Nationalism and Sexuality in Modern Armenian Discourse
In Armenia, one can find human rights violations of LGBT people in every sphere of life – in the family, armed forces, church, law enforcement bodies, the workplace, public and social spaces, institutions of medical care and education, mass media, etc. Almost every space within our public is a site of possible discrimination and abuse for LGBT people.
LGBT issues can be discussed in various ways and within different contexts. Until very recently the discussion of these problems has mainly taken place in relation to the violation of these people’s rights. Starting from May 2012 the events and social developments have changed the discourse of those discussions. In 2012, beginning on May 8th, a group of young people who considered DIY a gay club, firebombed the pub. These young people’s action ushered in public statements by a few supportive members of parliament. Within this number of supporters were members of Armenian Revolutionary Federation Artsvik Minasyan and Hrayr Karapetyan, who became involved and provided bail for the release of the young men responsible for the firebombing. The DIY incident was followed by the attack on the “Divesity” march on May 21st by a group of young people who referred to themselves as nationalists and who had previously directed the media’s attention to the event by calling it a “gay parade” in Yerevan. It is peculiar that these events took place right after the police brutality towards activists struggling for Mashtots park on April 29th, the May 4th explosion of balloons during the Republican party rally in which over 100 people were burned, and right after the May 6th parliamentary elections.
The firebombing of the pub and the events that followed seem to have brought forth a “new problem” within our society. It is necessary to discuss this artificial conflict and what it means politically for authorities in power. It raises the question of how the alleged conflict between nationalists and activists working for the protection of LGBT rights is used by state authorities to secure, protect and use their power. This conflict is an imaginary one, although many people, including some activists, seem to believe that nationalists and LGBT activists see each other as opposition. This, of course, is true to a certain extent, but in reality that situation is only one part of the larger picture. If we comprehensively analyze this situation and the details of the events of the past year and the concrete incidents that took place, it becomes clear that the root of the problem is not nationalist organizations or their work in opposition toward LGBT people. Rather, we can consider these organizations as tools - mechanisms of a larger chain which are directed towards the public to strengthen the discourse of the authorities. Furthermore, LGBT issues have never been in this kind of agenda within our public before, and this is the result of the problem’s artificial escalation. The manipulation of LGBT issues through nationalist forces acts as one of a few mechanisms, through which authorities mobilize public, which is then naturally used to establish and secure power.
According to political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, man is governed not only by force, for example by fear of police or imprisonment, but largely by ideas which are widely spread and presented as natural (Gramsci 1971). The ideology that Armenia is a republic with one nationality and that morality takes precedence over rights acts with accordance to this new rising wave of ideology, which is being carried out by authorities and receives their support. It is apparent that the work of the lower level of political actors we call nationalist organizations makes up one part of a larger mechanism of state authority, through which the state reproduces its power. When members of Parliament provided the bail to release the young men who committed the punishable offense, when other members provided public statements justifying and supporting the act of the young men, nationalist ideas became not only the views of particular organizations or individuals, but part of hegemonic state discourse.
Here we can raise the question of why it is LGBT issues that are being used by state authorities as the most effective means of mobilizing the public. The answer is clear. In our public there is no other topic that is as sensitive and made so taboo and around which there is so much public agreement. Those in power are exploiting the issues of this group to distract public attention from other serious issues of the state. The LGBT person became the image of a collective enemy for our society. This strategy of the authorities is what French theorist Michel Foucault calls biopower. The most personal and intimate aspects of life (for example, sexuality) makes possible the mobilization of not only the control of life within the public sphere, but also to invade the private spheres of people’s lives (Foucault 1990). Sexuality is understood primarily as part of personal and private life. The existing assumptions and taboos around it are used to mobilize the public and through this public psyche, the state manipulates public opinion. Sexuality, which is often assumed to have no place in public life, is used to gather the support of the majority.
In 2011, Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK) Armenia NGO and “Socioscope” research and consulting center produced a social analysis called “Public Opinion toward LGBT People in Yerevan, Gyumri and Vanadzor Cities,” according to which 72.1% of the public has a negative attitude toward LGBT people. The authorities, who are well aware of this reality, gain social support by highlighting their own intolerance in this context and by focusing public attention on this easily manipulated issue so that they can distract focus away from those issues that can restrict their power. When public attention is focused on LGBT issues, authorities can guarantee that it will be able to distract away from dangerous topics and take social discourse toward their desired directions. It must be noted that this technique used by the state is not a new one. The target group being used can change. In the past, before LGBT issues were being used to establish mass social support, authorities had been using religious minorities. As has already been noted, sexuality is one of the main taboos in our society. However, any religion or sect of Christianity that is not within the Apostolic Church or follows other traditions or beliefs falls within the bounds of taboo subjects in our society. It may seem to us that this topic is only an issue for nationalists, however here must ask why religious minorities are represented as evil within the media, why they are compared to enemies and how those who have leverages over the media benefit from all of this. Within his theory of biopower, Foucault argues that religion is an institutional force, while it is claimed to be an “individual choice.” In this way, because it is considered very personal and intimate but is actually a political and politicized issue, religion becomes a possible technique through which the state can mobilize society.
