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Reaching Out to All Armenians: ‘Equality Armenia’ and the Fight for LGBTQ Rights

Special to the Armenian Weekly

Activists in Yerevan posted the Armenian version of LGBT rights charity Stonewall’s message “Some People are Gay. Get Over it!” across various parts of Yerevan, including street crossings, to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia in 2015 (Photo: gayarmenia.blogspot.com)

Almost anyone who has grown up in and around an Armenian community knows that LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Armenians often walk on eggshells. Until recently, they have had to deal with all manner of negative portrayals. The classic line, to a gay man, is: “Yes, but why don’t you just get married, jan (dear).” They mean to a woman, of course. And the classic to end all classics—total erasure: “There are no gay Armenians”—a comment as absurd as it is common, especially within the Republic of Armenia itself. As for Armenian lesbians and transgender people, they have often been left out of the equation entirely.

Recently, though, things have (slowly) begun to change. Mirroring the evolution of the societies around them, an increasing number of Armenians have become more accepting, especially in the Diaspora, as childhood friends and family members have assumed openly gay lives. LGBTQ Armenians around the globe—many of them successful in business and the arts—are educating others around them and advocating for change. Organizations such as AGLA (the Armenian Gay and Lesbian Association) and GALAS (Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society), as well as the queer/transgender publication the Hye Phen magazine, have all tried to sensitize the community and others to the unique and powerful identity of LGBTQ Armenians. I attended a lecture a few years back at one of the Armenian churches in New York City where a priest leading the discussion was roundly scolded by the audience for his anti-gay views, including an adorable little old lady with gray hair, whose favorite nephew was apparently gay.

As a culture that has been persecuted for centuries under various empires—most recently the Ottoman Empire—sexual unions have often been seen as having only one goal: perpetuating the traditional family as the only means of reproduction and thus survival. The Armenian Church to this day has remained staunchly conservative in this view, choosing to ignore changes in society and in reproductive technology. The fact that women can now act as surrogates, and that gay couples are also having children, seems to have escaped some in the clergy. What’s more, literal interpretations of the Bible and injunctions against everything from eating shrimp to having same-gender sexual relations, have also fallen out of favor with all but the most conservative and ignorant. As one prominent American writer I spoke to noted, change in the Armenian community can be more difficult because Armenian culture has traditionally been particularly homophobic: “In the surrounding Arab countries or cultures, it is widely accepted that men have sexual relations with each other as long as they marry and do not identify themselves as being gay. Even this aspect of same-sex relations is absent in Armenia, largely I suspect due to the strong influence of traditional (repressive) Christianity.”

A recent episode involving an LGBTQ organization Equality Armenia (EqAr) and members of the Armenian Church illustrates the changes that have occurred, as well as the path that must still be walked together before true equality in marriage—as in life itself—can be won for LGBTQ Armenians. The organization’s mission states simply: “Equality Armenia is dedicated to achieving marriage equality in Armenia. It is our mission to encourage and facilitate a constructive dialogue in Armenian communities about LGBTQ inclusiveness, equal rights, and equal protections under the law. LGBTQ rights are human rights and human rights are LGBTQ rights.” The tag line at the top of EqAr’s “Our Mission” page is itself instructive—the ubiquitous quote by poet Yeghishe Charents: “Armenian nation, your only salvation is in your unity.”

EqAr Executive Director Armen Abelyan puts these elements in context: “We want Armenians in the Diaspora and in Armenia to not only understand that gay couples can be loving parents just as much as straight ones, but that we’d like gay marriage equality to be become the law of the land in Armenia.” Every recent poll shows that the overwhelming majority of Armenians in the republic say homosexuality is somehow “wrong.” Despite this, the Armenian government has signed various protocols and laws that decriminalize homosexuality and delist it as a psychological disorder. By agreeing to adhere to another law that recognizes all marriages made outside the country, Armenia in effect agreed to recognize gay marriage. Most LGBTQ Armenians and their allies support EqAr fully, including famed designer Michael Aram, who is married to his partner, and together they are the doting fathers to two lovely girls being brought up in as loving a family as one will find—gay or straight.

