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Homosexuality and Armenian Genocide Advocacy

 

Special for the Armenian Weekly

A gay man became the world’s most prominent advocate for Armenian Genocide recognition. On Feb.  26, Elton John and his AIDS foundation hosted their annual Oscar Viewing Party with a screening of the highly anticipated period drama, The Promise, set during the Armenian Genocide.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Or was it?

Elton John and David Furnish attend the 25th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation’s Oscar Viewing Party of The Promise on Feb. 26 in West Hollywood, Calif. (Photo courtesy of the Elton John AIDS Foundation)

For centuries, the tension of Armenian identity has simmered around reconciling liberal political ideologies with orthodox religious values. The Armenian revolutionary movement that began in the late 19th century appropriated European socialism to help Armenians justify the latest iteration of a centuries-long fight for liberation and independence. Within multicultural empires, the left-leaning ideology served well this oft-marginalized minority. A collective society taking ownership over a nation’s economic and political wellbeing pushed back against authoritarian strains growing among corrupt regimes, like the Ottomans, who ruled through hierarchy and segregation. Aligning with socialism gave Armenians of the 19th and early 20th century a “political silk road” to unite with movements around the world. The return to liberalism, as expressed by socialism, became a clarion call for social inclusion—a vision for harmony and unity in a time of tumult and unrest. It extended a trend that Armenian communities had faced for centuries (and, arguably, continue to face): overcoming state-sponsored discrimination by fighting for a more tolerant society.

Concurrently, orthodoxy in Armenian Christianity benefited from its conservative approach to identity and community. This conservatism maintained and secured institutionalized notions of Armenian religiosity. By virtue of the Church’s central role in Armenian community life, religious identity shaped approaches to political, intellectual, social, and sexual thought. Communities facing political and military displacement were well-served by a Church offering firm guidelines on healing, belonging, and spiritual and material salvation. Those guidelines grew from early Church doctrine, a defining feature of Oriental Orthodoxy, designed during Ecumenical Councils of the 4th and 5th centuries that codified the marginalization of homosexuals, women, and others whose identities presided outside the bounds of what was deemed acceptable. In short, these measures offered spiritual salvation only to those who met specific identity parameters.

This tension between the political liberation offered by socialism and the spiritual salvation promised by orthodoxy set the backdrop for what happened on Feb. 26. As too many Armenians who identify as LGBTQ could testify, Elton John would be shunned by many Armenian communities were it not for his stature. What is the subtext? That the rules do not equally apply to all? That fame permits otherwise “inexcusable” qualities? Or is it that the standards and norms purporting to define Armenian identity are fraught with contradictions that demand reflection and reconstruction?

As Armenians prepare to #KeepThePromise and preach to the world about Armenian Genocide recognition to learn from the past and prevent future atrocities, secular and religious Armenian institutions must consider the promise of sustaining the Armenian identity and nation through respect, tolerance, and inclusion of all Armenians regardless of their sexual, religious, or economic orientation.

A palpable homophobia alienates elements essential to ensuring the longevity, health, and prosperity of the Armenian nation and diaspora. In Armenia, hate crimes against the LGBTQ community continue at a troubling clip. From last year’s public beating of LGBTQ individuals to the 2012 fire bombing of the DIY Bar, the absence of any substantive legislation against hate crimes targeted at this community signifies social malpractice on the part of Armenia’s government as well as the religious and secular institutions that perpetuate and embolden its broken approach to governing.

One step to reverse this spiral involves expanding the definition of victim groups defined in Article 63 of Armenia’s Criminal Code which outlaws hate crimes “motivated by revenge based on ethnic, racial or religious hatred, religious fanaticism.” Since this law must be interpreted literally as stipulated by the “Law on Legal Acts”, then it should also explicitly include LGBTQ individuals. Another productive step for Armenia’s government would be to adopt the ten policy measures offered by the NGO Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK) as outlined in their illuminating October 2016 report Hate Crimes and Other Hate Motivated Incidents Against LGBT People in Armenia.

