Coming out: Armenian lesbians raise the curtain
When Shushan first told her parents she is a homosexual, she felt all at once she is no more part of their family. Destroying the wall of double life in the family meant destroying also the perceptions of closeness according to traditional understanding of family, and building another wall estranging her from the parents.
A year later she declared of her being a homosexual all across Yerevan, when she, along with eight homosexual artist women friends, opened “Coming to you not to be with you” exhibition- video art, installation, fine arts, reading- at Utopiana NGO on 34 Zaroubyan street. The group members became the first female citizens of Armenia (two are Diaspora Armenians), which publicly revealed their homosexuality.
The statements unprecedentedly ‘shameful’ for the Yerevan society made during the exhibition of August 3 were stuck on the walls of buildings in Yerevan streets. “You are invited to a group exhibition of works by un(usual) homosexual women ‘Coming to you to not be with you’.” The name of the exhibition is born by the insult a homosexual experiences, when one confesses his or her sexual orientation to the parents and is estranged.
They are all united by being homosexual women of Armenian descent.
Shushan, who is the only writer in the group, read an exeprt from her “Women of Zaroubyan” novel (published in Inknagir, #4, http://www.inknagir.org), where strange women are in search of space in a society that gives them no place.
Shushan, 32, was born in Yerevan, but her sexual orientation pushed her to the US. She first felt appeal to a woman at 14. “I was in love with Silva – a married woman 10 years odler than I. I had written ‘Silva’ over my walls.”
The desire and love for her female classmate while studying at Cyprus’s Melkonian Educational Institute led her to a breakdown.
Her education half finished, she was brought home and treated for several months.
Back home, she tried to drown her “unnatural” desire by having sex with men. She calls her lesbian attraction her “dark side” and left to the US to fulfill it, where she first had a relationship with a woman.
The last step to get rid of the double life was to confess to her parents – a moment she repeatedly put off, anticipating the consequence of alienation.
She confessed one morning when in Yerevan on vacation. Her father said he would expect anything from her – becoming a drug addict, even – except for her announcing that she was lesbian.
Learning the news, her parents said they were going for a walk. Shushan asked fearfully if she could go with them, as if using the chance to ask: “You don’t deny me, right?” The parents agreed but Shushan felt she was no more a member of her family.
Where are others who don’t enjoy Shushan’s fate, of being able to live openly in another country but live the burden of a double life? Aquaintance with Lusine, an artist from Utopiana organization in Yerevan becomes the beginning for unification of the group of lesbian women and realization of a joint project.
Lusine, 30, says she identified her homosexuality at the age of 20 and that her family knows her orientation but keeps silent. Her mother’s suggestion that she should leave Armenia has been the ony hint of knowing.
The fear to come out has accompanied the “Women of Zaroubyan” for six months, from the day the idea of doing a joint project appeared.
It is like in the video installation by Lyusia, 26, where a woman speaks whispering so that nothing is heard but dares to speak out several words ‘to hurt’ from time to time.
Astghik, 30 drew the stencil and two love making women made of flour appeared on the floor. The exhibition gave opportunity to visualize what she has been concealing all her life. Her mother does not know of her orientation. She has opened herself to her sister, whose response was ‘Ugh!’
The step is made but Astghik is afraid: yes, she has revealed herself, but she would not like her mother to know: “I am afraid first of all that my mother may learn. The city is small and there will be lots of unpleasant talks.”
Arpi, 22 says had she a good job and was able to live separately she would open up; but now she leaves too much responsibility on her parents that have to provide for her and carry the burden of shame for their daughter’s orientation before the relatives and neighbors. She was supposed to inform Lusine’s mother in a performance about her daughter’s orientation by phone, but did not because of fear.
Two women from Toronto also face the conservatism of the Armenian community denying homosexuality, but as Alina (all subjects asked that we only use first names) says she has a chance to distance herself from the comminty unlike women in Armenia, who have no place to escape.
Alina, 47, was born in Tehran, moving to Toronto with her family in 1980. At 30, she told her husband she was lesbian. After leading an active lesbian life for 12 years, she and her girlfriend Melanie rejoined with her former husband and made a new family: “I don’t want the title of a homosexual; it limits me. I fell in love with my husband again after years.”
When she told her mother, a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party, the mother yelled at her: “Alina, you want me to suffer!!!” She never told the father. Her younger brother is also a homosexual, but none of the family knows about it.
Alina says that although she has a “shameful” reputation in the Canadian-Armenian community, she and her girlfriends have started attending commemoration of Armenian religious holidays.
“They would not even say hello to me as if I did not exist,” she says.
She says that listening to the other Armenian women’s stories is “like déjà vu”, reminding her of her own experience.