Listening to LGBT People in Armenia

Documentary Film ‘Listen To Me: Untold Stories Beyond Hatred’ Premieres in Yerevan 

Special for the Armenian Weekly

The staff at PINK Armenia was abuzz on Oct. 11, as were the many young people who visit the organization’s Yerevan office each day. They come with appointments or for drop-ins to see one of PINK’s psychologists, lawyers, or the social worker; to meet, discuss, and organize in the community room; or simply to be themselves in perhaps the only space in the entire country where they are able to so.

The idea for the film was simple: to tell the stories of those, whose voices are not heard, and to change the image of LGBT people in Armenia. (Photo: Narek Aleksanyan)
The idea for the film was simple: to tell the stories of those, whose voices are not heard, and to change the image of LGBT people in Armenia. (Photo: Narek Aleksanyan)

Oct. 11 was the premiere of “Listen To Me: Untold Stories Beyond Hatred,” a documentary film produced by PINK Armenia with support from the United States Embassy in Yerevan, about the lives of ten LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people in Armenia. Directed by Gagik Ghazareh, the idea for the film was simple: to tell the stories of those, whose voices are not heard, and to change the image of LGBT people in Armenia.

Mamikon Hovsepyan, Executive Director of PINK and one of its founding members, said that it was time for Armenia’s LGBT community to come out of the closet before a packed audience at the Armenian Center for Contemporary and Experimental Art, which hosted the film’s first-ever screening.

“It is time for society to listen to LGBT people and to erase their hatred. It is time to break the silence and show that we exist, that we are your sisters, your sons, your students, your coworkers, your best professors, your closest neighbors, your famous weightlifters, your friends from the Diaspora, your favorite artists, or just another person sharing the same public transport as you,” Hovsepyan said, referring to the diverse cast of the documentary.

Outside the theater, a small exhibition of items belonging to each cast member with a description of the items’ significance gave the audience an opportunity to glance into their lives. They included a guitar, a world championship trophy for weightlifting, a Homenetmen scouting uniform, and a grandmother’s travel documents received in Syria after arriving by foot from Arabkir.

The crowd during the Yerevan premiere of the film (Photo: Narek Aleksanyan)
The crowd during the Yerevan premiere of the film (Photo: Narek Aleksanyan)

Not coincidentally, the film made its premiere on Coming Out Day, a day observed in the U.S. and internationally by queer activists, as a celebration of queer identity and coming out—the process of revealing one’s true sexuality and/or gender orientation and to live openly.

Armenia’s LGBT community “came out” suddenly in 2012 when Armine “Tsomak” Oganesova’s bar, DIY, was firebombed overnight by a group of ultranationalists. In the film, Oganesova says that she could have remained silent during the incident, but chose not to. “Because of this, it came out all at once. We began to understand that there is fascism in Armenia. [It was] always there, but after that incident [it] became much more visible,” she says in the film.

“Instead of accusing the boys, they accused me. I suffered the most. They said much more disgusting and demeaning things about me than those boys,” she added. Oganesova currently lives in Sweden, where she sought asylum after a relentless wave of threats against her and her family for speaking out about DIY’s bombing made it “impossible” for her to live in Armenia.

Local activists say that the incident was the turning point for the movement in Armenia, when LGBT people and their rights went from being unseen and unheard in the country, to subjects of public discussion—albeit a biased and very virulent one for LGBT people on the ground.

The featured individuals in the film share the stage with the filmmaker (Photo: Narek Aleksanyan)
The featured individuals in the film share the stage with the filmmaker (Photo: Narek Aleksanyan)

“Listen To Me” serves as a second coming out for the community, one rooted not in violence and coercion, but in the freedom to choose one’s coming out, and to live freely and with dignity. It also puts a face to LGBT people in Armenia, where homosexuality is often thought of as a foreign phenomenon not native to the Armenian people. According to the first national survey study on societal attitudes towards LGBT people conducted by PINK and the Women’s Initiatives Supportive Group (Georgia), only 9% of Armenians said they knew an LGBT person. Those that did specified knowing one to two gay men only.