Indeed, if Donald Trump can give the gay billionaire Peter Thiel a platform at the Republican National Convention to declare pride for his sexual orientation, and if Vladimir Putin can appeal to the inclusion of gays in Russia, then mainstream Armenian institutions in the republic and diaspora can go further in addressing a corrosive discrimination that has disregarded evolving norms in Armenian identity and global human rights standards. Pope Francis said it best: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

The expansion of Armenian identity has, of course, been long under way. Dispersion, assimilation, globalization, and liberalization have wrought a new chapter in Armenianness where novel or previously undeclared variations are being claimed: Muslim, Buddhist, LGBTQ, ethnically mixed, and beyond. This dynamic stokes fears that the identity’s expansion may cause its demise, spurring the marginalization of elements who objectively have much to offer the community. Substantively vapid, this fear may more prominently indicate an attachment to states of trauma and victimhood transmitted across generations in the aftermath of genocide, civil wars, revolutions, and state-sponsored oppression.

Through the enormity of the Armenian Genocide and the existential angst of processing the Turkish government’s denial (the genocide’s final step), Armenians around the world have for decades sought healing through remembrance, cultural production, legal battles, coalition building, and beyond. Elton John and his foundation witnessed and contributed to that pursuit. Yet true healing remains elusive in the presence of state-sponsored genocide denial by the perpetrator regime and its major global allies.

The result of this denial is, for Armenians, a psychological complex that words can only scratch the surface in describing. This complex is characterized by a variety of (competing) qualities: in-fighting, inferiority, ambition, principled political stances, Machiavellian politicking, and beyond. Institutions, artists, and others have appropriated the Armenian Genocide in a delicate balance of remembrance and legacy that must survive the onslaught of capital, consumption, and economic viability in today’s hyper-consumerist reality.

One critical aspect of the aforementioned complex is the oppression of minority Armenians who represent religious, sexual, and political orientations that challenge (patriarchal) assumptions about Armenianness. This marks an unconscious extension of what the genocide attempted to carry out: a silencing of elements perceived as threatening to rigid identity formations coupled with an attempt to distract from corrupt and ineffectual leadership.

In collaborating with Elton John and his foundation, the team behind The Promise echoed a signal ringing since Martin Luther King Jr. and prior: that a person’s most important quality is the content of their character, not their racial or religious or sexual orientation. Explicitly, The Promise will share the story of the Armenian Genocide and help advocate for human rights, AIDS awareness, and other nonprofit initiatives—no small feat. Implicitly, the film will continue creating moments like the Elton John screening that will compel the Armenian community to confront (and hopefully correct) a painful legacy of discrimination within its own ranks.

As the months march forward and the Armenian Genocide returns to the foreground of advocacy and dialogue, new encounters will spark reflection and action to ensure the sustainability of an Armenian nation in the 21st century.

The Feb. 26 screening of The Promise hosted by Elton John and his foundation marked a watershed moment for Armenian identity when advocacy for the Armenian Genocide and support for LGBTQ well-being intersected on the world’s stage.

The promise of longevity flows through tolerance. The promise of peace begins and ends with love.

 

10 Comments on Homosexuality and Armenian Genocide Advocacy

  1. avatar Meline Haratunian Lachinian // March 22, 2017 at 1:19 pm // Reply

    This is one of the most powerful, well reasoned, and persuasive articles I’ve ever read in the Weekly. Bravo for speaking out and doing so in such an articulate manner. Well done!

  2. Well, here in the US, we largely accept homosexuals and try not to impose any special burden on them. They can live their lives.

    But what people object to are things such as homosexual education in the lower grades (yes, its’s true), and allowing males who “identify” as females (while still acting and dressing as men) to use female facilities such as public restrooms and shower rooms in high schools, something that is allowed now, is happening, and that most people object to.

