May 19, 2017 at 9:57 pm PST | by Thom Senzee
Armenian-American LGBTQ community finds catharsis in The Promise

Charlotte Le Bon, from left, Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale in a scene from “The Promise.” (Photo from “The Promise” website gallery)

When Henrick Vartanian invited Vic Gerami to the Hollywood premiere of director Terry George’s, The Promise, a watershed moment was in the works.

“It is a very significant film since it’s the only…big-budget production which brings the story of the Armenian Genocide to mass audiences, finally and truthfully,” Henrick Vartanian, 46, told the Los Angeles Blade.

Nearly 200,000 Armenian-Americans out of about 460,000 in the United States overall live in Los Angeles County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making L.A. one of the largest Armenian communities outside of Armenia

Vartanian works is a media producer at Brave New Hollywood, an independent production company in Glendale. When the opportunity to attend the premiere arose last month. Taking his pal Vic has a no-brainer.  

Vic Gerami.

“It was important to me to bring a friend, with whom I have more than a few things in common,” he told The Blade during a recent interview.

One commonality he shares with Gerami is a longing to simply hear and see the story his family and his countrymen shared: that of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-18, of which the world has too many Armenians almost willfully unaware for a century.

“Deep inside, as Armenian-Americans, we both wanted to see the story of our ancestors told in our lifetimes—just like our great grandparents wished to, but never did.”

Vartanian says he and Gerami are fortunate as gay men to have grown up in the U.S. He says he in particular as an Armenian from Iran who came to the U.S. in the mid-1980s shortly after the Islam revolution feels particularly lucky to have escaped the threat of persecution that regularly results in murder back home.

“The concept and practice of persecution and discrimination is sadly familiar to us in more ways than one,” he said.

Gerami, manager of events at the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, has been an out-front member of this region’s LGBTQ business community for more than a decade.

“I’m a zero-generation Armenian-American,” Gerami told The Blade. “I arrived in the USA on my fifteenth birthday. My mom passed almost 20 years ago, but my dad and two sisters live in Los Angeles.”

So visible and, frankly, so well-liked within Southern California’s LGBTQ community that it’s hard to imagine him as an outsider. Nevertheless, that’s a description with which he says he’s most familiar.

“Sometimes I feel like cress or celeriac in a salad where I have to constantly explain who I am,” he said. “For the most part, the world doesn’t know who we are, where we come from or other specifics. Sometimes they think we’re Middle-Eastern, sometimes Russian; but we’re neither.”

For the record, Armenia according to the CIA’s World Fact Book, can be accurately classified as a republic in either Europe or the Middle East because it straddles both. The same source notes that Armenia was the first nation in the world to formally adopt Christianity.

Moved by the experience of seeing The Promise, a film about the unwanted crucible of Armenian identity, Gerami waxed emotively on social media after he got home the night he saw the film, an uncharacteristic act for the notoriously mild-mannered 43-year old.

“I was thrilled and shocked,” he said. “I did not expect to have that reaction.”

Anticipation. That’s the word that may best describe both Gerami’s and Vartanian’s feelings about seeing Christian Bale play the role of an Associated Press reporter involved in a love triangle with two Armenian lovers played by Charlotte Le Bon and Oscar Isaac during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. They feel like they’ve been waiting a lifetime for this film.

The Promise also portrays the events that gave rise to modern-day Turkey. It was an advent that caused the slaughter of as many as 1.5 million Armenians and ethnic-Armenian Turks.

“The lasting pain of the genocide has been a generational one, passed down to the children,” Vartanian said. “It’s almost imprinted on our DNA.” 

The Promise had more for him and for his friend Vic Gerami because of who they are, not just as Armenians, but also as Armenian men who happen to be gay.

“Add homophobia and the mistreatment that’s often found in both of our uber-macho societies, American and Armenian, which I think now is creeping back into the fabric of our society today, and you easily identify the familiar sting of an old wound,” Vartanian said. “In our case, for Vic and I, I’d say it’s a [film] with a multi-angled meaning.”

