Based in Minneapolis, the Queer Armenian Library is an online collection of curated works by or about queer Armenians. I spoke to founder J.P. Der Boghossian to learn more about the library and its extensive collection and to discuss his new podcast dedicated to examining the impact queer books can have on someone’s life.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and what led you to establish the Queer Armenian Library?
I’m Armenian-American and grew up in the diaspora. My mother’s family, my Armenian side, all live in France because that is where they escaped to after the Genocide. I was born and raised in the States. I had little exposure to Queer people growing up during the late 80s or early 90s. The internet wasn’t a thing yet. Even on TV, there was very little exposure. There was Will and Grace, I guess, but that didn’t come out until I was about to graduate high school.
However, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, about Queer Armenians. My family never discussed queerness, and it was treated harshly when they brought it up. Queer Armenians weren’t Armenian; they were ruining society. HIV and AIDS were seen as righteous retribution.
I deliberately tried to compartmentalize my queer identity from my Armenian identity. To be honest, I had all these bits and fragments of self. I was Armenian but a French citizen because my family lived in France. So, I grew up learning and speaking French, not Armenian. But I lived in the States and had an American father. And that side of my family had lived on the same farms in northern Michigan for a hundred years. I didn’t fit in there because I looked Armenian, spoke two languages, and was Queer. And I didn’t fit in with the Armenian community in France because I didn’t speak French “well enough,” I was an American citizen, I was no longer practicing Christianity, and I was Queer. It got to the point where they were running me in circles. I’m not Armenian because I’m American, and I’m not American because I’m an Armenian with French citizenship. I can’t be Armenian and don’t belong in Northern Michigan because I’m Queer. So, what and who the hell am I?
The Queer Armenian Library came from a painful sense of trying to reconcile all of this. There had to be others writing about this. There had to be others wrestling with integrating their senses of identity. Initially, I was hoping to find a book or two. And slowly, I began to find more and more. And then I decided I wanted to find everything. I think scouring the internet for every book, article, and poem I could find was a way of pulling all these disparate parts of myself into a singular whole being. It wasn’t just a Queer Armenian Library that was being born; I was creating myself too. And I hope it can be the same for others. They can come to the website and find all these amazing works and begin to live authentically and live for themselves and create lives full of life and joy.
What sort of items does the library curate? How do you decide what gets included?
I choose anything I can get my hands on that is written by a Queer Armenian; or if it features a Queer Armenian character or theme(s). It goes in the library if it is written by, about, or for Queer Armenians. Initially, I planned to create a website that just featured the books I found, but as I kept doing my research, I found artwork, news articles, op-eds, a dissertation, music, film, and television. So, I decided to put it all in there. It didn’t seem fair to only focus on books. Libraries have films, television, news media, and art. So, why not the Queer Armenian Library?
One thing it doesn’t have is anything homophobic or transphobic. Instead, the library provides us with the richness, messiness, and variety of Queer Armenian life, with an emphasis on life.
Do you see a difference in materials produced by Armenians based in the Republic and those in the Diaspora?
It’s hard for me to answer this because so much of the writing written in the Republic is in Armenian. Unfortunately, I don’t read Armenian. However, several great works have been translated into English. And the difference in that work I have read is in how much more experimental that work is. I’m thinking specifically of Fleeting City by Hovhannes Tekgyozyan. It’s hard to describe it. It’s funny, surreal, and like an animated film in how the world shifts and changes on the page. The Return of Kikos by Armen of Armenia is another good example. It’s a short story collection – the first by a Queer Armenian writer. The eponymous short story of the collection reimagines Hovannes Toumanyan’s tale, The Death of Kikos. It reclaims this classic of Armenian literature and queers it. It’s really lovely.
What is your readership like?
It’s hard to tell. The daily readership has been relatively consistent, given the unique target audience. Visitors from the States, followed by Armenia and Canada, make up the top three countries. But people from all over the world visit the site, including all of North America and every European country, except Belarus, the majority of South America, and nearly a dozen African countries. We’ve had visitors from almost every country in Asia as well, save North Korea, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, and a couple of others. See a trend? If there are visitors from these homophobic countries who censor the internet, they are probably using a VPN. Not many folks reach out to me directly, but I get a lot of, “My friend said they visited the library and really loved it.”
Have you received any backlash from the community or any negative feedback?
Not as much as I thought. I had a person reach out through Twitter to call me gomik (“faggot”). Several folks sent me religious messages telling me that God still loved me and it wasn’t too late to return to the Church. But I’ve tried to be proactive to ward it off. To be honest, I just delete many message requests on Twitter and Instagram when I can tell it is from a hater. So, I don’t read it. On the website itself, I deliberately turned off commenting on the different posts and pages because I didn’t want to provide a platform for the haters.
How would you describe what life is like for a queer person of Armenian descent?
This is also difficult to answer because it varies widely across the Republic, Artsakh, and the diaspora. However, I would say there are general themes. The first is amot (“shame”). All Armenians hear this word a lot, but I read and talk with many Queer Armenians who deal with this on a whole other level. For example, a new queer publisher in the U.K. named themselves Anamot, which means “without shame.” Another theme is isolation: growing up not knowing any other Queer Armenians. The internet becomes key here. For me, it was how I was able to create the library. Twitter is a swamp, but I met many Queer and Progressive Armenians there. Friends I wish I had known growing up. Nancy Agabian talks about this in her memoir Me as Her Again. She also used the internet to explore what was out there and connected to AGLA – NY. Also, the International Armenian Literary Alliance hosted two historic online events in 2021 celebrating Queer Armenian writers. They were the first of their kind and only took place because of the internet. The first global reading of Queer Armenian writers occurred, and the first-ever panel of Queer Armenian writers occurred. After the reading, a poet reached out to me and called it a watershed moment for them. They had never been in a space where most people were Queer Armenians.
You recently launched a new podcast, “This Queer Book Saved My Life!” What was the process like for starting this new venture?
Well, I work as a Chief Diversity Officer in higher education. And I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota – ground zero after George Floyd’s murder. I’ve been doing Equity and Inclusion work for nearly a decade. It is a necessary effort, but it takes so much out of me. I spend all day helping people unpack systemic racism and sexism, homophobic policies, and the erasure of people living with disabilities. I look at the data all day long, every day, every week. Trying to get straight people just to use pronouns, let alone make systemic change, is draining. I mean, creating an organizational pronoun policy can take months. So, you can imagine that the tougher issues take much, much longer than that.
My therapist challenged me to think about what life-giving things are for me. We worked together to try and help me find agency again. I started taking stock of my priorities in life. In my early career, I worked in broadcast journalism. I obviously love books. And I realized I wanted to work more inside the Queer community. So, starting a podcast seemed like an interesting solution. It has a very low overhead to start, but you need to create a high-quality product. So, it helped that I worked in broadcasting. I knew the technical side, including making a website and designing graphics. I also had a decent sense of interviewing people. But interviewing is an art form, and I’ve learned so much while recording the first dozen episodes. And also by being a guest on other people’s podcasts. It’s a totally different experience from being a guest on a podcast to hosting one. I’ve become obsessed with “ums” and “uhs” and “I mean like,” and “you know?” I edit those out. Or at least a good chunk of them. I basically know what the waveform of an “um” looks like now. It’s very distinct. I don’t even need to hear it anymore. I just look at the entire waveform of an interview and yank them out. It’s like weeding a garden. Weirdly satisfying.
I thought recruiting guests and authors was going to be the hard part. But people have been amazing. So many excellent guests want to share the LGBTQ book that saved them. And even huge authors have agreed to be on the podcast. Alison Bechdel’s memoir was turned into a Broadway musical where it won the Tony, and here she is on my podcast. Jennifer Finney Boylan writes for the New York Times, and her memoir was the first best-seller by a Trans-American writer. I don’t say this to brag. I think there is hunger right now, a necessity even, for queer people to read life-giving books.
Also, and I’ll speak to just the States because I live there, we’re being attacked on a level that we haven’t seen in a long time. They’re coming for us from every direction. They’re coming for trans kids. They’re banning gender-affirming care and threatening to jail parents and doctors providing it. And they’re banning them from sports. They’re banning LGBTQ books from schools. They’re forbidding teachers from saying the word “gay.” They’re literally ripping rainbow stickers off the walls. They want to criminalize doctors and parents who provide gender-affirming care. They’re coming for our marriages. They’re coming for our workplace protections. Hell, they’re even planning to prosecute us again for having sex (i.e., overturning Lawrence v Texas). This isn’t fear-mongering, and it’s not an exaggeration. They’re passing the laws. The Supreme Court is writing opinions calling for it.
Queer people are looking for the things they can put in their lives that are life-giving. Not everyone is turning to books as the solution. Community building is key; nothing is more powerful than being in a space with each other. However, books give us words. They give us new ways of thinking. They are something you can read when you’re not in a Queer space. There is a reason the moderate and far-right Conservatives want to ban books. Stories are everything. Everything. And the thing they don’t fully understand is we have a whole history of subversive ways to tell our stories. We have a powerful oral storytelling tradition. We have used underground magazines, newsletters, zines, and, obviously, the internet. There is no banning. There is no going back.
Is there anything else you wish to add?
The Queer Armenian Library is bringing on a new editor! Her name is Natalie Cruz. I’m really excited. In addition to adding new books, she has great ideas about building out the library’s art section.
You can listen to This Queer Book Saved My Life! on your preferred music and podcast service (like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, etc.). In addition, you can get transcripts of each episode on our website: thisqueerbook.com.
And if any of your queer readers have an LGBTQ book they feel saved their life somehow, I encourage you to reach out! I’d love to have you on the show. There is a form on the main page of our website, or you can DM me at @thisqueerbook on Twitter or Instagram. We also have a Facebook page.
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