Two years after Yerevan signed an international agreement to uphold the civil rights of gays, homosexuals in Armenia still face the constant threat of physical abuse and social isolation because of their sexual orientation.
"When my parents learned that I was homosexual, they first beat me and then kicked me out," Armen, a 22-year-old Yerevan resident who works as a teacher, told EurasiaNet.org. "Even now, after years have gone by, my mother doesn't let me in, and some of my friends keep asking whether I'm really one of 'those' people."
Armen (not his real name) says he realized he was gay at the age of 13 when he fell in love with his classmate. He met his first boyfriend in an online chat room when he was 20.
"I introduced him to my parents as just one of my friends. But one day my mother saw me kissing him, and that's when all this started," Armen said. "My mother yelled that I'd better be dead, and my brother left the army to come home and beat me. So I went to live in the streets." Armen now lives with his grandmother.
Homosexuality has not been a criminal offense in Armenia since 2003; two years ago, the country signed the United Nations Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which asserts the right to equal treatment regardless of sexual orientation or gender. It has also ratified a protocol to the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms that bans all forms of discrimination.
But gay Armenians are still often the targets of discrimination. Aside from the risk of losing work, homosexuals face becoming social outcasts - a heavy burden in Armenia's communal, family-centric culture. Some families have been known to emigrate to escape the stigma of having a gay family member. Similar social prejudices prevail in neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan as well.
The United States Department of State's 2009 Human Rights Report described the Armenian public's views on gays as "highly unfavorable;" homosexuality is "largely" seen as "an affliction," the report found. [For additional information click here]. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/eur/136018.htm
"Armenia has always been intolerant toward homosexuals," commented Mikael Danielian, the chairperson of the Helsinki Association of Armenia, a human rights non-governmental organization.
Danielian says that his organization regularly receives alarming calls about attacks on suspected homosexuals. But criminal cases for the assaults usually are not filed because victims are afraid of publicity and additional public scorn, he said.
"Frankly speaking, we cannot do anything in these cases," Danielian said. Sometimes, gays who have been the alleged victims of discrimination simply want attacks mentioned in the organization's reports, he added.
One recent assault was reported in mid-February when local media outlets claimed that Yerevan Mayor Gagik Beglarian had ordered police officers to use force against suspected homosexuals and transvestites who allegedly routinely gathered in a park adjacent to the mayor's office. Yerevan mayor spokesperson Anzhela Martirosian declined to comment on the reports, maintaining that the incident "didn't concern the mayor's functions."
One new political group has welcomed what it sees as the mayor's decision to rid the Armenian capital of homosexuals. The National Conservative Movement, a small right-wing party founded last year, hailed Mayor Beglarian as a "true Armenian man" and urged supporters to continue attacking homosexuals.
Gay rights and violence against homosexuals are not issues that other political parties -- whether members of Armenia's governing coalition, or in the opposition -- discuss publicly.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is similarly reticent. Father Vahram Melikian, spokesperson for the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, identified homosexuality as "a sin" and "negative phenomenon."
"[B]ut even these people can be granted absolution and come back to the right path," Father Melikian said. Anti-gay attitudes appear to run particularly strong in the military. Since 2004, gays have been exempted from military service for supposedly being mentally ill.
One man, who gave his name as Narek, told EurasiaNet.org that an army officer had beaten him when he revealed his homosexuality during a psychiatric exam for military service. Narek claims that he spent three days in a mental hospital and was discharged from military service with the diagnosis of a "personality disorder."
One non-governmental organization, Public Information and Need for Knowledge (PINK) Armenia, was formed in 2007. It aims to raise awareness about minority rights, and advocates for a break with traditional prejudices. "We live in an atmosphere where people are full of hateful words against homosexuals, and this drives them to commit hate crimes," commented Marina Margarian, PINK Armenia's project coordinator. "An atmosphere exists where being gay is a terrible disgrace and beating a gay person is an honorable act."
Given the fear of reprisals, many Armenian homosexuals try to keep their contacts with other gays as discreet as possible. The members-only Armenian gay social network www.GayArmenia.com thoroughly scrutinizes a candidate's personal data before admitting him as a member. The website has about 1,000 registered users, half of whom live in Armenia.
"The access to the website is limited for security reasons because many people were afraid to place their photos. And we had to create a place where homosexual men could meet safely," said GayArmenia.com founder Micha Meroujean.
Reason exists for such caution, states one gay young man, who claims that some his friends were badly beaten by unknown assailants after trying to establish contact with an allegedly gay man through an online dating service.
Chances for change appear slim. Said Meroujean, who emigrated from Armenia to Europe to escape mistreatment: "Society's bad attitude again and again shoves Armenia's homosexuals into the closet."
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.