Sara Rampazzo

In two recent trips to Armenia, I had the privilege of visiting the headquarters of PINK Armenia in Yerevan and talking to many of the people involved with this courageous human rights organization. PINK (Public Information and Need of Knowledge) Armenia is a NGO dedicated to serving the LGBT community in Armenia. It has taken the lead in publicizing the plight and protecting the rights of women and men who, tragically, have been subject to ostracism, persecution, and even physical violence.

Armenia is a young and vibrant democracy. Recently, the Armenian people rose up and peacefully overthrew the corrupt government of Serzh Sargsyan and replaced him with Nikol Pahsinyan in a Velvet Revolution. The new Prime Minister promised to address the rampant disparity of wealth and power and many other serious problems. The prognosis is good but guarded; it is far from easy to change such deep-seated problems as corruption and economic domination by predatory oligarchs.

Deeper social change is even more difficult. The issue of homophobia remains extremely troubling. Armenia, like its neighbors Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Georgia, has extremely conservative values about sexuality. Fueled by religious orthodoxy and entrenched social convention, LGBT people have an extremely difficult time if they are open about their sexual orientation in these areas.

PINK Armenia has systematically documented the discrimination against Armenian citizens whose sexual orientation differs from that of the majority of the population. In 2016, it published a report entitled “Hate Crimes and Other Motivated Incidents Against LGBT People in Armenia.” Its findings are both unsurprising and depressing. The report revealed substantial examples of hate crimes against LGBT people; moreover, many gays and lesbians often hide their sexual orientations in order to avoid discrimination and violence and others decide not to report hate crimes. The reported figures are therefore lower than what actually occurs.

Beyond the statistical data are the realities of intimidation, harassment, and emotional and physical violence in families, health care settings, the military, educational institutions at all levels, and elsewhere. Equally troubling is the widespread public indifference about violations of the rights of LGBT people and even occasional vociferous public support for the perpetrators of violence, including that carried out by law enforcement personnel themselves.

PINK Armenia’s report contains quotations from some of the victims of these discriminatory homophobic actions. These are poignant, even heartbreaking, and reveal the human dimension of the problems that both PINK Armenia and the new government face:

When they attacked me. They shouted they must kill “faggots” like me.

My father hit me about 13 times. I only remember lying on the floor, and that there was blood coming from either my nose or mouth. . .

My classmates, as well as a portion of my lecturers (particularly the Deputy Dean), displayed a discriminatory attitude . . . making jokes and exerting psychological pressure on me . . .

The setting of the army was that LGBT people are kept far away from other soldiers. . . .I know of an incident, when soldiers refused to eat in the cafeteria, reasoning that a homosexual person ate using the same tableware.

PINK Armenia’s film “Listen to Me, Untold Stories Beyond Hatred,” is a powerful documentary that deepens public understanding of this deplorable record. The most notorious example of such homophobic violence in Armenia occurred in 2012, when Armine “Tsomak” Oganesova’s bar, “DIY,” was firebombed. The police showed total indifference to this horrific crime and the two perpetrators ultimately received probation.

The film also features 10 people from the LGBT community who courageously agreed to come out and discuss their experiences before the camera. These are painful accounts; they document some excruciating experiences in childhood and beyond, especially with families that refuse to acknowledge that their children love members of the same sex. In a few cases, I had the pleasure of speaking to some of the persons in the film.

The film has recently been shown in the United States because PINK Armenia’s Executive Director, Mamikon Hovsepyan, perfectly understands that the large Armenian Diaspora population needs to rally in support of the LGBT population in Armenia. The film needs wide dissemination in Armenia, even if accessed individually and/or via the Internet. Citizens there need to understand the extraordinary courage of these women and men who left the closet to work for human rights and dignity for all.

I want to place my strong critique of homophobia in Armenia in a broader historical and personal perspective. My view is that any people who have suffered grave and horrific historical harm have a special obligation to ensure that they never inflict harm on others, especially on citizens and residents in their midst. Armenia was the victim of the first genocide of the 20st century. The Armenian people lost a million and a half people who were slaughtered, starved, raped, and tortured by the Ottoman Turks, a tragedy that the present Turkish government still grotesquely denies. This historical evil has been and will continue to be a major part of my teaching, speaking, and publication.

Both in the United States and in Armenia, people even now show the tremendous emotional pain resulting from the Genocide and its official denial. Historical tragedy has many severe continuing contemporary consequences. And in Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh), the young independent breakaway Armenian Republic from Azerbaijan, people who are still struggling for their very survival carry a double historical burden. I have seen the expression of this pain firsthand in both locales. I find it, therefore, especially troubling when some of those same people turn around and inflict pain on others with homophobic attitudes and actions.

I have a powerful personal parallel. My father’s entire family was murdered in Auschwitz, a reality memorialized with the other six million victims in Yad Vashem. I have visited Israel three times and have regularly criticized its racism and discriminatory treatment of its Arab citizens and Palestinians in the occupied territories. The same principle applies: a people who have suffered the horrors of the Holocaust have a special obligation never to oppress others. This has also been a major theme of my writing, speaking, and teaching. Criticizing Israel’s racist and imperialist policies is no different from criticizing Armenian homophobia. Injustice anywhere needs to be identified and rectified.

I have come to believe that the highest form of respect and affection for an institution or a nation is constructive and loving criticism. When I call out Armenia for its homophobia, it’s because I feel such powerful attraction for its people, its history, and its culture. In recent years, working closely with the Armenian community in the U.S. has been one of the greatest sources of my personal and professional gratification.

Likewise, when I criticize Israel (and segments of the American Jewish community) for its unacceptable racist and other unjust attitudes and practices, it’s because I have a strong desire to see major structural change in those attitudes, practices, and policies. My personal set of Jewish beliefs and ethics demands nothing less.

A person need not be an Armenian to criticize violence against gays and lesbians in Armenia, nor a Jew to criticize Israeli occupation of Palestine, nor African American to call out sexism and homophobia in the Black community. My experiences with PINK Armenia underscore my deep commitment to Armenian life and society. My conversations with LGBT people in Yerevan give me hope that human rights resistance remains alive and well in that land.

Traveling to Armenia, giving numerous speeches to diverse audiences in universities and public audiences, and talking and writing about Armenian art and artists has been a tremendous personal joy. My hope is to return yet again, but this time to attend and participate in a Gay Pride rally in Republic Square in the heart of this dynamic young nation.

_________
Paul von Blum is a senior lecturer in African American studies and communications studies at UCLA and author of a new memoir, A Life at the Margins: Keeping the Political Vision, and a short biography of Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson for Beginners (2013).

Bookmark and Share