I was 19-years-old when I met a lesbian girl who liked me. I told her I was not one of “them”, but suddenly, for no reason, I kissed her. It was with her that I first realised what love is.
Eva (not her real name), 24, is a queer woman living in Yerevan. She went through many stages while discovering her sexuality. At first, it was classical self-identification as a heterosexual woman, which then transformed into a bisexual identity. Having realised her affection towards transgender individuals, she then thought that she was pansexual. Now she does not want to associate herself with a distinct sexual category or search for a label for her sexuality.
“I am just a person who loves another person; I am queer,” she says.
‘Parandzem and Taguhi were having sex the whole night’
On the façade of an old building in downtown Yerevan, there is some graffiti that reads, ‘Parandzem and Taguhi [two female Armenian names] were having sex the whole night’. This spot of graffiti feminising the male-centric public space of the city is actually a defiant take on well-known advertising slogan from bygone times: ‘Parandzem and Taguhi were cooking pasta the whole night’.
“This really influences people,” Eva says, without specifying who daubed the graffiti.
Queer people are one of the most marginalised and discriminated groups in Armenia. A 2016 research paper entitled ‘Hate Crimes and other Hate-Motivated Incidents against LGBT People in Armenia’ found that of 200 queer people interviewed for the study, 198 had been the victim of or witness to hate crimes or other hate motivated incidents.
Recognising the need to stop violence and prejudice against queer people, more and more activists and human rights defenders in Armenia have started to push for the protection of queer rights, for equality, and to end discrimination. However, within the queer rights discourse, the voices of lesbian, bisexual, and trans women remain marginal.
“As in generally all women’s experiences, LBT women’s stories remain invisible,” Eva says.
According to her, in a society where all women face barriers speaking about their issues, it is even more difficult for women with a non-heteronormative sexuality to speak out.
“We do everything in secret”
Queer women in Armenia thus face a multi-layered oppression that targets their gender and sexual self-expression simultaneously. Since there are a lack of opportunities to freely expose their problems, queer women are psychologically vulnerable and are often unable to share their emotions with the outside world.
These pressures sometimes manifests themselves in depression or panic attacks.
“We do everything in secret. There are small communities where I can feel safe, but at home, among other friends and relatives, I can’t be who I am,” says Eva.
Isolation and emotional problems are only one example of the challenges faced by queer women in Armenia. Eva says that if a queer person's sexuality is revealed, that person can sometimes be subjected to “corrective rape” as heterosexual men look to assert their definition of what is ‘normal’ on the victim.
The police won’t help
The security risks faced by queer women are still very real in the country. Eva tells of how often, after leaving a pub or a café, or simply while walking down the street with her girlfriend, that she is followed by men.
“I get really scared because I don’t know what could happen to me. The guy is in a car, physically stronger than I am. He can do whatever he wants and nobody will care.”
Eva does not believe that the police would help her because even if she goes to them to seek protection, the police will laugh at her sexuality and ask questions that make her feel uncomfortable. That has happened to her lesbian friends many times, she says.
Once, Eva and her transgender friend were attacked in a park by men, who started to beat and curse them. Other men in the area, instead of trying to stop the perpetrators, approached and demanded they stop cursing as there were other women in the park. “So it was totally fine that they were beating us, but they had to do it in silence, exactly the way they beat women in their homes,” says Eva.
‘You need to try it with a man to know what real sex is’
While there is widespread violence and aggression against queer women, lesbian relationships are also not considered to be serious. Statements such as, ‘she is a lesbian because she hasn’t met a real guy yet’ and ‘you need to try it with a man to know what ‘real sex’ is’ are commonplace.
Lesbian women are often objectified by men. For many, a lesbian is a sexy woman from a porn movie who is there to serve as an object for men’s gazes, and to fulfil a heterosexual man’s craving.
“There were many times when they approached me and my girlfriend to suggest that we have sex with them. When we would refuse, they would ask if we could at least have sex in front of them,” Eva says.
