On Living and Dying as a Gay Person in the Armenian Church

Editor’s Note: The tragic suicide of a young gay couple in Yerevan last month has reignited important conversations surrounding homophobia in Armenian society. Their names were Arsen and Tigran. They took their own lives on October 20, 2022 after Arsen—a minor—shared a series of photos of their loving relationship on social media with the caption, “Happy end: we decided together to share pictures and the decision for our future action.” In light of this distressing news from our homeland, the Armenian Weekly underscores its pledge to uplift all voices across the Armenian Diaspora. The following personal essay was written and submitted to the Armenian Weekly for publication on condition of anonymity, which we will honor and respect to protect this author’s privacy and abiding love for the Armenian church.

In 2022, it is no longer a shock to readers of the Weekly that there are gay, queer and LGBT Armenians. I don’t think it will come as a shock that we continue to participate in organizations, associations and community life, or that we too date (surprisingly often) amongst ourselves, as well as outside of the Armenian community. I think to 10 years ago, when I was just coming to terms with the fact that my attraction to men was never going to go away, and when I had exactly one other gay Armenian friend.

Ten years ago, the word “gay” was more often used as a slur than a neutral adjective, and “gay marriage” (later re-labeled “same-sex marriage” and finally settling as “marriage equality”) was just a quirky trait of certain European countries and a few US states that was referenced, at best, as a joke in sitcoms. I and many other gay Armenian adolescents felt very alone in that time, but the odar world moved quickly while the Armenian community struggled to catch up. Many of us, however, had the luxury of discussing these things with our friends at school or in anonymous chat rooms online. Gradually, our hushed conversations and anonymous chats turned to normal volume, within earshot of our parents, sometimes even with our parents.

We adapted, and some of us developed friend groups. Our straight peers seemed to care less and less, and one would even hear the word “faggot” employed less often at our summer camps, scouts and athletic competitions. People started showing up to AYF Olympics with their significant other of the same gender. Some of them got married and even have children at this point. 

I cannot speak for everyone, but I really don’t feel alone or ostracized in Armenian spaces, except in one place: at church. As I understand it, the Armenian Apostolic Church officially subscribes to an ideology of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” emphasizing the action of same-sex physical relations as the problem and pitying the individual who is afflicted by these “troublesome” feelings and desires. In practice, the church follows what one could refer to as a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” meaning that, much like the US military in the Clinton/Bush eras, my sexual orientation, my dating life and my lack of an Armenian girlfriend, fiancée or wife have never been directly or indirectly questioned at church (as far as I can remember). The problem for them is, with fewer and fewer people participating in institutional religious life, why would one search for reasons to push someone out? Nobody wants to pull the trigger, especially if I’m not talking about it or bothering anyone. As long as they can at least claim ignorance, and I don’t breach that tacit agreement, nobody has to have any uncomfortable conversations or worse, find official ways to condemn my “lifestyle choices” or push me out. 

I’m usually fine with this a position which sometimes confuses and often enrages my non-Armenian gay friends. But I do not want problems. I do not want to make a statement. I do not want to start a revolt. I simply want to go to badarak, light my candle and say the same prayers in the same language as my great-grandparents and their parents in Western Armenia. I want to commune with my people. I want to communicate with God the way I learned as a child. I want to close my eyes, believe that the last 100 years in exile was just a side plot and pretend that our lives were never interrupted. 

I have remained a member of the Armenian church. As my siblings, cousins and childhood friends have almost all one-by-one realized their own atheism, rejected institutional religion or simply lost interest, I have almost ironically grown even more (institutionally) religious and more (individually) spiritual. I attend badarak most weeks, and just like everyone else there, I proclaim my faith in God by reciting the havadamk, confess my sins before communion, pray for my family, my peers, even my enemies (as difficult as it is), and I mourn our dead relatives, friends and siblings in the homeland.

I believe in God, and I am gay. Nobody asks. I don’t tell.

It’s usually not an issue, and my life in this regard is actually quite uneventful, but every once in a while, I am reminded that none of my gay peers are in the pews with me. Something reminds me of how truly alone I am in the one place I never thought I would feel alone.

Such was the case after the recent tragic deaths of Arsen and Tigran, a young couple in Armenia.

I am relatively detached from social media, but I recently logged into a platform to see if a college friend had given birth yet. I still don’t know if she did, because the first thing I saw was a post from someone I had dated in Armenia announcing and describing the deaths of Arsen and Tigran. The world is small, the Armenian world is smaller and the queer Armenian world is even smaller still. 

