BY RAFFI WARTANIAN
On February 26, a gay man became the world’s most prominent advocate for Armenian Genocide recognition. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Or was it?
For centuries, the tension of Armenian identity has simmered around reconciling liberal political ideologies with orthodox religious values. The Armenian revolutionary movement that began in the late 19th century appropriated European socialism to help Armenians justify the latest iteration of a centuries-long fight for liberation and independence. Within multicultural empires, the left-leaning ideology served well this oft-marginalized minority. A collective society taking ownership over a nation’s economic and political wellbeing pushed back against authoritarian strains growing among corrupt regimes, like the Ottomans, who ruled through hierarchy and segregation. Aligning with socialism gave Armenians of the 19th and early 20th century a “political silk road” to unite with movements around the world. The return to liberalism, as expressed by socialism, became a clarion call for social inclusion—a vision for harmony and unity in a time of tumult and unrest. It extended a trend that Armenian communities had faced for centuries (and, arguably, continue to face): overcoming state-sponsored discrimination by fighting for a more tolerant society.
Concurrently, orthodoxy in Armenian Christianity benefited from its conservative approach to identity and community. This conservatism maintained and secured institutionalized notions of Armenian religiosity. By virtue of the Church’s central role in Armenian community life, religious identity shaped approaches to political, intellectual, social, and sexual thought. Communities facing political and military displacement were well-served by a Church offering firm guidelines on healing, belonging, and spiritual and material salvation. Those guidelines grew from early Church doctrine, a defining feature of Oriental Orthodoxy, designed during Ecumenical Councils of the 4th and 5th centuries that codified the marginalization of homosexuals, women, and others whose identities presided outside the bounds of what was deemed acceptable. In short, these measures offered spiritual salvation only to those who met specific identity parameters.
This tension between the political liberation offered by socialism and the spiritual salvation promised by orthodoxy set the backdrop for what happened on February 26. As too many Armenians who identify as LGBTQ could testify, Elton John would be shunned by many Armenian communities were it not for his stature. What is the subtext? That the rules do not equally apply to all? That fame permits otherwise “inexcusable” qualities? Or is it that the standards and norms purporting to define Armenian identity are fraught with contradictions that demand reflection and reconstruction?
As Armenians prepare to #KeepThePromise and preach to the world about Armenian Genocide recognition to learn from the past and prevent future atrocities, secular and religious Armenian institutions must consider the promise of sustaining the Armenian identity and nation through respect, tolerance, and inclusion of all Armenians regardless of their sexual, religious, or economic orientation.
A palpable homophobia alienates elements essential to ensuring the longevity, health, and prosperity of the Armenian nation and diaspora. In Armenia, hate crimes against the LGBTQ community continue at a troubling clip. From last year’s public beating of LGBTQ individuals to the 2012 fire bombing of the DIY Bar, the absence of any substantive legislation against hate crimes targeted at this community signifies social malpractice on the part of Armenia’s government as well as the religious and secular institutions that perpetuate and embolden its broken approach to governing.
One step to reverse this spiral involves expanding the definition of victim groups defined in Article 63 of Armenia’s Criminal Code which outlaws hate crimes “motivated by revenge based on ethnic, racial or religious hatred, religious fanaticism.” Since this law must be interpreted literally as stipulated by the “Law on Legal Acts,” then it should also explicitly include LGBTQ individuals. Another productive step for Armenia’s government would be to adopt the ten policy measures offered by the NGO Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK) as outlined in their illuminating October 2016 report Hate Crimes and Other Hate Motivated Incidents Against LGBT People in Armenia.
Indeed, if Donald Trump can give the gay billionaire Peter Thiel a platform at the Republican National Convention to declare pride for his sexual orientation, and if Vladimir Putin can appeal to the inclusion of gays in Russia, then mainstream Armenian institutions in the republic and diaspora can go further in addressing a corrosive discrimination that has disregarded evolving norms in Armenian identity and global human rights standards. Pope Francis said it best: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
The expansion of Armenian identity has, of course, been long under way. Dispersion, assimilation, globalization, and liberalization have wrought a new chapter in Armenianness where novel or previously undeclared variations are being claimed: Muslim, Buddhist, LGBTQ, ethnically mixed, and beyond. This dynamic stokes fears that the identity’s expansion may cause its demise, spurring the marginalization of elements who objectively have much to offer the community. Substantively vapid, this fear may more prominently indicate an attachment to states of trauma and victimhood transmitted across generations in the aftermath of genocide, civil wars, revolutions, and state-sponsored oppression.
Through the enormity of the Armenian Genocide and the existential angst of processing the Turkish government’s denial (the genocide’s final step), Armenians around the world have for decades sought healing through remembrance, cultural production, legal battles, coalition building, and beyond. Elton John and his foundation witnessed and contributed to that pursuit. Yet true healing remains elusive in the presence of state-sponsored genocide denial by the perpetrator regime and its major global allies.
The result of this denial is, for Armenians, a psychological complex that words can only scratch the surface in describing. This complex is characterized by a variety of (competing) qualities: in-fighting, inferiority, ambition, principled political stances, Machiavellian politicking, and beyond. Institutions, artists, and others have appropriated the Armenian Genocide in a delicate balance of remembrance and legacy that must survive the onslaught of capital, consumption, and economic viability in today’s hyper-consumerist reality.
One critical aspect of the aforementioned complex is the oppression of minority Armenians who represent religious, sexual, and political orientations that challenge (patriarchal) assumptions about Armenianness. This marks an unconscious extension of what the genocide attempted to carry out: a silencing of elements perceived as threatening to rigid identity formations coupled with an attempt to distract from corrupt and ineffectual leadership.
In collaborating with Elton John and his foundation, the team behind The Promise echoed a signal ringing since Martin Luther King Jr. and prior: that a person’s most important quality is the content of their character, not their racial or religious or sexual orientation. Explicitly, The Promise will share the story of the Armenian Genocide and help advocate for human rights, AIDS awareness, and other nonprofit initiatives—no small feat. Implicitly, the film will continue creating moments like the Elton John screening that will compel the Armenian community to confront (and hopefully correct) a painful legacy of discrimination within its own ranks.
As the months march forward and the Armenian Genocide returns to the foreground of advocacy and dialogue, new encounters will spark reflection and action to ensure the sustainability of an Armenian nation in the 21st century.
The Feb. 26 screening of The Promise hosted by Elton John and his foundation marked a watershed moment for Armenian identity when advocacy for the Armenian Genocide and support for LGBTQ well-being intersected on the world’s stage.
The promise of longevity flows through tolerance. The promise of peace begins and ends with love.
This op-ed was originally published in The Armenian Weekly on March 22, 2017.