2 Feb 2024
Armenian Homonationalism: A Reflection
*Visuals by Maria Zakaryan
In August 2021, Pink Armenia published a report on the human rights situation of LGBT people in Armenia in 2020. The report includes a chapter dedicated to the targeting of queer people during the Second Nagorno Karabakh War, which starts with this passage:
“On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan unleashed a large-scale armed conflict along the entire Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact in the regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh. The war was hard, the people of Armenia and Artsakh were fighting against a great Azerbaijani-Turkish force. The whole potential of the people was focused on neutralizing the war and its aftermath. In addition to volunteering, people were involved in multi-profile volunteer work to provide both social and other assistance to war victims and participants in the war. Both the population of Armenia and the territory of Artsakh, as well as LGBT people were involved in both military operations and volunteer work…”
Now this text may look fairly logical. Queer people have obviously served in the army, been sent to fight in Karabakh and been affected by the war just like everyone else. It also needs to be mentioned that queer people and their suffering due to the many unresolved social and political issues in Armenia have never been acknowledged in the mainstream public discourses. Moreover, because of the systemic homophobia in the country, queerness has often been blamed for the many issues Armenia has been facing since its independence, and the dominant nationalist narratives in the country have either ignored queer people or used them as a scapegoat for structural failures of Armenia’s political elites.
That’s why I think this passage needs to be examined in the larger context of the complicated relationship between Armenian queerness and Armenian nationalism. And a good first step for this is diving into the “Karabakh discourse” itself, how it has (d)evolved in Armenia throughout the years and the very unique self-censorship it has been affected by.
The “do’s and don'ts” of talking about Karabakh
Since the end of the First War in 1994, the conversations around the conflict have been affected by lots of misinformation, manipulation, and, most importantly, censorship. While all Armenian governments have negotiated the return of at least 5 of the 7 occupied regions surrounding Nagorno Karabakh behind closed doors, most of their rhetoric has been much more maximalist and uncompromising when speaking to their domestic audience. This, in turn, shaped a very alarming culture of not questioning the nationalist narratives that already existed since the Karabakh movement began in 1988 and were being amplified by the political elites during and after the First War. While the euphoria after the 1994 victory had already created a surge of nationalist and uncompromising sentiment within the society, the policies adopted by the Armenian governments (the Kocharyan and Sargsyan governments in particular) further exacerbated that sentiment and left no room for any conversation about peace.
In 2019, academic and researcher Gayane Ayvazyan talked about Nagorno Karabakh in the official discourse of Armenia. She mentioned that in the earlier years after the war, the 7 regions surrounding NK were described as “occupied” in official Armenian media. Throughout the years, however, the term “occupied” was replaced with “liberated”. After that, even mentioning the word “occupation” while referring to those regions was equated to treason.
The textbooks in our schools were withholding the full context of the conflict, leaving out the details of both the Azerbaijani suffering and the essence of the ongoing negotiations. The pop culture was centered around glorifying the Armenian army and even our TV channels showcased the Armenian-controlled regions as part of our country, giving them Armenian names, on their weather forecast maps. There was never any room for discussion around a peaceful resolution. Those who attempted to demand or even talk about peace with Azerbaijan were either stigmatized as “traitors” and “Turks” or infantilized with the argument that “we all want peace but the situation is complicated”.
The best example of stigmatization is the late Georgi Vanyan, the co-founder of the Tekali peace initiative and one of the most prominent peace activists in Armenia and, arguably, the entire region. In the early 2010s, he wanted to organize an Azerbaijani film festival in Armenia but was met with death threats and public shaming. The harassment against Vanyan was so intense that he eventually had to leave Yerevan and move to Tavush. His dog was murdered, and during the 2020 war, he was fined by the Armenian police for sending an open letter to Prime Minister Pashinyan, urging him to stop the bloodshed and negotiate with Baku directly.
Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan and his party have also been vocal about the need to find a compromise with Azerbaijan, and there have been a handful of NGOs and activists who publicly supported a peaceful resolution. All these groups, however, were targeted, marginalized, and condemned for their position, which sent a clear message that if you were advocating for certain social and political issues, supporting a compromise in Karabakh could ultimately sabotage your career and your cause. The Armenian political parties, civil society organizations, and activists had two socially acceptable options: either to avoid speaking about the conflict or to support the extension of the then status quo. And they understood that rule very well.