The study found what activists have known for years—that a very limited understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity is widespread in Armenia. Negative attitudes are deeply rooted, and unlike in other countries, age and gender are not determining factors for the level of acceptance of homosexuality, as 86.6% of survey respondents “strongly agree” that homosexuality should be outlawed.

PINK Armenia invited several government representatives and ministries to attend the film’s premiere, including the Ministries of Justice, Health, Education and Science, Sport and Youth Affairs, Culture, Foreign Affairs, and the Human Rights Defender’s Office. However, no government representatives responded to PINK’s invitation or attended the film’s premiere, which comes as no surprise.

The official line of Armenian authorities regarding the rights of sexual minorities for years has been either that there are no issues in regards to the rights of LGBT people in the country, or outright public expressions of homophobia and transphobia from top ranking officials. A recent discussion in the National Assembly on NGO law devolved into a petty contest of which member could be more homophobic.

In 2015, the Human Rights Defender’s Office received just two applications regarding rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. PINK Armenia received 46, reflecting the local community’s deep mistrust of authorities and the fear of disclosing one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity, even when it involves rights violations.

Most cases of violence and discrimination go unreported, and Armenia lacks comprehensive legislation protecting citizens from discrimination on the basis of sexuality and/or gender identity. The inaction of law enforcement bodies, their failure to prevent crimes, as well as the court’s failure to restore social justice and prevent further offenses by bringing offenders to justice all contribute to an overall culture of impunity. 2015 was also marked by the banning of same-sex marriage in Armenia by an amended article on marriage of the new constitution, which oppositionists say was used as a scapegoat to draw attention away from other critical issues.

Though life in Armenia for LGBT people is far from what activists want (according to ILGA Europe, Armenia is the third worst country in Europe for LGBT people, after Azerbaijan and Russia), the faces seen and stories told in “Listen To Me,” remind the viewer that Armenia cannot be exceptionalized as an inherently homophobic place. Listening to LGBT Armenians breaks the mold in more ways than one about Armenia and queerness. They are stories of pain and struggle, but also of harmony and love.

“When we first set out with the vision of changing the LGBT situation in Armenia, and to empower the community nine years ago, we could not have imagined that we would have such a strong community like the one we have today,” said Hovsepyan.

'The film’s strength lies in its cast. The ten individuals who share their stories in 'Listen To Me' are a true reflection of the local LGBT community.' (Photo: Narek Aleksanyan)
‘The film’s strength lies in its cast. The ten individuals who share their stories in ‘Listen To Me’ are a true reflection of the local LGBT community.’ (Photo: Narek Aleksanyan)

The film’s strength lies in its cast. The ten individuals who share their stories in “Listen To Me” are a true reflection of the local LGBT community. The film features three diasporan Armenians who now live in Armenia. It includes trans and bisexual stories. There is a gender balance and broad representation of age in the film. The diversity of the storytellers and their experiences stand defiantly against the stereotypes and myths that surround public understanding of LGBT people in Armenia.

Director Gagik Ghazareh said that one of the goals of the film was to capture the stories of its cast without altering what they had to say when they said it in front of the camera. “We did not want to portray messages that were decided or planned previously. We wanted this to be honest and real, and we achieved that. It was an honor to work on this film with PINK and with these courageous individuals,” said Ghazareh during the premiere.

With “Listen To Me,” Karine, Romik, Tsomak, Sevak, Mel, Vahan, Gayane, Armen, Karabina, and Elvira shatter the collective silence that surrounds the topic of LGBT people in Armenia, and challenge us all to come out for sensitive and meaningful discussion on love, identity, and human rights in Armenia and for LGBT people everywhere.

“Listen To Me” has already been screened in Nicosia, with more screenings in Yerevan, Tbilisi, Stockholm, and in diaspora communities planned for the future.

