In Yerevan, I have met straight people who hang out with queers, who are tolerant (as much as I hate this word), who support equal rights for all peoples. These people would stand out against injustice in any form and if someone attempted to physically hurt another person because he was gay, they would be up in arms in a second to defend him.
But too often I find that this "tolerance" has a limit, a boundary which cannot be crossed. Sometimes this limit has to do with queers raising or adopting kids, sometimes it has to do with gay marriage and sometimes it's just simply being out as queer. And then there's the disparity when it comes to men and women (and let's not even talk about the disparity when it comes to acceptance of sexual preference vs. acceptance of gender identity): Too often in Yerevan (as I have no doubt elsewhere) I have come across straight guys who say they have no problems with lesbians but thinking about two men having sex is just disgusting (զզվելի) and unnatural (բնական չի).
I had the unfortunate experience of entering into such a conversation with two men yesterday at a friend's house. There were 8 of us — 6 girls and 2 guys — with 4 of us being queer. As happens all too often, despite women being in the majority (and in this case, half of us being queer identified), it was the 2 men who spoke the most and took up the most space. And in this case, both men (partners of two of the women) were "tolerant" and, I would say, supportive of LGBT rights (including them among the umbrella of human rights), but they simply couldn't imagine two guys together (there goes that word again: "disgusting") and would really just wish queer folks would keep their business in their bedroom.
One of the guys even used the mother of all arguments: ազգի զարկացում (the development of the nation), meaning queers can't procreate so our people would die off which proves his point that being gay is unnatural. Of course I tried to explain that everything still works and we were just as capable of having children as straight people and of course I could've tried to calm his "fears" that our people, the nation, the world wasn't about to become 100% gay so he could relax, but do you think he even heard me?
And these straight, again I say well-intentioned, tolerant guys (let's call them WI.T guys for short) usually talk too much, take up too much space (even though they believe women too should have equal rights as men — as if we need them to affirm this fact for us) and don't realize how much space they take up and how much their discourse is just as dominant — if not more so in this day and age — as the one that says queers should go to hell. Because the saddest part of all this is that they SEE themselves as tolerant, as open-minded and as above those who believe that all us queers should be rounded up and shipped straight to hell (or at least get a good beating).
This WI.T guy used words such as առավելություն ("advantage") and "propaganda" and ցուցամոլություն ("ostentation") to describe queers today. He argued that oppressed groups (citing differently abled people in Armenia as another example) now have the advantage. That he supports them/us, but does not support the "propaganda" of the LGBT community (he didn't use the words "LGBT community," I did) and doesn't understand why we have to be all up in his face anyway (the "ostentation"). No surprise then that he was against a pride parade in his city.
Now how, tell me how, can I explain to this WI.T guy that as tolerant as he is (or thinks he is), he still doesn't get it, and how insulting and derogatory his choice of words and comments are?
Yes, I agree that the state has no place in our bedrooms, but until there are equal conditions, until equality is viewed as the norm and not something to be tolerated or given to us by the patriarchy, until that day comes, we have to have a parade, we have to come out, we have to say we exist, that we are here and we're not going anywhere because if we don't, you'll trample all over us and our rights. Because even though you might "accept" us, you don't SEE us, you still don't make room for us at the table, your revolution doesn't recognize that it has to include LGBT folks and that our voices have to be heard. And I'm not even talking about questioning his notions of what is natural and "unnatural."
Photo of two men kissing: A. Sneider/zefa/Corbis (retrieved from Flickr on Jun. 26, 2011)
Public Displays of Affection
There's another issue here too that my GF pointed out: public displays of affection are not tolerated. So when this WI.T guy says he takes issue with two guys making out next to him, it's not only the fact that they're two guys (though we're not dismissing this fact), but also because they're making out publicly.
The real-life true story that Mr. WI.T tells me and my GF is as follows: two guys at a table next to him in a cafe in Yerevan were all over each other — I mean they were practically having sex, he says — and when he asks the server to talk to them and she says, now, come on, don't put me in that position, meaning she doesn't want to be the bad guy, she doesn't want to seem that she's not tolerant of LGBT folks, I think, good for her. And I want to know what cafe is this and how amazing is it that two guys can make out in public in Yerevan and the staff doesn't want to bother them, but what brings me joy actually causes him discomfort and unease and he wonders why he has to stay silent just because he's straight. I try to explain the concept of reclaiming space, of when there is no space for you, you have to take it where you can and you have a right to that space as much as anyone else. But he sees only an unfair "advantage": he asks the server if they were a heterosexual couple would she say something and she says yes, and so, I guess, believe it or not, he feels oppressed as a straight person in that situation.
But to get back to the title of this post, why Yerevan needs a pride parade: even the Well-Intentioned, Tolerant guys, even the human rights defenders and activists, even those who will stand beside us and be our allies and supporters — even these groups of people don't realize what it means to be queer and live in this society, why we need to be reclaim space and why even though he may be tolerant, deep down he thinks that being gay is unnatural, that queers shouldn't raise kids, we shouldn't marry or attend church, and that really everything would be so much better if we didn't exist and complicate his world.
And though I know this problem exists everywhere in the world, I can't help but compare Yerevan and Toronto, a city that is celebrating Pride Week this week culminating in the city's 31st Pride Parade on July 3. Thirty-first! According to the official Pride Toronto website, Pride Toronto has been in existence in various forms since the late 1970’s and annually since 1981 — more or less 10 years after the Stonewall Riots, 17 years before Amsterdam celebrated its first Gay Pride in 1996 and 24 years before Istanbul did in 2003, making Toronto Pride one of the world's longest running organized Pride celebrations.
Photo of Toronto Pride Parade 2008: Wikimedia Commons (Neal Jennings from Toronto, Canada)
When I am confronted with WI.T guys, I can't help but recall the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 and the police raid of bathhouses in Toronto in 1981 that prompted queers and our supporters to organize demonstrations in which we fought for our rights — human rights — and drew attention to, raised awareness of and educated the masses on the plight of LGBT people in heterosexist societies.
And all this on the backdrop of news that on Jun. 24, New York proudly joined the handful of US states and countries that have legalized same-sex marriage (Canada, in 2005, being the fourth country in the world to do so!) and on the heels of a comprehensive Council of Europe report on discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity published Jun. 23 that issued 'red cards' to many member states including Armenia for failing gay rights.
Interesting to note in the Council of Europe report was the double discrimination that lesbian and bisexual women face in Armenia — particularly ironic after speaking to WI.T guys in Armenia who discriminate against gay men but not lesbian or bisexual women:
"The family may be experienced by LGBT persons as an institution of immediate social control. This imposes expectations on the gender roles of boys and girls alike, which can be problematic for LGBT children who do not meet them. NGO representatives in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey stressed the double discrimination facing lesbians and bisexual women in those states. As women, they are expected to marry and have children, and until they do they must come home directly from the workplace and not go out alone. Family honour is an influential concept."
But Why a Pride Parade?
I'd like to end this post from a quote by a woman in the video (below) by Toronto-based group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid which should be recalled any time someone says they are ok with gay people, but are opposed to pride parades:
"Any kind of freedoms and liberations and rights that have been achieved has been achieved through the struggles of queer people and other oppressed people." Pride parades or demonstrations are a part of that history of struggle.