Between 2011 and 2013 alone 5,891 LGBT people left Armenia. The figure was provided by a PINK Armenia study on the “Impact of LGBT emigration on economic indicators of Armenia.” In addition to the factors contributing to the emigration of people from Armenia, in the case of LGBT people there are also peculiar factors such as discrimination and homophobia, as a result of which - threat to physical safety, lack of protection by the state, domestic issues, psychological pressure, financial blackmail, issues related to sex change and so on.
A practical assessment by Society Without Violence NGO on the “The Human Rights Situation of LGBTI Individuals in Armenia” revealed the legal gaps pertaining to the rights of LGBT people and the common legal practice in the country. The study outlines the main issues and shortcomings with regards to equality and non-discrimination, life and security, employment, education, health care, social security rights as well as freedom of expression.
Another study by PINK Armenia, “From Prejudice to Equality: Study of societal attitudes towards LGBTI people in Armenia,” shows in detail the nature and basis for the stereotypes and intolerance about LGBTI people in the Armenian society.
These three studies give a general and theoretical idea about the human rights situation of LGBTI people in Armenia and the main reasons for their emigration. This two-part article will tell the first-hand story of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Armenian citizens who have moved to different EU countries. These private cases will also help to understand the reasons behind the exodus of LGBTI from Armenia.
Anna: An Escape to the Netherlands
Anna is a lesbian woman and it has been almost a year since she has received political asylum in the Netherlands. The Dutch migration authorities have not yet made a decision on her application and Anna, who is 37, temporarily resides at a shelter for refugees. She is emotional when asked about the causes that led to her departure from Armenia.
“It was a decision forced by certain circumstances. There were several reasons – personal safety, discrimination at work, issues related to healthcare and, as a result, a life-threatening situation,” Anna says. According to her, life is difficult for women in patriarchal Armenia, where it takes them ten times more effort than it does men to protect their right to life with dignity.
“There are very few female orchestral conductors in Armenia. Try to recall if you have ever seen any female conductors at concerts. In the professional arena, I was constantly told that conducting was not a woman’s job and that I shouldn’t hope that one day I’d be conducting my own orchestra. I had studied for years and developed my skills only to be told that there was no place for a woman in that field. In Armenia, a woman cannot be a conductor; she can only be conducted and made use of.
"All my hopes of one day conducting an orchestra were gone"
“The former minister of culture [in Armenia] was a woman, and I was thinking that, at least instinctively, she would show some solidarity. I once appealed to her attempting to describe all the problems I was facing. As it turned out, I should not have done that because I was then threatened with losing my job. To make a long story short – all my hopes of one day conducting an orchestra were gone. I was left only with the option of humbly singing in choirs where conductors were obviously men.
“However, all of these – gender-based discrimination at work, threats of dismissal, unfulfilled dreams and hopes – were not the main factors as to why I left Armenia. “All women in Armenia have more or less identical issues. Except for those, of course, who serve the patriarchal system, i.e. a number of influential female officials from the ruling Republican party…
“But when you are a lesbian and are forced to live in two parallel dimensions of reality while hiding your identity and private life, you become two individuals in one body with two different behaviors, styles, even different types of vocabularies where you use one as a mask to disguise yourself for the sake of society and use the other only in your home within the confines of four walls, with your dog, with the one you love, and a very small circle of friends.
And when you are tired of all this and want to free yourself from these chains, you suddenly make such impulsive moves you didn’t think you had the courage for,” says Anna while telling her story of how she sent in an inquiry to the Ministry of Justice of Armenia in an attempt to find out what procedures to follow to legally register a marriage and/or a union with her partner.
Anonymous phone calls and threats
“The need to get married legally was not just for psychological liberation but also for social and economic reasons. I’ll bring an example: my girlfriend and I wanted to secure a loan to buy an apartment for ourselves. While buying real estate, heterosexual families receive credits and are granted significant privileges, which we could not obtain.
Armenia’s constitution does ban same-sex marriage, and since everything that is not legally forbidden is allowed for private citizens, one day I decided to send an inquiry to the Ministry of Justice looking to find out how we could legally register our union. Details about this were published by LGBTnews.
“Following the replies from the Ministry, which contradicted key provisions of the Constitution, I was determined to take the issue up with the Constitutional Court and was already in search of a lawyer. This is when I started receiving anonymous phone calls. I was attacked at my doorstep and received many threats ‘to leave the Ministry alone.’ I realized that I was being targeted by the authorities and my physical safety was in danger.
