Written by Palko Karasz
She walked to the lectern in Armenia’s National Assembly to denounce the crimes committed daily against her community. The woman, Lilit Martirosyan, 28, said she embodied those people who are “tortured, raped, kidnapped, subjected to physical violence, burned, immolated, knifed, subjected to murder attempts, killed.”
The presentation this month, less than three minutes long, seemed pertinent on a day in which the assembly had convened hearings on human rights.
But Martirosyan was speaking of transgender people, and the backlash was sudden and fierce.
“You have violated our agenda,” shouted Naira Zohrabyan, who leads the assembly’s committee on human rights.
Zohrabyan had given the floor to Martirosyan just moments earlier, but it appeared she was unaware that Martirosyan was transgender and was going to speak about gender-based violence and discrimination.
Zohrabyan, a member of the conservative opposition Prosperous Armenia party, accused Martirosyan of disrespecting the assembly and the defense of human rights.
Since then, Martirosyan and her organization, Right Side, which campaigns for the rights of transgender people in Armenia and the Caucasus region, have received dozens of death threats by telephone and in person, according to Max Varzhapetyan, a Right Side activist.
“Our community is living in fear. They don’t go out to walk, to shop,” Varzhapetyan said in a phone interview Friday.
In abusive videos posted online, Varzhapetyan said, people dressed in military uniforms declared that they would find transgender activists and kill them. Local news media published home addresses for Martirosyan and her co-workers. Someone attached an Armenian flag to Martirosyan’s home.
She has reported the threats to the police, and the group has deleted most of its social media presence.
The U.N. office in the capital, Yerevan, which had co-sponsored the human rights hearing, called on Armenian authorities to investigate and prosecute all crimes and harassment, saying it was concerned about the “recent rise in hate speech and threats of violence against human rights and LGBTI activists.”
Martirosyan, believed to be the first transgender woman to have spoken in the assembly, told the lawmakers that transgender people were subjected to discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives.
“If you take 283 as the number of transgender people in Armenia whose rights were violated, then, for me, it means that there are 283 criminals in Armenia living next to me and you,” she said according to a video of the speech widely shared on social media. Martirosyan was referring to the number of cases her group had documented between 2016 and 2018.
“And who knows,” she said, “maybe the 284th will commit their crime just tomorrow.”
Vartan Ghukasyan, another member of Prosperous Armenia, told reporters later that his party wanted “females to be females and males to be males. You can’t mix female with male. It’s shameful,” according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of a nonviolent protest movement, was elected prime minister last year on promises of sweeping change. Pashinyan has “publicly denounced any threats of violence and hate speech” on “numerous occasions,” a spokesman said in an email.
Still, that has done little to shift attitudes toward sexual minorities in the largely conservative country. A list of European countries by gender rights, compiled by the advocacy group Rainbow Europe, consistently ranks Armenia among the lowest.
Varzhapetyan said Right Side would reopen its office next week.
“We don’t want to hide, we don’t want to show society that we are scared — that is what they want,” Varzhapetyan said. “We are an open community and we are proud. We will fight for our rights and change history.”