“The life of a transgender person in Armenia is like a struggle; they are not fighting for a good life, but to preserve that life,” human rights defender and activist Lilit Martirosyan said a year ago, describing the status of transgender people in Armenia. Despite all the difficulties and challenges, she continues to make history in Armenia today, as she announced during her famous speech in the National Assembly of Armenia in 2019.
Almost all information about Lilit Martirosyan, defender of the rights and interests of transgender people, begins with the denomination “first”; she is the co-founder and president of the first and leading non-governmental organization dealing with the protection of transgender people in Armenia and in the region, “Right Side” NGO, the first transgender person to speak from the highest podium in Armenia. She is also at the origin of the first fund dealing with transgender people in the region.
When talking about her activism, Lilit notes that before the establishment of the “Right Side” NGO, there were NGOs dealing with issues of LGBTIQ+ people in Armenia, but it was not enough: “The focus of those organizations was not on the problems of trans people, which requires more specific solution options. The issues and problems of trans people are a little different, that’s why we wanted to establish a special organization dealing with the issues and rights of trans people. As a community-oriented organization, “Rights Side” NGO was created by trans people and for trans people in January 2016,” says Lilit Martirosyan.
Lilit has been engaged in protecting the rights and interests of trans people in Armenia for more than 7 years. Realizing the importance of her work, Lilit says: “Actually, we carry out very responsible and difficult work. I took on the most difficult work and responsibility. Being a public figure and a person who wants to make people’s lives better, I decided to take the main responsibility for those works.”
“Life is given to us only once”
After the well-known speech at the National Assembly, the cases of discrimination, various types of violence, threats of death and “burning alive” Lilit tripled. She was repeatedly subjected to physical and psychological violence. Law enforcement authorities dropped cases of discrimination, violence and threats against her under the pretext of insufficient grounds. However, according to Lilit, the system that was supposed to protect her discriminated against her because she is a transgender woman: “Unfortunately, until today, a part of society, including the police, is unable or unwilling to understand/accept a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation. Discrimination deepens all this even more. Both women, LGBT people and people with disabilities are discriminated against by most of the society,” Lilit notes with regret.
However, the human rights defender is not oppressed by difficulties and injustices and fights against them with all her energy: “Each activist understands very well what they may encounter during their activities. I am very realistic and I know that I can face many dangers as a result of my work. Threats, hate speech, incidents of violence against me continue even now. As an individual I have always tried to find strength in myself so that I can help others. If I, as an activist, weakened and could not continue my struggle, the community will suffer even more and be discriminated against,” says Lilit.
When faced with difficulties and dangers, often the most logical decision for us is to leave a place where it is not safe for us. Lilit, however, firmly says that she is not going to leave Armenia, despite the threats to her life: “I love Armenia very much and I am not preparing to go anywhere. I can’t stay in other countries, something always brings me back to continue my struggle. It was never my intention to leave the country. Yes, I understand that life is given to us only once, there is just so much to do here that you should spend your whole life helping others,” she says in a determined and calm tone.
“Life loves stubborn people”
They say life loves stubborn people. They are probably the people who dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to an idea, do the possible and the impossible to advance that idea. So Lilith and her team, over the years, ignoring the dangers and challenges, always stay true to their idea and vision. Thus, during its activity, the “Right Side” NGO had many significant achievements, which Lilit remembers with pride: “In 2017, thanks to our organization, the entire practice of changing the name in the passport changed. Now that process has become much easier not only for trans people, but for everyone. Before that, there were many bureaucratic processes. Thanks to our proper work, that practice changed, and now the process of name changing in Armenia is very easy,” she emphasizes.
In addition, the organization had a big victory in court two years ago when, for the first time in the history of Armenia, the court accepted that gender-based discrimination had occurred when two trans people were banned from using the gym without any reason.
“For years, we have conducted trans camps, academies, and engaged in human rights activities. Thanks to all these works, hundreds of transgender people now feel safe in Armenia,” says Lilit with a proud smile.
On the big road of “small victories”
As an individual, an activist, Lilit considers her speech in the Parliament of Armenia in 2019 as her personal achievement, which had great visibility and was covered by many prestigious magazines and media platforms around the world: “After the speech, many journalists and media outlets in Armenia no longer use the term “boy in a wig”, “pederast” [a derogatory term for a gay person] or other similar terms, but already use the term transgender, which I consider a great achievement,” she emphasizes.
