Special to the Armenian Weekly
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.
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.”