So when the Armenian Church in California recently embraced staunchly pro-LGBTQ rights Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the Methodist Church, Abelyan and others sensed that change was perhaps in the air. One of 15 maverick United Methodist bishops who signed a statement in 1996 protesting the denomination’s official stance on homosexuality, Bishop Swanson wrote in her 2013 dissent to a statement made by the Council of Bishops’ Executive Committee, where she served as Ecumenical Officer: “For too long, the Church has refused to see the face of God in LGBTQ people…. We reduce gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people to sexual activities, robbing them of their full humanity, the love, fidelity, and grace found in faithful companionship, as well as deny our understanding of human sexuality as a good gift from God.” Swenson was protesting a statement urging her colleague Bishop Melvin Talbert to refrain from officiating at a wedding for a same-sex couple in Birmingham, Ala. “Each of us must follow our conscience and there are times when pastoral ministry demands that we care for those in need and those who have been harmed by our Church,” she concluded.

Surprising if welcomed by all in the LGBTQ community, but events that followed were perhaps more remarkable. On Dec. 5, 2017, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church honored Swenson at the eighth Annual Ecumenical Prayer Service in a now yearly event that recognizes institutions or individuals who have strengthened the community either through mission or individual achievements. It was a bold move. Just two week before, Father Vazken Movsesian, also of the Western Diocese, had joined the Board of EqAr in a show of support—which implied a growing institutional acceptance, in full, of LGBTQ Armenians as equals. Abelyan, along with EqAr board members such as Vic Gerami, were elated. “We hoped that it signaled a turn in the Church’s attitude towards LGBTQ people; that it was finally catching up with the times,” Gerami notes. Movsesian, after all, was a maverick who initiated many groundbreaking programs in his Diocese and someone loved by all—including Derderian, who aptly celebrated Movsesian’s 35th anniversary since being ordained in the Church. A Nov. 28 Asbarez article and an interview with KPFK radio host Carry Harrison confirmed the appointment to the EqAr Board.

(L to R) Equality Armenia Executive Director Armen Abelyan and Father Vazken Movsesian

Movsesian was soon summoned by the Western Diocese to a special tribunal and criticized for his actions. The Church even went so far as to demand that he resign from the board of EqAr or face prosecution under the Church’s “conflict of interest” clause. Simply put, the Church affirmed that it only recognized marriage between a man and a woman as one of its seven canonical statutes and thus stood in direct contradiction with EqAr’s mission.

It was the same old story, neither more nor less. In an attempt to please both sides, Movsesian agreed to remain involved as EqAr’s “Faith Based Outreach Liaison,” but the Church pressed him to denounce the organization completely and delete his social media mentions of LGBTQ issues. In private, Movsesian is said to have denied writing the resignation letter himself, claiming that it had been written by Church representatives high up and that he had been forced to sign the document under duress and threat of losing his job and title—effectively excommunicated.

The following questions inevitably arise: Why does the Armenian Church embrace Swenson but reject one of its own? What is so terrible about being LGBTQ and wanting equal rights under the law that Etchmiadzin and its vassals—for example—all currently enjoy? Why does the Church insists on adhering to rules and regulations written in times so different from today’s, rather than following the spirit of the law? And why, for the love of God, persecute an old priest who is, in the end, only applying the most basic of Jesus’ teachings—i.e. to love and treat everyone as equals?

Back at EqAr, folks remain optimistic: “I have no doubt that someday we will break down the ‘but the Bible says’ firewall,” Abelyan explains, “and achieve marriage equality, even in Armenia.”

The fact that some of Armenia’s most revered historical figures—including filmmaker Sergei Parajanov and poets Vahan Tekeyan and Yeghishe Charents—are regarded by many as having been gay would seem to argue in favor of handing the community an olive branch. In the 16th century, the Church had a Catholicos, Grigor Aghtamartsi, who besides being known for his particular devotion to nationalist causes also gave us the only known piece of Armenian medieval homoerotic poetry: Tagh Siro (“Love Song”).

While the Armenian Church is certainly not alone in its stance toward LGBTQ marriage, even Pope Francis has come out in favor of late of accepting LGBTQ people into the fold and treating them with the same dignity and rights that are extended to straight people—and he is the Pope of the entire Roman Catholic Church!

What is most heartening, in the end, is the fact that so many members of the Armenian LGBTQ community—and certainly EqAr—seem to feel so much affinity for their Church and care about being fully accepted there. After all, they are free to marry in civil courts regardless of what the Western Diocese—or Etchmiadzin for that matter—thinks or says.