I could have never imagined that a low-key person like me would come to be in the epicenter of the government’s attention. I was left with no other choice but to leave Armenia immediately,” says Anna adding that she does not plan to return unless Armenia became a modern democratic state with clear mechanisms for the protection of human rights and legally recognized same-sex marriages, while serving justice to all cases of discrimination and all forms of hatred.
Tigran: Salvation in Germany
Tigran has been living in one of the refugee camps in Germany for five months already, now he is at a camp located in Marktheidenfeld. The 33 year old Armenian had already been interviewed by German migration services, with whom he shared his story and is now waiting for the reply for his asylum application.
The state has provided him with an apartment and social benefits. He is now studying German in hopes of finding employment in his professional field. In the beginning, Tigran, who is a gay, did not like to talk about the reasons why he left Armenia because it was too stressful of a topic for him.
“In the beginning of 2015, I went for a regular checkup for STD’s which I would do twice a year. I tested positive for HIV. I was in distress, although I was aware that modern medicine was able to substantially neutralize many dangers posed by HIV. Living in Armenia as a gay person is difficult, even more so for a gay person with HIV. However, I did not plan to leave Armenia in the beginning. I liked my job, and where would I go if I left my family, relatives and friends behind?
"I started fearing for my health and my life"
But when I came face to face with the discrimination based on sexual orientation within the Armenian health care system and the prejudice towards people with HIV, I realized that I should not expect quality health care. I started fearing for my health and my life. In addition to that, the attitude of the medical staff at the National Center for AIDS Prevention was very insulting and degrading. Once, when I needed to see a dentist, for weeks I was not able to find one that would treat an HIV-positive patient,” says Tigran.
According to Tigran, he had been forced to hide his sexual and emotional life from everyone – friends, relatives, acquaintances. And the secret of living with HIV had now been added to that.
“If previously I could conceal my sexual orientation and meet my sexual and emotional needs in secret, after learning that I was HIV positive, I had to become very cautious about that too. I was afraid to infect someone. I was also afraid that if someone found out I was HIV positive, no one would want to build any sort of relationship with me. You know, in Armenia, there are many phobias and stereotypes about HIV even among LGBTI people. And so, I even lost the secret private life I used to have.”
"The right to private life and medical confidentiality are not protected"
Tigran says that somehow his employer found out about his sexual orientation and HIV status and fired him, which ultimately led him to the decision to leave Armenia.
“I have no idea how my employer obtained confidential medical information [about my status] but it is obvious that the leak came from a medical institution. Or it could be from intelligence services. I don’t know…at least my example shows that the right to private life and medical confidentiality are not protected in Armenia,” says Tigran, expressing his concern.
In Germany, where he has since relocated and is currently living at a refugee camp, Tigran feels safe and has no concerns for his health and life. He says he is happy with the German health care system and that he receives treatment using modern medication. He says that there are plenty of problems in Germany as well but that they are significantly different in nature.
Tigran, however, has still been a victim of homophobic hate crime in one of the refugee camps in Germany. He says that in the camp where he was living, there were other men from Armenia, who after learning that he was gay, violently attacked him via an organised group within the territory of the camp. After receiving necessary medical aid, Tigran informed the staff of the camp about this incident, after which he has been transferred to another camp. The Police is now dealing with his case.
In response to the question about when he would return to Armenia, he only laughs.
Mel: Freedom in the Netherlands
Two-time European weightlifting champion and record holder, two-time world silver medalist Mel has been living in the Netherlands for a year. The transgender athlete has received political asylum and has been learning Dutch.
“If I start counting the reasons why I left Armenia, our conversation will last for days. Everyone knows that transgender people are the most vulnerable group in Armenia.
“When you try to change something in the reality around you and you fail repeatedly, there is nothing left but to physically move to another environment. Especially, when you see that it is you and a few other people on one side versus the rest of society on the other. The level of discrimination, threats, hatred, and the violation of various freedoms and rights in Armenia was so high and pervasive that there was no air to breathe, but I had no desire to suffocate either.
I had neither the strength nor the desire left to carry that burden because the rules of the game were unfair,” Mel says while adding that he would speak only about one reason as to why he left Armenia. The athlete says that of the number of reasons he had left Armenia, one reason remained even after having lived in the Netherlands for a year.