A photo of Arsen and Tigran shared publicly on Arsen’s social media page before their tragic death

When I realized I was looking at the actual final photos that the couple had posted before they died by suicideone together, another of their ringsI could not control my tears. Despite the fact that basically everything else in my life is going better than it ever has, for the next few days I had crying fits multiple times a daynot just at home, but at work and on the subway. 

Just like we all have, because of the Genocide and the Artsakh War, I cried so much that at some point, I no longer knew if I was crying for the dead or for myself.

I had to take a walk. I found myself at a nearby Catholic church that I often visit during my lunch breaks for a moment of quiet prayer and meditation. When dealing with difficult emotions, I often turn to prayer. They say “God helps those who help themselves,” and I often find that in expressing life issues verbally, I am often able to find a resolution myself. But after I lit a candle and sat down to pray, I couldn’t articulate anything but a single word, which I repeated over and over again between sobs. Inchou? Inchou?Why?”

I don’t know the exact facts about the speculations surrounding Tigran and Arsen’s last days, but if it is true that their home lives had become so torturous and unbearable that they ran away, and if it is true that they felt that they had exhausted all other options, I am even more crushed. Their story is depressingly similar to the general status of our people: they were surrounded by closed borders on all sides with waning resources and nowhere to go. External aid was nowhere to be found. The Armenian homophobes who commented on their Instagram post that their death was a good thing, sound disgustingly similar to the Turks and Azeris who applaud the mutilations and decapitations of Armenian freedom fighters and civilians.

Included in Arsen’s series of photos on social media is this picture of the couple’s wedding rings

Aside from the obvious injustice that Armenian homophobia remains strong enough to lead to these unnecessary deaths, I feel there is a compounding injustice that I cannot look past. The institution which plays a large (if not the largest) part in the perpetuation of homophobia in Armenia, and therefore also is culpable in this instance, is also the institution which the majority of the Armenian world relies upon to process grief and death. What I’m saying is, I do not know if the boys were allowed an Armenian funeral, firstly because this was a suicide, and secondly because they were gay.

To process death and grief, I turn to the church. The karasounk (the end of a 40-day period of mourning) and a hokehankist (the “rite of repose of souls”) help me and many other church-goers (and non-church-goers alike) process loss. I considered submitting their names for the hokehankist, but I ultimately couldn’t bring myself to do it. I admit that I’m weak, and I’m not ready to make waves. I’m not ready to “tell” when I have not been “asked.” A Coptic friend of mine was formally excommunicated from her church when her family found out she was in a long-term relationship with another woman. She said she sometimes drives hours to attend services in a church where they won’t recognize her. Unfortunately, her options are becoming increasingly limited. I’m not ready to jeopardize access to my closest connection with God, which I have been unable to re-create in full in various non-Armenian churches I’ve visited. 

I cannot fully mourn within the church, and I don’t know how to mourn without the church.

The realization of the compounding injustices of the church’s culpability and its probable denial of death rituals made me feel even more alone. So too, did the seeming unlikeliness that anyone else would come to the same conclusion. After all, I have no gay Armenian friends in the pews with me. 

I didn’t want to hear my odar friends asking, “Why didn’t they just leave Armenia?” I also didn’t want to hear my straight Armenian friends saying, “It’s sad, but we have bigger problems right now.” I cannot fully mourn within the church, and I don’t know how to mourn without the church.

I asked an Armenian friend to meet up with me one evening. He has had very little contact with the church since he refused to keep hiding his boyfriend of several years from his parents. 

“This really makes you think about the limits of ‘tolerance,’” he told me. When I asked him to elaborate, he explained, “Well, as queer people, you and I have managed to figure out a way to be ‘tolerated’ and live as Armenians, but at the end of the day, we still don’t know if we’ll be allowed to die as Armenians.”

Hearing another person articulate this fear that I have been avoiding as I continue my badarak attendance and church involvement made me understand exactly why I have been crying so much for these two boys whom I never met. How will they be buried in the society that hated them and made them feel so trapped and despised? How will any of us be buried? I am crying because their deaths remind me that for many of my queer Armenian siblings, their today is my 10 years ago, when I was considering doing the same thing. I am crying because of my survivor’s guilt and because of the hopelessness and hatred of our people. I am crying because of the loneliness of a young man standing in a pew and the loneliness of two boys standing on a bridge.

I will not submit their names at church because I am afraid of upsetting the delicate balancing act of my presence there. But I will light two candles and whisper their names by myself at the end of the hokehankist, because if I don’t, I’m afraid nobody else will.

Rest in peace, Arsen and Tigran.

