27 years old Ohannes Kalayjian was born and raised just outside of New York City to Armenian-American parents who immigrated from Syria. He studied Political Science and Philosophy at the State University of New York, Buffalo State where he focused on Political Theory and researched the effectiveness of narcotic policy. He first came to Armenia in 2001 and in his most recent trip interned with PINK via the Birthright internship program to help fight for LGBT rights in Armenia.
I was born and raised in New York to an Armenian-American family who immigrated from Syria. I grew up hearing my father remind us that one day we will return to the motherland. I must admit when I was a child I thought this was foolish and unrealistic. I had many reasons for my skepticism but the deepest reason was one I never expressed out loud. I am a gay Armenian. If you asked most people in the diaspora community, they’d probably say those two things do not belong together and that is exactly how I felt. “How?” I wondered, could I go to Armenia when I barely feel acceptance in New York from my own family. New York has a reputation of liberal modernity and in most cases this is true, but when you’re born to an immigrant family none of that matters. You may find support in friends and sometimes relatives but you know deep down that the people who raised you won’t accept you and this shapes your self-image often negatively.
As of this writing I am finishing my fourth and longest stay in Armenia. My previous trips were brief, lasting no longer than three weeks. My first two trips I was not out about being gay not to my parents or relatives or even friends and I wouldn’t dare consider telling someone in Armenia that I’m gay. This last trip though something magical happened. I came, not to vacation but to live here and volunteer. I chose PINK Armenia because I wanted to help and connect with the LGBTQI+ community of Yerevan. Frankly I wasn’t sure what to expect before I arrived at PINK but what I found was something that I always needed but I didn’t realize until after I arrived.
Within the walls of PINK Armenia lies an oasis of acceptance, an island of understanding, a sanctuary from oppression. Outside their walls you must not acknowledge your identity but pretend that you are what people expect you to be, but in PINK for the first time in my life I was exactly who I am: a gay Armenian. It is ironic that in such a repressive culture I found a place that allowed me to finally accept all parts of my identity. At PINK I could be gay, I could be Armenian, I could be myself!
Every morning I’d wake up excited to go to work because I was with people who understood me, who accepted me and loved me. The saddest part of each day was when I had to leave this “oasis of acceptance” and step back onto the streets of Yerevan and try to conform to behaviors expected by people here. The difference between when I was first in Armenia and now is that even though I remain closeted when I leave PINK, I carry the acceptance PINK gives me in my heart every day on the streets of Yerevan. The acceptance gives me strength, confidence, and puts my mind at ease knowing I have a community and that I can love myself for who I am.
It is paradoxical that I would find myself feeling more acceptance here in Armenia than back in New York, but on the other hand it makes a lot of sense. My parents raised me to think of myself as Armenian first, everything else second. I think it is because of how they raised me that I needed to find somewhere to be Armenian and Gay at the same time and PINK gave me this gift. Armenia has a lot of political and social troubles and many of them will not be easily addressed but I rest a little more comfortably every night knowing that LGBTQI+ Armenians have an organization like PINK fighting for them every day.