On the eighth day of protests that brought down former president and prime minister Serzh Sargsyan and the Republican Party’s 10-year rule last spring, current Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zaruhi Batoyan, stated the following during a nighttime rally in Yerevan’s Republic Square:
“The person should be the number one value of this country, regardless of individual characteristics, religious belonging, political views, sex, sexual orientation, social standing, regardless of everything. The person must be an important value in Armenia.”
While LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender)* people were certainly active organizers and participants of the Velvet Revolution, the mere mention of sexual orientation in Batoyan’s speech sent positive shock waves through Armenia’s LGBT community. 24-year-old activist Rima Sardaryan noted that “for the first time, thousands of people [were] gathered in Republic Square, and the words ‘sexual orientation’ [were] said. That was a kind of small victory.”
But any hopes Armenia’s LGBT community may have had following the ousting of the old regime, which was at best indifferent to the suffering experienced by LGBT citizens, were violently shattered on August 3, when a group of nine activists were attacked by a group of 40-60 people in the village of Shurnukh, six hours away from Yerevan.
What followed the now infamous attack in the months leading up to December’s snap parliamentary elections that secured Nikol Pashinyan’s prime ministership and his My Step party alliance’s control of the National Assembly was nothing short of rainbow hysteria: several anti-LGBT rallies and marches, anti-LGBT flyers plastered across Yerevan, an attempt to ban same-sex marriage, a proposal to ban homosexual propaganda, and seemingly endless online vitriol from social media users about the rights of LGBT citizens.
How did LGBT issues become a mainstream topic of conversation in Armenia, a country where 97 percent of the population is not tolerant of homosexuality, according to one study? The combination of a public uninformed about LGBT people, unethical journalism and fake news, and an unrelenting old guard not willing to give up power may offer an explanation.
An Uninformed Public
Studies vary on where Armenians stand when it comes to LGBT people and their rights, but only slightly, and the results paint a grim picture.
A 2017 Pew Research Center study on religious and national belonging in Central and Eastern Europe found that nearly all Armenians—a whopping 97 percent—believed homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
PINK Armenia, the country’s leading community-based LGBT organization published the first national survey on public perceptions and attitudes toward LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) people in 2016, which found that only about 8 percent of the population (1 out of 12 respondents) knew an LGBTI person. Those that did, specified knowing gay men only. The 2011 Caucasus Barometer conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) Armenia found that unlike in other countries, age and gender were not determining factors for tolerance in Armenia.
Studies such as these reveal what activists and nonactivists have known for years: very limited understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity is widespread in Armenia. Negative attitudes are deeply rooted, and permeate all levels of society. This makes the spread of misinformation and fake news all the more easy.
“Generally speaking, journalists and editors in Armenia have a negative attitude toward LGBT people, and that attitude is reflected in their reporting,” says Artur Minasyan, journalist and editor of LGBTNews.am, a news organization dedicated to reporting on LGBT stories in Armenia.
“They [journalists] hold the same stereotypes that the rest of society holds, and they are not informed about sexuality, gender, and gender identity. Many even lack a proper vocabulary of terms to use when reporting about LGBT people.”
Minasyan also says that LGBT stories are often used for political purposes in Armenia: “We know that the topic is manipulated by editors and owners of publications who have connections to authorities, because it is one of the most sensitive topics in Armenia. These stories are used to drive specific political struggles, to draw attention from other issues, as well as to provoke the public.”
Mamikon Hovsepyan, co-founder and executive director of PINK Armenia and chairperson of Human Rights House Yerevan, agrees. “The LGBT topic is usually manipulated before elections. It has become a rule,” he said in an interview with MediaLab.
But what stood out last year in the months leading up to December’s snap parliamentary elections, according to Hovsepyan, was the scale, organization, and even financing of anti-LGBT protests, and the hostile environment online.
Driving the hostility against LGBT people was news items, often times fake, published with the intention of inciting readers, as well social media posts from political and civil society actors responding to the perceived threat of LGBT “propaganda.”
Minasyan says that media literacy and fake news in Armenia are serious problems, as they are in much of the world today: “The average reader in Armenia is quite vulnerable to believing and sharing fake news. Audiences don’t understand the importance of receiving information from reliable, recognized sources, and they are generally unable to filter their news feeds to differentiate between real and fake news.”
“If you collect all the news stories from last year and put them in chronological order, it’s obvious that this topic was being seeked out in the months leading up to the election,” says Minasyan. “But it wasn’t the media that did this. News editors didn’t suddenly become concerned about LGBT issues. Certain political actors used the media to raise ruckus and gain political points with the public. The result wasn’t just commotion online. People were actually spurred into action against what they were seeing on their news feeds.”
An Unrelenting Old Guard
A brief timeline of events does indeed show an abrupt increase in public actions against the perceived threat of LGBT activism and “propaganda,” often by members of the old regime or actors connected to them.
