Lilit Martirosyan is Armenia’s first registered transgender woman, the first transgender person to speak out against LGBTI discrimination in Armenia’s National Assembly, and the founder of Armenia’s first and only NGO for trans people and sex workers — RighT Side. Here she discusses her activism and what the reality is on the ground for LGBTI people in Armenia.
By Alexandra Kuenning
How did you become involved in activism?
My mission in this world is to help people live safely and to help them have a good life. I love helping people, as human beings, create space in this world.
I’d like to talk a bit about my life story. When I was thirteen, I left my village and family home because I felt that my identity was different — I felt that I was a woman not a man. In school, I faced a lot of discrimination because I looked different. I wanted to wear different clothes; men’s clothes were not for me. My family, my mother and father, and our neighbors were very Christian and heteronormative and it’s normal that you all live together in the same village. So I left and went to Yerevan [the capital], and continued my life, including doing sex work in Yerevan, because at the time there was no other work for me. Armenia is a very heteronormative country; they can’t understand your gender identity or sexual orientation. So, I did sex work. At that time, I wanted to buy hormones, have surgery, and change my body because my mind was different from my body. Every time I stood in front of the mirror, I saw that my body was different: my mind thought woman, not man, but my body was of a man’s. I was able to earn a lot of money and I started hormone therapy, and every six months I saw that my body was changing. After that, every time I stood in front of the mirror, I thought it was wonderful, it was perfect. I was able to feel that I’m a woman. My mind and body became the same. After that, I had a lot of surgery for my face and for my body.
I started my activism by volunteering. I went to different organizations and learned about different topics, such as what is human rights, democracy, discrimination against LGBTI people. Then, in 2016, I decided that I needed to open an organization that focused on helping transgender people, because they have specific problems, including needing surgeries, hormone therapy, and gender marking passports. So, in 2016, I officially opened the RighT Side Human Rights Defender NGO as the first and only legal, community-based transgender organization. To start, we sent different applications to get financial support from different international organizations. For the first time in Armenia, we created an open safe-space for transgender people. It’s already been six years of being the first and only transgender organization and we have done a lot of work. As the only transgender organization, we have a lot of beneficiaries, and we must, and want to, help the transgender community solve different problems.
Can you go more in-depth about what it is like to be LGBTI in Armenia? For transgender people specifically?
It’s not Europe, really, it’s not. It’s the Caucasus. Right now, in Armenia, it’s a dangerous situation for the LGBTI community. In Armenia, people can’t understand your life, your feelings. They can’t understand your gender identity, that you feel like a woman or that you feel like a man. They can’t understand that two men can love each other and stay together and live as a beautiful couple. They can’t understand. Armenia is very heteronormative and Christian, and it’s a dangerous country.
But we have organizations and we have activists who want change. We love Armenia, and we want to stay to continue our life. But, on the other hand, it’s very dangerous. Sometimes we have a problem with society and the different people who are, or want to be, in government. They are very transphobic and homophobic. Sometimes we have the problem that our society wants to burn us, kill us, or send us to different European countries. And you know that on the ILGA Rainbow Map, Armenia is not secure. Within our community, LGBTI and sex workers leave Armenia for different European countries. It is very difficult to get a visa and go, but they do it. They don’t want to stay and continue facing hate speech, hate crimes, or discrimination, because after all of this, you are likely to develop mental health problems. We do a lot of work in Armenia to fix a lot of these problems, but we still have a lot of homophobic and transphobic people here. It’s the same. Armenia is not Europe.
In Armenia, we don’t have any anti-discrimination laws or laws against hate speech hate crimes. Hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery are not regulated by law. We don’t have any doctors who can do the surgery, so sometimes transgender people call a doctor from Russia, who then comes to Armenia to do the surgery. We don’t have an endocrinologist. Right now, we have one endocrinologist who works in Odessa, Ukraine, and we have a Skype call arrangement where she helps our transgender people with their hormone therapy because it’s medicine. If you take the wrong hormones, you can develop mental problems. So, we don’t have an endocrinologist in Armenia or original hormones, and every time there’s hate speech and discrimination from our society. And the police, who are very homophobic, reject all of our cases. There’s a lot of work to do in Armenia, and we, step by step, want to solve these problems.
What is the political situation like in Armenia regarding LGBTI rights?
This June, Armenia will hold parliamentary elections, which includes the Prime Minister. Every time, LGBTI issues are used in these political situations. For example, before elections, in order to gain ballots, political parties use LGBTI issues against one another. During such periods hate speech significantly increases as well.
In 2019, I spoke in Armenia’s National Assembly. I was the first transgender woman to stand and speak in the National Assembly about transgender and LGBTI community problems and issues. After that, there were protests against my presence. At that time, it was very dangerous. People found my apartment’s address and hung the Armenian flag, and nationalist groups said “Lilit Martirosyan, we want to kill you.” It was very dangerous. Our neighbors called my mother and brother and discriminated against my family, against our workers. For one month, we had to close our safe space, our community center. It was a shock for me. I couldn’t understand why people would take the Armenian flag and go in front of the National Assembly [to protest].
