“Love and Loyalty”: Marriage in secret, in an environment of fear

Harut and Misha got married in Echmiadzin last Sunday. In case you don’t know, those are both men’s names. Harut and Misha are gay.

Of course, it was a symbolic ceremony, as the Armenian Apostolic Church does not condone gay marriages. They exchanged rings in the church and staged a small wedding party at a restaurant with Misha’s mother and their friends. They came from Paris especially to exchange vows in Echmiadzin.

Both grew up in environments – one here and one abroad -- where homosexuals are not only disapproved, but despised. They say they were connected by love and wanted to express it in Armenia’s holiest site.

Misha Meroujan, 35, left Yerevan in 1994, after he could no longer tolerate the intolerance toward homosexuals in Armenia.

At the age of 15 he understood that he was gay and suffered from the contradiction of the dominant ways of life and the conflict of his desires.

“I was raised in a strictly Armenian, rabiz (considered low culture), traditional family. When I was still a child I wanted to get away from home.” He left for Russia to study and felt a little freer there. He returned and his parents wanted to arrange a marriage for him.

“I felt I had three options: the first was to get married, the second was to lead a secret life, the third was suicide. I chose a fourth – to leave the country.”

Before leaving for France, even in Russia, Misha thought that his sexuality was an illness. He could not put up with his sexuality: “I considered myself guilty, abnormal, deviated, defective. I was aspiring to become normal. I forced myself to sleep with girls to become normal for everyone. No matter how hard I tried, I could not do it, and suffered even more. And on the contrary, I felt myself dirtier when I slept with a girl and more normal when I slept with a guy. I began to look at my situation more calmly in Europe and understood that I had no problems; the problem was not in me, but it was in Armenia.”

In 2001, he founded the Armenian Gay and Lesbian Association, AGLA, (www.agla.info), and through its website Harut found Misha.

Harutyun Zhonzhikian, 38, was born in Beirut, into a family of a Dashnaktsutyun party member. As a child he moved to Paris together with his family. In his adolescence, when his being homosexual became clear, his parents decided that their son was ill and took him to different psychiatrists:

“My father told one psychiatrist: ‘My son is a homosexual, that’s why we’ve come. I want him to be treated not to lose his life, to be a man.’ The doctor got angry and said: ‘I am a homosexual, too, but as you see I have not lost my life’.”

It was important for the family that their son got married (in the traditional sense), that the traditional family had a continuation: “My mother said she wanted me to get married, ‘do what you want on the side, we will not pay attention to that’. Many gays among Armenians get married and do what they want on the side.”

Harut tells that the community in Beirut caught his cousin with a guy, took him to the club and shaved his head and eyebrows, beat him brutally and threw him into the street. Now the cousin is married, but has a gay partner and his wife knows about him.

Harut refused to marry and lead a double life, and left his family. He didn’t see his family for nine years until they accepted his homosexuality. Even his uncle in Beirut, Dashnak leader Hakob Chanchikian, who wanted to take Harut to Beirut to bring him up there, came to Paris and admitted his having treated him wrong and shook his hand.

Harut began to look for Armenian friends. During a Google search he found AGLA. He met Misha in January. “When we met we didn’t know that we would build a relationship,” Misha says. “Later we fell in love with each other so much that neither I nor he was able to work.”

Misha, as he himself says, led “a hooligan life”, changed his partners very frequently. And Harut, on the contrary, had stable ties, he had one partner for nine years, then another for three years: “Harut told me that he was used to stable connections. I had to make a choice. And what – should I have said yes, copying heterosexuals, choose their sad family model? Something inside me was saying ‘no’, but I looked into Harut’s eyes and said: if he wants we should find a way. When you have feelings, you will go to church and exchange rings.”

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Harut is a jeweler and he made the ring that Misha gave him and engraved inside in Armenian: “Love and loyalty.”

Marrying by church was his preference: “I am an Armenian and that’s why I want to get married in Armenia, and as my family taught me, I wanted it to be in church.” He feels sorry that the Armenian church does not accept gays and gay marriages: “I would like the church to change its attitude, it is unfair.”

The couple say they also want to be parents and will perhaps find a lesbian who also would agree to artificial insemination. But the mother, Harut says, must be Armenian.

Until 2003, homosexuality was a crime in Armenia under article 116 of the Criminal Code and a person could be jailed for up to 5 years for having homosexual relations. Under the pressure of the Council of Europe the article was removed, but homophobia remains a national character.

Misha says his mother gradually accepted his sexual orientation. But she asks him to hide it while he is in Yerevan.

“What terrible thing have gays done that they are hated?” Harut asks.

Nevertheless, AGLA played a certain role in changing the attitude towards gays in the Armenian community in Paris. When the organization was established, it was treated with animosity and then they began to tolerate it. “Four years ago when we participated in a demonstration on April 24, they spat at us, but we kept marching without paying heed to it. And then they got accustomed to us,” Misha says.

Misha and Harut want to promote tolerance toward gays in Armenia, too. They help Armenian gays who established an NGO. They did not mention in the statutes of the organization that it is oriented for homosexuals, not to have obstacles in registration and not to become a target for homophobia.

And, as indication of their uneasiness in Armenia, the couple asked that their story not be told until after they had returned to Paris.