August 3 - Nine people, including several local LGBT activists are physically attacked and driven out of the village of Shurnukh, Syunik Province, by a group of 40-60 local villagers. It is later revealed that the attack was politically motivated and perpetrated by local officials aligned with the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA). The assailants are later granted a collective pardon.
August 12 - A rally/party is held in Shurnukh by supporters of the old regime, in support of Shurnukh locals and the violence committed against the activists. The party was live-streamed, and LGBT people were mocked by the popular RPA-aligned blog, Adekvad.
September 28 - Former Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly and RPA party member Eduard Sharmazanov circulates an amendment to the law on the rights of children in the National Assembly that would include the prevention, among other things, of the“spread of information on homosexuality” among children. The amendment is later rejected by the government.
October 5 - An anti-LGBT rally attended by Armenian clergymen takes place at Swan Lake in downtown Yerevan, followed by a public march against the annual Forum of LGBT Christians of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, set to take place in Yerevan on November 15-18. The conference is organized by the European Forum of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Christian Groups, an “ecumenical association of LGBT Christian groups in Europe” whose mission is to “achieve equality and inclusion for LGBT people within and through Christian churches and other religious bodies.” Yerevan was selected to host the annual gathering the previous year. News of a “gay pride parade” supposedly being organized by the Forum quickly spreads online, though no such event was ever planned by the organizers.
October 18 - MP Tigran Urikhanyan of the Prosperous Armenia Party introduces an amendment to the Family Code that would explicitly outlaw same-sex marriages in Armenia, even though the 2015 constitutional referendum had already effectively banned same-sex marriage, by defining marriage as being between a man and a women. The bill is later rejected by the government.
October 24 - After being pressed during a question and answer session in the National Assembly, Nikol Pashinyan addresses the LGBT hysteria that has gripped the public. It’s the first time a head of state speaks about the issue publicly. Among other things, Pashinyan acknowledges that LGBT people exist in Armenia, but states that his government will attempt to avoid the issue, receiving mixed reactions.
November 1 - The Supreme Spiritual Council of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin releases an official statement condemning the LGBT Christians Forum, stating that there is “an attempt today to present and openly proselytize moral deviation as human rights and freedoms. [...] Attempts by LGBT representatives to incite society and to publicly advertise the phenomenon of homosexuality, which is a wrong example for young people and a threat to our nation’s survival, are strictly denied and condemned.”
November 1 - Flyers appear across Yerevan condemning the LGBT Christians Forum and announcing a public rally in Freedom Square.
November 2 - Staff members of New Generation Non-Governmental Organization (NGNGO), the local organizing partner of the LGBT Christians Forum, are pursued while driving on the Aghveran-Yerevan highway by known anti-LGBT activists. One of them, Sevak Aghajanyan, president of the “Preservation of National Values Front” NGO, posts on his personal Facebook page that according to unnamed sources, foreign participants of the Forum have already arrived in Armenia, and that he is following them. NGNGO soon announces that it is halting its operations for a period of time, citing safety concerns. NGNGO later files a complaint with police over the incident. On November 30, police announce that after examining the complaint, “no evidence of offences or crime has been identified as a result of the investigation of the facts mentioned.”
November 6 - An anti-LGBT rally takes place on the Yerevan State University campus organized by Kamq, an initiative created after the Velvet Revolution to defend Armenian national values. Kamq claims to support the peaceful revolution and condemns bribery, abuses of power, and impunity for wrongdoing committed against the state and people by former officials, but also expresses concern over the “organized campaign” against “traditional Armenian values” that is taking place in Armenia post-revolution.
November 6 - An anti-LGBT protest takes place in Freedom Square, followed by a march up Baghramyan Avenue to the Presidential Palace, organized by an organization called “For National Values.” Marchers rally around the slogan, “We Will Not Tolerate.”
November 6 - Yerevan Police Chief Valeri Osipyan announces that the LGBT Christians Forum “will not take place in Armenia,” saying that police cannot guarantee the safety of attendees.
November 7 - Organizers of the LGBT Christians Forum officially announce its cancellation after wide confusion among Armenian social media users about whether or not it was truly taking place. The organizers cite a “genuine threat” to participants constituted by “political violence, death threats, and vandalism directed at LGBTI people” in Armenia.
November 10 - An anti-LGBT, pro-“traditional Armenian family” rally organized by Kamq takes place at the Yerablur Military Memorial Cemetery.
November 17 - A non-governmental organization called “Noah Pride” sends out a press release to Armenian press, claiming to have organized an LGBT pride parade in Yerevan, circulating photos and video of same-sex individuals kissing in public spaces in various Yerevan neighborhoods. Noah Pride flyers also appear across Yerevan that same day. Local activists are quick to point out that the Noah Pride website and social media pages were created just days before, and notify local press that they have no prior knowledge of, or relationship with Noah Pride. The phony NGO specifically lists PINK Armenia as a partner organization, which PINK Executive Director Mamikon Hovsepyan denies, noting that the original press release circulated stated that the people seen in the video were “activists” from Poland, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. Local press, however, forgo the original images sent with the press release and publish images of Armenian activists in their reporting, which Hovsepyan says was done intentionally to provoke readers. Noah Pride also lists USAID as one of its partners, but cannot be found among the list of organizations in Armenia that USAID supports. Local press quietly remove articles covering Noah Pride soon after.
