LGBTnews interviewed Chairman of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia Avetik Ishkhanyan.
Mr. Ishkanyan, how would you assess the situation of LGBTI rights in Armenia?
The situation is extremely concerning, and the main reason is the stereotypical thinking of our society, which originates in the streets. Nonconventional sexual orientations have always been mocked; they have always been considered the most offensive and humiliating labels. This is how a child is raised in our society. The main issue resides in this approach towards LGBTI people. Of course, we can say that there is no specific government policy aimed at improving the situation, and it would be true. But the point is that the people in power are the people raised by these values, and their thinking is not changing, even though they are signing international documents on human rights. Armenia is signing these documents because it has to sign them; for example, at the time when it was going to join the United Nations.
I don’t think the authorities even read most of the documents they signed. They signed these papers in the same way people were signing papers to join the Communist Party during the Soviet years. In other words, they were signing because they had to. The international community demands a signature, and not doing so can cause serious consequences, while signing can help them get loans from different international organizations.
You mentioned that the main reason for the intolerance towards LGBTI people is the public’s mentality, and that the government officials were also raised by such mentality. But don’t you think that society is diverse, and there are people who are keenly aware of what human rights are. If such people come to power, will this not improve the situation?
Yes, problems definitely can be solved if people with high values magically come to power.
I, for example, had to go a long way to understand the way these people are, and that their rights need to be protected. The year of 1996 was a turning point for me. I personally was raised by the same street mentality I mentioned before. In 1996, when the Helsinki Committee of Armenia had just been established, we were invited to collaborate with the Helsinki Committee of Netherlands. It was me and Gevorg Karapetyan from the Sakharov Foundation, and we were staying at the same hotel. One evening two men who were the owners of that hotel invited us for a beer. When we were drinking and discussing various issues, one of them told us that the reason behind their invitation was that they knew we were from Armenia, and they knew how sexual minorities were treated there. They wanted to tell us that they were also homosexuals. I remember how my hand started to shake as I was holding the mug. The first thing that crossed my mind was to hit him with the mug, but I restrained myself out of politeness. Then they started to tell us their stories.
One of them told me that he was a quite good-looking guy at school, and that the girls were interested in him, but each contact with a girl was stressful for him because he was attracted to guys. He said that he couldn’t help himself. The other man had a similar story.
I did not sleep that night; I was thinking. That encounter had a great influence on me. As I began to learn more about these people, I realized that they are simply the way they are, and we need to accept that. They should never be oppressed. As a result, my thinking gradually shifted. Now when this topic comes up and people start talking about national traditions and national mentality, and say that these are European values, I pose a few questions. First, these people are just the way they are. What can be done with them? There is no answer to this question. Second, what would they say about Parajanov? What is one supposed to do? Burn his films?
It is very important to give people a chance to think, to ask them questions, because stereotypes prevent them from thinking. If someone talks about national values and tells that homosexuality is a European value, I tell them to distinguish between European and civilizational values. That same intolerance against religion and sexuality also existed in Europe in the Middle Ages. Should we really follow our tradition and force our 9-year-old daughter into marriage, just like Maro in Tumanyan’s poem? Once it was considered a national “value,” wasn’t it? What I want to say is that we need to change the way we think.
Do you notice any positive changes?
We must report a fact. Even though the situation is very worrisome, there have been some positive changes. Ten years ago no one would think that there can be organizations defending LGBTI rights in Armenia. Today such organizations do exist. Today a film is produced and a website is created. This means that something is changing. If we had an independent television and there were debates around this topic, then the society’s mentality would have improved even more rapidly.
Mr. Ishkanyan, you are saying that something is changing and will change. Are we close to the time when LGBTI people’s right to marry will be practiced?
I do think it is inevitable, but when it will happen, I’m not sure. Maybe in ten years, maybe in twenty, but it will happen. It definitely will.