Davit** can still remember the panic he felt as he got closer to his 18th birthday--and official summons for military service.
Compulsory military service when your homeland is at war would be frightening for any young man. But Davit, an Armenian citizen, faced an additional fear: he was afraid the other soldiers in his unit would torture him for being gay.
Gay, bisexual, trans people who are “outed” in the Armenian army live in constant fear for their safety, according Armine Sadikyan, the coordinator of the Department of Oversight of Defense and Security Sector at Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly—Vanadzor.
"I had a case where I had to go to the military unit and talk to the commander. After being outed, the boy was isolated in a separate room without food and water so that he would not be abused. The commander even told me that they had isolated him and did not even come close to him as if they had acted nobly. The fact that ‘they didn't even beat him’ was already enough for them,” Armine says.
For Davit, the biggest fear was meeting another soldier from his hometown in the army, and rumors would start. He was also afraid of not fitting in and being isolated.
"If my mental health is bad now, I imagine it would be at its worst in the army,” he says. “It was already clear how both the privates and the officers would treat me, if they found out about it. Who knows what would have happened to me, I might not have returned alive.”
Legally, gay, bisexual, and trans people can apply for an exemption from the army under a 2018 government decree. In order to qualify, however, a conscript must admit that they consider their orientation and identity to be an illness. The process is invasive and rarely results in a clean exit, according to lawyers and human rights advocates.
Davit decided to request an exemption based on his sexual orientation, despite the fact he feared what his parents and colleagues would say if they found out.
"I was preparing for the worst... I was afraid that they would kick me out of the house, I thought people at my workplace would find out what I had done,” Davit says. “But at that moment I had one thing in my mind: it is better to work day and night and live alone, than to serve in the army.”
He clearly remembers the day when he received a call from the military commissariat to attend the mandatory medical examination.
When he arrived, he found he couldn’t go through with his plan, however. He visited all the doctors, leaving the psychiatrist for last. When he finally entered the doctor’s office, he could not make himself say the words. In the end, it didn’t matter. After asking several questions, the doctor wrote that David had a neurosis, and sent him to Yerevan to be examined.
First, however, he had to go to a psychiatric hospital in his hometown. He had no choice but to tell the doctors about his orientation. No one mistreated him there, Davit says, adding it was a surprise since he had heard many stories about people who were hit and beaten in the commissariat when they started speaking about being gay.
It was different at the psychiatric hospital in Yerevan. First, he was asked about problems in the family, his parents’ marital status, first sexual relations, male partners, whether he spent more time with his mother or father. Then they called the chief psychiatrist.
"The chief psychiatrist asked me if I thought there were people like me in that psychiatric hospital. I didn't understand what he meant, I just had to say yes," Davit remembers.
The World Health Organization removed transgenderism from the list of mental health problems, but legally, in Armenia, it and homosexuality are still considered a personality disorder. Anyone who claims the status for an exception from military service could be forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital, according to human rights advocates and lawyers.
Luckily for Davit, he was not committed to the hospital. Instead, after several cycles of examinations and questions before committees of doctors, he was released from military service.
"I was ashamed to tell them about my orientation, I was nervous, but at the last moment, when I realized that there was no other option, I forced myself to talk because I knew that I was doing it for my sake," says Davit, adding the process repeated itself seemingly endlessly until a decision was made. " I felt anxious all the time. At the end, they looked at my referral, looked at each other, looked at me, and said, ‘You can go.’ That meant that I got out of service in the military."
But a military discharge for a “personality disorder” can create problems later in life, as well.
For instance, the diagnosis can prevent a person from working in public service or at an educational institution. While the regulation that defines those limitations notes that sexual orientation is not considered a disorder in and of itself, lawyers say there have been cases when a driver's license was refused on the basis of “the diagnosis” and it makes it difficult to serve in a public position or work in educational institutions.
Lawyers and psychiatrists recommend each medical discharge should be investigated by separate medical commissions to understand whether a person with a given diagnosis can perform activities without harming others. However, that rarely happens. A person can request that their case be reopened and undergo a new medical examination,but the purpose is unclear, according to Luiza Vardanyan, a lawyer with Pink Armenia, an organization that advocates for the rights of the LGBTQ community. That means the individual must be ready to be examined and questioned about their homosexuality again. She questioned the point: are they supposed to say that they are no longer gay or that they no longer see homosexuality as a problem?
Chai Khana has contacted the Ministry of Defense for comment on the military’s policy and the allegations of homophobia and mistreatment in the army. It did not respond in time for publication; the article will be updated to include its comment when it responds.
The government is not currently discussing the issue, according to lawyer Luiza Vardanyan, who has conducted research on the army’s policy and the population’s views on gay, bisexual and trans rights in the military.
“We have conducted research on this topic, but after the war, the topic has become highly sensitive and more extensive research is needed,” she says. “We should try to find out society’s view on this issue, learn from international experience, then combine the two and address the government with proposals. Until then, we will help people who have faced discrimination during military conscription or were subjected to violence in the army.”
Other organizations are doing the same: the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly—Vanadzor reports it receives three or four calls during every draft. Human rights advocates
provide advice on what laws regulate this issue and how they can protect their personal rights when dealing with the military commissariat. Pink, the human rights organization, reports one to three cases of violence during the call up and in the army every year, but warn the number does not reflect the true picture, as people are usually too afraid to speak out.
Davit was also afraid to tell anyone his plans to request a discharge due to his sexual orientation. When his family asked about his military status, he told them he was deferred for three years due to a “neurosis”. But his mother went to the military commissariat to see his file. Although it is illegal to reveal the personal data of an adult, she eventually saw the final referral.
"Mom used to blame me, she would say that it was such an embarrassment to read the ‘diagnosis,’ she couldn’t look the commander in the eyes. She was also worried what other people would think if they found out about it,” he says.
“I know that one part of her is happy that I am now in a safe place, the other part is worried about the family's reputation… I don’t think that I have blackened their name. I care about them, but I did not want to go and put my life in danger.”
**Chai Khana is not using his real name to protect his identity.
The story is produced with the help of Unit, a network of journalists and activists who work with LGBTIQ+ topics.