It turns out that the two buddies were not the the only Armenian-Americans in L.A. to recognize a special significance among the intersections of ethnic minorities and people within the Armenian diaspora who are also are members of gender and sexually diverse communities.

“GALAS, as an inseparable part of the Armenian community, held a private screening of the film on its opening night to a sold-out theatre of 130,” said Armen Abelyan, president of Los Angeles-based Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society.

“Our members and allies felt obligated to unite with the greater Armenian community over a shared tragedy,” he said. “The Medz Aghet, as Armenians call the genocide, has been a rallying call to unite Armenians around the world for over a century.”

Claiming a core membership of just under 150 members, but a broader outreach to about 2,300 friends and allies, GALAS is the largest known LGBTQ and allied Armenian-American organization in the U.S.

The Promise’s depicts the enduring power of allies as witnesses who eventually champion a story to find ears and eyes willing to hear and see truth—even if it takes 100 years.

“To have someone like Vic to share this experience with, in a big theater, full of people from all walks of life, while the two of us share a closer connection to each other, and the story unveiling on that silver screen was an emotional, complicated experience I am still digesting, happily—and one I will never forget,” Vartanian told The Blade.

Promises broken…and kept

“President Obama broke his campaign pledge to accurately and unequivocally recognize the Armenian Genocide,” Gerami said, referring to the 44th president’s calling the Armenian genocide a “mass atrocity” during his meeting with authoritarian president Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“This was a huge disappointment for me as an Armenian-American who considers [President Obama] one of our greatest presidents. He succumbed to threats and bullying by the Turkish government, a so-called NATO ally, and played politics as usual.”

In remarks delivered while accepting the prestigious ANCA Freedom Award presented by the Armenian National Committee of America, author and international human rights activist, Fethiye Çetin included gay men and other gender and sexually diverse minorities, as well as women and Kurds living in the crosshairs of Turkish president, as most vulnerable Erdoğan’s regime.

“The Republic of Turkey, which bases its foundation on the atrocity and violence of the genocide, sustains itself by producing fear and threats and by creating expendable and disposable lives,” Çetin said.

“Yesterday the expendable lives were those of the Armenians,” she continued. “Today, Kurds, women, LGBT people and members of the opposition meet the same fate.”

For Vic Gerami, there’s a clear connection between the struggle for LGBTQ equality and the denial of the Armenian Genocide, though he’s quick to note they’re on different scales.

“The LGBTQI community’s refusal to accept anything less than ‘marriage equality,’ and not settling for ‘domestic partnership’ or ‘same-sex union,’ is important,” he said.

“Similarly the Armenian community’s insistence on ‘Armenian Genocide,’ dismissing evasive phrases such as, ‘Armenian massacres,’ or great atrocities of World War I’ are absolutely crucial to making sure crimes against humanity are not allowed to happen in the future.”

As reports of concentration camps emanate from the Russian Federation’s Republic of Chechnya now, GALAS’s president is keen to stay vigilant.

“What’s going on in the Russian province of Chechnya is, quite frankly, atrocious,” Abelyan said. “The LGBTQ community is under siege. Undoubtedly it’s a tragedy, but we have to respect the gravity of the word genocide and not use it liberally. Personally, I am not aware of accounts of treatment of the Armenian LGBTQ community by The Young Turks during the genocide [of 1915-18].” 

The term “Young Turks” is a troublesome one, having been recklessly used for decades as vacuous shorthand for “anti-establishment upstarts” or “radical outsiders.”

As several news organizations, including the Cal State Northridge Sundial, have reported lately, a progressive media outlet called The Young Turks founded by Cenk Uygur, who was once a conservative and who twice denied the Armenian Genocide (but who now says he’s not sure what to call it), is feeling pressure to, at minimum, change his outlet’s name.

“I’d like to highlight the unimaginable insult that the organization The Young Turks, or TYT, is,” said Abelyan. “TYT is the name of the Turkish political party that orchestrated the Armenian Genocide.”

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