Աստուած հոգիները լուսաւորէ։

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.

11 Comments

  1. My heart hurts for you. In my heart I believe God has a tear in his eyes for Arden and Tigran. His arms are opened to welcome them home!

  2. As an ordained priest of the Armenian Church, I have spoken to men who told me they were gay, and there has never been any discrimination by me or the parishioners. The same would apply to a female.

  3. I’m so sad to hear that our own community is rejecting people with only love in their hearts. I know from my own friends and child that it’s hard enough to come out in an accepting environment. I beseech all Armenians to love one another and that the church, above all, model this behavior.

    Dear anonymous, I know that being gay is not a moral failing or an affliction. The moral failing and affliction of intolerance is with those who judge you. If the churches you attend make you feel unwelcome or stifled, I hope you see that these people are the sinners, making up reasons to hate and judge people who do no harm. I know it is not enough to hear others tell you this, your real need is to conduct your rituals in an Armenian church. And like you said, you may not be up for the fight. Only you know if you will bear more pain now by challenging the forces of hate and judgment, especially if you risk losing access to people in your life who are unable to grasp true Christianity – love and forgiveness.

    I hope you find a way to stand up for yourself and command the respect you deserve as a human. Easy for me to try to tell you to do this, particularly from the luxury of living in the most progressive city in the world. I know.

    As the staunchest of LGBTQ+ allies, I say these words with love in my heart to all Armenians: We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it! It’s time to stop putting our youth through this trauma of just being true to themselves. Every Armenian life lost to suicide or burdened with constant shame and suffering is an indictment on us as a people. We’re better than that. Or so I hope. 🏳️‍🌈 ✝️

  4. I am not part of your community but I am Armenian. I am absolutely appalled by the ignorance that continues to be perpetuated in the church. I am a person who cannot support institutions that contribute/perpetuate this ignorance but I understand to some extent your fears and also your needs. Your article is brave and I applaud that it was indeed published. I am proud of my Armenian background, my survivor energy and the wisdom with which I was raised. Many years ago my father challenged the churches attitude towards suicide when a cousin’s beautiful Madonna painting was removed from the our alter after she committed suicide. I can only imagine how he would defend these boys. I personally am not a person who sits on the sidelines with my mouth shut and have dealt with those consequences my entire life (I am 73). Each person however must come to their own truth and live their life in the way they see fit. I don’t think that my great great uncle who would not put the Bible down and pretend to be a Muslim for the sake of the surviving children (including my 5 year old grandfather) made a smart decision; it resulted in 1895 with their becoming total orphans. Each decision is what it is, you did something very good by writing this article. I only hope that it has far reaching effects and helps to soothe your own soul. You are beautiful and don’t ever forget that.

  5. For your sake and the sake of so many others, I hope the Armenian church and society in general will become more enlightened, tolerant, and supportive before other Arsens and Tigrans feel they have no other choice than to end their lives.

  6. You don’t feel brave but show bravery in your honesty. I hope that this young couple knows that in the afterlife.

  7. The lamentable story of the two youths is layered in tragedy. First and foremost, the tragedy of loss of the young lives of two men, which Armenia cannot ever afford but is especially painful now. Then there is the loss through suicide – a desperate measure taken when all hope is lost. When self-destruction becomes preferable to struggle, a blaring alarm should sound for all of us. Compounded upon this is the failure of the Armenian church to be a haven and support for all Armenians, as the author very compellingly recounts.

    However deeply this tragedy affects us, it ought not cloud our judgment regarding the Church, its role, and its sacramental functioning.

    As a member and deacon of the Armenian Church, I must say that many in the Church have assumed an attitude of Pharisaical intolerance to homosexuality. Tragically, the Armenian Church has not provided a clear example of how to “love the sinner.” Particularly in Armenia, instead of showing compassionate love, the Church has shown harsh intolerance, even worldly hatred, toward homosexuals while often simultaneously extending tolerance of both sinner and sin to adulterers, cheats, and liars. The Church – clergy and lay alike – must do better to fulfill its calling as shepherd to the entire flock.

    However, while sharing the author’s sorrow for the loss of the two boys and for his personal struggles in the Church, I strongly disagree with him regarding homophobia and the Armenian Church. Homophobia may accurately characterize the reaction of many Armenians in the Church, but this reaction needs to be corrected and it does not accurately describe the Christian response according to the example of Christ, which is one of sacrificial love. But, loving the sinner does not entail accepting or encouraging the sin. Let the LGBT community understand that the Armenian Church cannot ever condone or accept homosexual behavior and still remain a Church in any real sense of the word.

