LGBTQ Armenians Face Reign of Terror

Armenia

On Monday, there was another gay-bashing in Armenia, this time against a member of Right Side NGO, a trans activism organization. Max Yarzhapetyan was walking on the street in Yerevan, the capital and largest city, when three men started to follow him, swear at him, and hurl homophobic slurs. Yarzhapetyan called the police as the men persisted. The men asked him if he was Armenian, to which he replied yes. He was soon beaten and thrown onto the road, into traffic.

I reached out to Yarzhapetyan (pictured, above), who was not able to speak due to a broken tooth, injuries to his mouth and nose, and severe pain because of the attack; so we corresponded via Messenger.

According to Yarzhapetyan, the assailants told him that he has no right to call himself an Armenian and that he is not a man, but a “sister.” I asked him about the investigation and what the police were doing about it. He said an investigating office told him, “Gays are not allowed or loved in this country, and that’s why it happened to you.”

The authorities told him that there are cameras everywhere, yet no arrest has been made. Yarzhapetyan told me, “I just try to put myself together right now. I am scared to go out of my house because I think they live somewhere near...They had a dog and it was midnight so they were not coming from a far place to walk with a dog. Also I can’t do anything because of my teeth and head.”

He added, “I want justice. I want to be fully recovered and I don’t know how I’m gonna live after this. I had many violent attacks in my life, I even got my finger cut years ago but this was completely hell because it was unexpected and I did nothing ... (I didn’t even replied to them) I haven’t slept or ate for 4 days already. ... I’m shaking right now and crying all this days.”

I reached out to the authorities in Armenia for comments about the incident but did not get an immediate response.

LGBTQ and other human rights activists are not optimistic that there will be any lessening of the systematic and institutionalized homophobia in Armenia. Despite sweeping changes triggered by last year’s Velvet Revolution, the situation for LGBTQ Armenians remains the same. \

Last April, tens of thousands of Armenians flooded the streets of Yerevan, demanding the resignation of then–Prime Minister Serj Sargsyan. Sargsyan stepped down after 11 days of protests, and days later, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, a charismatic former journalist, was sworn in as the new prime minister. There was hope in Armenia that a new era had begun, devoid of corruption, oligarchy, and brutality.

I visited Armenia in July and witnessed the positive energy and optimism. Sadly, queer Armenians, while celebrating the revolution, did not share this optimism. For them, it was homophobia as usual. The regime might have changed. but the attitude of the stakeholders was the same.

In February of 2018, a transgender woman was left hospitalized after being brutally beaten in her Yerevan apartment. The hate crime was widely believed to be part of a crackdown against the LGBTQ community.

Lilit Martirosyan, the head of Right Side NGO, told Epress.am about the victim, “She was attacked by one person, who then also set her apartment on fire. Her face and ribs are completely shattered; doctors describe her condition as critical.” She spent several days in intensive care. Martirosyan's organization filed a crime report with the police.

“The identity of the perpetrator is known; he is not on the run. The police are now preparing materials,” said Vahe Manukyan, a lawyer with Right Side. Martirosyan added, “I, as the president of an NGO dealing with the protection of transgender community's rights, can point to drastically increasing cases of discrimination against those people in the Armenian society. And the latest incident is a glaring proof of that.”

One of the most violent and extreme hate crimes happened in the small town of Shurnukh near Goris, the day I left Armenia last year. On August 3, a lynch mob of 30 people, including the town’s former mayor, attacked nine LGBTQ activists and chased them out of town.

Hayk Hakobyan (pictured below), a resident of Shurnukh, was hosting a gathering of friends, some of whom were LGBTQ activists. Knowing about the gathering, residents of the village and Goris stormed the house. They shouted homophobic slurs and threats, demanding that Hakobyan and his guests leave the village. Hakobyan and his friends fled the house and the crowd ran after them, hitting and kicking them, throwing stones, and shouting “get rid of those gays” and “catch them and beat them up.”

Hayk Hakobyan

A victim called the police, who arrived 90 minutes later. One of the victims, Robert, told OC Media, “The police didn’t even bring enough cars to transport nine people like we asked them to. We had to stop a tourist bus for a ride. On the road back, we came across an ambulance, so two injured people, including myself, were transported straight to the hospital.”

Six of Hakobyan’s friends were injured, one with bruises on the head and another with a broken nose. Police said they questioned several of the attackers but did not arrest any of them.

But the victimization and humiliation did not end there. Various groups and individuals defended the crimes, including political and public figures, human rights activists, artists, journalists, and religious figures. Even a motorcade and a celebration in Shurnukh were arranged in defense of the perpetrators.

Following the gay-bashing, Gevorg Petrosyan, an Armenian Parliament member with the Prosperous Armenia Party, made this statement on his Facebook page: "I don't know who will incriminate me and to what extent, but we should have already driven out (I'm stating this lightly) homosexuals, religious minorities, and their protectors from our Holy land with joint efforts.”