As Umberto Echo notes, within democracy citizens benefit from rights and citizens have the opportunity to act on those rights on which the majority makes decisions based on each case (2). Ur-fascism’s approach to the person is one in which the person does not have any rights and the people act on collective will. Because human beings cannot collectively have one will, the leader presents his own will as the will of the people. Looking at the way the media is used to escalate issues, to create an image of a collective enemy for the public to fight against, we come to the conclusion that this is the kind of populism that Echo discussed in his theory of ur-fascism which in our day is done through television and internet sources playing on peoples’ emotions and these claims are represented as “the view of the people”.
To return to the post-election period, we can see that in that few months time following the elections almost no other issue was presented in the media and within the public except for the problem of fighting against LGBT people to save the Armenian identity. Within that period of time, it seems as if all other issues that affect Armenia had disappeared from the agenda. When a country is within serious social and economic conditions it becomes possible and easy to mobilize society against a common image of an enemy. This enemy becomes a kind of conspiracy. The West, with its values, becomes an enemy and homosexuality is one of its tools to destroy our nation. The more the involvement of these unknown international forces in “destroying” our nation is discussed, the more they affect the population’s discourse and it becomes easier for nationalist groups to use that enemy as an object to fight against. It is interesting that on September 11 Russia’s ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to RA V.E. Kovalenko’s statement that “Russia, like no other country, has protected Armenia and secured its national identity and now it is still Armenia’s ally” did not receive similar aggressive responses (2). Evidently another nation-state’s involvement in Armenia does not threaten the sovereignty of Armenia and thus did not get the criticism of these nationalist groups as “the West” has gotten.
The technique of biopower, in which the state can mobilize the public by inciting sexual anxieties, has been used in other post-Soviet republics as well. In Russia, after the elections in March, St. Petersburg passed a law in which it became illegal to spread “homosexual propaganda.” Some activists in Russia have claimed that this is a part of Russian authorities’ wider initiative supported by the Orthodox Church and the goal of which is to fight against possibilities of public protest, civic activism and liberalization of the society. Yuri Gavrikov, who represents the St. Petersburg gay organization “Equality”, notes that in this way Russia limits the rights to free speech and public gathering by targeting any group fighting for its rights (Elder 2012). Here we can cite Kagarlitsky (2006) who argues that fascism as an ideology comes about at a time when it is possible to create an illusion for the masses that they can solve poor social conditions by subjecting themselves to nationalist prejudice.
The next issue that arose around the topic of LGBT people was the Delegation of the European Union to Armenia and the German Embassy initiated a screening of the Serbian film Parada, which tells the story of the conflict between nationalist groups and LGBT advocates during the organizing of Serbia’s first gay pride parade. All of the planned screenings failed because the venues which had previously agreed to hold screenings cancelled as a result of the protests of nationalist organizations. However, what is interesting is that Congress Hotel, which is a part of an international chain of hotels, also pulled out from holding a screening of the film after they had agreed even though there were no protests held at the hotel. Their reason for cancelling the screening remains unknown. The statement signed by over a dozen non-governmental organizations demanding from the government to fulfill its obligations and provide a space for the screening did not receive the response as well. Here again it becomes clear that the problem is not the public outcry over LGBT persons, but the state’s absence of political will and targeted manipulation of this issue. The discussion around LGBT issues in this manner creates a problem not only for human rights defenders, activists and anybody who advocates for LGBT peoples’ rights but also for international organizations who cannot even find a space to show a film. This should indicate to all of the various institutions that provide support to Armenia, financial and otherwise, for promoting democracy and human rights reforms to properly monitor the state’s actions, otherwise the work done by international organizations can be considered inconsistent and ineffective.
When discussing issues related to nationalism and sexual minorities, it is necessary to emphasize where the problem is actually coming from, and not consider the problem on the level of an artificially created issue between two groups. We have tried to show here that it is necessary to discuss that the issue begins within the frames of policy led by authorities.
Furthermore, in the period of the post-presidential elections in Armenia the artificial issues will be raised on the agenda again. Therefore, non-governmental and international organizations, civic initiatives need to be vigilant and work to prevent the realization of such techniques of the state.
Marine Margaryan, MA in Political Science and International Affairs. She is a board member at "Public Information and Need of Knowledge" (PINK Armenia) NGO.
Tamar Shirinyan, PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology. She is doing research on sexuality and gender at "Public Information and Need of Knowledge" (PINK Armenia) NGO.
Eco, Umberto. Five Moral Pieces. Boston: Mariner Books, 2002.
Elder, Miriam. “St. Petersburg Bans ‘Homosexual Propaganda.” The Gaurdian. 2012. .
Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality Vol I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers, 1971.
Kagarlitsky, Boris. “Fascism for Personal Use.” 2006. .
Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK) Armenia NGO and Socioscope. Social research and consulting center “Public Opinion toward LGBT People in Yerevan, Gyumri and Vanadzor Cities.” Yerevan, 2011.
“RF Ambassador: We Stand By Armenia.” 2012. .