Armenia transgender woman faces death threats after parliament speech

Yerevan (AFP) –


Lilit Martirosyan was aware of the risk as she mounted the rostrum in Armenia's parliament to speak out against pervasive rights violations of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in her socially conservative country.

As the first openly LGBT person to be given such a high-level political platform in Armenia, Martirosyan told lawmakers that history was being made that day.

Since then, however, she has faced fierce verbal attacks, demonstrations and deaths threats.

"I am the personification of all Armenian transgender people: tortured, raped, kidnapped, beaten, burned, immolated, stabbed, killed, forced into emigration, robbed, stigmatised and discriminated against, unemployed and poor," the 28-year-old told the parliamentary committee on human rights in her speech in April.

It was a bold move in the small ex-Soviet Caucasus country ranked one of the most virulently homophobic in the world -- along with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia -- by an international federation.

Outside the national assembly in the capital Yerevan, anti-LGBT protesters gathered in opposition to Martirosyan's address, which also prompted a transphobic backlash from conservative MPs.

Gagik Tsarukyan, the influential leader of the Prosperous Armenia opposition party, called the LGBT community a "vice", while party colleague MP Vartan Gukasyan urged the expulsion of "pervert transgenders".

In an interview with AFP, Martirosyan said that she had received numerous messages containing death threats via Facebook and email.

"I informed police that I was receiving death threats, but they did nothing to protect me," she said.

"Now I am living in hiding at a friend's house. I can't go out," she said, speaking at the office of the NGO she has set up where she arrived in a friend's car with tinted windows.

- 'No good childhood memories' -

Softly spoken with a winsome smile, Martirosyan has careful makeup and coiffed hair and says she has undergone hormonal therapy as well as gender reassignment surgery several years ago.

Born in a remote rural community, Martirosyan described how she had felt she was a girl since very young and dressed as one.

She said that she had been a victim of harassment and discrimination since childhood.

"My family members have refused to talk to me, to share food with me at the family table," she told AFP.

"I have no good memories of my childhood," she added.

"I was beaten, knifed, humiliated. I was raped when I was a teenager. At the age of 13, I was forced to engage in sex work -- the only job available for an Armenian transgender."

- EU, UN voice support -

Martirosyan, who addressed parliament as the founder of her Right Side NGO, has received international support but has accused her own government of acting like a "detached onlooker" instead of protecting her.

"There are 18 transgender people in Armenia," Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan claimed, in televised remarks to journalists, adding that: "We are not going to burn anyone."

"We are going to protect the rights of every Armenian citizen... but at the same time we are defenders of the traditional Armenian family, of traditional values," he added, however.

The European Union delegation in Armenia and the embassies of EU member states have condemned threats against Martirosyan.

"Hate speech, including death threats directed at Ms. Lilit Martirosyan, her colleagues, and the LGBTI community as a whole represent the latest in this worrying trend," the EU embassies said in a joint statement.

And the United Nations office in Yerevan also said it was "concerned over recent hate speech and cases of violence against human rights and LGBTI activists."

In response, Armenia's foreign ministry spokeswoman Anna Naghdalyan called on foreign diplomats to "demonstrate more respect and sensitivity towards Armenian society" and "refrain from undue engagement in the public debate."

- 'Mission in life' -

International and local rights groups have long condemned hostility and discrimination against LGBT people in Armenia.

"Among the 49 European countries, Armenia is 47th as a favourable place for LGBTI people," the European office of the International LGBTI Association (ILGA) said last month in its annual report.

"Hate speech and violence were still pervasive (in 2018)," the report said.

Mamikon Ovsepyan, of a Yerevan-based LGBT rights NGO, Pink Armenia, said that LGBT people in the country faced "physical, psychological and sexual violence."

"They are not accepted either by society nor even by their families.

"There is no legislation to protect LGBT people from discrimination," he added.

Since 2005, transgender people have had the legal right to change their gender in their passports, although Martirosyan said she had opted not to do this to make her transgender status crystal clear.

The NGO she founded three years ago offers legal and psychological aid to Armenia's LGBT community.

"I will never emigrate from Armenia," she said. "My speech in parliament proved fruitless, but I am an activist and I will keep working for the interests of the LGBT community."

"Human rights protection is my mission in life."