“The Armenian media, which has become the main instrument for spreading and multiplying hatred, intolerance, and ignorance [is one of the main culprits for my departure]. And that instrument is skillfully used by both the authorities and strategic allies of the Armenian government. And when you are a public figure, you immediately become a target for them.
Irresponsibility and poor quality of the media
“It is a natural thing for famous people to be in the center of media attention but everything should have its limits. Media outlets should be curtailed by the rules of journalistic ethics and universal human rights norms. The mass media should not poke its nose into a person’s private life, stalk them for 24 hours and poison their life.
“It’s funny but even after moving to the Netherlands during this one year, there have been scores of reports in the Armenian media under headlines like ‘Daluzyan Changes Haircut,’ ‘Daluzyan Posts on Facebook,’ and so on. And under every such post, there is a new wave of hate speech by users, a new feast of discrimination, a new series of comments, which are surely not deleted by the news outlet.
“It was the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death recently and the west was widely discussing the degree of responsibility of the journalists, paparazzi, and the media [in her demise]. It is unfortunate that such issues are never discussed in Armenia. This results in people falling victim to this urge of gathering ‘likes’ and ‘clicks’.
“The irresponsibility and poor quality [of the media], the intentional spread of fake news in hopes of generating scandalous stories, the violation of the principles of the confidentiality of private life, the promotion of hatred and intolerance online by the Armenian media – in other words, creating a poisonous atmosphere – were among the many reasons for leaving the country,” says Mel noting that he had nothing to say to the Armenian news media outlets because he had zero hope that they would change their ways.
When asked when he will come back to Armenia, Mel says that he does not think about it and does not even fathom that the solutions to the problems he has faced are possible to find in Armenia.
Gevorg: Liberation in France
Gevorg is a 26-year-old bisexual man who has been living in France for three years. He has filed a petition for political asylum in France but immigration authorities have decided that Gevorg’s rights were not violated in Armenia. He is now in the process of appealing this decision in court.
“After getting my bachelor’s degree, I was summoned by the local military commission for a medical screening, although I had two more years of graduate school to complete. During the medical examination, I told the psychiatrist that I had had sexual relations with men and that if I was drafted to the army, I might have some problems there.
“The military commission sent me to a psych ward. An entire commission made up of doctors interrogated me for several days in an attempt to figure out my sexual orientation. The questioning was accompanied by their disparaging and sarcastic attitude. In the end, they drafted a conclusion, in which they had attributed certain features to me that were typical of transgender men.
“After that I was sent for another medical examination by a different medical commission where the chairman was a high-ranking military officer who made the final decision about a candidate’s fitness to serve in the military. I don’t remember what the commission was called specifically but I remember the fat and disgusting face of the chairperson well.
After reading the medical conclusion given by the previous commission, he began shouting threats and curse words, insulting and humiliating me in front of other draftees. He was threatening to let my family members know about my sexual orientation and to send me to the psychiatric ward for compulsory treatment…I still get the shivers when I think of that horrible person.
"I had to move out of Armenia and go to a place where I could be free"
“They declared me unfit for military service citing mental illness and personality disorders. The staff of the military commissariat also didn’t miss their chance to make fun of me, humiliating and threatening me that they would tell my relatives and friends about me,” Gevorg says.
Gevorg says that what happened to him at the military commissariat and the medical commissions plunged him into a deep psychological trauma. “I was constantly nervous and afraid. I began to avoid sexual relations. It wasn’t easy before this either. There are stereotypes and negative opinions about bisexual people even among gays and lesbians. As a result, the pressure escalated to such a degree that I realized I had to move out of Armenia and go to a place where I could be free, where I would not be ashamed of myself.
“There was also the factor of obtaining a good education. The idea of continuing my education in France was very attractive, especially when I saw that I was not going to be able to do that in Armenia. Some of my friends who had immigrated to France before told me they would help, and so I decided to leave Armenia,” Gevorg says, adding that although he had not yet received asylum in France, he felt like a confident and free man.
We asked Gevorg the same question about when he would return to Armenia. “When Armenia becomes a country like France, when Armenians become real citizens,” he replied.
Only Anna, Mel and Tigran agreed to have their identities revealed. The other two protagonists asked us to alter their names in this piece for various reasons. This goes to show that even after leaving Armenia and having resided in European countries for quite a while, some LGBTI people still have reasons to avoid presenting their lives openly.