There has been much talk of the LGBTI community in Armenia lately. A bar, widely considered to be a gathering spot for those who think and act differently than most in this country, was recently firebombed and vandalized. The violence was condemned in large part only by the LGBTI community and its supporters, until two ARF MPs acted on behalf of the assailants, posting bail for them pending trial. That gave way to greater attention and greater condemnation, particularly in the diaspora—including by several leaders and opinion-makers associated with the ARF.
Partly in response to that event, a conference on LGBTI tolerance issues took place in Armenia last week. It was poorly attended–perhaps by 20 or 30 people at most–though supported by European bodies and the UN. And on Mon., May 21, a rally in support of diversity and tolerance was planned on the occasion of the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, but also not too far on the calendar from the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which is marked on May 17. Both events were spearheaded by an NGO known as PINK (“Public Information and Need of Knowledge”), alongside other civil society groups.
I arrived at the appointed time, greeted by a police presence, a scene not entirely alien to Armenia, but nevertheless unexpected. It soon became clear that it was quite necessary, as there was a counter-rally. The minority was really in a minority, as the counter-protestors clearly outnumbered those who had arrived for the march.
That crowd was singing songs—Armenian patriotic songs, some of my own favorites, actually. They were ostensibly present to do just that, to simply indulge themselves in patriotism, as some of their leadership stated. But at the same time they were holding placards with arrows carrying such slogans as “They are ‘Goluboys’” (a Russian word, literally meaning “sky blue,” a disparaging reference to homosexuals) and “Keep Them Away from Children!” One of the arrows pointed to the rally warned: “Zgoushatsek Hokevarakits.” I had never heard that word—“Hokevarak”—before and asked the young ladies holding the placard what it meant. “Varakel” is “to infect”; gays and lesbians are thus perceived by the counter-demonstrators to be a “virus of the soul” for our society. The event was perceived to be a gay pride parade, and the reaction was in accordance with that misinformation.
The masses moved, accompanied by the police and the media. The braver ones formed the core groups, immediately surrounded by police. Others, such as myself, stayed to one side and followed along. One woman was photographing the events with a baby tied on to her with a sling. Sometimes, one could not quite tell who was on which side.
The majority–many young ladies among them–was constantly calling out to the minority “Amot! Amot!” (“Shame on you!”), and telling “fags” to simply go away, or to go to Baku. A friend of mine approached me and asked what side I was on. I said I was on the side of tolerance, and she walked away. I had never been in that situation before, choosing a side, and perhaps sacrificing a friendship for it in the process. Another friend of mine was being harangued by a Western Armenian-speaker, suggesting to him to move to Holland. If the police had not intervened, it would have easily turned into a fight. And there were a fair few such instances.
The march moved on from the Cascade, past the Opera, down Northern Avenue, through a side-street, and up some narrow stairs to the gallery at Charles Aznavour Square, where an exhibit was to be opened. The gallery was at first blocked by some of the counter-protestors forming a human chain, which was subsequently broken up by the police, who in turn formed a chain to ensure the safety of the marchers. The opening of the exhibit never quite took place, as that gallery took on the role of a haven for the marchers. Well, it was more like a prison for the 20 or so gathered there, dark and tense. I snuck in and had to sneak out through a back door, with the help of the police.
Some counter-protestors got wind of the back exit and ran in that direction. I am not sure, but I don’t think anyone ended up getting physically hurt, although I could be mistaken. Frankly, I was scared in a way that I have rarely been in all my time in Yerevan. What stuck with me most is that clear lines were drawn that day, two sides formed, and they saw each other’s faces. I worry for myself now, as I don’t really look like I’m from around here. Am I one day going to run into that young man who was shouting obscenities? Won’t he recognize me, perhaps at some cafe, perhaps at an event, perhaps just on the street, or perhaps at church?
The church was present too, towards the end. Three priests showed up, one of whom spoke to the media. He stated that the Armenian Church, as all traditional Christian establishments, is against homosexuality. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah related in the Old Testament forms enough of a basis for that position. “The sinful is sinful,” he said. “We do not hate the sinner, but the sin.” He urged a peaceful resolution and was there to speak on behalf of the church and to intervene, if need be. The priest thought it a false approach to humanism to tolerate homosexuality. That they exist, there is no doubt, but “that phenomenon” (as it was often referred) should not be encouraged, he said. Yerevan has not been destroyed as Sodom and Gomorrah because there are yet 10 righteous people in this city, the priest said, citing the Old Testament episode (the conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 18:20-33).
An old man came up to me and asked what all this was about. I was not sure what to say and said as simply as I could, “There are some asking for freedom, and these others are against them.” He then asked me if I could help him with some money. It was one of those moments.
Among the same people who were shouting “Hayastan! Hayastan!”, with which I would heartily join in myself on any other occasion, was a young man who said that he could not care less about the country’s constitution (“Tkats ounem sahmanadroutyan vra,” literally “I spit on the constitution”). Rule of law might still be a challenge in the republic, but the actions of the police were very encouraging indeed, and what could have easily turned a “Pink Monday” into a “Red Monday” was averted because of their presence and helpful attitude.
A couple of journalists were weeping at one point. One plainly said, “I cannot take this anymore,” before leaving. I was speaking with a journalist friend later. She was very concerned about attitudes in general, but also about how the discourse employed by the majority finds no qualms in conflating tolerance for LGBTI along with the popular civic movements for the environment, such as the “Occupy Mashtots Park” or Teghout advocacy, even going so far as to add opposition leader and former president Levon Ter Petrosian into the mix.
Now, I cannot say that I am fully comfortable with homosexuality myself, but to go about blowing up places–in a residential building, no less, with gas pipes to boot–is simply unacceptable. I am proud of people who believe in things, who are ready to defend their causes. As an Armenian, I consider myself as belonging to that category in many respects. But to do so thoughtlessly, to resort to violence, to foment anger and hatred… I am not so sure about all of that. My education makes it hard for me to appreciate such tactics and their rationale.
The counter-rally promised more at 9 o’clock that night, on the location of that very public place that was earlier subject to violence. I did not have the courage to go. It started to rain soon after the rally dispersed. Perhaps it would have been helpful if it happened in the course of the march, or perhaps not. I hope it cooled the passions for whatever was meant to unfold later on in the evening.
A television report later indicated that the group–allegedly a neo-Nazi organization known as “Armenian Black Ravens”–raided the bar that had been subject to firebombing, destroying more of the property and adding to the graffiti there. Videos of the goingson are widely available on-line, including from the following sources: