Azad Sparks: The Fight for Transgender Rights in Armenia with Lilit Martirosyan

Written by Araxie Cass

01 February 2023

CW: This article includes descriptions of anti-LGBTQ+ violence and hate speech. 

This article is part of Azad Sparks: Critical Conversations for the Armenian Community. Azad Sparks is an interview series dedicated to starting transnational conversations on the topics that aren’t often talked about in prevailing Armenian discourse. Here we ask the difficult questions, break the silence on marginalized topics, and build alternative communities.

Lilit Martirosyan is an activist for transgender and other LGBTQ+ rights in Armenia. She is the founder of Right Side NGO, Armenia’s first and only organization dedicated to fighting for transgender rights. She became widely known as a public figure after becoming the first openly trans woman to give a speech in the National Assembly of Armenia in 2019, and has continued to fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ communities in Armenia ever since. I have been inspired by Lilit’s bravery, tireless work, and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds ever since I first saw that speech and began to follow her work. In 2021, I had the opportunity to sit down with her and learn more about her work and her views on the experience of being trans in Armenia. 

Note: This interview was conducted in November of 2021, may not reflect current events and actions.

Araxie Cass: To start, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to start Right Side?

Lilit Martirosyan: I’m a transgender woman, and the founder and president of Right Side Human Rights Defender NGO. Right Side was founded in 2016, and we work in three directions: community mobilization, legal changes, and wellbeing. We have a lot of beneficiaries from different villages or regions, and from Yerevan.

AC: How did you decide to start Right Side?

LM: When we started in 2016, Armenia had LGBTQ+ organizations, but no transgender organizations. As a transgender person, I wanted to help my transgender siblings. We didn’t have any law to protect us. We didn’t have any safe houses. We didn’t have any supporters. We were able to build our organization with support from international organizations, but we don’t have any support from state bodies or our government. 

One of the first projects we did was working with the Ministry of Justice to change the process for legal name changes. Before that, it was very difficult: if a transgender person wanted to change their legal name, they would need three witnesses and a paper application from a psychologist saying that they are transgender. But we worked with the Ministry of Justice to change this, and now the process is very easy. Transgender people can change their name just by filling out the legal application.

We are also doing very important work in the field of education. In universities and schools, people don’t have any knowledge or understanding about gender identity and sexual orientation. This means that transgender people are often left out of universities and schools. We organize educational programs like workshops, trans camps, and roundtables where we invite different ministers, officials, and community members and discuss how we can solve these issues. 

We’re also working on other initiatives like supporting the transgender and sex workers’ community during the COVID-19 pandemic, documenting cases of hate crimes and hate speech, and a book that includes fifteen personal stories of transgender people in Armenia. 

AC: You mentioned the issues of education for transgender people and sex workers. In general, are people in the transgender community able to access education?

LM: I only know one or two transgender people who have been able to finish university here in Armenia. People often face a lot of discrimination and bullying from the teachers and students, which prevents them from finishing school. In addition, if teachers in the villages suspect that a child’s gender identity or sexual orientation is different, they often call the child’s family and say that the child is transgender or LGBTQ+ person. So the difficulty comes from all sides, both people at school and family members. 

Many transgender people leave their villages to try and find work in Yerevan. But even in Yerevan, businesses won’t give job opportunities to transgender people. So they face discrimination in terms of jobs too. 

Many people do sex work, but this is very dangerous too. For instance, there will be three or four transgender women sharing one small apartment and doing sex work. And they will face brutal beatings from different clients. 

AC: It seems like there are so many instances of hate crimes and violence against transgender people. What do you do at Right Side to protect people or help to document those instances? 

LM: First of all, I’m a human rights defender. Sometimes transgender people will message me on Instagram or Facebook to ask for help. And at Right Side, we have Vahe, our attorney and mobilizer, as well as other volunteers. If a transgender or LGBTQ+ person faces discrimination, they can call our office number for help. Then our attorney will go to police stations, different courthouses to advocate for them. We document every case, and at the end of the year we publish a report of all cases of discrimination and violence against transgender and LGBTQ+ people.

Vahe and I also organize educational meetings for the transgender community about how they can defend their rights in police stations and courthouses.

AC: You mentioned your own role as the defender. You’ve taken a very sort of public role as a face of the transgender community, especially after giving your speech in Parliament in 2019. What has that been like for you?

LM: After my speech in Armenia’s National Assembly I faced discrimination, hate speech, and hate crimes. After my speech, everyone was talking about it, and people even started to protest against me. The nationalist groups had different lines about how they want to kill me and all other transgender people. And right now they’re still free. The police rejected all my cases, saying that it’s not real. “If they do kill you, we will believe it,” is what they told me. It was a shock for me to see these protests against me and LGBTQ+ people in the streets. Priests started saying that they wanted to clean the room of the National Assembly and even burn the stand that I stood on. 

It was very dangerous for me at the time. Sometimes when I opened my windows I would see these black cars lurking around. The nationalist groups knew my apartment number and put an Armenian flag on my apartment building. I moved to another apartment, but I had to leave the country with my family members and colleagues because if I stayed in Armenia I might have been killed. I didn’t have any supporters except for LGBTQ+ organizations like PINK Armenia and some international organizations. Some European embassies supported me too, and the French ambassador helped me and my family get visas to go to Europe. 

In the airport, people were taking photos of me, and when I checked my phone, my friends who stayed here sent me the news. The nationalist groups and other party members posted the photos on Facebook saying that Lilit Martirosyan left the country with her family members. 