“We want to have positive relations with the Church,” says Gerami. “No one is looking to cause trouble. We just want the Church to grant us the same rights/rites and privileges as they extend to everyone else.” He pauses: “And we wish that Father Vazken would return to our board.”

19 Comments on Reaching Out to All Armenians: ‘Equality Armenia’ and the Fight for LGBTQ Rights

  1. avatar Robert Ajemian // February 5, 2018 at 2:21 pm // Reply

    why are you publishing and giving voice to this satanic abomination????????????? shame on you and your queer backers! doesn’t our long suffering culture need God’s blessing to survive and thrive in this age and you throw this sexual perverted garbage in his face. Lord please forgive them for their sin and us for tolerating this in our midst.

  2. avatar Onnik Kiremitlian // February 5, 2018 at 2:33 pm // Reply

    “Some People are Gay. Get Over it!”. Logically, it is tantamount to saying “Some People are criminals (Thieves, killers, pedophiles). Get over it”, which is at least ridiculous.
    As for the case of Vazken Movsesian, the church has to deal more harshly towards him in his outrageous and unchristian stand.

  3. Sorry, but we have enough problems without injecting LGBT matters into our Armenian discourse and culture.

    I have never noticed any more anti-LGBT attitudes among Armenian Americans than among any other group. Please stop the whole victimization thing.

    LGBT have equal rights. They vote, they own property, they write, and they can do everything anyone else can. They have all the rights other Americans have, but they should not get special rights. Please leave Armenian culture alone. And please don’t tell me that homosexuals could not marry at some point in the past. All one had to do was marry the opposite sex, just as our parents did. That was completely fair and symmetrical.

    You know, men are not the same as women, and there are biological and sociological reasons why there are two sexes. Heterosexuality is special as it is the only way to propagate the human race. Homosexuality is a lot different, is it not?

    The LGBT movement has led to many absurd things in American society such as transgender locker rooms where if a male just thinks he is a female(no sex change operation, and no different clothing) he can go into a female locker room. That’s the law in some states. I know the specifics of these laws. If people do not, they should look them up. All a transgender person has to do is genuinely THINK he is of the opposite sex and he is considered that. That is crazy. Maybe I can THINK I am a Turk or an African American?

    LGBT can live their lives, but don’t force others to approve of it.
    These rules and customs developed over thousands of years. And please don’t call me a “homophobe”. That’s just a way LGBT try to shut off debate.

  4. avatar Onnik Kiremitlian // February 5, 2018 at 3:19 pm // Reply

    Also, this so-called “archbishop” Hovnan Derderian should stop being spineless by “honouring” the so-called “bishop” Swenson and her likes.

  5. A question to you all at Armenian Weekly: Are you promoting and working with that demon George Soros and getting money from his NGO to write this kind of Sinful and unholy stuff? Get over with: Men has to merry women…that’s it.

  6. avatar modern armenian // February 5, 2018 at 4:50 pm // Reply

    I am not an advocate of the church, but I have to say that we cannot just blame the Armenian culture/church as homophobic, the Armenian miaserakans (homosexuals) should be more visible and courageous, and not approach the concept of equality and acceptance from a weak position, no one respect weakness, equality is something you demand because it is your right as a human, not privilege…
    we should do away with labels, we are all Armenians with one goal, a strong and exemplary Armenia, to become the beacon of the world, so please, people, lets move forward already, enough with the Christians/muslim/whatever, dashnak/hnchak, arevelahye/arevmtahye, gay/straight, these are all insignificant realities that are paralyzing our potential to be a great nation

  7. avatar Hagop Hagopian // February 5, 2018 at 10:19 pm // Reply

    George Soros and his baby projects. When will these armenian organizations realize not every Armenian is drinking the progressive Kool Aid.

    • avatar modern-armenian // February 9, 2018 at 1:35 am //

      if you want to neutralize the George Soros’s of this world then stop marginalizing women, minority groups, and the general oppression of the rest, and treat everyone the same, and only then soros and the likes, would have no excuse to meddle in your affairs.
      treating gays and women as equals is not “PROGRESSIVE KOOL AID” it the “ONLY” right thing to do

  8. avatar L. Martinian // February 6, 2018 at 12:19 am // Reply

    So we all know that some small proportion of a population identifies as gay (regardless of culture, nationality or religion).
    We also know that ancient Greeks overindulged in all manner of sexual activities including homosexuality/bisexuality.
    You don’t think that the Greeks were somehow coincidentally endowed with a significantly larger proportion of people who identified as gay do you?

