“My grandma was like, ‘Oh, okay, so you’re gay, and you’re getting married. Is he Armenian at least?’” Movses Shakarian recalled, chuckling outside a coffee shop in Silver Lake, California.
Shakarian, 38, is an attorney by day and a stand-up comedian by night. He also happens to be gay—and Armenian. Shakarian always dreamed of working in the entertainment industry; he even studied theater in college. As he grew older, however, he succumbed to the pressure of an endearingly overbearing Armenian family.
“You know, it’s doctor or lawyer. That’s pretty much how it goes in our culture,” said Shakarian. “I heard my parents’ voice in the back of my head saying, ‘You’re going to die broke.’ So my other option in life was law and I went that route.”
Shakarian practices corporate business law in the cannabis industry. Although he enjoys the writing and arguing responsibilities of being a lawyer, he realized he needed an outlet. A friend suggested he take a stand-up comedy course; Shakarian loved it. He said it helped him find a sense of community since he had just moved back to Los Angeles after two decades.
Shakarian and his family moved several times while he was growing up. His family came to the United States from Armenia, but he was born in Los Angeles. When he turned three, they moved to Santa Barbara. Then, a decade later, they settled in Texas, where he went to college. When he was 26, Shakarian moved back to California to go to law school in San Diego.
Now, Shakarian lives in Silver Lake with his husband and their dog. His husband, by the way, is not Armenian. He’s Russian. “Second best, I guess,” according to Shakarian’s grandmother.
When he was a teenager, Shakarian didn’t think his family would be accepting of him as gay.
“It was tough because of course my family was not supportive of LGBT people or rights,” he said. “I was very scared that I would get disowned for the longest time. I even prepared for that to a certain extent when I was young.”
Shakarian explained that Diaspora Armenians are typically expected to marry Armenian and have children in order to continue the culture and heritage.
“That wasn’t something that I thought was a possibility for me when I was younger,” he said. “I really struggled with how I was going to have a family. I’m the last male ‘Shakarian’ in the family so it falls on me to continue the family name.”
Although it has taken a while, his parents have now accepted his gay identity. His sister and his mother even planned his wedding, which he said mixed traditional Armenian culture and gay culture.
“At Armenian weddings we have ‘shavash,’ a tradition where the couple dances and people throw money at them,” Shakarian explained. “At our wedding, they didn’t know what to do, so they threw home HIV kits and Bibles at us,” he joked.
Shakarian’s identity crisis is something he addresses during his stand-up routines. When Shakarian first started performing comedy, his predominantly Armenian audience thought he was joking about being gay. When he would tell them he was not, in fact, pretending, they would look confused.
“They’d be like, ‘What do you mean? You don’t have a limp wrist and a lisp when you talk,’” Shakarian recalled. “Not all gay people are like that. I think that blows people’s minds. They think every gay person is the same and that’s not true.”
They think every gay person is the same and that’s not true.
Shakarian said that while he is gay, he has still picked up some of the stereotypical tendencies from the patriarchal society.
“As an Armenian man, I think it comes in because I have a lot of that machismo aspect and that short temper and all those bad things that are associated with us sometimes,” he said, with a laugh.
When he was just starting out as a lawyer, Shakarian thought the topics of his comedy and his outspokenness about being gay might deter Armenian clients since he practices in Los Angeles, which has a large Armenian population. He also thought people might not take him seriously as an attorney. In the long-run though, he said he made more business contacts and clients through his comedy than anything negative.
“If someone told me 10, 15 years ago that I’d be doing stand-up for Armenian audiences, talking about being gay and everybody would be okay with [it], I would’ve laughed in your face and told you you’re crazy,” Shakarian said.
He now performs in two stand-up comedy shows. Armenian Allstars is for predominantly Armenian audiences at Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank. His other show That’s So Wrong takes place in a gay bar called Precinct in Downtown Los Angeles, where Shakarian said he tries to provide a safe space for his gay Armenian audiences.
As a people who have historically faced oppression and a genocide, Shakarian said he believes it’s important for Armenians to be progressive and open-minded especially when it comes to issues of identity.
“Not all Armenians are like this but there is a lot racism and prejudice in our culture; not to say that doesn’t exist in other cultures,” he said. “I find it to be disheartening, since we come from such an oppressed culture, that we would want to oppress other people. We were born Armenian and killed because of it. We’ve been through that so we should understand that plight.”
Shakarian has grappled with his identity throughout his life. He said he feels like he’s developed a thick skin over the years, and he no longer cares about being personally discriminated against for being gay. He does, however, care about the young gay people who are too afraid of being ostracized to come out in the Armenian community. On-stage, he jokes about these pervasive clashes between the two identities.
“I’m a gay Armenian man and that makes me different from most Armenian men because I don’t dress as gay as they do,” he joked, quoting from his stand-up.
Despite his lighthearted and sarcastic disposition and his sometimes controversial humor, Shakarian does not want to be labeled by his gayness nor his Armenian-ness, nor by any other aspect of his identity.
“Being Armenian doesn’t define me. Being gay doesn’t define me. Being a man doesn’t define me,” he said. “They all kind of come together and make people who they are.”