A Good Day for Homophobia in Yerevan

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.

A scene from the counter-demonstration.

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:

http://www.slaq.am/arm/news/60461/

http://lena-globalchaos.blogspot.com/2012/05/diversity-march-in-yerevan-hijacked-by.html

http://civilnet.am/2012/05/21/%D5%A2%D5%A1%D5%AD%D5%B8%D6%82%D5%B4-%D5%A2%D5%A1%D5%A6%D5%B4%D5%A1%D5%A6%D5%A1%D5%B6%D5%B8%D6%82%D5%A9%D5%B5%D5%A1%D5%B6-%D5%B7%D5%B8%D6%82%D6%80%D5%BB/

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Nareg Seferian received his education in India, Armenia, the United States, and Austria. His writings can be read at naregseferian.com.

29 Comments

  1. What can one say? I’m ashamed to call myself Armenian!
    The reaction to the gay community in Armenia is unacceptable. I’m sick & tired of defending my race! A minority race acting like hooligans against other minorities! Shame on them. These people do not deserve the diaspora’s help! Who are we helping exactly? Why?
    A race that has gone through so much pain & suffering should and must embrace everything that has to do with human rights. Then again, I must be delirious! How can I expect a country embrace change & be tolerant when to this day girls & women are battered & abused!?
    I see no light at the end of this dark tunnel…

    Disgusted & ashamed

    • Why are you condemning the whole country?! You’re overreacting. At least the police did not stand back and let things from getting out of control.

      And why are you the one feeling the shame? You have nothing to do with this hatred. The best thing you can do is be Armenian and not hold these attitudes. If you feel ashamed, then you understand right from wrong and thus should not feel shame.

  2. Yes, my darling Cousin jan…
    Have we learned nothing as a persecuted, and maligned group based on our heritage?
    SHAME on these foolish people… ALL Armenians should understand, and empathize with all minorities and maligned groups..
    This crushes my soul very deeply….. REMEMBER YOUR ANCESTORS.
    They Were tortured and murdered savagely over insignificant, Different Cultural issues.

  3. A wonderful article. Armenia now has 2 choices ahead of it: loving tolerance or intolerant hatred. I know most will choose the first. It’s the right choice.

    • No, we have something called ‘loving intolerance’ of your unethical stance, just to illuminate your narrow mind.

  4. Why is everyone so shocked? Armenia is a pretty conservative and traditional country. It shouldn’t be so surprising to hear that these attitudes exist in a country where a girl is an old maid at 25, domestic abuse is common and tolerated, corruption is expected and the economy is a mish-mash of monopolies run by oligarchs. I’m not condoning any of these taboo things but Armenia isn’t as developed, modern or “westernized” as we’d all like to believe.

  5. Armenians better catch up with modern n civilized way of life. we keep making fun of Muslims yet we act like them. i believe it is 21 century

    • Does ‘civilized’ means ‘unethical’? And who makes fun of muslims? You? Their religion as ours is against homosexuality. PERIOD.

    • Have you noticed Jack that the most “civilized” nations today have separation between church and state? And the most backwards ones are ruled by religion- e.g. Iran?

    • RDVD, do you consider the U.S with its endless wars against other nations a civilized nation? On the other hand Israel (the main ally of the United States) is a nation that confesses and accepts only Judaism as its main religion. How could you make such blunt statement, when you know that religion has nothing to do with an action of any nation that works only for its best interests.

      Take Saudi Arabia as another example, why is Saudi Arabia (which is far more backwards than you think than Iran) the best ally to the U.S. while the U.S. blames Iran? The reason is neither religion nor faith, it is politics.

      On the third side, do you consider Nepal, Bhutan, the Vatican as civilized?, since they all have their nations ruled by religion primarily.

      No matter what, hypocrisy is the name of the game in the west, and YOU ARE its brainwashed victims.

    • Have you noticed, RVDV, that there is a separation between faith/spirituality/ethics/morality and religion? “Ungodly sinful” may as well refer to such ethical norms but not to religion per se. All-permissiveness and unrestrictedness have never been characteristics of a “civilized” human society.

    • Yawn. Step it up people. You seriously trying to tell me the US in its endless wars is somehow less civilized than Israel, the warmonger-er2.0?

      ‘Nepal, Bhutan, the Vatican as civilized?’

      No, no, annddddd negative.

      “No matter what, hypocrisy is the name of the game in the west”

      True.

      ” and YOU ARE its brainwashed victims.”

      Glad someone has it figured out.

      Jack: ““Ungodly sinful” may as well refer to such ethical norms but not to religion per se”

      You continue to out do yourself. unGODly key word God, sinful, key word SIN. These words appear in the context of religion. Like are a real person? Can the intelligence bar be set any lower?

      ” All-permissiveness and unrestrictedness have never been characteristics of a “civilized” human society.”

      True, why don’t you do us a favor, take yourself and some of you buddies- leave, and let the rest of us give a go at a truly civilized society.

    • RDVD, If you think your U.S is more civilized, then I have nothing to say. Remember that the US is the one and only country that destroys other people and their lands and calls it “war on terror”.

