failed to extract this information, he told the manager of the
bar where Hovhannes worked of his sexual orientation, and Hovhannes
and his gay friend were fired.

Nine years since his conviction, the local boys have stopped chasing
Hovhannes. They got used to him. He has a job. Still, he is going to
leave the country, tired of the general climate of hostility.

In 1922, a few years after the Bolshevik revolution, homosexuality
ceased to be a penal offence in the newly formed Soviet Union.

But it was reintroduced as a crime in 1933, and eventually removed
from the penal code in 2003.

In spite of the official change in the letter of the law,
discrimination and intolerance against Armenian gays remains
widespread.

A year ago, Khachik, a 21-year-old student at university, was thrown
out of his home when his parents found out about his sexual
orientation.

Khachik says he realised he was different from the rest when he was 13
or 14 and accepted he was more interested in boys than girls.

`At that age, when you start to masturbate, I used to imagine guys,’
he confessed. `I thought I was alone with all this but then I found
people just like me on the Internet.’

He waited until he was 20 to have his first sexual encounter with a
man whom he met on the Internet and introduced to his family as a
friend.

Trouble erupted after Khachik’s mother discovered that their
relationship was not entirely innocent.

`We were watching a film in my room and I didn’t know the door was
open. Mother came and saw us kissing,’ he recalled.

At first, she wept, but later, once his father was home, the two of
them became far more aggressive.

`Dad got really angry and said, `Aren’t girls enough for you? You want
to start dating guys? My son can’t do that!’

`Mother started screaming that it would be better if I died. It would
be better not to have a son than to know he was gay.

`She even tried to hit me. I tried to hold her back, but dad began to
help her. Then they told me I was no longer their son and that I had
to leave the house. So I went away.’

Khachik has been living in lodgings ever since and has to work in two
jobs to support his studies.

Two months after being thrown out, he was exempted from military
service because of his `deviant’ sexual orientation.

According to the Helsinki Rights Committee in Armenia, in 2004 an
internal defence ministry code effectively bans homosexuals from
serving in the armed forces.

`When I told the army psychologist I was a gay, he threw the pen on
the table and exclaimed `Damn it!” Khachik recalled.

He says another officer struck him with a folder, saying, `You are not
a man! How can an Armenian claim he’s limp wristed?’

He was then dispatched to a medical institution for official diagnosis
` which duly described him as possessing a `non-traditional sexual
orientation’.

On the subject of the deferment of conscription for homosexuals,
Colonel Seyram Shahsuvaryan, representing the defence ministry, sent a
written response to IWPR.

In it, the colonel denied the existence of any unofficial ban on
homosexuals serving in the army, `The law on compulsory military
service in Armenia does not allow the exemption from military service
of homosexuals.’

In Aliev’s controversial novel, Artush and Zaur, the two lovers
eventually decide to take their own lives, jumping from Baku’s Maiden
Tower, a symbol of doomed love in Azerbaijan.

Psychologist Davit Galstian says societal pressures in Armenia have
driven some gays to take their own lives in a similar desperate
fashion.

Within the past three years, he knows of at least ten homosexual men
who threw themselves off the Kiev bridge in Yerevan, the capital’s
biggest.

He cites several tragic cases that he has come across in his
practice. A man’s life that was destroyed when his family discovered
his orientation; a woman who rejected her own children and sent them
to an orphanage after learning that their father, her husband, is gay;
and a father who threw his 14-year-old gay son out of the house, who
then turned to street prostitution.

`There is a real phobia against homosexuals in our society, people
consider them beasts,’ he said.

`My [gay] patients learn about me from each other and come here. They
say at least I listen to them.’

Politicians do little to dispel the fog of ignorance and prejudice
around the subject. Indeed, some make it worse.

One former member of parliament, Emma Khudabashian, even used to say
that people should throw stones at homosexuals.

Armen Avetisian, head of Armenian Arian Union, an ultra-nationalist
grouping, issued a bizarre attack on homosexuals ` and on Europe ` in
July 2006, which was published in three newspapers.

`We should form a community for them, called Hamaserashen (literally,
`Homosex-burg’),’ he said.

`Of course, it should be located in Europe, as homosexuality is a part
of the European values, so let them gather there.’

The church is another conservative factor. The Armenian Apostolic
Church ` like most traditional Christian churches in the world ` views
homosexuality as a grave sin.

Gay bashing is a popular pastime among Yerevan yobs. In the city’s
Komaygi park, where homosexuals sometimes gather, groups often attack
and beat them.

Galstian says homophobia is harmful to society, depriving it of
potential talent.

`We lost a talented singer, a computer programmer and an excellent
student who could have become a chemist,’ he said, mulling past
suicides. Others have simply left the country.

Yet, on December, 9, 2008, the Armenian government endorsed a United
Nations statement outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual
orientation and gender identity.

That only prompted a greater outcry from homophobic elements in
Armenia, however.

`This is a global plan worked out by masonic structures to destroy the
world,’ Khachik Stambolcian, a well known figure said in one public
discussion.

The right-wing Iskakan Iravunk newspaper accused the UN document of
glorifying what it termed `human driftwood – those sodomites and
lesbians’.

Hrair, a 26-year-old activist, says the government’s endorsement of
the UN statement may not have helped gays much in Armenia in the short
term.

`Before that, we just lived our lives and worked but then they made a
fuss, and it became tense,’ he noted.

Avetik Ishkhanyan, chair of the Helsinki Rights Committee of Armenia,
and member of Independent Observers’ Group of Penitentiary
departments, says homosexuals experience the worst troubles within
closed spaces like prisons and barracks.

`In prison, they have a separate cell and it’s a taboo to shake their
hands, take cigarettes from them or even touch their stuff,’ he said.

`If a detainee uses homosexual’s plates, even by accident, the
criminals consider him а `pervert’ too.

`They are given the most humiliating work to do, like cleaning toilets
and drains.’

According to Ishkhanian, it is hard to defend homosexuals, as few are
willing to publicly complain about their lack of status.

Arsen Babayan, of the justice ministry’s penitentiary service, denies
gay detainees in prison are singled out for the most humiliating
tasks. Every prisoner, he says, chooses his own type of work.

`The fact that gays live separately in penitentiary departments is due
to their wish. It’s the same with Jehovah’s witnesses, who also live
separate lives,’ he said.

Meanwhile, Galstian says things may be starting to change ` albeit
slowly.

Since Armenia became a member of the Council of Europe in 2001, people
generally have started to more actively defend their rights, and more
and more homosexuals are open about their identity.

The NGO PINK, short for Public Information and Need for Knowledge,
founded in 2007, openly advocates for gay rights, as well specialising
in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

PINK member Hrair broke up with his Iranian boyfriend when the latter
wanted to leave for Europe.

`He couldn’t live in Iran, as they hang homosexuals there, but he felt
depressed here too, so he was trying to talk me into going to Europe,
but I didn’t want to,’ he said.

Though well aware of the climate of intolerance in Armenia, Hrair says
he is not ready to abandon his homeland now things are starting to
shift a little.

`When I was a child, I suffered, trying to understand myself and
nobody was there to help me,’ he recalled.

`But now we are a big team, and we are trying to help the weaker ones
to stand up.

`This is very important to me. I would feel defeated if I went to live
in a European country, hiding my head in the sand like an ostrich.’

Vahan Ishkhanian is a freelance journalist and correspondent for
Armenianow.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS