“I didn’t believe that I ever would live within an Armenian community. She asked why with such sincerity that I responded honestly. I said I could not live my life as an adult woman within the confines of an Armenian community where there was no room for me to be who I am.”
Arlene Voski Avakian recounts this conversation in her memoir Lion Woman’s Legacy published in 1992, the first memoir published by an Armenian-American woman and a lesbian Armenian-American. For J.P. Der Boghossian, founder of the Queer Armenian Library, uncovering the rich yet suppressed legacy of queer Armenian literature represented many firsts. Reading Lion Woman’s Legacy, Der Boghossian was shocked to witness his own thoughts while grappling with the traumas that arise from identifying as both queer and Armenian reflected in another person’s narrative.
Der Boghossian, who uses he/him or they/them pronouns, grew up not knowing any other Armenians who might identify as queer. Consequently, he felt isolated in his experiences of queerphobia, rooted in community obligations and religious values. “There was family stigma around the necessity to get married and have children,” he explained. “Not just the cultural value, but the value of, we are genocide survivors, my family are genocide survivors, so that is owed to the community.” The imperatives of self-preservation, combined with the strict religiosity of his Protestant family, resulted in virulent queerphobia. “This was the worst of all sins,” he recalled. “That was really hard to reconcile growing up, about how being queer was actually worse than being a murderer or rapist.”
Der Boghossian grew up filled with fears of hate-driven physical violence inflicted by a family or community member. Yet even while separating his queer and Armenian identities in his mind out of a sense of survival, he could not wholly detach himself from the Armenian community. “I already had this tenuous hold to the community,” he shared, reflecting on his family history as a member of a diaspora forged through dispossession. “I was terrified of losing it…the expectation that I had was that I would lose it through violence.”
“I could have kept these histories, these personal stories, some might say selfish, self-centered stories to myself, solid in the knowledge that I had grown,” Nancy Agabian writes in her memoir Me as Her Again published in 2008, the first memoir written by a bisexual Armenian-American. “But then I would be betraying another inheritance from my mother and grandmother; to speak the truth, not merely for the satisfaction of one’s self, but because it is the right thing to do.”
While reading Agabian’s writing, Der Boghossian was struck by her reliance on writing as a tool to heal from her inherited and lived traumatic experiences. Similarly, Der Boghossian undertook in his thirties the monumental task of finding and reading hidden novels, poems and other literary works written by queer Armenians in order to heal through art. This search allowed him to begin integrating these two identities that had been an immense source of fear and pain for him in the past and overcome his isolation through identification with books.
Der Boghossian meticulously combed through newspapers such as the Armenian Weekly and the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, bookstores such as the Los Angeles-based Abril Books and the extensive Barnes and Noble, and academic search engines. He explored the websites of queer Armenian organizations like Equality Armenia and PINK Armenia and online platforms like the Gay Armenian Blogspot and the Hye-Phen Magazine.
As his impressive collection of essays, memoirs, novels, poetry and films grew, so did his archive of examples of queer Armenians publicly, simultaneously inhabiting both identities. For the first time Der Boghossian witnessed the possibility of coming out within the Armenian community and finding sources of support, notwithstanding his fears of a violent backlash to his authenticity.
“Kissing Ethan was like taking a rocket to outer space, floating in zero gravity, and marveling at the incomprehensible beauty of the creations of the universe,” Michael Barakiva writes in Hold My Hand, the sequel to One Man Guy, the first young adult novel featuring a gay Armenian-American character written by a queer Armenian-American published in 2014. “Kissing Ethan was sweet like the last piece of baklava, drenched in honey, snatched from the bottom of the box. Kissing Ethan was the answer to an unasked prayer.”
The joyful and unabashed celebration of love presented by Barakiva spelled out, for Der Boghossian, the possibility for unapologetic optimism within a community burdened by historical traumas and severe stigmatization. “I wish I would have had this novel in my life when I was 13, 14, 15 years old,” he remarked.
With this sentiment, he decided to share his treasure trove of queer literature with the world. After two years of assiduously searching for and collating queer Armenian texts, Der Boghossian recognized that he possessed the most comprehensive collection of such literary works. He created a website in order to present these works to other queer Armenians seeking community through art and to family members and loved ones hoping to expand their perspectives.
Since launching the Queer Armenian Library in November of 2020, Der Boghossian has been overwhelmed by the reception. In addition to positive feedback about the necessity of the library as a resource and platform to uplift queer artists, he has received countless submissions of artworks from people all across the world. In the future, he hopes to expand the library to include a social network for artists to connect with each other.
“I don’t want this to be seen as just something for folks who identify as queer and Armenian,” Der Boghossian noted. “I hope that family members can also come to the site and read the works or watch the films so that they can be better parents, better siblings, better aunts and uncles, better friends, to the queer Armenian loved ones they have in their lives.”
“Why can’t I write your name upon this page/And declare to the world how I loved you?” reads the poem “Your Name” by Vahan Tekeyan. “In secret, I whisper its two syllables,/And it seems to me a rare book of love…/Why can’t I write your name upon this page?”
In addition to modern authors, the Queer Armenian Library spotlights celebrated artists from history, such as Vahan Tekeyan, Yeghishe Charents and Sergey Parajanov, whose queer artworks have long been suppressed within Armenian culture. This erasure continues today with the severe silence surrounding discussions of sexual orientation and gender expression.
Exploring such art not only allowed Der Boghossian to reconcile his queer and Armenian identities, but also to unpack how the traumas associated with each experience intersect. Alongside the traumas stemming from queerphobia, queer Armenians grapple with the intergenerational trauma transmitted within all Armenian communities. Queer Armenian literature provides a gateway to healing.
“Spending the time to be healthy is an act of resistance. To have a healthy body, to have a body that’s in healing, is in a sense political activism, because there’s all this stigma that there’s something wrong [or] perverse about your body,” Der Boghossian said. “To sit there and to say, no, my body is healthy, I’m going to invest in that body and make it as healthy as it can be, and I’m going to value this body, when you’re taught to devalue it…I wouldn’t have gotten there if I wouldn’t have found these books and films.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the article misstated that One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva is the first young adult novel featuring a gay Armenian-American character. One Man Guy is the first young adult novel featuring a gay Armenian-American character written by a queer Armenian-American.