The suicide of a young Armenian couple, Tigran and Arsen, has been shrouded in speculation. The reactions to their death have led to questions over the role society and the media plays in deepening the isolation felt by queer people in the country.
Arsen, 16, and his 21-year-old partner, Tigran, took their own lives on 20 October.
Earlier that day, Arsen posted a series of photos on Instagram documenting his relationship with Tigran with the caption ‘happy end’.
The news of their passing surfaced early the next morning, and social media platforms were flooded with responses, particularly on the late Arsen’s Instagram post. Some people expressed sorrow and shared messages of support to Armenia’s queer community, while others resorted to homophobic attacks.
A prominent point of contention in the case was the age gap between the couple; Arsen was a minor, while his partner was five years older. Shortly after the news broke, screenshots surfaced allegedly showing Arsen’s mother commenting on his Instagram post saying: ‘as a minor, you are dead to me’ and ‘it’s better if you die’. The comments were deleted after news emerged of their death.
Later, in an Instagram post, a person claiming to be a close friend of Arsen’s defended his mother and said that she was protecting him from his older partner, whom she accused of influencing the 16-year-old’s decision to commit suicide.
But for many queer people in Armenia, Arsen’s domestic life looked like an all too familiar pattern of abuse. In another screenshot of a conversation, Arsen is seen telling a friend that his phone had been confiscated and that he was confined to his home.
According to posts on social media by a friend of Arsen’s, he had run away from his family prior to his death.
‘Society is sick, not me’
The young couple’s death has elicited mostly negative reactions on social media, but it has also prompted some to come out of the closet, encouraging others not to not pay heed to hateful rhetoric.
‘I love girls: society is sick, not me. That’s all’, one woman wrote on Facebook shortly after the news broke. Some people followed suit and declared their sexual orientations in the comments, while others expressed support.
However, dwarfing the messages in support of Armenia’s queer community were the number of negative posts and comments that praised the couple for taking their own lives, leading many human rights activists to criticise the society’s role in enabling suicidal ideation and self-harm.
‘Unfortunately, it was not surprising to see the public reaction to what had happened’, read a statement from Pink Armenia, a local queer rights organisation.
‘The photos posted by the boys quickly went viral on social media and Telegram channels with hateful and offensive language, mostly continuing to highlight the fact that the boys are gay, which justifies their decision to commit suicide. Many comments even encouraged others to do the same.’
In an interview with OC Media, the organisation’s communications director, Mamikon Hovsepyan, said the media plays a huge role in how cases pertaining to the queer community are received in society. He stressed that only a few media outlets were neutral in their coverage of the case, while others were ‘raising the level of hate in the country’.
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Hovsepyan further stated that there was evidence that 16-year-old Arsen had experienced psychological abuse and ‘probably a different kind of violence’ at home. The activist said that the boy did not have anyone with whom to share details of his life and that he didn’t receive any emotional support from his mother. His circumstances, Hovsepyan believes, might have pushed them to end their lives.
A queer status quo
The news didn’t come as a surprise to Arevik (not their real name), a queer communications specialist from Armenia, who struggled with suicidal ideation and creating a balance between their personal and professional lives.
‘I was in my early 20s when I started thinking about my sexuality’, Arevik told OC Media, adding that they have been in a relationship for years, unbeknownst to people outside the queer community.
‘At some point, you learn to live while hiding your identity.’
Arevik says society creates barriers that are difficult or almost impossible for them to cross as a queer person.
‘In Armenia, one can’t have a successful career while being openly gay’, Arevik argues, adding that families of queer people might also react negatively to their sexual identities or orientations upon coming out.
‘Now only one of my siblings knows about my sexuality, but it took a lot of time for her to to accept me the way I am’, they lamented. ‘Having someone to talk to in such situations can help prevent irreversible actions.’
Currently, Arevik visits a specialised psychologist working with one of the local queer rights groups in Armenia, and says that with consultations, things have become much easier for them.
But despite the work of local queer groups, Armenia still lags behind in terms of queer rights. According to ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Europe, an annual report on the status of queer rights across Europe, Armenia ranks third worst at the end of the scale, with only Turkey and Azerbaijan scoring lower.
Many were hopeful in the direction Armenia was treading following the 2018 revolution. At the time, officials and lawmakers openly supported queer people and discussed ratifying international human rights conventions, such as the Istanbul Convention against violence against women. Lawmakers also discussed adopting anti-discrimination laws.
Armenia’s queer community hit a milestone in 2019, when transgender activist Lilit Martirosyan delivered a speech at the Armenian Parliament in 2019 about the challenges faced by the Armenian transgender community.
However, following the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, the ratification of the conventions and the support for queer people were quietly dropped from the government’s agenda.
‘[The government] made promises from the beginning that the human rights situation should improve in the country’, human rights activist Zara Hovhannisyan told RFE/RL. ‘But we do not see tangible differences and results.’