Friday, June 25, 2010

A queer woman’s take on living in the Caucasus (or at least Yerevan)

I live with my partner. In Yerevan. That might sound exceptional to some, but that’s just the way it is. We sometimes hold hands in public (especially if we’re rushing across the street in oncoming traffic). If we get any odd stares, it’s usually directed at my partner who gets odd stares anyway, even when she’s alone, from the way she looks. When we’re together, people ask her where she’s from, assuming I’m the one who’s from here and she must be from somewhere else.

Public displays of affection are limited, naturally, but then again you don’t see many heterosexual couples making out either. (I find that, in general, sex and sexuality — gay or straight — are taboo.)

When my partner goes to the doctor and he or she asks her if she’s having sex, she says no. Because we all know what is meant by that question: are you having heterosexual (a.k.a. penetrative) sex? Though I have yet to come across a doctor who clarifies the sex question. And it’s too bad really because how can you diagnose or treat someone if you’re not getting the full picture?

Actually, before asking the sex question, doctors often want to know your marital status: are you married? (And don’t think for a moment that this question might mean are you married to your same-sex partner.) As if from your response the doctor can assume that you’re having sex (ha!). But just to be sure, Doctor asks whether you’re sexually active after he or she has satisfactorily received a response to the marital status question. *sigh*

When we travelled in the region together, hotel and B&B staff assumed we were friends and so gave us a room with two separate single beds. But being an artist and a writer, we’re often inclined to be creative ;)

You should know that there’s no Pride Parade in Yerevan. [And no one I know has attempted to do what these activists did in Moscow this year. Though there was a symbolic gay wedding in Armenia a few years ago.] There are no rainbow flags on storefront windows proclaiming “Queer Dollars Welcome Here,” or banners advertising the next local queer event. There are no gay couples kissing in the street though I swear I’ve seen straight men more affectionate with each other in public than anywhere else I’ve lived. And unfortunately the odd gay man that might be depicted in a TV series is usually portrayed in a negative way.

There’s no law that specifically prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, though thankfully there are a few NGOs that work with the LGBT community (in terms of support, advocacy, education, resources), as well as educating the mainstream public on what it means to be LGBT, explaining/educating on terminology and history, outlining human rights.

And of course, we are here. And there are many of us. Unfortunately, the ignorant views (often guided by religious beliefs and/or “family values”) makes it harder for us to come out and even threatens our safety.

Take for example British-based Armenian band VO.X who, in their latest video, label homosexuality a “perversion.” But, hey, they’re just expressing their personal opinion, right? Wrong. Even worse, VO.X has not only changed the settings on their video on YouTube so that comments are no longer allowed, but also added a description which says that this video is about Armenia ONLY (caps their’s) and the views and opinions expressed therein are “purely and subjectively Orthodox Christian and as such, within Armenia’s context, do not violate human rights.”

Are you kidding me?

I could go on and on about this topic, but others have already written extensively on it and so for more information, read blogger ArtMika’s post here, along with his follow-up post here, as well as Global Voices coverage here.

Armenia might have endorsed the UN statement against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in December 2008, but it doesn’t mean it has any laws that actually protect LGBT people from discrimination. [See this Wikipedia article on LGBT rights in Armenia that also includes a brief history... in case you’re ever confronted with the argument that it was Europe who “brought” the notion of same-sex relationships to Armenia — ha!]

The truth is, it’s not easy being queer anywhere. And yes, I agree that it’s especially not easy being queer in Armenia. But please don’t for a moment think that there aren’t any LGBT folks here, or that we can’t live our lives here like everyone else.

Life is full of contradictions. You don’t have to go far or look too hard to see the diversity that exists in the lives of those around you... even on these ancient lands.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Things I Love

Photo from my personal collection.

Eating. Cooking. Traveling. Writing. Blogging. Now if only I could combine these ingredients into a recipe for paid employment ;) Yesterday, I watched Julie & Julia and became inspired. Today, a brief post to remind myself (and you, dear reader) that anything is possible. Now back to the hustle…

Monday, June 7, 2010

The many faces of nationalism and xenophobia

I know there exists nationalist rigour in Armenia but I find it difficult hearing it on a personal level, on a one-on-one level and from people who I consider to be understanding, in general, and open-minded at best.

I very recently began volunteering with this great environmental NGO. I won’t go into the details here as this post is not about pointing fingers, but a wonderful, educated, and otherwise understanding man who’s been working at said NGO for over 12 years recently said some things that I, in my naïveté, was surprised to hear.