November 22 - An anti-LGBT protest takes place outside the government building in Republic Square, organized and/or attended by representatives of the “For Social Justice” political party, “For Law” NGO, and “Preservation of National Values Front” NGO. Protestors demand, among other things, that acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan clearly state his position on the matter of LGBT “propaganda” and rights, that an anti-LGBT propaganda law be instituted, and that homosexuality be outlawed in Armenia.
December 5 - During Armenia’s first-ever televised election debate, former defense minister and first deputy president of the RPA Vigen Sargsyan asks Nikol Pashinyan if he “owes anything to the LGBT community” and whether or not liberal ideology outweighs national values, among other inflammatory questions surrounding the issue.
Briefly stated, according to Minasyan and other local activists, what took place last fall was a highly organized attempt by Nikol Pashinyan’s opponents to discredit him and his party alliance as being incompatible with Armenia and Armenian national values (Minasyan extensively covers the timeline of events prior to the snap parliamentary election on December 9 in this report published by Heinrich Boll Stiftung South Caucasus).
“The old regime and those associated with them who lost power as a result of the revolution used fake news, fake sources, and an army of fake online user profiles to do this. In its election campaign, the Republican Party tried to paint itself as a defender of ‘national values,’” he says.
Indeed, the RPA’s campaign slogan, “If you are worried,” made no effort at hiding this. “If you are worried about the degeneration of traditional values, vote Republican,” was one of their many appeals during the campaign.
Old Guard, Old Resentment
But their strategy to secure their hold on the country failed miserably. The RPA received just 4.7 percent of the vote and lost their seats in parliament, because they had not considered one very important factor: a vast majority of Armenians viewed them negatively, and that was not going to change no matter what they said about Pashinyan.
Political consultant Eric Hacopian agrees: “Pashinyan’s opponents grasped that this is an issue they could use. But LGBT rights are not going to overwhelm 20 years of angst and hatred that people have for the former ruling elite.”
Hacopian has run or been part of political campaigns on the presidential, congressional, state, and municipal levels in the United States. According to him, LGBT rights globally has become an issue that symbolizes social change:
“Are you comfortable with the direction of social change? Your opinion on this issue is almost indicative of how comfortable you are with a changing world. For the Republicans, LGBT rights was the best issue they could use to make the public uncomfortable with the changes that were taking place in Armenia, and that saw them ousted.”
Hacopian likens the term “propaganda,” used in Armenia and much of the former Soviet bloc to discredit the work of LGBT activists, to the term “special rights,” used by conservatives in the United States who oppose the wave of change that swept the country over the last decade.
“What they call ‘propaganda’ is merely unpopular opinion. It’s a practical matter, not a philosophical one. It makes an argument unacceptable on its face, rather than dealing with the content of that argument,” Hacopian notes.
Referring to Armenians’ negative attitudes toward LGBT people, Hacopian explains that “if majority of public opinion is against something, in this case LGBT rights, you’re going to ride that when you’re the Republican Party. It’s as simple as that.”
Though the former political elite was not able to make the splash it hoped it could by manipulating LGBT issues before the election, the situation for LGBT Armenians remains dire.
The most recent incident of unprovoked violence against 23-year-old activist Vrezh Varzhapetyan is but the tip of the iceberg of violence committed against LGBT Armenians, much of which goes unreported out of fear of further victimization.
Somehow, however, there is a silver lining in all of this. Earlier this year on January 6, Christmas Day for the Armenian Church, reports emerged out of the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) that a gay diasporan Armenian from France was severely beaten because of his sexuality. Social media users were quick to debunk the story as fake news, pointing out that the photos circulating online were from a homophobic attack in England back in 2016.
Even Artsakh’s Human Rights Ombudsman Artak Beglaryan commented on the news, assuring that no such incident had taken place. In a postscript, he wished Facebook users a merry Christmas, and asked that citizens “be free from violence, fake news, and human rights violations.”
Artur Minasyan, editor of LGBTNews.am, says that the struggle against fake news is aided by Armenia’s size. “Just as it is easy to spread fake news in Armenia, it’s easy to spread correct information when news is proven to be fake. It’s not guaranteed, but Armenia’s small size certainly helps.”
Minasyan says that the challenge moving forward will be to give readers the skills and knowledge they need to differentiate fake news from real news on their own, a challenge he acknowledges will be very difficult.
*The author chose to use "LGBT" as it is the primary initialism for terms used by the subjects and sources of this piece.