Five days after my speech, I left Armenia with my family members and a co-worker and went to Paris for ten days, because it was a very dangerous situation. However, after those ten days, I returned to Armenia because, frankly speaking, I don’t want to be a refugee in different European countries or the USA. I must help our community. For example, I could leave Armenia — but in Armenia we have a lot of transgender and LGBTI people, and we don’t have a lot of activists who can openly speak about our problems and who aren’t afraid of these situations. And I am a very proud transgender woman —I can solve and raise awareness of our problems. Right now, it’s a similar situation: when I go to walk the street or go to the shops, I take a mask, because everyone knows my face and they say “See this Lilit Martirosyan, the transgender woman who spoke in front of the National Assembly.”
Can you tell me more about RighT Sides’s missions and objectives?
Our mission is to create lasting solutions to promote the quality of dignified lives of transgender people and sex workers to prevent violations of human rights and to overcome difficulties. We also have the vision of creating a harmonious society that promotes and the inclusion of transgender people and sex workers in Armenia. Right now, we have three strategic directions: human rights lobby and advocacy; community mobilization, safety, and security; and raising public awareness of socio-cultural changes.
What kinds of services does RighT Side provide?
We provide a lot of services. For example, we have attorneys that help transgender and LGBTI people, sex workers, and family members deal with any legal problems at the police station or the courthouse. Every day our lawyer goes to different police stations and courthouses. All our cases are rejected, but our lawyer still takes them and sends an appeal to the court. In addition, sex workers have a big problem too because it’s not legal to do sex work in Armenia. Police sometimes go to the streets and take photos, which are shared on social media, and that’s discrimination against those sex workers.
For two months already we have had a psychologist. It’s very important that when it’s time for hormone therapy, you go to a psychologist and receive some therapy. You will have different sessions with the psychologist. We also have transgender people who are being discriminated against from their families, and we have family members that can’t understand the sexual orientation of their relatives, and they go to the psychologist as well. In addition, as a worker and as an activist, sometimes you need to see a therapist. For example, sometimes I feel tired — you want to continue but you can’t because you must think of your mental health. You do a lot of work: you go to the different embassies, the different ministries, the different international organizations, the different meetings, and you talk about the situation in Armenia and you want to solve the problem, but you are already in burnout. So, I sometimes go to our psychologist, as do our workers, our board, transgender families, and sex workers. In Armenia, we focus on these two specific groups — transgender people and sex workers — because they are much more marginalized. Our psychologist can help solve a lot of these problems, though.
Finally, we work on community mobilization too. Every week in our safe space we host different meetings, for example human rights advocacy or lobbying.
I saw that you also have started working on a regional cooperation project with Tbilisi Pride (Georgia) and HPLGBT (Ukraine). Can you tell me more about this venture?
This is the first time our organization, as a transgender organization, has had a cooperation with HPLGBT in Ukraine and Tbilisi Pride in Georgia. We are holding different meetings; hosting three-day workshops about human rights, safety, and security in the LGBTI community; and we are creating a new handbook about activism and human rights by including the community in the development of the book. I hope that it’s the first, but not the end; we must continue our original project. It’s very important to have different partner organizations that help you solve all these issues. For example, we can raise our problems and another organization in a different country can say they have these problems, and we can help each other together.
How has Covid-19 impacted your work?
In Armenia, the government doesn’t reach out to people; society life is a bad situation, and many don’t have work. You can imagine that transgender and LGBTI people have a lot of problems. Right now, in the pandemic situation, transgender people doing sex work aren’t able to continue working. In addition, our society and our employers don’t see transgender people as workers at all because they look different, their voice is different. With the pandemic, they can’t do sex work, they don’t have any money, and they have stayed at home these three, four months and it’s very bad. As a transgender organization we help a lot of transgender people and sex workers who live in Yerevan’s city center and in other villages and regions. We help by distributing food packages, providing masks and clothing, and giving people money for rent. We support the transgender and sex worker community because it is the first point of our work, and in my life too. This assistance was funded by The German Marshall Fund’s Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, Give a Damn Foundation and AFEW International: they have helped us solve many problems in Armenia.
How can readers best support you?
This interview supports us, because we are raising awareness of problems in the LGBTI, transgender, and sex worker communities. It is very important that we can share how it really is in Armenia. Sometimes, when I go to different international meetings in different countries — for example, the UN office — I bring up these problems, but our government sees differently. Right now, as an organization, we give you the truth, because as an NGO, we have a lot of beneficiaries and we see a lot of detrimental hate speech and hate crimes.
Sometimes Armenia and the Armenian government, and different political members in Europe and the USA, say that our country is safe for everyone, but that’s not true. It’s a lie. Right now, there is a lot of discrimination in our society, and different people who work with government ministries discriminate against transgender people. We don’t have original hormones, but transgender people want to continue their life. It’s a problem in Armenia. I want to add that international organizations are needed to help these local NGOs and solve these problems. I can’t imagine it, but if we don’t have any international support, we can’t continue.
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