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Kyle Khandikian

Kyle Khandikian is a Salvadoran-Armenian-American writer, LGBTIQ activist, and folk dancer based in Yerevan. Originally from Los Angeles, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies with a minor in Asian Humanities from UCLA. An alumnus of Birthright Armenia, Kyle moved to Yerevan in search of community and eager to work with others on issues of human rights and social justice.

27 Comments

  1. Treating all people fairly and decently?
    Yes.

    Legalizing same sex marriage and teaching homosexuality in the lower grades, as is happening in the US?
    NO.

    • No one “teaches homosexuality in lower grades” in the U.S., or any other grade for that matter. Please stop this empty and untrue ‘Putinist” rhetoric, which aims to scare and divide. In the US, much like other developed countries, they teach to respect your peers and not to bully and beat up someone who may be different from yourself either in race, sexual orientation, disability, or looks for that matter. Isn’t that a good thing?

    • @ Marianna

      You know nothing about Family Life Education (FLE) program in the US. The FLE curriculum in many counties around the country includes teachings on homosexuality and gender identity not only in schools, but in some counties even in kindergartens(!).

  2. It is sad, perhaps even tragic, that a nation that justifiably complains, even rages, against hatred, prejudice, discrimination and lack of human respect committed against its people in historical events finds it apse justifiable to hate, threaten, and use violence and government sanctions against its own people for mere sexual identity. Have the lessons of history now been learned, internalized and understood p?

    • Exactly how are two absolutely unmatched cases connected, may I ask? How is it possible to even juxtapose the genocidal extermination of the nation and our rightful indignation for this crime against humanity and our non-admittance of the Western blasphemy of same sex marriages and propaganda, a practice totally alien to our traditional values, the sanctity of the Armenian family, and our Christian beliefs? What we learned from our history is that our millennia-long national traditions and values, our sanctities and beliefs, and our way of life must be cherished and protected in spite of satanic globalist attempts to destroy them not only in Armenia, but worldwide.

      The prevailing majority of Americans favor the right to keep and bear arms which they enjoy under the Second Amendment to the United States constitution despite their government’s incessant attempts by means of school shootings etc. to alter or remove the Amendment. How would you, so proud to be an American, feel if the Embassy of Armenia in the United States extended support to an minor civil group to produce a documentary film about gun prohibition in America? How will it feel?

    • @ John:

      I know, comparing Armenian Genocide with persecution of sexual minorities in Armenia (and elsewhere) seems a little out of place, but it only does so because of the numbers of victims involved. If you look at it from the point of view of the persecutor, a.k.a. the Hater – the other party is considered “unworthy” of the same kind of rights and somehow inferior. Same happened in Ottoman Turkey towards Armenians at the time, and that’s exactly what you’re promoting in the case of sexual minorities.

      Talking about preserving traditions: yes, we Armenians have great traditions, and a ton of bad ones as well. For instance, beating your wife, gossiping behind your friends’ and neighbours’ backs, and judging everyone who dares be different. I remember growing up in Yerevan and seeing kids pointing at an African tourist and laughing, beating up a Russian kid, just because he stood out, and many other similar instances that happened on a daily basis and are a shameful part of our culture. And so is the traditional entitlement of Armenian men to cheat on their wives – how’s that for fostering family values? I am all for preserving good traditions, but nothing about hating others for who they are is good. If any tradition or belief goes against respecting the premise of “DO NO HARM” – then it needs to be scratched.

      You understand nothing about the sentiment of Americans towards gun control laws. Gun ownership, while afforded by constitution, is not a human right. So, quite frankly, it’s irrelevant to this discussion.

    • @ Marianna

      You know nothing about human rights and freedoms that the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia guarantees to ALL of her citizens.
      Article 14: Human dignity shall be respected and protected by the state as an inviolable foundation of human rights and freedoms.

      Article 14.1: Everyone shall be equal before the law. Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, color, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or other personal or social circumstances shall be prohibited.