    • avatar modern armenian // February 8, 2018 at 11:54 am //

      portions are not a result of indulgences…the reason you see more of whatever portion is because it is done in the open rather than in dark alleys…
      once and forever, homosexuality and its various degrees is not a learned behavior, it is an innate part of different people, one doesn’t choose to be gay, one is born gay, but because of various cultural pressures usually based on archaic religious believes…gays are marginalized by various degrees of mental and physical abuses, so may be we can take another approach, we can integrate and not use sexual preference as a dividing tool, so may be during the next parahantes, if you see two guys slow dancing you won’t stare and or ridicule, you just continue enjoying the partner you are dancing with, or you won’t pressure teenage boys by constantly asking them which girl do they like, and or non-stop pressure marriage age guys by asking them so when are you going to choose and nice girl and get married already(and the same for girls)…lets teach our kids to love and respect, not how to select the “normal sex” to be attracted to, that ability is inside each one us, and regardless of who teaches us what, we will eventually end up doing what we want, despite how our parents manipulate us, or our religious leaders shame and damn us to hell fire if we disobey the bible, and you realize I intentionally said the bible, and not the word of god, for reasons I will not get into now, so next time someone tells you I am gay or bi or transgender, respond by saying I am so and so, and your sexual reality is not the basis of our common goal, it is very nice to meet you, lets move forward, in other words you are gay? so what…

  9. avatar Yourlifeadvisor // February 6, 2018 at 1:25 pm // Reply

    Interesting article…. but Why do they have to accept the marriages in their church between the LGBT community? don’t mean to start something or be hateful. I don’t believe in hate but I also do not believe in forcing a group to believe and go against what they believe in as well. If you “love” the person you are with what difference is it if you get married in those church’s or not? or in church’s that oppose your lifestyle. why does the Orthodox Church or even any church have to change their years of practice to fit the ideals of a group of people? It seems in any debate if someone is against your views they are already wrong isn’t that unfair? We don’t all have the same faith, religion or views on life. Could you want or argue or even start any conversation regarding GAY marriage in a Muslim community ? yet Christians get bashed for not accepting a different view. I get it “love” is great and we all need to not hate and accept but that’s not how everyone views it and especially as a country that was the first to accept Christianity did you really think they would go and throw a parade? I guess what my point of view is, there is no need to start more problems we can learn to live a peace with our own views without having to force others to change. We can all live to have our own views on how life should be and not have to force one another into changing. The Armenian church’s I read about in this article are choosing to not allow gay community to get married in their church’s so what will that make a difference in who you are with? Im sorry, it’s just kinda of useless just like it is for them to tell you go marry the opposite sex when you obviously feel that you have no love or connection with them so you wont listen. Learn to accept that everyone will be different and sometimes that is what the true challenge lies in how deep you are devoted to the person you love when no-one else will accept your relationship but you sadly we all live for our own journeys not for everyone else. You will not be able to change those who view homosexuality as a sin and you will not be changed….so why can’t we learn to not force anything on each-other and live on Gods green earth in peace? anyways that’s my opinion I am sure someone will agree some won’t but guess what THAT’S WHY WE ARE HUMANS WHO ARE DIFFERENT :) have a great day! God bless.

  10. Silly article, Gays don’t want to be part of Armenian communities but rather they want to treated as special not equal. I care less about their sexual preferences or of heterosexuals, they are Armenian. Do they want to be a part of Armenian traditional organizations that have been around 100+ Yeats or create their own community within a community. Some how this article isn’t specific about your goals and agenda. If it’s to openly flaunt your sex life within the Armenian traditional organizations I believe most Armenians don’t give .2 cents about it but rather your contributions to promoting the Armenian culture and community. We have enough divisions. If looking for special treatment I think it’s best you keep your separate groups listed in the article. It’s not all about you,hopefully your groups satisfy your needs whatever they may be. Is it about exploring Armenian culture and history or about hooking up with another another Armenian gay person. Be part of the Armenian community as an Armenian reverse the games why would a straight Armenian be interested in joining your group or even reading this article. We have human rights issues with our children in Armenia living in poverty/ orphanages and terrible financial conditions of our wounded and disabled soldiers and you want what?

