To those who seek to destroy us, I see you

I didn’t realize it was a date – I never do. This skin, wrapped in so many layers, has forgotten where it begins. 

He was sweet – he always is. The conversation simmered as the cocktails flowed. A good date, by most people’s standards. 

But I returned home, heavy – as I always do – and sank my face beneath cold water. 

I turned off the faucet and opened my Instagram. Two young men – boys – had jumped off a bridge. Holding hands, they fell. All 301 feet. Back into history. Two fleshed-lovers, now at one with the river. 

My knees buckled and collapsed onto the cold tile. I streamed. This is the only time the layers come off. Alone, in grief, holding the pain of the ones who could bear it no longer. 

Love is cream, kati ser (milk’s love) – in the mouth, in the guts, in the bloodstream. Booze is a preservative. Kills the mold.

That was the last date I ever went on with a man.

In the Zulu language of South Africa, strangers greet each other, not with hello or a polite nod, but sawubona, meaning, “I see you.”

What does it mean to be seen in this skin?

My cousin’s child is 16, Arsen’s age. She asks if I know any gay people. Yes, I tell her.

She pauses. “Are you friends with any of them?” I hear my uncle’s footsteps, his heavy gait, picking up pace. “Yes,” I say, flinging open the door.

Earlier that day, I sat by the edge of the pool with the cousin who raised me in the moments when my mother, an ocean away, could not. 

“It feels like the gays have disappeared lately,” she says. 

What do you mean? 

“With Nikol’s revolution, they were everywhere. But now, they’re gone.”

My silence invites more commentary.

“I understand that those people are born that way – it’s a sickness – but they shouldn’t be preaching anything to our children. They should be getting help.”

This cousin, my step-mama, often separated by half a world, now just inches from my feet, never felt farther away. 

Her husband is a journalist in Armenia. He often posts lengthy tirades about the LGBTQ+ community. Only, he’s not talking to his followers. His words are directed at us. A love letter, in reverse. 

“If you are gay, trans, no gender, every gender – I don’t care. If any of you come near my children, I will grab my gun and shoot you dead. I will kill you and I will sit in jail. This country is not yours to take.”

I meet my cousin in the eyes. “I see you,” I wanted to say. I only wished that she could see me, too.

“And what do you feel now ”

Two nights ago, a trans woman – my sister’s age – was stabbed inside her apartment then burned to a crisp. The authorities took their time starting an investigation. I read the comments. The love they turned inside out – and set ablaze.

Three years ago, to the date, I put on a lullaby from my ancestral land. One that many mothers sang to their babies on the marches, in the caves, where love reeked like spoilt milk. 

I laid down on the ground and wrapped a noose around my neck. It was not the first time.

During the genocide, a mother abandoned her wailing child – to save the rest. Drifting, she sang…

Rouri rouri rouri rouri rouri rouri rouri, lao.

My young one, may you grow old kindly.
May wild sheep feed you with their milk, to keep you alive.
May God and nature protect you in your loneliest hour.

As I faded away, I heard my dad’s screams, calling me back. Those final seconds never came. I was pulled back to shore by love’s cry. 

Nowhere to hide, nowhere to settle, nowhere to be free. The only way to find the light is to become it. To sway between the notes – of ghosts and angels. To become our own lullaby.

A cry that never reached Tigran, Arsen, Adriana. Their love, abandoned by the skin. In Armenian, our mornings begin with bari luys, “good light.”

We are used to queer bodies outlasting the light. May you come and go in shadow, they tell us.

In Armenia, the worst thing – the absolute worst thing – that anyone can be is queer.

In Turkey, the worst thing – the absolute worst thing – that anyone can be is an Armenian. 

Not a Kurd, not an atheist, not a communist, not even queer. 

Armenian. Listen to the tremors of my skin.

Last winter, I visited a dear Turkish friend. Someone who’s become something more, but a nameless more. A mooring on foreign lands.

A NYE gathering – a celebration of Turkish, Kurdish, Cypriot queers. The most marginalized bodies in Turkey, they tell us.

When my nameless-more was in the bathroom, I approached these bodies. They seemed safer than the Turkish bodies I met in the kabob shops in London, the taxi attendant in Istanbul, the ‘proud’ bodies outside Talaat Pasha’s house museum. 

The body, in nothing but a thong, who moments earlier, flexed glitter and joy, smiled back at me. “Are you Turkish?” he asked. “No, Armenian.” 

I watched the blank glare creep over his once-expressive face. I politely found an exit – as always.

Almost immediately, a lesbian couple appeared and asked where I’m from. “Sounds like an American accent.” 

“Yes, but I’m actually Armenian.” 

“I lived in NYC for awhile, worked in investment banking there. It was nice.” Strike two. 

Again, I watched the word disappear – not beneath a flag or angry chant – but behind leather belts and sticky glasses. Even in this room, our bodies were not the same. Mine might as well have been a ghost. One of the millions abandoned in their home country – out of sight, out of mind. 

Rainbows in the sky but bumpy waves on this ship – as always.

I didn’t hear much of the rest. My nameless-more reappeared and took the reins.

That night, I told her that I was grateful to be in her safe space. I did not tell her that it was not mine.

To be a queer Armenian means to be reviled by both Armenians and Turks. Queer Turks do not even see us. Sawubona. South Africa is a long way from here.

Nowhere to hide, nowhere to settle, nowhere to be free. The only way to find the light is to become it. To sway between the notes – of ghosts and angels. To become our own lullaby.

Rouri is a survival song. The mother in the story could not destine her child to memory. So, she returned and found her babe, still swaddled, still breathing. 

The vibrations had kept him alive. 

Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Her writing focuses on the confluence of identity, diaspora and language – especially within the global Armenian communities. She has a master’s degree in Human Rights from University College London and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Boston University, where she served on the ASA Executive Board. She is currently working on her inaugural poetry collection.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Lilly ~ Your poem moved my heart and shocked my soul. With your permission, I would like to incorporate it into my college students’ textbook (which I wrote). In return, I would like to send you the novel I wrote (and my students read in class) inspired by my Armenian grandparents’ harrowing escape from the Turks during the Armenian Genocide. You may find more information at my website:
    Thank you for creativity and inspirational poem on identity; I am sure my students will be moved by its depth and powerful message. Please send me your contact information.
    Bruce David Badrigian 805-458-1981

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