On a Saturday afternoon in late July, a small crew of vendors set up shop in booths winding from the sidewalk on Tujunga Avenue into a small, Studio City outdoor space where they sold everything from ceramics to screen prints to an Armenian pastry called nazook. The first Queernissage, sponsored by local Armenian LGBTQ+ group GALAS, took its inspiration from Yerevan’s own outdoor marketplace Vernissage for an event filled with pride and solidarity.
As we settled into a corner of the patio area, with Armenian music playing in the background, GALAS board member Natalia Sookias noted that a number of the vendors began making their items as fundraisers for relief efforts in Artsakh, the ethnic Armenian enclave that was attacked by Azerbaijan last fall. “There was this really incredible phenomenon where Armenians just mobilized internationally and connected with each other over the internet, which is really remarkable to see,” she says. “It was incredible to see all of the initiatives that people started in order to raise money.” That includes Sookias, an L.A.-based artist, who made and sold prayer bowls during the war and had a booth filled with her own ceramics at the market. “I feel like it brought a sense of urgency to my culture, where there was this fear of erasure,” she says of the events last fall.
The Artsakh war raised the visibility of Armenian activists, both online and in Los Angeles, and that’s also true for LGBTQ+ activists, who’ve had a presence at protests while also standing against homophobia and transphobia both within and outside of the Armenian community.
“One of the things that I noticed with all of the general action that was happening around Artsakh was that a lot of LGBTQ Armenians were actively engaging with the broader Armenian community,” says GALAS board member Lousine Shamamian. “Prior to that, there was a separation of Armenian queer folks…they didn’t feel a sense of belonging to the bigger community.”
GALAS, which was founded in 1998, serves as a space where LGBTQ+ Armenians can fully embrace their identity. “I had done the whole Armenian thing, I had done the whole gay thing,” says GALAS board member Erik Adamian. “In my mind, it was very separate from each other. The community around me was telling me that you can be either/or.” In 2015, though, he attended his first GALAS event, after hearing about the group at college. “It was the beginning of a new me. It was a beginning of a new way of understanding self.”
Meanwhile, L.A.-based Equality Armenia focuses specifically on marriage equality in Armenia. (Currently, the country recognizes same-sex marriages performed abroad, but not within the country.) On a Zoom call in June, Echo Park-based founder Armen Abelyan, who was born in Armenia and moved to Los Angeles at 19, mentioned the “privilege” that Armenian-Americans have by virtue of living in a country where marriage equality exists. “Having that privilege means that you at least try to help your brothers and siblings in your homeland,” he says.
Equality Armenia’s mission overlaps with other LGBTQ+ issues facing Armenians both in the country and the diaspora. They’ve developed relationships with in-country groups like Pink Armenia, Right Side NGO, and New Generation. They’ve raised awareness in the U.S. about instances of homophobia and transphobia in Armenia.
Recently, they launched a campaign to encourage a museum dedicated to late singer Charles Aznavour, set to open next year in Yerevan, to include a permanent exhibition highlighting his advocacy of LGBTQ+ causes. In 1972, the French singer, who was of Armenian heritage, released the landmark song “What Makes a Man,” that addressed the impact of homophobia. Abelyan cites it as a song that has helped LGBTQ+ Armenians connect with their parents. “It has become, maybe, a prelude to coming out,” he says.
Abelyan says that, since the war in Artsakh, and with the ongoing tension in the region, some of the pushback that the group has received is that now is not the time to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. “When is it time for human rights? LGBT rights? When is the time that we can talk about both?” he says. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” He has also spotted and reported homophobic memes related to the war that had been going on Instagram. “I don’t think it should be out there hurting vulnerable people, especially in Armenia,” he says during a follow-up Zoom in August.
When Artsakh brought together Armenians across the globe via social media, it also increased Equality Armenia’s presence. He says that sites like Instagram have helped LGBTQ+ Armenians within the country and in the diaspora find each other. The group held a successful hybrid in-person and virtual Pride event in June.
GALAS, too, has seen its community expand far beyond Los Angeles, mainly as a result of moving events online with the onset of COVID-19. “All of a sudden, we had people who don’t live in L.A. participating in events. It became much more global,” says Sookias. “We’re also figuring out what is our virtual presence as an organization, which is very much as a result of COVID, as a result of lockdown.”
Mental health has become a focal point for the organization. Since 2020, the group has lost two community members to suicide. The artwork of one late member, Nyrie Gharibian, was part of this pop-up event. “I’m hoping one day that people my age will get more involved in things like this,” says Gharibian’s mother, Assia Pezeshkian, who was in attendance, adding that GALAS members have been there for her in recent months. “They’re my friends now,” she says. “They come and visit me. We go out to Nyrie’s favorite Thai restaurant.”
Sookias says that GALAS has been providing free therapy sessions to help each other deal with multiple levels of grief—the loss of community members, the Artsakh war and “all of the grief of the last year and a half.”
A crucial goal for Armenian LGBTQ+ organizations is building alliances, not just with other LGBTQ+ groups but within the larger Armenian community. “That’s where the work has to happen,” says Shamamian. “We have to be the leaders to do that.”
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