In July 2020, while discussing the ongoing border skirmishes, journalist Zara Harutyunyan spoke about this extensively.
“We cannot imagine an economic revolution or essential social changes when we have one of the most important issues in Armenia and no one dares to approach it. And people can form platforms, resistance movements, and political parties while deliberately bypassing the Karabakh question a tricky, delicate, and dangerous issue”, she said.
For years, the Armenian socio-political spectrum tried to ignore the need for a resolution to the Karabakh conflict and find justifications not to have constructive negotiations, all while talking about social issues that were, directly or indirectly, a result of the uncertainty around Karabakh. This included the economy suffering from the Turkish-Azerbaijani blockade, the lack of viable alternatives to the mining industry, the absolute incapability to criticize the Armenian army for its structural flaws, and the crippling nationalism which, among other things, has always been at the root of sexism and homotransphobia in Armenia. In a system where men’s primary function is to be soldiers and protect the homeland and women’s primary function is to give birth to “future soldiers”, there can be no conversation about breaking the gender binary or questioning heteronormativity. And this narrative was pushed by nationalists in Armenia for over three decades.
Homos to Baku
Now that we have the setup, let’s talk about how queerness was framed in the context of the conflict.
Armenia is a homophobic country. According to most surveys, over 90% of the population find homosexuality unjustifiable. There have been several hate crimes against queer people: most notably, the violent attack on LGBT+ activists in Shurnukh in 2018, during which the attackers were calling their victims “Turks”. And just a few months ago a trans woman was brutally murdered in her own house.
Usually, whenever the issues of queer people are brought up in Armenia, they are shut down by the nationalist rhetoric which implies that “we need to protect our traditional families”, “gay men should be ashamed that straight men are dying for them on the border” and that “queer people are the reason our army is not as strong as it should be”.
One of the main myths in the country is that LGBT+ people are heavily financed by the West to weaken and ultimately destroy Armenia. When I was growing up, one of the most popular homophobic catchphrases was “գոմիկներին՝ Բաքու”, which means “[send] homos to Baku”. This was also one of the slogans chanted by the nationalists who disrupted the Diversity March in Yerevan in 2012, claiming that queer people “are a burden to the survival of the nation”. The association of your queerness with what is considered your country’s enemy is not helpful at all when you want to be accepted as a full member of your society.
Another myth, which has often been voiced by various politicians and cishet activists is that the queer and trans people are the most protected and privileged group in the country because they supposedly have the support and sponsorship of Western powers.
This argument was very popular during the 2020 war and the Lachin blockade. People were claiming that if it was LGBT+ people fighting for and dying in Karabakh, the West would be more supportive of the Armenian cause since, in their minds, queer lives are deemed more important than Armenian lives by the international community.
The myth of queer and trans people being the most protected in the country is, of course, debunked very easily when you consider that, even 5 years later, there have been no legal consequences for the hate crime in Shurnukh. It’s also symptomatic that, by this logic, queerness and Armenianness are mutually exclusive: queer people cannot live in the conflict zone or serve in the army or be killed during a war, or be trapped in a blockade.
In the minds of these people, queer Armenians cannot possibly share the tragedies of cishet Armenians, because queer Armenians aren’t Armenian at all. This exclusionary nationalist idea makes it impossible for cishets to imagine queer people as their child, their neighbour or a soldier in their country, because homophobia dehumanizes and ostracises queer people from the rest of the society, turning them into either myths or villains.
Most LGBT organisations and activists have tried to counter and debunk these arguments and prove that queer people do serve in the army and do support the Armenian position on Karabakh. This was my initial reaction too. However, since as a queer person, I do share the same problems as my cishet compatriots, my goal shouldn’t be ignoring or distorting the essence of those problems just so that they will accept me. It should be analysing those problems and trying to find solutions.
