First Armenian Transgender Woman at the National Assembly of Armenia – the Story of Lillit Martirosyan
I am Lillit Martirosyan, an Armenian transgender woman and an activist, founder and president of a human rights defender NGO – Right Side, in Armenia. Our organization is the first and only transgender organization in Armenia. Much like Georgia, Armenia is a Christian, heteronormative country and it’s difficult to fight for the transgender and LGBTQ+ rights and address the existing issues. It’s hard for our society to understand gender identity and sexual orientation. At the moment, LGBTQ+ rights are in a very bad situation. We don’t have an antidiscrimination law, a hate speech law, or just any law to protect transgender people.
Historic Speech at the National Assembly of Armenia
I gave a speech in 2019 at the National Assembly of Armenia. This was a historical moment. I’m the first transgender person that stood at the National Assembly of Armenia and spoke about LGBTQ+ issues and dared to raise my voice for the trans community, not only in Armenia but in the whole world. Quite a few media representatives (The Guardian, The New York Times) and international platforms wrote about my speech,
My public speech was followed by a difficult time. I had to face extreme homophobia from the Armenian society, there were even daily protests against me. Different nationalistic groups threatened to muder me, to burn me because I’m a transgender person that stood at the National Ansambly and spoke about LGBTQ+ issues, They [far-right movement] shared my home address on social media and put an Armenian flag near my apartment. Even now, I can’t go out in public without a mask or sunglasses because they could recognize me.
After my speech, the France ambassador offered me to leave Armenia because my life was in danger, but I refused. I stayed because I don’t want to be a refugee. My activism is here, in Armenia. And I want to do my best here, in Armenia. I can’t be happy outside of Armenia, my heart belongs to my community, and I know that if I leave, they will still be here in Armenia, and their situation will stay the same. There has to be at least one person, who can fight for their rights and help them.
Before my speech, many Armenians were lacking information on gender identity or sexual orientation, they believed that a transgender person was simply a gay men who dresses like a woman. I work with lots of transgender people and many have said that after my speech, they have noticed that the visibility and awareness has increased in the society. More people and social platforms now know about transgender issues. But this is not enough.
Differences between the Georgian and the Armenian society
There are so many similarities between the Georgian and the Armenian society. The LGBTQ+ groups in both countries people face aggression and homophobia from the church. They refuse to accept people with different sexual orientations or gender identities. They say: “if you want to stay in Caucasus you have to be “normal”; These countries don’t belong to LGBTQ+ people.”
When it comes to LGBT+ problems, there isn’t much difference between the Armenian and the Georgian society: we both face discrimination from the government, from the church, and from the homophobic society. I know that during elections in Georgia, many political parties use homophobic campaigns to get the votes. It’s the same in Armenia.
However, in a way, Georgia is still a better country for LGBTQ+ people than Armenia. It’s because we depend on Moscow, Russia: Armenia chose to go to the Russian way, but you, the people of Georgia, somehow managed to go to the European way. There is still hope for you.
Right Side NGO – the first transgender organization in Armenia
Right Side NGO has solved a few problems in Armenia. When our organization was founded in 2016, there were a lot of challenges that the LGBTQ+ society was facing at the moment, but we decided to focus on trans rights. Through the cooperation with the Armenian ministry of justice, we were able to change the practice by which the name of a person can be changed in a legal passport. Before that, if a transgender person wanted to change their name (not the sex) in the passport, they needed to go to the ministry of justice with three witnesses and a document from a psychologist that would confirm that they are indeed a transgender person and their name needs to be changed in the passport.
We are now working on simplifying the gender-changing process in legal passports. The next step is an anti-discrimination law and a hate speech law. There are many other problems, such as employment. Transgender people can’t find decent jobs in Armenia, no one wants to hire them. It’s also very difficult for transgender individuals to finish school and get proper education.
When the Covid-2019 pandemic started, the Armenian government closed all the borders. Sex workers lost not only clients, but also their homes, since they had no money to pay rent, utilities. Our organization provided financial aid for sex workers to pay their rent, as well as some food in these difficult times.
We also have numerous workshops and seminars for LGBTQ+ people and their family members; we organize roundtables for politicians, for people from hospitals and community members to educate them and show them our research about hate crimes and other LGBTQ+ issues.
Living in Armenia as a transgender person and future plans
Living in Armenia as a transgender person means that you have to spend your whole life fighting. Transgender people don’t protest for a better life, they do it simply to stay alive. We are victims of discrimination on a daily basis. It is impossible to anywhere without facing some type of discrimination. Cafes, bars, pharmacies – are all full of homophobes. They don’t want to see any other identities except for a male and a female, they refuse to admit that trans people are also people.
When EU opens their border for the Armenian people, I know that all the LGBTQ + people will go there and stay as refugees. The Caucasian region isn’t for LGBTQ+ individuals. It’s so stressful for us to fight for our rights, we often feel very tired and experience burnout. Many transgenders don’t live with their families. They leave their homes in order to survive and often the only way for them to survive is by doing sex work. They have no other choice. Change is really hard in our country.
As I said before, We don’t have an antidiscrimination law and a hate speech law, this is the main challenge for Armenian activists nowadays. We don’t have any laws or any social services that could provide transgender persons with hormones, we don’t have a professional endocrinologist who works with the pre-transition process; we also do not have a doctor, who can work with surgeries and we don’t have a law about surgery. But the main problem is the society that constantly discriminates against LGBTQ+ people Armenia.
I am planning on staying here in Armenia and helping not only Armenian LGBTQ+ people, but anyone who experiences oppression. I believe that every person has a special mission. My mission is to help this country and continue activism. I love my country and I only want what’s best for it. I know that leaving this place will solve all of my problems, but I choose to stay here and fight for a better Armenia, where everyone is accepted, despite their gender and sexual orientation.
Author – Zura Abashidze