I stayed in France for a while, but I returned to Armenia. There were a lot of international defenders who invited me to stay in France or the Netherlands as a refugee. But I rejected it because as an activist, I need to be present in Armenia to solve the issue in Armenia. So I came back after ten days. 

Since then, I still face discrimination and hate speech on different social platforms and throughout my life. But I need to be here to continue to support my siblings in the LGBTQ+ community. If you read the book, you can see that every moment of every day, transgender people are facing discrimination and hate speech in different areas of life. We have a lot of refugees who have fled from Armenia to the US or European countries. I have one friend in the Netherlands who said that she lives in a very bad situation as a refugee there, but in Armenia it was even worse. 

AC: It seems so difficult, and there’s so many things working against you, especially with such a visible position as a leader in the community. How do you take care of yourself and keep yourself going?

LM: Frankly speaking, it’s very hard work. It’s very difficult to openly speak about LGBTQ+ issues. Sometimes, I need a psychologist, I need recovery, I need anti-burnout rest. Our workers at Right Side are dedicated to the mission. Some days we work eleven or twelve hours. We are a small NGO with a small team, so we have a lot of work to do. From the roundtables to workshops, legal support, legal changes, visiting ambassadors…it’s a lot. 

As a Christian transgender person, I am empowered by my faith in God. My faith inspires me to continue my work. I believe that God has helped me solve many issues, because God loves a lot of people. It’s good work to help people. I am a Christian, but I never say to burn this person because they are different from me. But in our society, some people go to church and afterwards say that we must burn this person because they’re not the same as us. They don’t want to see that LGBTQ+ people go to church, go to the shops, and do normal things just like they do. 

AC: I love that you bring that perspective, because religion is used so often against like LGBTQ+  people.

You mentioned earlier how COVID-19 has affected marginalized populations, including transgender people. Can you share more about that?

LM: It’s been hell for our transgender people. When it started, and still now, there are many transgender people who do sex work. So when everything closed down, there was no way for them to get clients, money, or any resources to support themselves. But they still had to pay for rent, utilities, food, and other expenses like hormones and other medical care. We didn’t have any support from our government. 

People forget that transgender people live in and help our country. For example, our organization brings in money from different international organizations donors and spends it in Armenia. We pay taxes, we help the army. We work to support our government and our country, but we never get any support, or even any effort to understand our identities as LGBTQ+ people. We have many homophobic and transphobic people in our National Assembly, but there are no LGBTQ+ people who can speak about our issues. Because of this, there are no laws to protect us: no  anti-discrimination law, no hate speech law, no hormone therapy law, no surgery law. 

In Armenia, we transgender people don’t even have access to necessary medical resources like original hormones or endocrinologists who will work with transgender people. 

AC: What do transgender people often do for gender-affirming medical care since it’s so difficult to get in Armenia?

LM: With support from international organizations, we were able to do a project to help people access resources for gender-affirming care. Since we don’t have an endocrinologist who works with transgender people in Armenia, we got in contact with one from Ukraine who helped our transgender people consult and find the hormones they need online since we don’t have them in Armenia. 

It’s also illegal to do gender-affirming surgery in Armenia, but at the same time, you must have an operation in order to change your legal gender marker. It’s a very difficult situation.

AC: Absolutely. I’ve also heard that the situation in Armenia has become worse for marginalized communities since the war in 2020. Is that something that you and your community have experienced?

LM: Yes. After the war—right now—Armenia is not interested in LGBTQ+ issues. Everyone says that we must solve the war situation first. The government won’t answer any of our emails or respond to our advocacy. 

It’s been especially difficult since the war because the LGBTQ+ community has been experiencing more hate speech. People will say, my son died in the war but you as an LGBTQ+ person stay and walk Armenia’s streets

AC: But you’re not allowed to go to the army, are you?

LM: I always say that as soon as the government provides security for LGBTQ+ people in the army, I will be the first to go and defend my country. But if we are facing hate speech and hate crimes in Armenia, can you imagine what happens when transgender people and LGBTQ+ people go to the army?

These days, all of our cases are rejected from the police and the courthouses. How can transgender and LGBTQ+ people feel at home in Armenia? Sometimes I hear people in my community saying that if Europe opened their borders, they would take their passport and baggage and live as a refugee somewhere else. It’s hard to find any LGBTQ+ person who would stay here because there are no opportunities for us. No school, no university, no freedom to walk in the streets and shops, nothing. 

They say it’s not a life. It’s not a life when we bring up our issues over and over again and get nothing. They say, we want to continue living. 

AC: I know you have so many obstacles ahead of you and so many issues to solve. What successes have you seen with your organization and with your work? 

LM: First, we help a lot of transgender access gender-affirming medical care, such as hormones. Second, we provide psychological support to our transgender and LGBTQ+ community. Third, transgender people can feel safe knowing that they have an attorney who can support and help when they have a problem. 

Fourth is our academic program. [In 2021] we ran our first academic program, and we got 155 applications. Unfortunately we were only able to take only 22 participants. We also ran our transgender camps in winter and summer. 

There’s also the work we did with the Ministry of Justice in 2017 to change the process for changing your name in your legal passport. A few years ago, we also had a legal victory in a case where three transgender people went to a gym and the gym director barred them from entry. We won a legal victory in our nation’s court, and it was a first in Armenia. Now other organizations and other people can use the victory and solve similar problems. 

Right now we are working with PINK Armenia to make it easier for people to change the legal gender marker in their passport. 

Finally, in 2020 I won the Dutch Human Rights Tulip Award. I spent the award money to buy a  new safe space for transgender and LGBTQ+ people. For the first time in Armenia, we have our own safe space.