In his 2016 novel “Mommyland Flag” (spoilers ahead!), author Armen Ohanyan explores the history of Armenia’s independence from the USSR and the social dynamics in the country throughout the years. The novel follows the story of a trans woman and two of her friends, a gay couple, one of whom is drafted to serve in the military.
The sentiment around Armenia’s independence and its statehood in general is heavily romanticised in the novel, and Armenian queerness is central to the story. Yet when the issue of queerphobic violence in the army is brought up, the final resolution in the novel is for one of the main characters to join the army as an officer to change the system from within.
The ties between militarism and homophobia are undeniable. There have been multiple reports on homophobic violence in the Armenian army, and for a novel revolving so much around Armenian nationalism and Armenian queerness, the issue of militarism and its causes are not questioned merely enough. I think the reason for this is the same conformism of Armenian queerness, which makes one prefer to join a structurally homophobic institution rather than question the reasons behind its necessity.
The tendency of queer activists, movements, and organizations to show support and conform to nationalist, militarist and neoliberal policies in their countries is part of a phenomenon called “homonationalism”. And there have been many examples of this during and after the 2020 war.
The scariest and possibly the most eye-opening instance of this was the 2022 statement by a group of self-proclaimed “Armenian homosexuals”, which was signed mostly with initials. This text refers to its signatories’ nationality as their “primary identity” and to their queerness as merely a “biological difference” from the rest of Armenians. They go on to accuse local LGBT rights NGOs and activists of receiving Western sponsorship and betraying Armenians and Artsakh.
Another statement that was published after the war was the call of Armenian SCO’s for the government to request a hearing in the UNSC regarding the Azerbaijani invasion into Armenian border territories in May 2021. The statement was signed by two queer NGOs and its wording left a lot to be desired. Specifically alarming was the description of Syrian mercenaries in Karabakh as “jihadists”. In December 2020, BBC published a lengthy article about Syrian soldiers having been misled, lied to and used as cannon fodder by Azerbaijan during the war, so calling all these people “jihadist” is, to put it mildly, reductionist. It’s especially alarming considering the islamophobic connotations of that word, being used in a “proudly” Christian-majority country.
In Armenia the support for nationalist rhetoric has much deeper roots than the 2020 war though. Even in 2015, in an interview titled “Are you a patriot?”, LGBT+ activist and co-founder of Pink Armenia, Mamikon Hovsepyan stated that he considered Nagorno Karabakh to be a part of Armenia and criticised the then Armenian government for not recognizing its independence.
While I understand the dangers of a queer activist or an organization speaking out against militarism in Armenia, I believe that the failure to come forward for peace and demand a resolution to the exhausting and murderous 35-year-old conflict was what eventually did us a disservice.
Homotransphobia doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s created in a system that doesn’t tolerate any political dissent or even criticism of established hegemonic narratives. As a community, we have failed to consider these realities in our activism and need to reflect on the mistakes we’ve made. And when I say “we”, I mean the local LGBT+ community, but I do start with myself.
Queerness in the middle of a war
During the July skirmishes in 2020, just 2 months before the full-scale war, Facebook groups and Telegram chats were created to coordinate the counterattack of Azerbaijan’s infowar on social media platforms and establish the dominance of Armenia’s official position in the conflict. This included arguing with Azerbaijanis online, spamming the accounts of celebrities with pro-Armenian hashtags and publicly shaming anyone who didn’t support the country’s narrative. Needless to say, Azerbaijanis were doing the same, and having any constructive discussion on social media was nearly impossible.
It was like watching the online factions of the two armies relentlessly fighting each other, but instead of being killed in battle, the worst thing that could happen to them was being banned on Twitter in the comfort of their homes. I used to be a part of that online squad during the July skirmishes, before I realised the full context of the conflict, and I regret it deeply.
When the war started in 2020, I was among the people who were calling for the government to stop the war and negotiate a compromise with Azerbaijan. This was an unpopular opinion in Armenia in the context of the massive militarist rhetoric and the government-sanctioned slogan “Հաղթելու ենք” (We’re going to win) laying over most people’s facebook profile pictures, including some of my friends’.