    The Armenian Church is culpable for many things, but not for asserting that homosexuality is a sin. It is the mission of the Church to be tolerant of all sinners; it is NOT the purpose or role of the Armenian Church, or any Christian Church, to be tolerant of sin.
    The LGBT community’s current argument in support of their own behavior is that they must be true to their real selves. Undoubtedly, the two young men who took their lives believed they were being true to themselves. Today’s transgender movement bases all morality on this principle. In addition, they demand, and even require where they can, tolerance from everyone else with regard to their real selves.

    Hypocritically, this principle is inverted when applied to those outside the LGBT group, particularly the Church. For LGBT groups, the Church cannot be allowed to be true to its real self. When it does, it is labeled homophobic and morally wrong. And when Christians (currently in the USA, but soon in Armenia) expect tolerance to live their lives as authentic believers, they are not shown tolerance by LGBT groups but are instead disdained. One can refer to the famous legal travails of cake bakers and web designers to see how this is being played out in the USA.

    Christianity is not an ideology. It is not a movement whose core beliefs ebb and flow with political tides or social trends. It is not subject to dialectical processes. If the Armenian Church is to be true to itself, then it must be true to God’s eternal principles as revealed through His Holy Word, Creation, and Spirit, and as embodied in the Traditions of the Church. The LGBT community expects nothing less from itself than to be true to itself; yet, they do not extend this prerogative – this right – to the Church.

    And here we come to an irreconcilable difference between the Church and LGBT groups: who or what defines the “true self.” The Armenian nation must address this irreconcilable difference before more damage, schism, and self-inflicted death occur.

    While the perspectives or beliefs regarding “true self” are irreconcilable, people need not be. The Church must continue to live and teach the Kingdom of Heaven, which includes being compassionate, merciful, and generous to everyone – all sinners. With regard to LGBT people, this means loving them, supporting them, and guiding them towards a Christian understanding of their true selves.

    Many have argued about whether LGBT people were created, or born “that way,” or whether it is a lifestyle that is willingly adopted. I believe this is a moot question. All of us are born with imperfections, proclivities, and weaknesses that can lead to sin: adulterous minds, physiologies prone to substance abuse, appetites larger than their bodies, knacks for hubris or jealousy, or any number of other flaws that can lead us to sin. We have no control over our congenital imperfections, but we do have control over our choices and behaviors.

    The greatest gift God has given Mankind, that which separates him from the rest of Creation, is the gift of the Logos: the rational, self-reflective, understanding mind that is itself a reflection of God’s own mind. We are creatures of rational will, not only of appetites and instinct. The Logos is our “true self.” This is a core, uncompromisable Christian tenet.

    Regarding the denial of Sacraments, the Church must be consistent. According to the tradition of the Church, suicides are denied burial services in the Church. It is almost certain that denial of burial for the two young men was due to their last act rather than their sexual orientation.

    I am not aware of a similar denial of sacraments for homosexuals. If there is, there shouldn’t be. After all, all believers die as imperfect creatures, having never completely repented of all their sins. All fall short of the glory of God, and in God’s eyes sexual sin is no less abhorrent than the sin of pride, jealousy, or gluttony. There should be no sacramental discrimination for Christians seeking union with God whatever sins they have committed or struggled against in their earthly lives. Even the most saintly Christian dies leaving some repentance unfinished.

    However, it is a different matter for the unrepentant: those who do not acknowledge their sin, or deny that they are committing sin. The early Church showed the way for dealing with unrepentant sinners: they were given opportunities to repent, offered counseling with elders, and in extreme cases they were expelled from the Church. Someone who willingly chooses to live a life of sin and who does not seek repentance – someone who is not even trying to be Christian – has no business in the life of the Church and its sacraments, A person who accepts Jesus Christ as the Son of God cannot intentionally and persistently defy His will and expect to remain in the Church.

    The alternative that many in this forum seem to advocate or have adopted, i.e. bending the Church to the lifestyle choices of the congregation, does not make the Armenian Church more tolerant and welcoming, it shakes the Church off its Christian foundations until it is no longer a Church. It does not matter how many people avoid Holy Badarak because they feel uncomfortable in their sin. It is the purpose of the Holy Eucharist to be a salve for our sins, to gradually heal our broken communion with God and each other, and to restore our “true selves.” Believing any less of it does the opposite.

    The Armenian Church must remain true to Christ and no one else. It must stay true even until the last human being on earth rejects the Church for staying true.

    • Thank you. For once someone not afraid of being cancelled by sharing the true principles of the church and where it stands on homosexuality in any form.

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