Politicizing Sexual Orientation in Armenia
By Edmond Y. Azadian
The acceptance of different sexual orientations and gender identities is being discussed and debated all around the world, and particularly, in the Western world. Now, these issues have exploded on the scene in Armenia. What is happening in Armenia cannot be characterized in any way other than an explosion.
Admittedly, any reference to gender and sexuality is a minefield. The LGBT community in the West in the past few decades has gradually aimed for greater acceptance and openness. The issue has become even an asset for some as many have placed gay rights as part of the greater human rights agenda.
It is not only Armenia that is dealing with these complicated issues of gender and identity. Even the West is still grappling with these issues as well as modern feminism. Just recently, Prof. Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University was disinvited from being the commencement speaker of Concordia University in Montreal, after some of his more incendiary comments about women, specifically their narrower skillset because of biology, came to light.
Variations on sexual preferences or identity are natural phenomena which have long been stigmatized around the world and continue to be treated as such in many societies which treat gay individuals as evil or abhorrent, suffering from a form of psychosis. However, in a field such as the arts, the proportion of homosexuals is high. Biased attitudes continue against them, even in Western societies, where LGBT members have gained solid support.
One of the most famous songs of Charles Aznavour is What Makes A Man (Comme Ils Disent), in which he adopts the viewpoint of a lonely gay man. And the recent Academy Award-winning movie “Bohemian Rhapsody,” dealt with the lyrical aspect of that human condition.
Now, a group that has long been in the shadows, transgenders, are becoming more visible and are putting the issue on the map politically. These are people who are simply not comfortable in the gender they were born in and want to be identified as the opposite gender, sometimes after surgery but not always. This group suffers from a high rate of attempted suicides as many in society are quick to ridicule or even attack them. One famous example is Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner. As the erstwhile stepfather of Kim Kardashian, Jenner gained a lot of fame and her transition on a reality TV show made the issue even more ordinary.
Despite advances achieved in Western societies regarding the acceptance of sexual or gender deviance from the norm, there is still latent resistance.
President Clinton had found a temporary stop-gap solution for gays and transgenders serving in the US armed forces, by his policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Now, President Trump is undoing that loophole.
Which leads us to ask that if gender and sexual preference issues have not yet found a universal level of understanding and acceptance in more forward-thinking societies, what can we expect from more conservative societies?
The controversy is now affecting Armenia in its highest national forum, in the parliament. Armenia is still a patriarchal, conservative society. Even during the Soviet era, when egalitarianism was promoted, gays and lesbians were stigmatized and were considered evil a priori.
That bias continues and many crimes are committed to “punish” or even to eliminate people who live alternative lifestyles. Emancipation may and should come through education, not shock therapy, as was the case around the world until not too long ago.
During a session of parliament on April 5, when human rights issues were being debated, a transgender woman named Lilit Martirosyan was clandestinely smuggled in and took the podium to air the grievances of the transgender community in Armenia.
She said, “I ask you to look at me as the collective image of tortured, raped, physically abused, burned, stabbed, killed, emigrated, subjected to discrimination, poor and unemployed transgender people.”
Lilit also enumerated particular crimes committed against individual transgenders.
The appearance of the activist on the podium of the parliament and the way she was brought there threw Armenia’s entire political world into confusion and a blame game ensued.
The first attack was on MP Naira Zohrabyan, a member of the Prosperous Armenia party, who was chairing the session during which organizations and NGOs were invited to a hearing, including the NGO Right Side, headed by Martirosyan.
Zohrabyan, in her turn, was furious that she was not warned ahead of time about the activities of the organization.
The outrage mushroomed to become a national issue, when the country is facing existential danger. On April 8, a rally took place in front of the parliament. The participants in the rally proposed to “reconsecrate” the parliament to “clear it of transgender presence.”
The scandal also involved the government on the highest level. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, addressing the issue and human rights in general, asked “Is Lilit Martirosyan a human being?”
The question naturally assumed that a human being therefore has human rights. But later, he was trapped into the politicization of the debate by stating that Martirosyan’s speech was “a carefully planned political provocation” by the former Republican Party, apparently to undermine the new government.
He further addressed the former leaders and said that “I was telling them that ‘you are gay activists’ and they did not believe me.” He also suggested that the members of the previous administration, which had issued a new passport for Martirosyan with the gender designation of female, clearly had a different perspective.
Martirosyan cited specific cases of crimes against the gay community. No government official addressed the issue, nor did any take responsibility for investigating those crimes and bringing the criminals to justice. However, officials have the time and resources to dismantle the leadership of Spayka, a huge conglomerate which is exporting Armenia’s agricultural products to Eurasian countries.
The political debate has spilled over into the streets, causing more crimes.
A 15-year-old was stabbed by a 35-year-old man, after the latter assumed the former was gay. Two months earlier, a transgender woman was attacked in her apartment. Another gay man was beaten by several men while he was walking.
Armenia is uduslly ranked as a “hostile place for LGBT people” by Human Rights Watch. A 2016 survey by the group Pink Armenia found that 90 percent of Armenians think that gay rights should be controlled through legal measures. Armenia currently ranks 48th among 49 European countries on the European gay rights group ILGA Europe annual Rainbow Map.
The way the issue was handled acted as an incendiary bomb thrown from the forum of the Parliament and it triggered outrage and political turmoil; the issue further received international reverberations. United Nations and the European Union officials jumped into the debate to question and condemn Armenia’s record on human rights and gender issues, to which the Foreign Ministry issued a rebuke. Indeed, Anna Naghdalyan, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said, “Our international partners should demonstrate more respect and sensitivity toward Armenian society and refrain from undue engagement in public debate, even if they disagree with its tone. We would like to remind them that the principle of public morality is part of international commitments on human rights and cannot be ignored.”
Armenia is a conservative society and its evolution in social acceptance will certainly take time. Even then, because of its more closed, inward looking stance, it will not be the same as Western Europe. What should not happen is for foreign-based NGOs and other civil society bodies to insert themselves in the issue, and by extension, in the country. Are there problems? Yes. But will foreign intervention help? We don’t think so. In fact, if might cause the issue to backfire.
To demonstrate the discrepancy between the West and Armenia in this regard, we can turn to an essay by a young writer in Azg, Gevorg Gurumlyan, who wrote: “The national struggles against immorality will continue spiritually and physically. National dignity is above all. Let them say what they want. If we have to become a progressive nation by putting up with immorality, forgive me for saying that we prefer to remain a regressive society.”
Emancipation for Armenia will come through education and through exposure to Western values. But even then, it will not be on par with the west.
If left alone, the young and progressive leadership of the country will be able to steer Armenia toward a more open and tolerant society, without the heavy hand of outsiders.
As the recent incident and subsequent developments show, politicizing sexual orientation remains a toxic and explosive domain.
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