The authorities closed the case without much of an explanation. I spoke to Mamikon Hovsepyan, executive director of Pink, the country's leading LGBTQ organization, and he said, "Pink has been monitoring the incident since it occurred, lending support to the victims and working with parties involved to see that justice is served. Pink has retained an attorney who is working with the authorities to reopen the case."

For years, the Armenian government has failed to effectively investigate anti-LGBTQ violence. The criminal code does not recognize anti- LGBTQ hate as an aggravating circumstance, and a government bill on equality does not include sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for protection from discrimination.

In November, the organizers of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups and the New Generation Humanitarian NGO were forced to cancel an event that was due to take place in Yerevan November 15-18. The organization issued a statement that said, “We are deeply distressed and disappointed that political violence, death threats, and vandalism directed at LGBTI people constitute a genuine threat to the safety of our participants.” The statement continued, “During the last several days, there has been a wave of extremist and homophobic acts in Armenia, targeted at the event. In order to maximize their chances at the upcoming elections, the political parties that have been in opposition since the Revolution of April 2018 have mobilized and radicalized right-wing conservatives in the country against the group of activists that was coming to Yerevan for the Forum.”

This was another missed opportunity for a country that could benefit from forums and conferences that bring in a great deal of revenue. In a statement issued November 6, New Generation, a Yerevan-based NGO that was helping to organize the conference, cited “constant threats” and “organized intimidation.” It also said the Armenian police had shown a “lack of sufficient readiness” to protect the gathering.

“I don’t consider it appropriate to hold the forum in Armenia, considering the risks and security considerations,” Armenia’s police chief Valeriy Osipyan told journalists the same day. “We advised that the forum should not be held in Armenia.” Pashinyan’s government “fails to protect the rights of its citizens,” Mika Artyan, an Armenian LGBT activist, wrote on Twitter. “Basically they failed to carry on their duties when it comes to rights of #LGBT citizens. Unacceptable.”

In correspondence obtained by Eurasianet, Yerevan-based LGBTQ activists helping put on the event reported violent threats and said their cars were followed. The activists said that after they reported threats to the authorities, the police appeared willing to guarantee the event’s safety. But the organizers said that while officers were largely helpful, they privately suggested postponing the event “for after the election,” which was set for December, and couldn’t provide the activists the protection they sought.

Pashinyan failed to take a strong position. When he was grilled in Parliament on LGBTQ issues, including on the forum, he cleverly and arrogantly avoided giving a definitive answer. Responding to a member of Parliament from the Tsarukyan faction, Gevorg Petrosyan, who earlier called for LGBTQ people to be expelled from Armenia, Pashinyan  said, “For me as prime minister and for our government, the less this issue comes up, the better.” He added, “It’s a headache.” In other words, the mere existence of LGBTQ Armenians is an inconvenience for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who was reelected in a landslide in December.

In what seemed like a disturbing salute to crimes of the former Soviet Union, Pashinyan continued by saying that in that nation, such people were charged and imprisoned, noting they were hanged in earlier times. Some would interpret his words as supporting an alternative lifestyle, while others would demand that he categorically defends LGBTQ rights, Pashinyan said. Apparently the young “progressive” prime minister has yet to learn that being LGBTQ is not a lifestyle choice, any more than one’s eye color; but that is the least of his dangerous rhetoric.

“The Armenian government must once and for all take immediate steps to address the recent epidemic of violence targeting its LGBTQ citizens. We are deeply alarmed with the mysterious closing of criminal case regarding the violent attacks against 9 LGBTQ individuals last summer in the village of Shurnukh.” said Haig Boyadjian, president of the Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society, a U.S. organization that works with Pink. He added, “The lack of action essentially condones and justifies future hate crimes against Armenia’s LGBTQ community. We are patiently waiting for Prime Minister Pashinyan to defend LGBTQ rights in the ‘New Armenia’ being forged and hope these senseless violent attacks will cease or at least be met with consequences under the law.”

Homosexuality has been legal in Armenia since 2003, but there are no legal protections for LGBTQ Armenians, and Armenia is ranked 49th out of 50 European countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights, only beating out Azerbaijan. Though Armenia does not have marriage equality, the country does recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad. However, no such recognition has been documented yet.

VIC GERMANI is a journalist, a media contributor, and the editor and publisher of The Blunt Post. He spent six years at Frontiers Magazine, followed by L.A. Weekly and Voice Media Group. His syndicated celebrity Q&A column, 10 Questions With Vic, is a Los Angeles Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award finalist. He is a contributor to The Advocate, QNotes, WeHo Times, Los Angeles Blade, Armenian Weekly, Windy City Times, and other publications. Instagram: @vicgerami Twitter: @vicgerami Facebook: facebook.com/TheBluntPost.

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