BY VIC GERAMI
Executive Director Armen Abelyan admits that Equality Armenia’s (EqAr) mission to achieve marriage equality in Armenia is a lofty goal. After all, homosexuality was decriminalized in the former Soviet Republic only fourteen short years ago. But if anyone is qualified and equipped to take on this important challenge, it is Armen. He was born in Armenia, immigrated to the United States at nineteen years old and achieved the American Dream. Politically active in the last few years, both locally and nationally, Abelyan is familiar with the intricacies of the road ahead and ready for the task.
Armen and I recently sat down for a chat at a coffee shop in Little Armenia, a section of East Hollywood home to thousands of first, second and third generation Armenian Americans. I knew Armen socially and as a long-time activist and a community organizer, but I wanted to hear his plans for EqAr first hand, as I, too, was pleasantly taken back as well as impressed by his new mission.
Armen believes that marriage equality is within reach in Armenia and that concerted effort in the Diaspora is crucial. Earlier this year, he applauded Armenia’s Ministry of Justice decision declaring marriages registered abroad, which are in line with that particular state’s legislation, are valid in Armenia. With Armenia’s political and economic future on the line, “It is time for Armenia to extend the same rights to its own citizens.” he shared.
Armen, who has degrees in accounting and economics, was the Board President of GALAS (Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society) until recently. He was instrumental in navigating GALAS through challenging times and grew the organization into a vibrant social hub for LGBTQ Armenians. Admittedly, I was curious to see what’s next for Armen and I was impressed to hear of his new undertaking. He is determined to continue fighting for Armenian LGBTQ rights through a more focused effort; empowering, sponsoring NGOs in Armenia to achieve marriage equality in his motherland. Armen is underwriting the non-profit until funds are raised through building a grassroots base of LGBTQ activists in the Armenian Diaspora, especially in countries where the LGBTQ community enjoys equality already.
Abelyan cites a 2014 study of 39 countries, conducted by UCLA’s Williams Institute of law, which revealed a positive correlation between a particular country’s advancement in LGBTQ rights and their economic growth. The study finds that even after suspending the effects of variables such as capital stock and international trade, there’s still a strong positive effect between LGBTQ rights and GDP growth. Each additional right (8 in total, defined in the study) is associated with a $320 increase in per capita GDP, or about 3 percent of the average output produced by an economy. The study concludes that a better environment for LGBTQ individuals is an attractive bargaining chip for countries seeking multinational investments and an increase in tourism. In pursuit of its mission, Equality Armenia plans to reach out to cross- cultural, political, business and community leaders to create strategic partnerships and mutually beneficial relationships to help Armenia embrace marriage equality that will lead to a better economic future.
Understanding the uniqueness of Armenian identity – often marginalized and persecuted in history, I see the common denominator between Armenian and LGBTQ communities; the will to persevere and thrive. The Orthodox Armenian Church, the first Christian Church in the world, the cradle of Christianity has played a major role in our survival and national identity. Growing up, I often heard concerns from Armenian elders that younger generations were not engaged with the Church; they were not interested in attending services unless it was for a wedding or a funeral. Wondering what could possibly compel the youth, what could make the Armenian Church a leader in the region again? A trailblazer like Gregory The Illuminator.
Enter Father Vazken Movsesian of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church. He is not your average Armenian priest. In fact, he is not an average priest, period. Through hard work, spirit of unity, service and love for all, he has earned him the respect of many and reinvigorated that Church’s role in the community. His love is not limited to Armenians or heterosexuals as he practices what he preaches-literarily. Discussing marriage equality, Father Movsesian said, “Jesus said to love one another, there was no exception… There was no clause to it.”
He is a patriotic, progressive man who is keenly aware of the realities of twenty-first century and refuses to hold on to cafeteria-Christianity exclusions that are not based in the teachings of the Lord. Keenly aware of the risks associated with the Armenian Orthodox Church, Father Movsesian has taken his mission to TV, radio, print and social media, spreading the original and overarching testament of the Bible – love for all, that trumps all else. Yes, you can friend-request him on Facebook and tweet him if you wish.
In addition to his day job, he founded “In His Shoes”, a non-profit organization which rallies support for those who suffer in the world. It was created in response to acts of Genocide perpetrated against the Armenian people in 1915. He believes those who have suffered evil have a unique responsibility to take action against injustice to others. In His Shoes is unique because it transcends ethnic and religious differences and focuses on the only thread common to the human condition: suffering. Through its projects and programs, In His Shoes brings diverse people together and teaches models for peaceful living. Membership and participation in the organization is open all.
Father Movsesian’s dynamic approach is to bring people of different faiths, nationalities, backgrounds and sexual orientations together. Painstakingly, he has built cross-cultural coalitions with community and business leaders, dignitaries and activists. In May of this year, In His Shoes collaborated in a program to strengthen solidarity between Armenians and the Indigenous native tribes of the Americas. Artists, activists, and community members gathered to mark Days of Solidarity: Celebrating Native American and Armenian Survival.
Like many pioneering visionaries, he has faced opposition and controversy. But perhaps Father Movsesian’s most controversial move to date was his decision to speak publicly about marriage equality shortly after it became legal in June 2015. Father Movsesian’s stance was this: There is nothing attributed to Jesus in the Bible pertaining to homosexuality. Simply put, Jesus did not say anything about homosexuals or in opposition to homosexuality, therefore the Church cannot conjure doctrines against same-sex marriage. Marriage equality is a civil rights and human rights issue, therefore it should be granted to all citizens. As of November 2017, twenty-five countries have marriage equality. In July, Armenia’s Ministry of Justice confirmed that legal marriages abroad are legal in Armenia, but it remains to be seen how “diasporan” same-sex marriages play out in its legal systems.
In a KPFK interview with Cary Harrison, Father Movsesian discussed the genesis of his understanding of homosexuality and his consequent support for marriage equality. In the early 1990s, while a priest in San Francisco, a young Armenian man came to him for confession expressing his desire to come out to his family. After a heart-to-heart with this man, Father Movsesian said, “If this is who he is, why am I not there with him? This is his nature, mine is to accept, and that was my awakening.” He added, “We have this opportunity to extend our hand to one-another and make this world a better place.”
Father Movsesian drew parallels between the persecution of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and the consequent Armenian Genocide to the historic prosecution of the LGBTQ community. He said, “We’ve been prosecuted because we were not accepted, because we were different. As an Armenian Christian, how can I possibly close my eyes to what’s going on in the world? And it’s not just in Armenia, just everywhere, this intolerance.”
Joining the board of Equality Armenia, Father Movsesian will surely ruffle some feathers in the community. This fact is not lost on Abelyan and supporters of marriage equality in Armenia. But Armenians are resilient people and love ultimately conquers hate. Equality Armenia and their allies in the community have Father Movsesian’s back. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”.
Equality Armenia will launch with an inaugural event scheduled for Saturday, December 2, 2017. The event – Comedy Fundraiser to Benefit Pink Armenia – is dedicated to the 10th anniversary of Pink Armenia, the first grassroots LGBTQ organization in Armenia. One hundred percent of ticket donation will go to support Pink Armenia’s community shelter for LGBTQ youth in Yerevan. Beloved comedians Mary Basmadjian and attorney Movses Shakarian, who are on the board of Equality Armenia also, will host the fundraiser. Additional details concerning EqAr and the upcoming event will be announced soon.