      Let me tell you something junior. You and your US are the main terrorists of thuis planet.

      LET THE US RECOGNIZE THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE, IF IT IS CIVILIZED AS YOU SAY.

    • “Truly civilized society” being what kind of society? Sodom and Gomorrah? We do know from the Torah/the Bible/Quran what happens to such a society. Do you?

    • ” If you think your U.S is more civilized,”– More civilized then some homophobic countries.

      “then I have nothing to say”

      If you have nothing more to say why did you continue writing?

      Jack: It’ll take a big fire to take out the West. So inconsiderate to God. Maybe the dude has problems of his own. All I hear is God will do this, God will do that. You know what, maybe that’s why all we hear are stories of God’s wrath- I’d have a hard time loving my children too if they were truly this stupid.

      “1 Peter 1:22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.”

      Not sure you get the real message trying to passed on in the Torah/Bible/Quran.

  6. I was there and I wouldn’t say the police acted professionally. Yes, they prevented anyone from getting badly hurt (though there were a few attacks on the activists) but let us not for a minute believe that they did so in our interests or for our safety. The police follow orders from above and not from activists, least of all those perceived to be gay or gay friendly. Police in Armenia need better training when it comes to crowd control. The counter rally should never even have been allowed to go on (and the two groups should never have been allowed to mix) especially since the Diversity March had received prior permission from City Hall (hence, the police presence) while the counter rally HAD NOT. And the police should have immediately reacted to some of the remarks counter-demonstrators uttered (such as the “I spit on the Constitution”) and detained those individuals.

    P.S. The name of the group is Dark Ravens not Dark Crows.

  7. Dear Nareg,

    ‘Goluboy’ is a Russian word literally meaning ‘sky blue’ and is used as a reference to homosexuals, but not in a disparaging way. It is used to denote a homosexual in the same way Westerners denote a homosexual as ‘gay’ (merry).

  8. To all of you “educated” people who express hatred against country, maybe instead of sitting back and spreading your “final disappointment” you could help to educate and build the country, unless of course you’re use to get everything ready and fore granted. Also remember that this problem exists in every country and it is offend used by politicians or even by external forces to divide and manipulate the public by artificially shifting their focus from main issues. The most important issue for us now is the economy. The improvement of it will resolve the migration and other important issues.

  9. It’s amazing to me that those who preach tolerance and acceptance, are very rarely tolerant or accepting to those individuals who have differing opinions from them. In other words, I in no way condone violence or destruction towards ANY GROUP of people simply because of who they are. In this case gay, lesbian or whatever. There are many reasons for that including simply being that I’m a human being with compassion, in addtiion is wasn’t too long ago that our people were subjected to the same sort of treatment by those animals we refer to as the Turks, However, with all that being said, my view of not agreeing with their lifestyle or approving of it is JUST AS VALID as someone else’s who feels that’s it’s perfectly fine. It’s just my experience that those preaching tolerance are only tolerant if your views are the same as theirs.

  10. Diversity frightens most Armenians and the gut reaction of many in Armenia is to strike out in a blanket way under the guise of crude and primitive nationalism and evoking “christian” values. Most of these types are hypocrites when it comes to their treatment of women and national minorities. Most have never met an African-American either but are quick to disparage all black people as backwards and subhuman. It’s characteristic of Armenians who boast having a centuries old culture, blah-blah. The sad fact is that the patriotism and Christianity of these neanderthal protesters is merely skin deep. Present-day Armenia is being suffocated in a morass of conformity and conventionality. Where were these protesters when events against violence against women, who comprise some 52% of the population, were being staged? Tolerance does not equate with accepting the life style of the LGBT community. Armenians also need a scapegoat to conceal their own inadequacies and faults when it comes to building a strong, all inclusive society, confidently looking towards the future.

  11. For God’s sake why can’t you people leave Armenia alone and let her figure out what she needs to do and not do? I do not advocate violence against sexual minorities, but I also do not advocate the import of western immorality into a tiny nation who is struggling to survive, surrounded by a sea of Muslim fanatics.

    Articles like these, calling the youth there Nazis, Ultranationalists and the like are irresponsible and out of touch with the reality that Armenia is in. One of the links of a clueless blogger shows a man with a swastika necklace “therefore he must be a Nazi” – please spare us this level of ignorance – the swastika is an ancient symbol found in Armenia and represents our ancient Aryan lineage. Plenty of Nazis smoked cigarettes, does this mean whoever smokes is a Nazi? Stop this amateur copy-cat journalism, please and find another topic which will help Armenia.

    “Diversity” might be acceptable in a nation of 300 million – but it is dangerous for a nation of 3 million which is technically still at war and losing its population every year. Please get a clue.