The pressure felt by queer women in Armenia does not come only from the outside world. According to research carried out by Pink Armenia and Socioscope, queer people are very often subjected to different types of violence by their family members, in an attempt to change their ‘incorrect’ sexual orientation or gender identity.
Eva’s parents do not know about her sexuality. However, according to her, she feels lucky, because there is no hatred in her family against any group.
“Many of my LGBT friends come to our apartment. Even my trans friends come. We all drink coffee with my mum. She’s really chill with them.”
Once, Eva’s mother asked her if she was a lesbian. Eva was not ready to come out to her mother, so she lied to her. She regretted this afterwards, since coming out became much harder.
Notwithstanding the relative tolerance of her family, Eva still experiences some psychological pressure from her relatives. To her grandmother, Eva is already an ‘old maid’. Once, when Eva’s mother asked her why she does not get married, Eva asked her in return why she does not do the same.
“I said, ‘I don’t ask you to have a baby so that I have a sister, do I? Then why do you tell me you want a grandchild and a son-in-law?’ After this, they never had any conversations [with me] like that again.”
What is wrong with kissing a beloved in public?
On other occasions, Eva is not afraid to talk freely about her sexual orientation, however. Once, some of her old friends were talking about queer people with hate speech, saying that they needed to be burned or killed.
Eva said she told them to burn or kill her, because she is a lesbian too — one of ‘them’ — too. Eva said her remarks made her friends rethink their abusive behaviour and ignorance.
For Eva’s partner, who comes from abroad, the way people look at her and her girlfriend when they walk together is very strange. Every time they’re at a bus station, Eva’s girlfriend comes closer to kiss her before entering the bus. But Eva feels compelled to resist, at the same time wondering what is wrong about kissing her beloved in public.
Eva believes that she would never face such challenges were she in a heterosexual relationship. She recalls her earlier years of adulthood, when she was with a young man.
“We could walk freely, hold hands, nobody would pay attention”. However, in a same-sex relationship, she says, life becomes full of fear and lies; a double life where everything requires overthinking.
‘I am in love, and I want to be able to talk about this’
“I don’t know why I need to lie to my mother. I have a person whom I love, I have tender feelings towards her, what could be better than this? I am in love, and I want to be able to talk about this with others. We live a happy life together, we walk, we go to cafés, we dance, we smoke. Isn’t this beautiful? People should be happy for us, shouldn’t they? But no, nobody’s happy; people just want to kill us,” Eva says, her voice beginning to tremble.
Eva often thinks about moving. Locally conducted research shows that in 2011–2013 alone, almost 6,000 Armenian citizens left the country due to some form of discrimination. A non-accepting society can take a tremendous toll on a person's mental health .
Even seeking consultations from a psychologist is an issue, as psychologists who are queer-friendly and are aware of queer people’s specific challenges are the exception.
“I now have a real struggle inside myself. Should I stay here and try to change our society, or, as I only have one life, should I go to a safer place and have a happier future?”
Homophobia: a political tool in a country at war
Eva believes that homophobia has recently become trendy in Armenia, a heavily militarised country that lives in constant fear of full blown war with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Even those who do not necessarily have a problem with queer people express hateful, homophobic attitudes just because it is popular to do so.
Moreover, queer people quite often become a target in political games. Whenever domestic politics in the economically depressed country threatens to boil over, articles on queer topics suddenly become widespread, and people shift their attention from the controversies of government to the ‘preservation of Armenian values and traditions’.
Among possible examples of this are the arson attack on a queer friendly pub two days after the disputed parliamentary elections in 2012, and the ‘anti-gender’ movement in 2013, that emerged as Armenia was choosing between an Association Agreement with the EU and joining the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union.
Queer people in Armenia are thus politically constructed by the media as ‘enemies’. Queer women are particularly targeted.
Eva thinks that in small states on a war footing, like Armenia, where people's lives are absorbed by the struggle for survival, women’s rights and queer rights are not a priority.
“If nobody has died today, everything is good,” Eva says. “Therefore, as long as Armenia is [locked] in a military conflict and is one of the most militarised countries in the world, there is little hope that anything will change for us,” she surmises, lighting the last cigarette in her pack.