BY ARMEN ABELYAN
When it comes to the Armenian community, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) allies are the biggest stars in the world. Pride of Armenia; worshiped by all. These are individuals of enormous talents who have contributed immensely to the human culture.
Among them is twice Oscar nominated director Atom Egoyan, the director of the Armenian Genocide-themed film Ararat. In 2012, Egoyan signed a statement condemning the proposed anti-LGBTQ legislation in Armenia. The bill would have made any display of “non-traditional” relationships punishable by a $4,000 fine. Due to internal and Western pressures, the proposed legislation was subsequently dropped. The statement signed by Egoyan read:
“In response to reports of draft ‘anti-propaganda’ legislation in Armenia, modeled on Russia’s recently passed and widely condemned bill, we, the undersigned members of the global Armenian community, say such attempts to codify anti-gay prejudice into law are contrary to our values. We believe in dignity, equality and the right to self-expression for all people regardless of religion, sexual orientation, gender, or race.”
Another signer of the same statement was Grammy nominated artist Serj Tankian, the front man of System of a Down, one of the most successful heavy metal bands. Serj and SOAD have toured the world educating the youth about the Armenian Genocide and human rights. In an interview with the Russian “Rolling Stones” magazine, Tankian referring to the Russian version of the anti-LGBT law said that the law “…is just a Pandora’s box of possible abuses of human rights of people who belong to the LGBT community…”
As English novelist Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton said, talent does what it can; genius does what it must. Then must Kim Kardashian, a mother of two, a world sensation be given credit for elevating Armenia’s profile in the world. Beyond Genocide awareness, the most followed woman on social media and a shrewd businesswoman, Kim Kardashian has empowered millions of women to embrace their egalitarianism and sexuality. She also uses her proverbial loud speaker to highlight other issues of injustice and abuses of human rights. In 2012 she changed the venue of her bridal shower, in protest of the venue’s owner, Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei who enforces anti-LGBTQ laws in his country. Later the same year, in response to President Obama’s support for same-sex marriage, Kardashian wrote “today I am proud to be an American!! I’m so happy that our country is making history and moving forward. No more living in the past!”
Even before Kim Kardashian was born, there was another icon, in the true sense of the word, Cher. Cher is as much of a LGBTQ icon as the pomegranate is a symbol of Armenia. After an ‘un-Cher-ly’ reaction to her daughter’s coming out as lesbian, Cher has been a vocal advocate of the LGBTQ ever since. The Oscar and Grammy winning artist was the key-note speaker of the PFLAG (parents, families and friends of gays) in 1997 and received a GLAAD Media Award (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) in 1998. She is currently campaigning for Hillary Clinton in LGBTQ communities unabashedly calling out Republicans for hiding behind “traditional values’ while peddling prejudice against women, minorities and the LGBTQ.
In the constellation of LGBTQ rights-embracing Armenian stars, Charles Aznavour is a trailblazer. The legendary “French Frank Sinatra,” Time magazine’s Entertainer of the 20th Century, author of 1,200 songs in 8 languages who sold more than 180 million records, appeared in 80 films; Charles Aznavour is one of the earliest allies of the LGBTQ community. But it is mostly unknown in the Armenian community. In 1972, risking censorship and backlash, Aznavour wrote what he called “the first song about homosexuality,” 44 years ago. The song is called What Makes a Man.
Aznavour wrote the song based on experiences of his friends who were gay. He wrote it to tell the stories of good people who were “marginalized” in the society. In an interview with The Telegraph, he stated “I wanted to write what nobody else was writing. I’m very open, very risky, not afraid of breaking my career because of one song. I don’t let the public force me to do what they want me to do. I force them to listen to what I have done. That’s the only way to progress, and to make the public progress.”
In his song, Aznavour writes:
So many times we have to pay. For having fun and being gay
It’s not amusing. There’s always those who spoil our games
By finding fault and calling names. Always accusing
Yet they make fun of how I talk. And imitate the way I walk
Tell me if you can. What makes a man a man.
I know my life is not a crime. I’m just a victim of my time
I stand defenseless. Nobody has the right to be the judge of what is right for me
Tell me if you can. What makes a man a man.
What a legend, what a song. We can all hope to hear the 92 year-old icon sing What Makes a Man one more time on his upcoming concerts in Los Angeles on October 28 in the historic Pantages Theatre. In the meantime, here’s a link to a passionate performance of the song in 1995 at Carnegie Hall in New York.
Armen Abelyan is President of the Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society (GALAS)