  12. @Kevork – And why do you think that people are leaving Armenia in droves?? Because there is no competition, no diversity of opinion and belief….Those that hold the reins of power and won’t let go are dragging the country and its people ever downward into a spiral of frustration and disillusionment. People at the top have been molded by the same cookie-cutter and are out for their personal aggrandizement at the expense of the nation. By diversity, we mean breaking the 19th century mentality that suffocates development and new approaches to tackle the problems facing Armenia. Please leave Armenia alone??? You talk about Muslim fanatics surrounding Armenia but these homegrown rabid bigots and their pseudo-patriotism are the real enemies of Armenia, trying to exert their concept of what Armenia should look like on the majority. I am writing these lines from Yerevan so don’t tell me to back off with my critique of what is transpiring here. Do those neanderthals know that Lord Byron was gay. There’s a street names in his honor in Yerevan. So will they demand that its name be changed? If the rights of all RA citizens (gay, fascist, the disabled, religious minorities, etc) can’t be protected as enshrined under the constitution, then who the hell would want to immigrate there anyway? People are leaving but who is taking their place?

    • When was the last time you were actually in Armenia? Stop with the fairy-tales. People are leaving and coming back, they are migrant workers. Of course there is emigration still taking place, but not nearly at the level that agitators would like to portray. And this brings up the question. Other than Russia, what country are these people going to that has a healthy and growing economy? The majority of the EU states are in serious politico-economic trouble, as well as the US. So those foolish enough to leave a middle income lifestyle in Armenia to pursue a life as peasant in the West are more than welcome to leave.

  13. Don’t these people have anything else to do besides rallying! Instead of thinking on what to do to make Armenia successful and powerful they are rallying for rights! Instead of fighting why can’t all these boys get educated and start building their economies and contribute to an aspect in their culture!
    No wait, they can’t do that! because for almost two decades these boys don’t even want to serve their military either…..explains why we have less MEN in Armenia today! This pictures really disgusted me personally if these boys were in military I bet they couldn’t even fight like that like they did in the picture!

  14. A Nation that has Witnessed a Genocide Relying on Violence?!

    According to dictionary.com, violence is “an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws”. It hurts me to say the bombing that happened in Yerevan, DIY Bar is an act of pure violence, intolerance, and above all it’s inhumane and labels Armenians as “terrorists”.

    We are a nation that has lived through a heart breaking genocide; after all the unspeakable events we overcame it surprises me that yet again we rely on deadly weapons. Our population is small, therefore the most powerful weapon we have is our acceptance of each other. If we keep pointing fingers instead of embedding our unrivaled culture in the upcoming generations, they will lose their identity and Armenians will no longer be.

    On 13 May 2012, Sarah Morrison from “The Independent” reported in an article titled “Uk is ‘best in Europe’ to be gay” that Armenia is at the “bottom of the rankings” of accepting different sexual orientations. Reading this shocked me; I am not asking you to encourage homosexuality but I urge you to accept them, to let them live in peace, to allow them to have a bar they’re comfortable at.

    On May 21 2012, an article “Letter: You Cannot Threaten, Condone, or Enact Violence Against LGBT Armenians” was published in the Armenian Weekly. In this article ARF MP, Artur Aghabekyan stated that he “welcomes young people who do not simply ring the alarm bell but make practical steps in fighting against those who defame our national vlaues and faith.” Yes Mr. Aghabekyan we should fight, but in a civilized manner, it is the century of the intellect, of the pen, not of bombs. Let’s fight a clean battle to save our culture, to teach our language, to stay Armenian. That is the biggest and most essential battle we have yet to win.

    Two ARF MPs bailed out the “criminals” and I use this term because I’m at a loss of another term. I do not believe they should be labeled criminals, I choose to think that if they are taught to widen their horizons then this kind of hideous deed will never happen in Yerevan again. I just want the MPs to realize that they are representing the whole of ARF and by just bailing those two people out (regardless if they are relatives or friends or strangers) sends the wrong message to the public. With high position comes the responsibility to speak up in the name of the people.

    As young adults we dream of a pure Armenia, we are raised to believe that Armenians are the most honorable people but when those young adults mature and are exposed to the injustices that are occurring in Armenia they are disappointed, the perfect picture of Armenia is shattered. The role of the adults here are of two folds:

    1- Do not “idealize” Armenia, teach your children to love it and help them realize that it is just like any other country, it has the good and the bad. They will most probably defend it fiercely because they will grow to love it and the feeling of belonging will never fade away.

    2- Accept differences. People with different sexual orientations have feelings and judging them based on their sexual preferences is immoral. People’s sexuality is a private matter, who they choose to spend the rest of their lives with is their business and not the society’s.

    Let’s celebrate diversity, accept each other, and work hand in hand regardless of our sexual orientations and political parties for a better Armenia.

  15. Bravo to all those real Armenians and patriots who are standing up to this abomination. Those who wish to join the lgbt community in Armenia can leave and join the other psycho-sexual deviants in the West. Keep Armenia a Christian and Traditionalist country.

  16. I was against
    But I’ve changed
    Leave them to live
    Like you and me…!

    The earth is your place
    And for them as well
    Those who are born with different genes
    With different mentality

    Things no one can change
    They love their sex…
    Thus…see their view…and
    Accept their taste…

    Leave them to live…
    Like you and me…
    You’re not god
    Neither…could be…!

    (C) Sylva-MD-Poetry

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