When I read what you said during the Fresno Unified School Board meeting on Aug. 23, I was appalled. I am Armenian, and the grandson of Armenian Genocide survivors. I am also an LGBT activist, whom you equated, in your closing statement, with the Ottoman Empire and the perpetrators of the crime of genocide.
You said that you “are being attacked, vilified, labeled, and accused by people who know nothing about [you], [your] personal history or [your] beliefs.” It is true, I do not know you. But do you know any LGBT people? Do you know any LGBT Armenians? Allow me to introduce myself.
For the last three years, in Los Angeles and now in Yerevan, I have dedicated my time and energy to LGBT activism within the Armenian community. I bring LGBT Armenians and allies together, build coalitions, raise awareness about our struggles and the cultural and historic peculiarities of our community as they relate to questions of gender and sexuality, and I break the stigma that has shrouded this issue and shut out countless individuals from their families and communities. I am driven by the silence and what at times seems like the unwillingness of our community to intentionally fight homophobia and transphobia, and by my own personal experience growing up gay and Armenian.
I was born in Woodland Hills, California, the son of proud, working-class immigrants. I attended Holy Martyrs Ferrahian Armenian School in Encino for 15 years before going to UCLA. At Ferrahian, I was student body president and graduated top of my class. I also developed a reputation early on as a patriotic Armenian, being voted one of the “Most Armenian Spirited” students in our graduating class.
Being Armenian is the first thing I knew about myself, and it is something that I have always been grounded in and drawn strength from. But by the time I graduated high school, I had learned to hate being Armenian, because of the homophobia that gripped my educational and social environment, and because of painful, irresponsible, and reprehensible statements like yours that reinforced the idea that being gay was objectionable, or worse.
You are not the first Armenian who has compared LGBT people to (genocidal) Turks. In Armenia, it is common to hear calls for gay people to be sent to Baku (Azerbaijanis and Turks belong to the same ethno-national “other” in the collective Armenian imagination). The implication is clear—that if you are gay and Armenian, not only are you not Armenian, but you are the “opposite” of what it means to be Armenian. You are a perceived threat and an enemy.
Of course, comparing someone to a Turk is not an insult, because there is nothing inherently wrong or undesirable about being a Turk. But to draw an equivalence between my activism and the activism of your opponents in Fresno to the crimes of the Ottoman government at the beginning of the 20th century is not only objectively false, it is an affront to the memory of our ancestors and a cheap attempt to prey on the emotions of the Armenian community and the people of Fresno.
“The intolerance shown by the Ottomans toward [our] people” was indeed insufferable. But what is equally insufferable, Mr. Ashjian, is your spinning of history today, and your gross attempt to use the tragedy of our people to defend your willful ignorance about the needs of LGBT students.
I will not allow you or anyone else to use the crimes committed against our people to justify prejudice and discrimination of any form, or to deny students life-saving information and to contribute to their oppression.
What you forget, Mr. Ashjian, is that my family and the families of other LGBT Armenians were marched through the Syrian desert alongside yours. You recognize the injustices Armenians suffered a century ago, but you are unable to recognize the parallel injustices LGBT people have and continue to face all over the globe.
Growing up I heard a lot about the “dark days of the Ottoman Empire” from my family, just like you did. In fact, my identity as an Armenian is centered in part on the Armenian Genocide. The murder of our people and the erasure of our civilization and identity in Turkey is a pain I carry with me like all Armenians, and rectification of which has always been a part of my activism.
But I always have to stop and think about how ironic it is that many of the same people who are trying to keep the memory of our ancestors alive and recover our culture and identity from erasure are trying to erase my own identity as a gay person. Many of the same people who are in the business of achieving recognition for the Armenian Genocide deny me my rightful place in our community, my right to our culture and to our identity.
You claim to speak on behalf of the Armenian-American community. I do not know which community you are talking about. The community that I know burns with the spirit of struggle. The struggle against injustice is as Armenian as it gets. Justice for the Armenian people and justice for LGBT people are one in the same. Many still do not know it, but they are the same struggle.
You said that you have seen your “community torn by misrepresentations and false allegations by individuals who represent the national LGBT movement.” The only misrepresentation and false allegations here are the ones you presented last week at the board meeting. You crossed a line, Mr. Ashjian, a very painful line, and in doing so you have dishonored yourself and the ancestors whom you referenced in your callous, undignified statement. You have also trivialized the seriousness of the crime of genocide in your sad attempt to paint yourself as the righteous victim in this situation, something that I personally cannot tolerate.
You asked what LGBT leaders fear. I fear that LGBT students will not have access to information that is relevant to their health because of your shameless unrepentance. I fear that when you compared the activists defending the interests of LGBT students to genocidal murderers, you caused innumerable young people emotional distress. If you are unable to see the pain you have caused, then it is time for you to leave your position as president of the school board.
I would like to end with a passage from William Saroyan’s “Growing Up in Fresno.” I ask that you read this passage, and let resonate the history of our people in the United States, and the racism and discrimination we faced as a non-White people, ineligible to become naturalized citizens, and thus barred from owning property in some states—a history you seem to have forgotten. I then ask that you re-read this passage and replace the word “Armenian” with “LGBT.”
“Weren’t the Armenian people in Fresno belittled and considered inferior? Yes, they were, by some people, but not by everybody. Well, wasn’t it actually universally established in the mind, if you could call it that, of the town, and the region, that the Armenian was something else, as the saying is? Yes, that was true, too. Well, what effect did that have on me? Well, it had a little effect. I think it had a good effect. It certainly made it necessary for me to acknowledge to myself first that I am who I am—an Armenian—and not somebody who does not wish to be an Armenian, but somebody who accepts that he is an Armenian in an atmosphere where the Armenian is disliked, at the very least, we can put it that way. And that I must make known to anybody who dislikes Armenians that I am one of them. I am an Armenian. With that inflection.”