Caught in Forced Binary: Struggles of Trans* People in Armenia Amidst War

Author: a. n.

“LGBT people in Armenia continue to face harassment, discrimination, and violence; the criminal code does not recognize animus due to sexual orientation or gender identity as aggravating criminal circumstances in hate crimes,” according to the Human Rights Watch Armenia World Report (2023). At the same time, the 2023 annual report of the Human Rights Defender (2024) states that “[In the Armenian] society, intolerance towards LGBT people, homophobic and transphobic ideas are quite widespread.” According to the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance Fifth Report on Armenia (2023), transgender persons’ access to healthcare is disturbing “due to the lack of a legal framework” and “competent medical specialists on gender reassignment surgery and hormonal therapy.” Overall, LGBTQI+ people are acutely marginalized in Armenia, lacking a proper legal framework for their protection and access to basic healthcare, particularly gender-affirming care.

Armenia has been in military conflicts since the collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991. All three major wars, with co-occurring casualties of different sizes, were around Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), a territory formerly vastly populated by ethnic Armenians. The Nagorno-Karabakh 1994 war resulted in Armenian control of the region, while the 2016 war had an inconclusive outcome. It was the 2020 war that led to the forced displacement of around 120,000 Armenians who, in 2023, after ten months of a blockade in a humanitarian crisis with “acute shortages of food, medications, hygiene products, and other essential supplies to the region” (Human Rights Watch (HRW), 2023), were forcibly displaced from their homes by the Azerbaijani government. The most vulnerable of all - transgender* people - got no attention or care from either Armenia or NK. While the war affected every civilian, trans* people, pressured to hide their identities for years, faced unique challenges of an intersectional kind - being disadvantaged based on not only their ethnicity but also gender, sexuality, and class. In the new setting, NK trans* people seeking refuge or a place to stay were marginalized to the point of choosing between their gender and economic status and personal safety, yet again postponing the potential of living somewhat openly about their identities in more secure (still deeply transphobic) urban communities. At the same time, the Armenia-based trans* community faced militarization-related harassment and violence throughout the wars and the periods in between. The new reality of an abolished NK state and Armenia on the horizon of a new war robs the already little attention from the needs and issues of the NK and Armenian trans* communities, with the period before and after the conflict leaving them on endless public doomsday of violent criticism and harassment. War forces an impossible binary choice on trans* people in Armenia.

    In September-October of 2023, about 120,000 Armenians were forcibly displaced by Azerbaijan from NK. Major humanitarian organizations did not seem to provide any additional help to trans* people; as Sandra Smiley, a public health professional and humanitarian aid worker, says, “Many organizations operate on the belief that transgender people constitute a number too small to merit attention, as little data is collected on transgender populations, in humanitarian contexts and others” (Smiley, 2020). The main challenge for Armenian CSOs to reach trans* people was that “invisibility can be a deliberate strategy employed by transgender people as a means to achieve and maintain safety in societies where they are marginalized” (Smiley, 2020). Thus, queer organizations implemented different strategies to address the situation effectively, including accessing the network of queer people and activists to reach forcibly displaced people and publicly provide social support programs for LGBTQ+ people and their relatives. It has only been about six months since September 2023; it might be too early to expect trans* people to start getting involved in the queer feminist movement or attend safe spaces in Armenia, which prevents the current paper from including (previously) NK based trans* people's experience.

In the Armenian context, every citizen assigned male at birth, including trans women and nonbinary persons, is called to mandatory military service. However, if one comes out during the medical examination, they can be exempted from serving in the Armenian armed forces. The examination is quite traumatic for queer folks. Anne, a trans woman based in Gegharkunik marz (province), passed the commission in her hometown. She feared the military personnel could leak her sensitive information to her parents or use that information to damage her family’s reputation. When it was time for her to come out to the psychiatrist, she only showed her self-harm marks to get the doctor’s referral and avoid directly coming out around other doctors and male draftees. As she put it, “It’s your first and last time to tell them about your identity; it’s very pressuring.” If she had not tried to get a referral to the mental health clinic, she might have been serving in the army now, facing severe transphobia. After she got the referral, she went to a mental health clinic, where, too, her privacy was not much respected, with a nurse and other medical staff occasionally entering the room; still, she preferred it over the military commissariat. After a few bureaucratic procedures, Anne finally got a three-year postponement from military service. This experience is quite common among trans* people in Armenia. (A similar process applies to gay men (Mangasaryan, 2022)). So, trans* people must choose between taking the risk of potential leakage of their sensitive information and being exempted from the army.