      Comparing crimes against humanity, such as the Armenian Genocide, with social non-admittance by the prevailing majority of the Armenian people of homosexual propaganda and same sex marriages in Armenia is disgraceful. Ottoman Armenians had nowhere to turn to when they were murdered en masse, tortured, gang-raped, mutilated, buried and burnt alive, forcibly deported, and made die of hunger and diseases. Homosexuals in Armenia are protected by the SAME laws that ALL of Armenia’s citizens enjoy. If he or she feels they were treated badly, they know where they can seek protection similar to all other citizens. Injustice and lawlessness in some cases is, again, applicable to ALL of Armenia’s citizens. There is no need to single out homosexuals from the whole fabric of the Armenian society. Same with the cases that you’ve enumerated, i.e. wife-beating, bullying, cheating, etc.

      You understand nothing about the gun control laws, gun ownership, and the whole notion of fundamental and human rights. The right to keep and bear arms in the United States is a fundamental right, while the right of self-defense—armed in most cases—is a SUBSTANTIVE HUMAN RIGHT. How come you promote relevance of the Armenian Genocide to homosexuality, but fail at the same time to see relevance in a situation if the Armenian embassy in Washington, DC would extend material support for the production of a documentary propagating gun prohibition in the United States? How would you feel?

  3. {a documentary film produced […] with support from the United States Embassy in Yerevan [about the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people]}

    This is what the United States Embassy is supporting in Armenia? Jesus…

    • Any information if US Embassies in Baku and Tbilisi provided such support for such a documentary film ?

      The question is rhetorical, of course.
      Azerbaijan being an IslamFascist state, nothing of the sort would be tolerated.

      As to Georgia: I don’t know.
      But highly doubtful.
      In May 2013 (during West’s darling, ‘tolerant’ Saakashvili admin) a planned gay-rights march in Tbilisi turned into a massive, violent riot as a result of 1,000s of counter protesters. Police had to rescue the gay-rights marchers.

      Interesting that only Armenia is the lucky recipient of such largess. No?

    • I’m seriously horrified by the completely illogical comments about “millennia-long Christian traditions” (what about our pagan traditions?) and “Western” influence of homosexuality. Homosexuality exists everywhere, in some places it is simply more accepted than others. It’s absolutely normal for LGBTQ people to keep mum and for straight people to not have any idea about those communities, so you can’t say it’s a new western thing, secret meeting spots are not an original thing of the West. No one is teaching kindergarten kids to BE homosexual – they’re simply being told that that’s another type of family which exists. And it does exist.

      Preservationism is part of what’s keeping Armenia in such a shitty state.

      As for funding, if it doesn’t happen in Baku it’s not because of Islam, it’s because no one has made the request for a filmmaking grant yet. Perhaps people turn more violent there (an answer I’m sure you would love, that Azeris are violent people), or Armenians are more emboldened when faced with adversity. But it’s unlike that it’s an initiative of the US Embassy. And in any case, it’s quite obvious that people in Armenia are against LGBTQ community, what with the DIY bombing. To say “can’t believe it’s accepted here and not there,” you’re ignoring the risk these people are taking.

  4. So proud of my little Armenia and every single hero of this documentary for standing up for what is right. They do that every minute of their life despite the hatred and threats they face at every corner, coming from the petty people who’d rather stick their nose in other people’s business and beds, than work on self-improvement and building a fair and just society in Armenia. Love is Love, and it comes in all different shapes, sizes, colours, and tastes, just like we all do! And anyone who thinks otherwise has never truly experienced it!

  5. Why are you guys hating on others ?? Why does a persons sexuality offend and frighten so many people ? They are human beings like the rest of the world who are tired of living in fear and judgement and the proof is in some of the statements here.
    Remember one thing , look where hate and judgement got us 100 years ago. There is no difference. Hate is hate.

  6. Congratulations to these brave souls, who claim their rightful place and space on this planet. I strongly support them. It is high time our macho leaders wake up and see what is happening around them.

  7. About time! No one chooses to be stigmatized or outcast. LGBT people are the same as we are. It’s been with us since the beginning of time.

    Did Jesus teach us to judge some people as “queer”?

