On Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, We Recognize LGBT Armenians Who Struggle Today

April 24 is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

It’s a day when people around the world mourn the more than 1.5 million Armenians who were savagely and systematically exterminated at the hands of the Young Turks during World War I.

A day known as Red Sunday, historians mark April 24, 1915, as the official start of the Armenian Genocide. It was the day when hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and leaders were rounded up in Constantinople (Istanbul) and later murdered.

All in the name of ethnic cleansing, Hitler later used the genocide of Armenians as a blueprint for the Holocaust. He infamously asked followers, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

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Still today, American officials refuse to call this massacre of Armenians a genocide.

“Today, we remember and honor the memory of those who suffered during the Meds Yeghern, one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century,” Donald Trump said in a statement Monday. “I join the Armenian community in America and around the world in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the suffering endured by so many.”

Previous presidents — including former President Barack Obama — also refused to call the mass killings a genocide.

“The president’s statement fails to stand up for human rights and is inconsistent with American values, and represents the same kind of capitulation to Turkish authoritarianism which will cost more lives,” say Anthony Barsamian and Van Krikorian, co-chairs of the Armenian Assembly of America.

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My great-grandmother (right) with her sister and mother.

As a descendant of Armenian Genocide survivors, April 24 is an important day for me.

My great-grandmother Santoukht is one of the lucky few who survived the Armenian Genocide. With her sister and single mother, my great-grandmother fled Armenia to Syria.

Only 8 years old at the time, my great-grandmother walked approximately 143 miles from the town of Marash to refugee camps outside of Aleppo. Her mother had learned to become a midwife after the passing of her husband so she would be able to provide for her children on her own. With very little, they struggled to build a new life for themselves, overcoming many obstacles along the way.

Still today, our family continues to pass down stories of these women’s bravery, strength and courage.

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While we remember the Armenian Genocide, we must also recognize the discrimination facing the Armenian LGBT community today.

While we look back at the courage it took for my ancestors and others to overcome these obstacles, we cannot ignore the obstacles still facing many LGBT Armenians today in their beloved country.

Homosexuality has been legal in Armenia since 2003, but incidents of discrimination, harassment and violence are not uncommon, primarily due to a lack of education and the influence of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In 2012, arsonists launched attacks at the gay-owned pub DIY in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. The documentary film Listen To Me: Untold Stories Beyond Hatred discusses the aftermath of what happened: “Because of this, it came out all at once. We began to understand that there is fascism in Armenia,” bar owner Armine “Tsomak” Oganesova says in the film. “[It was] always there, but after that incident [it] became much more visible.”

“Instead of accusing the boys, they accused me. I suffered the most. They said much more disgusting and demeaning things about me than those boys,” she added. Oganesova now lives in Sweden, where she sought asylum after a relentless wave of threats against her and her family for speaking out about DIY’s bombing.

In 2014, 60 people were publicly outed in by the tabloid Iravunk, which linked to their Facebook profiles and called on readers to shun them. Those outed were harassed and threatened, and one man was unable to return to Iran after the list was published.

Public Information and Need for Knowledge (PINK) Armenia, the leading LGBT rights group in the country, supported a lawsuit against Iravunk, but the courts ruled in favor of the tabloid.

Arman Gharibyan writes about the obstacles faced by LGBT Armenians. In his article “It’s Hard To Be Gay in Armenia,” he details the widespread prejudice against gay Armenians that leaves them very few spaces or resources.

He writes:

According to the survey, 93.8 per cent of the 1,017 people interviewed said they did not want to see gay couples holding hands in the street and 97.5 per cent were against them kissing in public.

LGBT people are “one of the most marginalised, least visible and discriminated against groups” in Armenia as well as in neighbouring Georgia, according to a June report by the Tbilisi-based Women´s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG).

“Despite a degree of success achieved in recent years … members of the group continue to face violence, oppression, and harassment from the general public, as well as specific institutions, including medical facilities and the workplace. Bias-motivated violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) frequently goes unreported and, hence, remain without proper investigation and retribution,” the report said.

Produced by PINK Armenia, Listen To Me: Untold Stories Beyond Hatred profiles the lives of 10 LGBT people in Armenia. Directed by Gagik Ghazareh, the idea for the film was simple: to tell the stories of those whose voices are not heard, and to change the image of LGBT people in Armenia.

“It is time for society to listen to LGBT people and to erase their hatred. It is time to break the silence and show that we exist, that we are your sisters, your sons, your students, your coworkers, your best professors, your closest neighbors, your famous weightlifters, your friends from the diaspora, your favorite artists, or just another person sharing the same public transport as you,” PINK executive director Mamikon Hovsepyan says.

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Mamikon Hovsepyan

But Hovsepyan has hope for the future.

He continues, “When we first set out with the vision of changing the LGBT situation in Armenia, and to empower the community nine years ago, we could not have imagined that we would have such a strong community like the one we have today.”

To find out how you can help LGBT Armenians, head here.