by Isabella Iskra
On April 5, 2019, for the first time in Armenian history, a transgender woman delivered a speech in the Armenian Parliament. Afterwards, Naira Zohrabyan, Chair of the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, explained that she didn’t have the right to raise any question on the LGBT community, as it wasn’t on the session agenda. According to Varser Karapetyan, Program Coordinator of Human Rights House Yerevan, “it was a clear case of discrimination, especially taking into account that it was an event dedicated to human rights.”
Despite the country’s current democratic transition, Lilit Martirosyan was subjected to hate speech and death threats following her speech in the Parliament. “There were protests for a couple of days in front of the National Assembly. People were demanding explanations on why a transgender woman had had a chance to speak in Parliament,” notes Varser Karapetyan.
Edmon Marukyan, MP, Chairman of Bright Armenia Faction is a delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He is sitting in the Committee on Equality and Non-discrimination. From his perspective, “before that event, never in the Armenian Parliament had a transgender had a speech. It’s an unprecedented thing and I think we must appreciate that.” Marukyan also argued that in this kind of situations it must be considered whether the society is ready for the issue.
Current political agenda
Investigative journalism platform hetq.am reported on November 13, 2019 that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan defended his government’s partial financing of the film ‘Mel’, a documentary about Mel Daluzyan, a famed transgender Armenian weightlifter and triple European champion. The film has been criticized for promoting ‘non-traditional Armenian values’. Some conservative officials take the opportunity to rally against Pashinyan.
According to Varser Karapetyan (HRH Yerevan), with regard to human rights, the new government is trying to do better than the previous one. At the same time, hesitancy coming from the government can be observed. “They are afraid of the consequences because they think they cannot be openly pro-LGBT rights or speak about equality freely, for it could broadly turn society against them.”
Public opinion and hate speech
In Armenia there are high-scale manipulations at work, which unfortunately greatly affect public opinion. The main source of hate speech are groups linked to the previous governments. Varser Karapetyan (HRH Yerevan) adds: “They are fighting against human rights legislation and manipulate this issue through influencing our public opinion. We have to be more proactive, otherwise the conservative forces and reactionary groups can be really successful in their campaigns.”
Gap in the law
For years, Armenian investigators have failed to effectively pursue violence against the LGBT community. The criminal code does not recognize anti-LGBT attacks as an aggravating criminal circumstance. Luiza Vardanyan, a graduate of the Faculty of Law, cooperates with different NGOs in Armenia. In her opinion, the LGBT community is the “most vulnerable group of the Armenian society.” During her work at PINK Armenia NGO she dealt mostly with cases of violations of LGBT people’s rights on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. The government bill on equality neither includes one or the other as pertinent causes from the standpoint of discrimination or law.
According to Luiza (PINK Armenia), “the police don’t do proper investigations in the cases related to discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. This is a result of the fact that there are gaps in the Armenian legislation, and there is no regulation about discrimination on the mentioned grounds. “Yes, we do have a law on discrimination, but these acts are not mentioned as grounds for protection. Investigative bodies say that if it is not written in the legislation, it cannot be implemented. Thus, people, who are victims of hate crimes on the grounds of sexuality, are not protected properly.”
Even since April 2018, Armenia is in a national values debate on the Istanbul Convention, an international covenant requiring states to act against domestic violence. The government in Armenia had announced it would ratify the Convention. However, still they haven’t done so due to the attacks by various conservative forces, which accuse them of trying to make the first step towards the legalization of same-sex marriage and modification of adoption rights in Armenia.
In relation to domestic violence, PINK Armenia claims that most children are victims, and parents are the perpetrators. “With no information on gender identity the children’s parents start the procedure of changing their child,” says Luiza Vardanyan. The procedure contains domestic violence and results in “social isolation”. It is to be assumed that the estimated number of unreported cases is considerable. In most cases victims in Armenia don’t go to the police because they don’t want to accuse their parents.
Living conditions of transgender people in Armenia
In the case of sixteen-year-old transgender Nikita, the experience of violence and hate speech affected her since her infancy. She started being bullied in her childhood. “In Armenia trans people have the hardest living conditions ever,” underlines Nikita. “I was getting called ‘girl’ all the time by our neighbors and their children. When my parents once noticed that I was playing with other girls and only ‘girl games’, they started forcing me to play football with boys. After getting to know that I am transsexual my dad stopped talking to me: it has already been two years now. I have no acceptance from my family. They say I should move away from home, but I have no place to go.”
Nikita continues: “Starting from middle school I was always sad, and my depression did not allow me to even follow my lessons. At high school it even got worse. In my second year I wanted to change school and come to Yerevan with the hope that it would be better. But the school didn’t even accept me. Things worsened, when students from upper classes got interested in me. They tried to collect information about me. One guy even wanted to know my Instagram handle from my friend, offering him money for that. During physical education class one boy aggressively and loudly threatened me that if I came to that school one more time, I would get killed.”
LGBT people are usually the most discriminated marginalized group in the labor market, healthcare system, in the military and all the other places. Mostly, transgender people in Armenia are forced into sex-work. “In most cases they don’t go to a university, since there is also discrimination there, and they don’t get higher education diplomas to work. They can’t find any work and thus perform sex-work” explains Luiza Vardanyan from Pink Armenia.
Currently Nikita lives in Yerevan with her family members. She dream of have at least two surgical interventions (breast and vocal chords). Afterwards, she would work more to earn enough money for an additional surgery.
Making a dish of traditional values and democracy
Armenian society is still very traditional. Family and religion are important values for a majority of the Armenian society. According to Mikayel Nahapetyan, member of Citizen’s Decision social-democratic party, Armenian society is still in search of its identity. “Most people want to live in a democratic political system, but they do not want, for instance, to protect the rights of the people, so they are afraid for their identity, they are afraid that this freedom will have a bad effect on our descendants.” Mikayel Nahapetyan emphasizes the importance of relating to people’s fears, “because it is impossible and useless to force them to accept something: we should choose what we need, what suits us best from the West, or take another “menu” and sometimes make our own “dish” – Armenian style.”
According to Grigor Yeritsyan, President of Armenian Progressive Youth NGO, those who argued that the Armenian society was never ready to make a revolution, turned out to be wrong. “That’s not true that society is not ready. We know society is always ready, and these reforms should happen, and that argument is not relevant anymore. We have no time to go back. Also Prime Minister Pashinyan emphasized it in his speech very clearly: all the people that will try to push our country back will be stopped.”
Nevertheless, a difficult balance must be maintained. On the one hand, we have traditional values, religion and national identity. On the other hand, we have democracy, human rights and equality. In Varser Karapetyan’s view, “having these values and traditions, Armenian people want to keep them. But of course, as a democratic country we have to provide equality for all the citizens of the country. We are a traditional society, that is true, but we are also a democratic country. We have to balance out these different values into a stable entity.”
Isbabella Iskra studied East European History and Journalism at the University of Giessen. Afterwards, she moved to Vienna and did an internship at the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Historical Research with an emphasis on Balkan Studies and Visual History. Her key journalistic topics are migration, minorities and cuisine of different cultures.