While the temporary and likely later permanent military service exemptions, arguably, prevent queer militarization and harassment in the armed forces, trans women and nonbinary people are still viewed according to their sex assigned at birth when a war emerges against Armenia. This was the case during the 2020 war. Hayk, a Yerevan-based nonbinary person, states they could not cross the country because of their assigned gender, although they, too, were exempted from the military due to their sexuality. After 2020, they have considered other options for exiting the country before a potential war, including leaving everything and everyone behind in Armenia and escaping to their friend’s place in Georgia. The situation in Armenia is similar to that in Ukraine, where, according to Kateryna Farbar, Ukraine correspondent at openDemocracy, “men aged 18 to 60 are forbidden from leaving the country,” thus, some trans women, too, legally deemed as males, may be subjected to harassment and prevented from fleeing the state (Farbar, 2023). Regardless of legal exemption from military service, trans* people are still viewed according to their assigned gender in Armenia; thus, in times of war, trans* people are forced to either undergo widely inaccessible gender-affirming therapy and legal procedures to change the gender legal marker in their passport or not be able to leave the country for their own safety.

As is typical of militarized countries, the rapid increase in defense spending is associated with less funding for developing social areas closely linked to gender equality (Elveren & Moghadam, 2019). In the Armenian context, defense spending also focuses on pro-military discourse, such as the nation-army doctrine, which tightly integrates the military and society, as described by Gayane Abrahamyan, a reporter and editor in Yerevan (Abrahamyan, 2017). Thus, less funding in gender equality-related areas also affects the legalization and availability of gender-affirming care (GAC). While the GAC is not criminalized in Armenia, according to law, only legalized medical procedures may be carried out. Thus, the comprehensive GAC is intentionally left out of the list. There are many complex issues related to the lack of availability of GAC in Armenia, including trans* people accessing hormones without a proper examination by an endocrinologist. Luis (not her real name), another region-based trans woman, says she was told by a doctor that although she could take blood tests to determine whether it is safe for her to undergo hormonotherapy, medications, let alone GAC surgeries, are not available in Armenia. Those trans* people who have somehow secured hormonal therapy are at a higher risk of medication shortages as war and military conflicts occur, similar again to the case of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, where “the price of hormone therapy drugs has shot up by 20%” (Farbar, 2023). The absence of peace and continuous military conflicts and wars also prevent Armenia from sustainable development, which is a key factor for trans* people’s access to GAC. Trans* people must have a high economic status if they were, for example, to undergo hormonal therapy. According to Adem Elveren, a social policy professor at Fitchburg State University, and Valentine Moghadam, a sociology professor at Northeastern University, militarization enforces masculinized social order and directly invests resources into creating and sustaining conflicts (Elveren & Moghadam, 2019)․ Allocating resources toward militarization worsens gender inequality and reproduces “masculinized social order,” which negatively affects trans* rights, including access to safety and healthcare.

 According to the UK Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF-UK), “Excessive global military spending feeds into a vicious cycle of societal instability, creating an unsuitable environment to pursue gender equality” (WILPF-UK et al. 2019: 5). Hayk relates to this. They say that in Armenia - a highly militarized and androcentric country - if one is out of man’s image, identity, and look, they are likely to be subjected to different forms of harassment and discrimination. Hayk’s ‘identity change’ and acceptance of their nonbinaryhood happened parallel to the 2020 war, which made them feel even deeper anger toward militarization. They never feel safe in Armenian public spaces and tie this feeling to militarization and war, too. One of the most common verbal harassment Hayk receives is the questioning of their gender identity by males, often asking, “Is that even a man?” or “You cannot know if it’s a girl or a boy.” While the tone and aggressiveness of the comments define their nature, deep down, Hayk feels a bit gender-euphoric about them, sometimes answering with, “Exactly, that’s the point.” Experiencing militarized transphobia in their daily life, Hayk has to be more aware of their surroundings and social behavior to feel less vulnerable. Aram Amirbekian, a journalist focused on conflict resolution and queer issues in South Caucasus, says that “in a system where men’s primary function is to be soldiers and protect the homeland and women’s primary function is to give birth to “future soldiers,” there can be no conversation about breaking the gender binary or questioning heteronormativity” (Amirbekian, 2024). When thinking about militarization-linked violence, Hayk also mentioned 28-year-old trans woman Adriana, who was brutally murdered in her own apartment in Yerevan, as reported by Right Side NGO, a trans and sex workers community-based organization (Right Side, 2023). The killing of Adriana was the last point for Hayk to stop associating themself with Armenia; they were too helpless and frustrated to continue living in Armenia. Hayk says that after Adriana’s murder, they felt an even more hostile attitude from society - more stares and harassment in public spaces. In deep sorrow, they now made the decision to flee to Germany. They cannot tolerate harassment and discrimination anymore. Although they say they would most likely not find the type of friends and make connections like those they have in Armenia, they cannot continue feeling unsafe literally at all times. Overall, nonbinary people, too, are subjected to harassment and violence typical of militarized countries; they are made to choose between tolerating everyday harassment and leaving the country.

