By Vic Gerami
On Monday, February 11, there was another gay-bashing in Armenia, this time against a staff member of Right Side NGO, a trans activism organization.
Max Varzhapetyan was walking on the street in Yerevan when three men started to follow him, swear at him and hurl homophobic slurs. Varzhapetyan called the police as the men persisted. Soon, the men asked him if he was Armenian to which he replied yes. He was soon beaten and thrown onto the road, through ongoing traffic.
I reached out to Varzhapetyan who was not able to speak due to a broken tooth, injuries to his mouth and nose and severe pain as results of the attack; so we corresponded via messenger.
According to Varzhapetyan, the assailants told him that he has no right to call himself an Armenian and that he is not a man, but a “sister.” I asked him about the investigation and what the police was doing about it. He said that an investigating office told him, “Gays are not allowed or loved in this country and that’s why it happened to you.”
The authorities told him that there are cameras everywhere, yet no arrest has been made yet. Varzhapetyan told me “I just try to put myself together right now. I am scared to go out of my house because I think they live somewhere near…They had a dog and it was midnight so they were not coming from a far place to walk with a dog. Also I can’t do anything because of my teeth and head.”
He added, “I want justice. I want to be fully recovered and I don’t know how I’m gonna live after this. I had many violent attacks in my life, I even got my finger cut years ago but this was completely hell because it was unexpected and I did nothing… (I didn’t even replied to them)
I haven’t slept or ate for 4 days already …I’m shaking right now and crying all this days.”
I reached out to the authorities in Armenia for comments about the incident, but did not get an immediate response.
LGBT and other Human Rights activists are not optimistic for the improvement of systematic and institutionalized homophobia end in Armenia. Despite sweeping changes triggered by last year’s Velvet Revolution, the situation for LGBT Armenians remains the same.
In April of 2018, tens of thousands of Armenians flooded the streets of Yerevan, demanding the resignation of then–Prime Minister Serj Sargsyan. Sargsyan stepped down after 11 days of protests, and days later, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, a charismatic former journalist, was sworn in as the new prime minister. There was hope in Armenian that a new era had begun, devoid of corruption, oligarchy and brutality.
I visited Armenia in July of 2018 and witnessed the positive energy and optimism. Sadly, queer Armenians, while celebrating the revolution, did not share this optimism. For them, it was homophobia as usual. The regime might have changed but the attitude of the stakeholders was the same.
In February of 2018, a transgender woman was left hospitalized after being brutally beaten up in her Yerevan apartment. The hate crime was widely believed to be a crackdown against an LGBT community member.
Lilit Martirosyan, the head of Right Side NGO, told Epress.am about the victim, “She was attacked by one person, who then also set her apartment on fire. Her face and ribs are completely shattered; doctors describe her condition as critical,” Martirosyan said, adding that their organization has filed a crime report with the police.
“The identity of the perpetrator is known; he is not on the run. The police are now preparing materials,” said Vahe Manukyan, a lawyer with Right Side. He added that investigators have yet to interrogate the victim since she is still unable to speak.
Martirosyan added, “I, as the President of an NGO dealing with the protection of transgender community’s rights, can point to drastically increasing cases of discrimination against those people in the Armenian society. And the latest incident is a glaring proof of that.”
One of the most violent and extreme hate crimes happened in the small town of Shurnukh near Goris, the day I left Armenia last year. On August 3rd, 2018, a lynch mob of thirty people, including town’s former Mayor, attacked nine LGBT activists and chased out of town by thirty.
Hayk Hakobyan, a resident of Shurnukh, hosted his friends, some of whom were LGBT activists. Knowing about the gathering, residents of the village and Goris, stormed the house and demanded that all of them leave. They shouted homophobic slurs and threats, demanding that Hakobyan and his guests leave the village. Hakobyan and his friends fled the house and the crowd ran after them, hitting, kicking, throwing stones, and shouting “get rid of those gays” and “catch them and beat them up.”
A victim called the police, who arrived ninety minutes later. One of the victims, Robert Sylwery, told OC Media, “The police didn’t even bring enough cars to transport nine people like we asked them to. We had to stop a tourist bus for a ride. On the road back, we came across an ambulance, so two injured people, including myself, were transported straight to the hospital.”
Six of Hakobyan’s friends were injured, one with bruises on the head and another with a broken nose. Police stated that they questioned several of the attackers, but did not arrest any of them.
But the victimization and humiliation did not end there. To make matters worse, various groups and individuals defended and justified the crimes, including political and public figures, human rights defenders, artists, journalists, and religious figures. Even a motorcade and a celebration in Shurnukh were arranged in defense of the perpetrators.
