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.
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.”