“A group of people have become a toy in the battle of superpowers”

Nune Hakhverdyan

Art critic, journalist

Mamikon Hovsepyan leads the NGO Public Information and Need of Knowledge, better known as PINK Armenia, which aims to protect the human rights of LGBT people and addresses gender issues.

Hovsepyan believes that intolerance and even hate toward LGBT people is like a playing card that the powers that be use to promote their interests. And often it depends on the media, what the public’s attitude will be and to what extent the degree of homophobia will decrease.

There are many media platforms and outlets in Armenia. Can we say that there is freedom?

The field is wide, there are opportunities, but ensuring and spreading quality information narrows the field. The ruling authorities or oligarchs create websites that gather an audience, become mainstream, circulating scandal and terror, while the voice of media outlets disseminating real information gets lost.

And what is the negative role of scandals?

Because of scandal and false urgency, very important issues — social, health, environmental, and so on — remain overlooked.

The audience as a consumer takes little interest in these topics, preferring shorter, picturesque pieces, sometimes even pieces lacking analysis.

Factual, quality pieces get lost in the scandals. New websites are born out of unknown places and, in turn, add to the dose of scandals.

In many cases, they write on the LGBT topic specifically with the aim of gathering an audience, turning it into an opportunity for provocation. People click on stories that contain the words “gay,” hamaseramol, or nuynaserakan (homosexual).

Created is the persona of “the nation’s enemies,” which, on one hand, has to do with neighboring countries in a state of war, and, on the other hand, religious, sexual, and other minorities. They try to inoculate [the public with the idea] that minorities pose a threat to the national identity (as if they’ve never existed, and only now have our eyes been opened).

Usually, when awareness of any topic is raised, opposing voices also get stronger. I remember 10–15 years ago there was silence on LGBT people; there were no particular opinions either in favor or against; and our aim was to break the silence, start the discussion, since even the negative and incompetent become opportunities for discussion.

Not only people with a different sexual orientation, but also people with disabilities and with health issues insist on the proper use of terms. Is this important?

The use of incorrect terms may be either intentional or because of ignorance. In any case, this is not only a matter of the journalist’s competence, but also the media outlet’s policies. If there is an aim to produce a good piece, then offensive terms must be set aside.

There are words that contain specific insults. I myself don’t complain if they say miaserakan, gay or homosexual [in English]. But when they begin in the words to hint at mania, adding the suffix mol, the term becomes offensive. Sometimes there are also direct profanities. 

That is, do you think that attitudes will change if other words are used?

Also like that. But the opposite may happen: clinging to terms, we lose the importance of the topic. It’s ok if the word is not described correctly; what’s important is that it not be offensive.

Do offense cases often make it to the courts?

We sued the newspaper Iravunq when it published blacklists of “gay lobbyists.” Obviously the fact of having any blacklist is already objectionable, but that article was full of libel and calls of hate and discrimination.

We lost in court (it was said that there’s freedom of speech in Armenia); now the case is with the European Court [of Human Rights].

But it was interesting that a few days after our lawsuit, [Armenian President] Serzh Sargsyan gave Iravunq newspaper a medal and that was perceived as a clear sign.

I’m sure that in our society, the suppression of and repulsion toward sex is a serious problem. The body is set off against the spiritual, and it always loses.

This is a problem of conservative societies. As soon as we talk about sex, restrictions appear: clean or dirty, permissible or prohibited sex.

When I worked as a sexual health adviser, I saw that many young people are disgusted by sexual organs, and were even afraid to touch them. One youth said if he touches the sexual organ, it will “break.”

Probably the reason is that we are taught from childhood that there are clean and dirty body parts. Everyone likes their face, takes care of it, washes it, shaves; in any case, they make their faces beautiful. There are body parts that are “dirty.”

I think we need to do it so that children from school age become familiar with their bodies and like them. 

Usually shame is associated mainly with the body; it is subject to ridicule, and humiliates physical features: being obese, being short.

If human rights protection is viewed very broadly, important points will be lost. If there are small groups who become vulnerable because of their features, more attention needs to be paid to them. 

Women too are discriminated against, and some people, caught in a bind, begin to defend a woman who is oppressed, to make the rights of women and men equal. 

What do you consider to be the most effective way to remind people about human rights?

If before, gay pride parades were a successful option, now they’re not as effective. Parades and marches are now not so much expressions of protest as they are carnivals, which celebrate visibility and the victory of equality.

The most important is public attitude. People living side by side must understand each other. The laws are the roof; what’s important is that the foundation of the building not be weak.

What has an impact are face-to-face conversations, during which people get to know each other. And naturally, the media plays an important role, thanks to which one person can bring his words to an audience of thousands. And it doesn’t matter whose words they are — an out gay person, a lecturer, or another ordinary person. It’s important that gay people don’t appear as three-headed demons or otherwise strange creatures. 

When Mel Daluzyan began to talk about his gender identity and childhood, that had an impact on society. Many accepted him, but they limited themselves to that.

Today on television there is either complete silence or misinformation. I remember public television talking in a program about homosexuality but showing transgender people. And it was asking: is this a deviation or a disease? That is to say, only two options were mentioned, both of which are very far from reality.

The LGBT topic is exploited also in the state ideology.

In East-West battles, the LGBT community has become a weapon. By exploiting this topic, Russia opposes the US and Europe. And it turns out that a group of people have become a tool in the fight of the powers that be.

At different times, women, and ethnic or religious minorities were this tool; now LGBT people have become the superpowers’ toy.

Created is an atmosphere when even people who aren’t particularly interested in the LGBT community begin to become afraid, to hate, or push back.

In the past there were also rumours, but there wasn’t this degree of tension. When Russia adopted the gay propaganda law, it began to be emphasized and fear instilled that this was a western influence, as if they snatch children from families and give them to gay people. People in many cases don’t even want to verify such false information.

In Armenia, too, many are at the hope of this distorted information.

An atmosphere of fear helps to govern people because people begin to like something and hate something based on fear. And on account of this, major states advance their interests.

We try to explain that there isn’t a concept of the “other” — all are other.

Interview by Nune Hakhverdyan

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