Lilit Martirosyan also considers the “Human Rights Tulip” prize awarded by the Netherlands government in 2020 as one of her great achievements: “Thanks to that, we now have a safe space for LGBTIQ+ people, their parents, sex workers,” she says, adding that in the future she is thinking about creating other such community centers and expanding the network both in Yerevan and in the regions.
Continuing the series of achievements, Lilit says with a smile: “One of my greatest achievements is having a good relationship with my family, which is a lot of work.”
Global Transgender Foundation
Lilit Martirosyan is now also involved in establishing the first fund dealing with transgender people in the South Caucasus region. She is the chairman of the board of trustees of The Global Transgender Foundation:. “I want to help the Foundation and other structures dealing with trans people to become stronger, have more resources and be able to support trans people. Trans people are excluded from all spheres of life: they cannot finish school, enter university, find a job, because they are discriminated against in all spheres,” she says.
Speaking about the cooperation between the Global Transgender Foundation and the Women’s Fund Armenia, Lilit notes: “Our Foundation had its first meeting with the Women’s Fund Armenia. The entire Women’s Fund team has helped the Global Transgender Foundation team to get established, both through one-on-one meetings and financial support.”
The Global Transgender Foundation will carry out activities in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and a number of other countries. The fund will help both individual trans activists and organizations. The fund has already completed the development of the strategy and the team is moving on to other work phases.
Steps towards new perspectives and changes
Lilit’s vision of changes is primarily due to the security of the state, which, according to her, is currently absent in Armenia. “Your guarantor is the state, in whose territory you should feel safe, harmonious, a full-fledged citizen. All of that is not present at the moment as a result of the war, widespread discrimination, and the inaction of the law enforcement system and state bodies. State-NGOs, state-individual connection should be very strong, as it is in developed, democratic countries. Change depends on increasing democracy. Many trans people, being discriminated against, subjected to violence, not receiving support at the state level, simply leave the country,” she says.
Recently, cases of violence against trans people have increased in Armenia. According to Lilit, although the consequences of the war have a great impact, it is not the only reason: “The impact of war is only 10-15% of all discrimination. The basis is the lack of education. If public schools introduce various topics on sex education, a person will already have certain ideas from school. The elimination of discrimination should start from the schools,” emphasizes the human rights defender dealing with issues of trans people.
According to Lilit Martirosyan, the first important and urgent change is the existence of laws on anti-discrimination and against hate speech in Armenia. According to Lilith, the second important issue that needs an urgent solution is the health of trans people։ “In Armenia, we don’t have a normal endocrinologist, we don’t have a large amount of medicines, there aren’t many varieties of medicines, so that trans people can undergo hormone therapy. There is no law on gender reassignment, and people resort to clandestine sex reassignment, which carries great risks. In addition, there are people who go abroad and perform surgeries, everything should be done within the state, and the economy should also develop that way,” she says.
Lilit also highlights the need for urgent improvements in the law enforcement system, thanks to which trans people will feel protected by the state.
Ways to support trans people
According to Lilit, in order to improve the situation of trans people in Armenia, the organizations and individuals operating in the public sector can provide support in their own field։ “There are areas we cannot reach, for example, we cannot do trainings with the police. This can be done by our supporting organizations that have access and opportunity to work with government agencies. And individual supporters can help based on their professional characteristics, for example, an endocrinologist can offer their services to a trans person,” says the human rights defender.
Speaking about receiving support from the Armenian feminist community, Lilit notes that she cannot talk about the whole community because, she says։ “there are individuals who may not accept a person’s gender identity.”
Turning to the issues of trans-inclusiveness and intersectionality of the Armenian feminist community, Lilit notes։ “Women’s organizations, some feminist groups, activists, in fact, stand by trans people and always protect them. Feminists are also discriminated by society. I consider myself a trans-feminist, and being against the patriarchy, I definitely stand with all people who identify as women.”
March 31 is the International Day of Transgender Visibility. On this day, trans people and supporters speak out about the issues of the trans community, discuss and think about solutions. In the advice of the day, Lilit Martirosyan says։ “We will continue to fight together until we are all safe and protected. I thank all the supporting individuals, groups, NGOs, donors who have been by our side for so many years, trusted us, and we have already implemented many changes in 7 years.”
Interview by Yelena Sargsyan