Following the gay-bashing, Gevorg Petrosyan, an Armenian parliament member with the Prosperous Armenia Party, made the following statement on his Facebook page, “I don’t know who will incriminate me and to what extent, but we should have already driven out (I’m stating this lightly) homosexuals, religious minorities, and their protectors from our Holy land with joint efforts.” The authorities closed the case without much of an explanation.
I spoke to Mamikon Hovsepyan, Executive Director of Pink (P), country’s leading LGBT organization, following the attack on Varzhapetyan and asked him about the August 2018 gay-bashing, and he said, “Pink has been monitoring the incident since it occurred, lending support to the victims and working with parties involved to see that justice is served. Pink has retained an attorney who is working with the authorities to re-open the case.”
For years, the Armenian government has failed to effectively investigate anti-LGBT violence. The criminal code does not recognize anti- LGBT hate as an aggravating criminal circumstance, and a government bill on equality does not include sexual orientation and gender identity as a ground for protection from discrimination.
In November of 2018, the organizers of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups and the New Generation Humanitarian NGO (Yerevan, Armenia) were forced to cancel the event that was due to take place in Yerevan from November 15th through 18th. The organization issued a statement that included, “We are deeply distressed and disappointed that political violence, death threats, and vandalism directed at LGBTI people constitute a genuine threat to the safety of our participants.”
The statement added, “During the last several days, there has been a wave of extremist and homophobic acts in Armenia, targeted at the event. In order to maximize their chances at the upcoming elections, the political parties that have been in opposition since the Revolution of April 2018 have mobilized and radicalized right-wing conservatives in the country against the group of activists that was coming to Yerevan for the Forum.”
This was another missed opportunity for a country that could benefit from forums and conferences that bring a great deal of revenue for the country.
In a statement issued November 6, New Generation, a Yerevan-based NGO that was helping to organize the conference, cited “constant threats” and “organized intimidation.” They also said that the Armenian police had shown a “lack of sufficient readiness” to protect them.
“I don’t consider it appropriate to hold the forum in Armenia, considering the risks and security considerations,” Armenia’s police chief Valeriy Osipyan told journalists the same day. “We advised that the forum should not be held in Armenia.”
Pashinyan’s government “fails to protect the rights of its citizens,” wrote Mika Artyan, an Armenian LGBT activist, on Twitter. “Basically they failed to carry on their duties when it comes to rights of #LGBT citizens. Unacceptable.”
In correspondence obtained by Eurasianet, Yerevan-based LGBT activists helping put on the event reported violent threats and said their cars were followed. The activists said that after reporting threats to the authorities, the police appeared willing to guarantee the event’s safety. But the organizers said that while officers were largely helpful, they privately suggested postponing the event “for after the election” and couldn’t provide the activists the protection they sought.
Pashinyan failed to take a strong position. When he was grilled in parliament on the issue, including on the forum, he cleverly and arrogantly avoided giving a definitive answer. Responding to MP of the Tsarukyan faction Gevorg Petrosyan, who earlier called on LGBT people to be expelled from Armenia, “For me as Prime Minister and for our government, the less this issue comes up, the better,” said Pashinyan and added, “It’s a headache.”
In other words, the mere existence of LGBT Armenians is an inconvenience for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
In what seemed like a disturbing salute to crimes of the Soviet Union, Pashinyan continued by saying that in the Soviet Union, such people were imprisoned and hanged in earlier times.
Apparently the young “progressive” Prime Minister is yet to learn that being LGBT is not a lifestyle choice, any more than one’s eye color; but that is the least of his dangerous rhetoric.
In a statement to me after the attack on Varzhapetyan, Haig Boyadjian, President of GALAS, the most prominent LGBTQ organization in the USA, serving the queer community of Southern CA and working in tandem with Pink said, “The Armenian government must once and for all take immediate steps to address the recent epidemic of violence targeting its LGBTQ citizens. We are deeply alarmed with the mysterious closing of criminal case regarding the violent attacks against 9 LGBTQ individuals last summer in the village of Shurnukh.” He added, “The lack of action essentially condones and justifies future hate crimes against Armenia’s LGBTQ community. We are patiently waiting for Prime Minister Pashinyan to defend LGBTQ rights in the ‘New Armenia’ being forged and hope these senseless violent attacks will cease or at least be met with consequences under the law.”
Homosexuality has been legal in Armenia since 2003, but there are no legal protections for LGBT Armenians, and Armenia is ranked 49 out of 50 European countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights, only beating out Azerbaijan. Though marriage equality is not legal in Armenia, the country does recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad. However, no such recognition has been documented yet.