Lots of people have retroactively raised the question as to why the war wasn’t prevented or at least stopped before November 9, and why the 7 regions were not ceded in order to stop the bloodshed. During those 44 days, however, every criticism of Armenia was met with trolling at best and threats and harassment at worst.
The discourse was filled with everything but substance, and almost everyone seemed to share the same goal of defending Armenia’s position in the war, which was essentially a refusal to compromise.
The self-proclaimed “leftists” were framing the war as an indigenous anti-colonial struggle against Azerbaijan and Turkey, blaming anti-war activists of “bothsidism” and imperial “Stockholm syndrome” and minimising Armenia’s share of the blame in the bloodshed. The nationalists were cheering for possible new Armenian advances, and the leader of one social democratic(!) party suggested trying to occupy Ganja.
It’s hard to list the many ways this war affected the Armenian queer community, but I can say for sure that it affected me as a queer person who was against the war.
I was often scared to share my opinions because of the dominant militaristic atmosphere during the war. When my friends and I published a peace statement, I was hesitant to even sign it with my name, because of the fear that I would be drafted to the military. I also remember that once a journalist screenshotted my comment on Facebook, and asked why I wasn’t approached by NSS because I called the 7 occupied regions “occupied”. But nothing was as shocking as when my friend who is also gay and now lives in Europe told me that “in the past people like me were shot for saying such things during the war”.
This was not the first and last interaction with a queer person where I was blamed for my positions, and I do believe that often the reason was these people’s concerns about the safety of Armenians both in NK and the Republic. And this is a concern that I have and continue to share with them, but I think there is something else at play here too.
As mentioned earlier, before and during the 2020 war, supporting the then status quo in Karabakh was the only acceptable thing to say in Armenia. Saying anything else meant being an outcast, but since queer people are already outcasts, we had to work twice as hard to earn our spot in society. I think a lot of queer people genuinely believed that agreeing with the dominant narratives, which the majority of the country believed in, would be a way to somehow earn the respect of cishet people.
This, I think, is what Pink Armenia’s report tries to do and also where it goes wrong. It doesn’t question the war and its necessity or acknowledge the failures of the Armenian leadership and the civil society for the past 3 decades. Instead, it continues the narrative that queer people should be accepted as full members of the Armenian society because they were a part of the military operations and/or supported Armenia’s official position.
The same document, however, goes on to list all the social media posts that have directly and indirectly targeted LGBT+ people and, in many cases, blamed them for Armenia’s defeat, despite all the contributions by queer people to the Armenian cause, which might indicate that homophobia and transphobia will not be fixed by queer people aligning themselves with the dominant narratives in the country, and we need a different approach.
What’s left to say or do?
It’s difficult to navigate your life and your politics as a queer person in a country with such a difficult context. When you’re already ostracised from your surroundings because your sexuality and identity don’t conform to societal norms, it’s truly terrifying to voice opinions that are defiant of even more social dogmas and taboos. LGBT+ people already live in constant fear for their safety, and speaking out for peace adds another level of marginalization. That was the case before the war, and more so now.
But we won’t be able to achieve queer liberation unless we see the full political context of our struggle and understand the importance of showing solidarity not to states and their many agendas but to people who are as oppressed as we are.
I’ve been involved in political activism for over 7 years now. Most of my focus has been on queer issues. Now, when I look back at my path, I wish I’d spoken earlier about the necessity of peace and demilitarisation. There’s a unique type of guilt that came to me with the realization that my activism had for a long time been detached from my local context and ignored the many tragedies and losses that happened because of the unresolved conflict.
There isn’t much left to say or hope for when it comes to Nagorno Karabakh. Thousands of soldiers from both sides have been killed in the 2020 war and the skirmishes that followed, and, after 9 months of blockade and Azerbaijan’s attack in September, virtually the entire population of the region was forced to flee their homes. We have failed to prevent these tragedies but we can and must prevent others.LGBT+ activists and organizations need to understand that the systems that oppress queer and trans people are the same systems that send the working class off to war, tolerate systematic non-combat deaths in the army, suppress protests against mining, and ignore human rights as a whole. Only by rejecting those systems can we ever come close to achieving political liberation.