YEREVAN, Armenia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Lilit Martirosyan became the first openly transgender person to speak in the Armenian parliament earlier this month, it was hailed as a historic moment by LGBT+ campaigners, but it was also followed death threats.
“I ask you to see me as a collective figure,” the transgender woman told Armenian lawmakers and activists, according to a video posted online of her speech at the hearing on human rights.
“I encompass in myself the tortured, raped, kidnapped, subjected to physical violence… unemployed, poor and morally abandoned, Armenian transgender’s image.”
Yet while her speech was applauded by rights activists, it provoked a backlash in the landlocked nation of about 3 million people.
Since taking the stage in parliament this month, Martirosyan, who leads the human rights non-governmental organization Right Side, said she and her colleagues have received numerous death threats.
Her address has also been leaked online, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Earlier this month, about 100 people, including members of nationalist and conservative groups as well as religious figures, gathered in front of parliament to protest against LGBT+ rights.
Mamikon Hovsepyan, executive director of the country’s leading LGBT+ organization, Pink Armenia, said one person brought a knife to the protest.
Armenia’s national police didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Armenia decriminalized same-sex relations in 2003, but the ex-Soviet republic is the second-worst country for LGBT+ rights in Europe, according to a ranking by campaign group ILGA Europe.
Many gay and trans activists were optimistic that the country’s deep-seated homophobia would start to decline after mass street protests in April 2018 ousted long-time leader Serzh Sargsyan.
Led by journalist-turned-politician Nikol Pashinyan, the bloodless uprising was widely backed by LGBT+ groups, who hoped that along with new leadership, the country would see an improvement in the human rights situation.
Hovsepyan, whose Pink Armenia took part in the revolution, said that while LGBT+ people were present at previous protests, this time they were more visible.
“People were more open” during the revolution, Hovsepyan said. “Trans people could (go) outside the way they wanted to go outside, not just hiding and dressing as society wanted them to.”
For bi-gender activist Nora Petrosyan, who uses both masculine and feminine pronouns, it was also one of the rare times that differing gender identities were accepted in public.
“(People) accepted me, took interest... and when new guys came into our group, they stood up for me, they said don’t hurt him, he’s our friend, he’s our brother,” Petrosyan said.
But Hovsepyan said when the revolution ended in May people reverted back to old homophobic habits.
“The same people who were standing hand in hand, knowing they were holding the hand of a gay, lesbian or trans person, they went back to their routine and being involved in the hate process,” he said.
Less than a month after parliament elected Pashinyan as acting prime minister on May 8, a group of 30 people attacked nine LGBT+ rights activists in the southern village of Shurnukh.
The perpetrators were given a collective pardon and law enforcement authorities closed the case.
It was reopened after an appeal by Pink Armenia, its staff said.
The situation for trans and gender non-conforming people is even worse than for the lesbian, gay and bisexual community in Armenia, Martirosyan said.
“Last year, we had a case where a transgender person’s home was set on fire. We had another case where a transgender person’s throat was cut,” Martirosyan said.
In February, Right Side staff member Max Varzhapetyan, who identifies as gender non-binary, was assaulted by two men in the center of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.
Police opened an investigation into the attack, but despite the incident being caught by surveillance cameras, two months on the perpetrators have not been apprehended, Varzhapetyan said.
“People right now think that they are free to spread hate speech against LGBTQ people, beat, mock and violate them.”
Armenia’s police and human rights ombudsman’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
In the lead up to last December’s snap elections, parliament members from the Prosperous Armenia Party and the former ruling Republican Party unsuccessfully tried to push through anti-LGBT+ bills.
Anti-gay and trans protests were also held around the capital and New Generation, a human rights advocacy group, was forced to cancel an LGBT+ Christians forum, citing threats and lack of police willingness to provide protection.
Armenia’s police chief Valeriy Osipyan said at the time that he did not think it was appropriate to hold the forum “due to security risks”, according to a video posted online.
When questioned about the event in parliament last October, Pashinyan said the issue of LGBT+ rights was “a headache”.
“The more infrequently the issue is discussed, the better for me,” he said in an online video.
Activists said the ruling coalition has a number of pro-human rights members of parliament but this has yet to translate into tangible policy changes for the LGBT+ community.
“Many of the civil society actors... went to work for the government and as soon as they entered their job responsibilities, they suddenly became very quiet,” said Arman Sahakyan, the office manager of New Generation.
“Anyone in Armenia has the same rights,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
The press secretary did not respond to questions on government efforts to protect gay and trans rights.
Reporting by Natalie Vikhrov @natalievikhrov; Additional reporting by Armen Shahbazian; Editing by Hugo Greenhalgh and Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org