When talking about possible upcoming vacation time, I asked whether he’d be spending some time at Lake Sevan in Armenia or Batumi in Georgia (a popular tourist destination for Armenian citizens). He said he would rather die (or something to that effect) than give any of his money to Georgia and the Georgian people. He then went on to paint an essentialist picture of Georgians and how they only pursue their own interests, and that, at the expense of others. I was surprised because until then we’d been having a wonderful conversation about local and Diasporan Armenians and more interestingly on those Diasporan Armenians who repatriate to Armenia (case in point: me). I could understand his perspective and in general, I thought we understood each other. But on the topic of Georgia and the Georgians, he was quite firm and quite racist/xenophobic. And from there, our opinions diverged.

Then, yesterday I got a chance to meet a well-known Armenian sculptor. Another interesting conversation ensued, but more so on the topic of art and artists and we seemed to be in general agreement. And then, suddenly, he says how we (i.e. Armenians) forced the Turks who were living here (here? as in, in Armenia?) out and how towns and villages in Eastern Armenia had Turkish names (?). Now I don’t know about the facts of his statements, but the fervour in which they were spoken, the way he seemed so proud that we kicked out the Turks, really irked me. And yet, I didn’t find any way of saying anything otherwise since it would be his word against mine (read: older Armenian man born and raised in Armenia vs. young Diasporan Armenian who hasn’t lived in Armenia for a full year yet).

Incident number 3: a Facebook post by a friend of a friend who encourages Armenians outside of Armenia to return to Armenia, raise their kids here and not to intermarry with non-Armenians and produce children who, as he says, might be European or American. Um, hello? Do you live in this country? (He does.)

Look around you, my friend: quite a lot, and I repeat, A LOT, of local Armenians are not 100% Armenian by blood. Many are mixed, often Russian-Armenian. These type of statements only contribute to the false idea of “full-blood Armenians” which apparently are those who live in Armenia. Those outside of Armenia, be warned: you could have mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity children. Oddly enough, no one talks about that reality inside Armenia. Or about how this country has never been populated only by Armenians, and even today, there’s a sizeable Yezidi and Kurdish population (not to mention, the Iranian community, which has been growing in recent years).

And finally, another moment where I thought even in the best of intentions, even among those educated, open-minded groups of people that I fortunately have a chance to interact with regularly, there are age-old racist and xenophobic sentiments that may be hidden, but at any given moment can rise to the surface.

Case in point: Well-known journalist Onnik Krikorian who writes for Global Voices presented on “Social Media and Conflict Transformation on Armenia-Azerbaijan relations” at Bar Camp Yerevan yesterday. A nice refreshing change from the usual rhetoric when it comes to this touchy subject. However, during question and answer period, a couple of individuals stated that Azerbaijan should be the first to take a step (toward conflict resolution) and that it’s worse “over there” and what about all those lies the Azerbaijani media publish about Armenia? And with the snap of your fingers, we were once again confronted with age-old beliefs about the enemy and the “us vs. them” mentality.

Instead of pointing fingers, I say, instead of saying “they” should go first, why don’t  you look at your own actions? You can only speak for yourself and only control your own actions, so this should be our point of departure. Otherwise, the conversation goes nowhere. These type of statements are road blocks: they don’t move the conversation forward, they only lead to dead ends.

Onnik spoke about his Azerbaijani friends, about cooperating with Azerbaijani journalists and activists and how Armenians have more in common with our neighbour than we might think. He also made special mention of Social Innovation Camp Caucasus, which I was lucky to have been a part of earlier this year.

Another Bar Camp participant, who also said she has Azerbaijani friends (Onnik, you seemed surprised ;) asked, how effective do you think this grassroots level of connecting one-on-one really is? Shouldn’t it be the governments’ (both Armenian and Azerbaijani) responsibility to initiate conflict resolution? To which Onnik brilliantly replied, “If you’re going to wait for governments to initiate change, you’re going to be waiting a long [and I add, long] time.”

I think it’s all about the grassroots level. It starts here. It starts now. With us. We don’t wait for governments, nor should I say NGOs. We start with each of us. Though I believe we should address the nationalism that’s touted by the media and by the state, I don’t think that’s where change happens or where we should start from. We start with you and I.

Stop the xenophobic comments against Georgians, Azerbaijanis, and Turks. Stop the generalizations and the essentialism. It doesn’t move the conversation forward. These are age-old beliefs and though, yes, history must be addressed, I agree with Onnik: we don’t start mending relations with our fellow Azerbaijanis by talking about Nagorno-Karabakh. Let’s talk about something else. And once we’ve found our common ground (because, trust me, we have a common ground), only then can we move on to tackling the tough issues.