A gay man was assaulted and beaten last week while walking down the street at night in Yerevan. The man, 23-year-old Yerevan resident Vrezh “Max” Varzhapetyan, a gay rights activist and Right Side NGO staff member, told the Armenian Weekly that on the evening of February 11, three men pursued him down the street, shouting profanities and homophobic slurs. Before police could arrive, his assailants asked him if he was Armenian, and upon his response, beat him and threw him into the road. The men told him he had no right to call himself an Armenian and that he was not a man, but a “sister.” Varzhapetyan says he suffered a broken tooth and injuries to his mouth and nose.
Despite surveillance cameras in the area, the assailants have not yet been apprehended. Since the incident, Varzhapetyan says he hasn’t learned much from the police investigation and that police officers have responded to him with vitriol. One investigating officer told him “gays are not allowed or loved in this country,” and that was why this happened in the first place. Authorities in Armenia have not responded to the Weekly’s inquiries about the investigation.
Unfortunately, Varzhapetyan joins a significant group of targeted LGBT victims. In February of 2018, a transgender woman was hospitalized after being brutally beaten up in her Yerevan apartment. The hate crime was widely believed to be a crackdown against an LGBT community member. Then, in August of 2018, a group of at least nine LGBT activists and residents of the village of Shurnukh were attacked by a mob of 30 people. Mamikon Hovsepyan, executive director of Pink (P)—Armenia’s leading LGBT organization—said Pink has been monitoring the incident in Shurnukh since it happened. Hovsepyan says he wants to see that justice is served and that his organization has retained a lawyer to re-open the case.
“The Armenian government must once and for all take immediate steps to address the recent epidemic of violence targeting its LGBTQ citizens,” said Haig Boyadjian, president of the Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society (GALAS) in a statement to the Armenian Weekly following the attack on Varzhapetyan. GALAS is the most prominent LGBTQ organization in the US, serving the queer community of southern California and working in tandem with Pink. “We are deeply alarmed with the mysterious closing of the criminal case regarding the violent attacks against nine LGBTQ individuals last summer in the village of Shurnukh. The lack of action essentially condones and justifies future hate crimes against Armenia’s LGBTQ community. We are patiently waiting for Prime Minister Pashinyan to defend LGBTQ rights in the ‘New Armenia’ being forged and hope these senseless violent attacks will cease or at least be met with consequences under the law.”
For years, the Armenian government has failed to investigate anti-LGBT violence effectively. The criminal code does not recognize hate against the LGBT community as an aggravating criminal circumstance, and a government bill on equality does not include sexual orientation and gender identity as a ground for protection from discrimination.
In November 2018 ahead of the snap parliamentary elections, the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups and the New Generation Humanitarian NGO (Yerevan, Armenia) were forced to cancel an upcoming forum in Yerevan. The organization issued a statement that included, “We are deeply distressed and disappointed that political violence, death threats, and vandalism directed at LGBTI people constitute a genuine threat to the safety of our participants.” Responding to these concerns, police feigned indifference. Armenia’s police chief Valeriy Osipyan told journalists the same day that he didn’t consider it “appropriate” to hold the forum in Armenia, “considering the risks and security considerations,” and advised that it be held elsewhere.
LGBT and other human rights activists are not optimistic about a systematic and institutionalized end to homophobia in Armenia. After the Velvet Revolution, there was hope in Armenia that a new era had begun devoid of corruption, oligarchy and brutality. Yet despite the sweeping changes triggered by the revolution, the situation for LGBT Armenians remains the same. Armenia’s new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has failed to take a strong position either way. In October 2018, when Parliament grilled him on the issue, he avoided giving a definitive answer. In his response to MP of the Tsarukyan faction Gevorg Petrosyan, who had earlier called on LGBT people to be expelled from Armenia, he said, “For me as Prime Minister and for our government, the less this issue comes up, the better.” He added, “It’s a headache.”
As for Varzhapetyan, he told the Weekly that he remains fearful, stating, “I just try to put myself together right now. I am scared to go out of my house because I think they live somewhere near…They had a dog and it was midnight so they were not coming from a far place to walk with a dog. Also I can’t do anything because of my teeth and head.”
“I want justice. I want to be fully recovered, and I don’t know how I’m gonna live after this. I had many violent attacks in my life. I even got my finger cut years ago, but this was completely hell because it was unexpected and I did nothing… I haven’t slept or eaten for four days already… I’m shaking right now and crying all this days.”
Homosexuality has been legal in Armenia since 2003, but there are no legal protections for LGBT Armenians. Armenia is ranked 49 out of 50 European countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights, only beating out Azerbaijan. Though marriage equality is not legal in Armenia, the country does recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad. However, no such recognition has yet been documented.