  11. avatar modern armenian // February 7, 2018 at 10:41 am // Reply

    I am surprised that our very vocal and highly opinionated hayrenakitsner did not comments yet…I guess they are taking a PC approach, toward a subject that is not so pleasant to aknowledge and deal with.
    not being an advocate of the church or religion in general, we should not blame it or the culture for being intolerant…Armenian miaserakans have not been adequately visible and outspoken, and engaging effectively, they are approaching the concept of acceptance from a weak position…it is not important for heteros to accept or reject, it is what it is, all humans have equal right, except when they are poor, then, we all know, the sad reality of that situation.
    people, enough already with all the divisive labels, gay/straight, arevelahye/arevmtahye, dashnak/hnchank, religious/atheist, we need to remember to put all our differences aside and utilize the collective potential of the entire nation to achieve greatness, so regardless of what your believes are, mind you own business and let everyone contribute and be part of their armenian heritage.

  12. In your own home do whatever you please to do, but do not come out and publicly declare what you believe in or what you would like to be! Nobody is interested in your personal preference. Do not include the church doctrines in your acts. God will judge each one of us during the Final Judgement. Nothing will be escaped from God’s eye. If you beleive in God, live your life accordingly!

  13. Everyone has his opinion, but what can make a society functional and healthy?

    While the religious may be outraged, modernist would say we should get along with such people!

    But what does the Bible say? What authority has the Bible? If you buy a car it would be helpful to read the manual. The Bible is man’s manual on how to live life. Just as not everyone like to read manuals thinking they are experts, not everyone reads the Bible thinking they can manage through a corrupt society.

    I haven’t seen that many Armenian Orthodox Church Youth having interests in getting together for a Bible study. And if there are Bible Study groups I haven’t seen group leaders study the entire Bible and not just the Gospels. And this article is the outcome.

    Haven’t you all read in Romans 1?

    [Romans 1:16 KJV]
    For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

    [Romans 1:17 KJV]
    For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

    [Romans 1:18 KJV]
    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;

    [Romans 1:19 KJV]
    Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed [it] unto them.

    [Romans 1:20 KJV]
    For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

    [Romans 1:21 KJV]
    Because that, when they knew God, they glorified [him] not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

    [Romans 1:22 KJV]
    Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

    [Romans 1:23 KJV]
    And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

    [Romans 1:24 KJV]
    Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:

    [Romans 1:25 KJV]
    Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

    [Romans 1:26 KJV]
    For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:

    [Romans 1:27 KJV]
    And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

    [Romans 1:28 KJV]
    And even as they did not like to retain God in [their] knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;

    [Romans 1:29 KJV]
    Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,

    [Romans 1:30 KJV]
    Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,

    [Romans 1:31 KJV]
    Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:

    [Romans 1:32 KJV]
    Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

  14. I will always sing psalms to the Lord before the altars of God. God is love. Should God grant me such love, I will profess God’s presence before an altar of God. I do hope I can do so before one built by my forefathers, but raising a family in a welcoming Christian atmosphere would be a much bigger concern then.

  15. Bravo to the Armenian Weekly for sharing this excellent article. The Armenian community’s homophobia — and church-sanctioned discrimination against the LGBTQ community should go the way of the dodo bird; it is time for every Armenian to respect the full human rights of every other Armenian, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. If the community does not evolve and catch up with the human rights canon of the 21st century, it will lose far more than it gains.

  16. avatar Christopher Atamian // February 16, 2018 at 7:49 pm // Reply

    The point is that LGBTQ people deserves equal treatment and rights and that they are not getting them anywhere in Armenia or through their own CHristian Church.
    Whoever made the “Demon George Soros” comment and those responsible for the other nasty homophobic bitchery are just pathetic ignoramuses whom we should pity.
    Love everyone, that was Jesus’s message, not Love everyone but only let some of them marry or hold hands in public.

  17. avatar Kevin Abrahamian // February 17, 2018 at 2:50 am // Reply

    Look at all these right-wing homophobic nutjobs. Maybe you’re so angry with your lives that you have to spend time complaining about gayArmenians. There are, always will be Gay Armenians. Go to your chuch and stop complaining about homosexuality. As for the Armenian Church, maybe they should focus on being less corrupt, owning Rolls Royces while the Armenian People go hungry. The only morally bankrupt people are these so called “Armenian” homophobes.

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