On the other hand, there are Armenian trans* women who struggle with finding the “right” balance between their national and gender identities. Luis says she is a patriotic trans woman who is not always welcomed in places she calls home. Because of how society views her, she develops an inner conflict between her Armenianness and transness. As she says, “Queer Armenians exist!” While exempted from military service, having passed a commission similar to Anne's, her close friend participated in the 2020 war. The 44 days of the war were “the worst days in her life.” She had internalized hatred during the war. Knowing she could not serve in the military because of her identity, she still felt helpless and guilty for her male peers fighting in the army. She recalls losing weight and appetite during the war, insomnia, and headaches. Before the 2020 war, the idea of Armenian queerphobia was somewhat hidden, Luis says, but after the war, when people had lost their family members and friends, mostly straight cis men, she noticed more hatred toward her. As Amirbekian writes, whenever the issues of queer people are discussed, they are shut down by the nationalist rhetoric along the lines of “queer people are the reason our army is not as strong as it should be” (Amirbekian, 2024). Luis understands the layers of generational transphobia, not taking away the accountability for it; she thinks there is a lack of education on queerness in Armenia. For her own safety, she tries to “pass” - look as cis as she can - though she loves her gender identity and says she would “never choose to be born differently.” But, unfortunately, like Hayk, she cannot imagine a future with her career choice and the inaccessibility of gender-affirming care in Armenia. She is soon going to leave Armenia, and after undergoing GAC, she may never be able to return home. War and militarization exacerbate transphobia, pushing trans* people choose between their authenticity and homeland.

Lastly, the recent wars in Armenia give rise to the ultra-right movements and, possibly, government in the near future. Trans* people in Armenia do not only have to be aware of their surroundings all the time and be cautious about the public places they go to avoid verbal, physical, or sexual harassment, but they also need to be informed and active citizens when it comes to politics, as it can directly impact their everyday, already poor living conditions and rights. Sona Baldrian, a Yerevan-based independent researcher, writes, “Political uncertainty and economic deprivation can serve as an opening for right-wing ideologies and parties to prosper and find solid constituencies […] highly politicized public can be a breeding ground for conspiratorial thinking and anti-intellectualism, giving rise to militarism, ethnonationalism, and various stripes of right-wing ideologies [in Armenia]” (Baldrian, 2023). In 2019, after Lilit Martirosyan, a trans woman and the founder of Right Side NGO, made a speech against transphobia and discrimination in the Armenian parliament, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quoted BHK lawmaker Vartan Ghukasian saying, “You can't mix female with male. It's shameful;” Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesperson for the former ruling Republican Party (HHK), stated, “Under the HHK, a transgender person would not have delivered a speech in the National Assembly,” and similar statements (RFE/RL, 2019).  If ultra-right powers, such as the previous ruling elites, known for their deeply transphobic narratives, come to power anytime in the near future, then the little progress made for the rights of the trans* community will suffer significantly more. Essentially, trans* people are forced to choose between the security of their state, which might be possible under more right-leaning political parties, and their gender identity. 

In conclusion, after the 2020 war and the forced displacement of around 120,000 ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh in 2023, trans* people’s needs have been neglected by the government and the communities they live in. Starting from the military medical commission, trans* people are made to choose between binary options - either taking the risk of being outed or going to the army. Even if out of the military service based on gender or sexuality, trans* people have to choose between undergoing inaccessible gender-affirming care and changing the gender legal marker in the passport or being trapped in a war zone, as deemed male by the state. Militarization and wars severely affect trans* people’s rights and access to gender-affirming care. Nonbinary people, like trans women, are made to choose between tolerating everyday harassment or leaving the country. And lastly, trans* people are forced to choose between their preferred politics that might guarantee the safety of their country and their gender identity and personal safety. Trans* people striving for liberation from the binary gender system are caught in forced binary decision-making that deprives their freedom of choice.


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