    • No, Jesus did not judge people. But homosexaual behavour is clearly against the christian faith. “A man should not go to a man as a man goes to a woman”. Western countries are moraly destroyed. I wish we had less of Western influence on our country. And i wihs we dit not have moslim naitons as neibourgs and i wish we could live in peace in our country. And those who compare the armenian genocide and with rights of LBGT or even mention it in this kind of contexts have no honor nor consciense!

  8. “Another western funded blah, blah, blah” The west didn’t create homosexuality and neither changes Armenians into homosexuals. Your ignorance of biology is ridiculous.There are Straight Armenians, Gay Armenians, and Bisexual Armenians, either you like it or not. Armenians need to learn to respect fellow Armenians, and stop violating their rights. Everyone has the right to be treated fairly under the law. AND NO we don’t learn about homosexuality in elementary school in the United States. I didn’t even know what sexuality was until Middle School and it was because of fellow students. Some of you need to put aside the right-wing Christian propaganda.

  9. Some biological facts!!!sexual orientation, like left-handedness or right handedness, is not something that people voluntarily choose or that they can usually change. like most other complex human behaviors, it reflex a complex interplay of genetics and non-genetic influences. Sexual orientation depends on testosterone levels during the sensitive period of brain development from
    the second month of pregnancy until the end of the fifth month. Therefore,
    sexual orientation is influenced by prenatal hormones during the sensitive period for sexual development. Prenatal exposure to masculinizing hormones may contribute to some instances of female homosexuality. so let’s accept our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters as they are and love them for who they are and not for who they sleep with. What happens behind closed doors is none of anybody’s business. let’s focus on more important issues to better our fellow countrymen lives to reach equality,justice and happiness for all state.

  10. For those happy to dismiss queer and trans people as “Western imports” and against Armenian tradition, I would suggest actually doing more historical research. In most pre-colonial communities and civilizations, gender and sexual diversities existed and were even honored. Persecution of queer people and the artificial gender binary are actually imports of colonization and the Crusades. So if you want to harken on history and tradition, by all means, let’s do it. Let’s go back to when we honored and revered queer and trans people.

  11. {Let’s go back to when we honored and revered queer and trans people.}

    Who is “we”? Armenians?

    Evidence, please, when “we” (Armenians?) supposedly “honored and revered queer and trans people”.

    In fact I am not aware of any civilization or society in human history which, quote, “revered” homosexual or transsexual people.
    Accept, tolerate, live-and-let-live? Sure.
    But _revere_?

  12. This is a great initiative. Hope it makes headway. I love that it is attuned not just to Armenia but the diaspora, since the diaspora is by no means accepting and tolerant on this issue (among others).

  13. Avery, Hijra in India are revered (and discriminated against). Hijra are third genders and are recognized by law. Indians believe Hijra are touched by angels or other spirits and thus Indians sought out Hijra to bless them and their families (at the same time, Hijra won’t be considered a serious applicant when applying for a typical job).

  14. The macho BS in these few hateful comments is astonishing. The world has moved on from Armenia. Quite sadly. While you idiots think you must preserve the long standing Armenian family traditions and Christianity vs. the “globalist satanic agenda”, the rest of the world is rolling up their collective sleeves to fight fascism. This explains how I know so many elderly (and sadly younger) Armenians who voted for Donald Trump. The guy who wants to ban Muslims (you think he can distinguish between Christian Armenians and Islamic Jihadists? The guy who makes fun of the disabled. The guy who has Russian and Azeri business interests. 50 years in America and all they learned to do was hate and divide. This country was on the right track for so many years and sadly we have to fight for our disadvantaged groups whether they be LGBT or dark skinned. Maybe among the saddest things is to see what little has become of our old country. It remains so far in the past. John, Paul . . . stick around for Trump’s America. You are going to love it here, if you don’t find yourselves wishing you could leave for being an immigrant (or sons of immigrants) sooner.

    And, if you really believe Kindergarten students are being taught homosexuality you are literally blinded by your own propaganda.

    I hope God exists and can heal your ignorance.

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