  3. This article is fundamentally erroneous. This idea that somehow homosexuality is part of the acceptance of the “expanding of Armenian identity” is not just incorrect, it’s dangerous. Homosexuality did not enter the Armenian identity yesterday, 10 years ago, or in the 1800s. Homosexuality has been part of the Armenian identity for as long as there have been Armenians, just as it has been part of humanity for as long as there have been humans. The acceptance of LGBTQ Armenians is not a matter of liberal perspectives trying to outshine religious orthodoxy. In fact, the reason why LGBTQ Armenians are not seen as “Armenians” is precisely because ARMENIANS THINK THAT THEIR RELIGIOUS IS A NECESSARY ELEMENT OF THEIR CULTURE, and just like everywhere else, religious leadership imposes its autocracy on the people by imposing moral conformity.

    The moment the majority of Armenians realize that being Christian has nothing to do with being Armenian – in fact, that one can make an argument that the only true Armenian is a pagan Armenian – THAT is when we will become an inclusive society – not by expanding our definition of Armenian identity, but by re-discovering our true identities as people who once worshiped the sun and the womb, but not kiss golden rings on fat fingers and think they’re blessed for it.

  4. Thank you SO much for this piece!! It’s hard to reconcile being Armenian with our beliefs that aren’t inscribed in religion. Being secular, queer or an ally, none of these things fit in with what some Armenians say is the only and traditional way of being Armenian. I’m so over it.

  5. avatar Alain Navarra Navassartian // March 23, 2017 at 4:24 am // Reply

    Bravo this is one of the most intelligent and powerful text I have read since a long time about Armenian identity

  6. This went over my head. So, tell me clearly, WHAT is the link between being victims of genocide and being homophobic? The only hint I got was that the church took care of many Armenian “communities facing political and military displacement [after the genocide],” and as a result got to spread its views. Is that it?

  7. What an absurdity! Shame on the author for manipulating the advocacy of Armenian genocide and push homosexual propaganda. Please restrain your “free fall flaming ” imagination.
    Elthon Jon is respected for his enormous talent and hard work , for his humanitarian efforts and not for his privet personal sexual orientation and practice , which is his right ! We all are thankful and appreciate his
    jesture and good deed , but that for sure doesn’t give you the right to barter , manipulate and trade with it .
    You and sexuality centered and consumed ( possessed ?) others like you see and perceive the world trough that limited and very much distorted lenses of sexual orientation. This notion that Armenian society , church and nation in general is somehow homophobic and intallerant is absolutely false and outdated . Look for your issues inside you . All Armenians of all pacularities , “shapes and forms ” are relevant , accepted and welcomed when they have eagerness and will to contribute no matter what sexual, social , economic (etc.) qualities and veriations shape their individual private lives .
    It is regrettable that the author is misusing and abusing a good deed by Mr. Elthon Jon to advocate a perceived and artificial “problem”.
    Let’s keep our sexualities private and in our bedrooms , may they be hetro 0r homo sexuality.
    Being an Armenian and contributing to all things Armenian is honor and great service to humanity …

  8. This is not the first time that an attempt is made on these pages to link the unlinkable. In some other thread a poster attempted to liken the generally negative attitude of most Armenians worldwide towards homosexual propaganda to Turkish atrocities during the genocide. I’m sorry to say, but I think AW editors have to take their share of the blame for publishing such “articles”, to put it mildly, in which homosexuality is somehow linked to the Armenian genocide. The title is despicable, as is the content. What does the sexual orientation of an entertainer have to do with recognition and retribution for the Armenian genocide? Sir Elton John came up as a talented musician, a world-renowned entertainer, and I extend my thanks to him for making the cause known to the wider audience. I could care less about what he thinks or does in the privacy of his bedroom.

  9. avatar Professor Claudia Dreifus // March 29, 2017 at 10:03 am // Reply

    Congrats to former student Rafi Vartanian for remarkable and generous thoughts. We here at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs remember Rafi as a talented, creative and caring student–who carries forward the school’s mission of communication, knowledge and tolerance.

  10. An epic article about human rights. For those who continue to choose to ignore the connection, I suggest you educate yourself into the 21st century. Well done Raffi.

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