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.


  1. I love your post Adrineh!
    I agree with you it is very hard to be different in Armenia. Whether you are an LGBT or a person who wants to live his/her life differently that what the society expects, it's annoying and exhausting how people treat you.
    I am very proud of you for the choice you've made to come here and live with your partner. We need to change the society by continuing living our lives in Armenia the way we want. There should be more living examples of change.

  2. awww, thank you, Anoush! Yes, change starts with us: by living our lives the way we want, as Gandhi once famously said, we will be the change we want to see in the world ;)

  3. Hi Adrineh - Thanks for painting a picture of what it's like to be queer in Armenia. The struggles we face being LGBTQ against being invisible is so complex and so layered. If it's not the state, socially, or culturally, than it's usually among family that we are not seen. Negotiating safety and being acknowledged is always tricky.

    I was recently gay intervention support to a fellow Filipina queer friend. With our status of being invisible, it's that much more important to create solid support networks so we can be seen, and so we know that we do exist when everyone else says we don't, especially our families.

  4. Hi Lydia! Thanks for stopping by ;) Yes, I agree, the struggles we face as LGBT folk are complex and layered. A lot of similarities can be found among the issues faced by different LGBT communities, but there are also many differences. Creating a strong support network is important no matter where you are or where you come from.

  5. Hmm...OK, so I don't normally make comments about other people's life. It's because I really think I have no right to do that. But, in this case, you made a Blog and as far as I understand you promote a discussion on the life of LGBTs in Armenia, and you give your example.
    Now, I think what you're doing is interesting and certainly you must have given it a thought or two. So, I assume motive underneath your choice to return to Armenia. Yes, it is difficult to be gay there and possibly dangerous. So, then why stay? I mean you have been to Amsterdam and Paris. These are very tolerant places... comfortable and all.
    Please don't get me wrong, I dislike peer pressure like the next person and I understand fighting for a cause, but I also think that fighting for a lost cause is as useless as the next best thing. Once again, I know that chasing the impossible dream offers a great kick to most of us but, don't forget, most martyres don't die in their bed!
    Wrapping up my overly metaphorical comment: if Yerevan is bad for you, why stay? Do you really think it's worthwhile fighting for the LGBT cause there? And if you're not, then, in the words of Tina Turner: What's love got to do with it? - meaning sometimes you can't have it all and choices need to be made. It's just that simple.
    Btw, I'm Dutch and not homophobic - just interested in socio-cultural change and it's origins.

  6. Hi Indigo, thanks for your comment! Apologies for not responding sooner; I haven't been all that caught up on checking older posts for new comments.

    I wonder, though, why my post left the impression that Yerevan is "bad for me"? It's actually not bad at all! Simply because I write about difficulties here, doesn't mean that going to Toronto or Amsterdam or Paris to live or stay would be better. In fact, I've had similar experiences in Toronto and I don't doubt that you will find homophobic doctors and others in Amsterdam and Paris as well — both tolerant places as you say.

    I am here not only because my partner is here but also because I choose to be here. Those are two different things. Yes, of course I want to be with my partner, but there are other reasons why I live in Yerevan. Overcoming stereotypes and discrimination is the case for LGBT folks in the world over — but by being here, I formulate friendships and talk openly with people who know me in a common language, and all these things I think are small acts that will elicit change, no matter where you are.

  7. Hey Adrineh!
    Sorry for posting anonymous, but i don't have a blog or google account!
    I'm from germany and visited Armenia over ten years ago. My parents are from armenia, so I often thought to visit it again.. But when I hear about the hate and intolerance against lesbian people most of the people have in armenia, I don't really want to go there. I would never want to justify or even hide myself. What do you think? Would you say that people change there?

    Thanks for your blog!