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We Are, and Will Remain: An Armenian-American Lesbian’s Quest for Space in her Mother Tongue

by Nyri Bakkalian

06 January 2017

“I am Armenian-American.”

What, in my case, does this sentence mean?

It means that about a century ago, after escaping from genocide in the Ottoman Empire, my ancestors immigrated to this continent, where I was born. In my case, this applies to both sides of my family. Others are of mixed roots, Armenian and odar (“foreign,” i.e. non-Armenian), and have no less of a claim on the above term than myself.

“I am Armenian-American” also means that these roots, in some measure, matter enough to me that I would choose to continue claiming them as my own, despite a gap of a century from them. It means, in my case, that despite my birth on these American shores, that I can claim two languages as my native tongue: one a language of world politics and commerce, the other an endangered tongue of a scattered people. Others, with equal claim to this identity, do not speak Armenian. Some in the community deride them for it, but in doing so these detractors forget their own Turkish and Kurdish-speaking grandparents. One’s primary, or sole, language is not a determinant of their ethnic identity.

“I am Armenian-American” means that, in my case, I pass as white and am thus afforded highly conditional privilege that can, and does, evaporate in an instant. This is, for example, the case in airports, where as soon as an official reads my non-anglo name, I am invariably subjected to further searches and probing questions.

“I am Armenian-American” means that, in some measure, I am neither wholly Armenian nor wholly American. I am a little too alien for white Americans, with my non-anglo name, my taste for “weird” foods, and my occasional, decidedly non-English exclamations of surprise or disgust. I am a little too assimilated for many Armenians too, with my (slight) American accent, my lack of interest in putting my Armenianness at the perennial forefront, and my minority, non-Christian religious affiliation with Shintoism.

I’ve long since given up on choosing one or the other: I exist somewhere in the liminal space between these two identities. And that is enough.

But our identities as humans are multifaceted and complex; we exist at the intersection of many identities. Another one of mine is my sexual orientation as a lesbian.

I am Armenian-American and I am lesbian. And here, one might say we reach the proverbial wrench-in-the-works. But I prefer to think we reach an interesting crossroads.

The Armenian diasporan community strongly tends toward two affiliations: Christian and conservative. Its conservatism is of both social and political bent. Homophobic and transphobic violence in the Armenian community is well documented, both within the country itself as well as in the Diaspora. Were the words of some self-styled defenders of the community to be believed, there are no LGBT Armenians. A chilling irony, given how easily they erase us, reject us, and even kill us. Yet all the same, we exist, we survive, and we struggle to be heard, acknowledged, and respected by our community. As one of our people’s sayings goes, “we are, and we will remain.”

But we have a challenge: language.


Armenian language is ancient and rich. It even preserves terms, largely unaltered, from long-dead tongues like Akkadian and Hittite. Armenian literature, in the 16 centuries since its alphabet’s creation, is full of soaring prose and moving, lyrical poetry. But when I was coming out to my family and wanted to do it in Armenian, I came up short. Armenian simply does not have a broad body of language with which to discuss gender and sexual diversity.

So, for a long time, I stuck to English, while my parents responded in Armenian, with horror, guilt-tripping, and accusations of disloyalty to family and nation. It was not an optimal situation, but I made do.

That I was unable to properly express myself in Armenian was galling. There were but two terms of which I was aware at the outset: miaseragan for gay, pokhaseragan for transgender. This is a start, but it is not nearly enough. Added to this is the further complication that there do exist other words, but they are overwhelmingly pathologizing.

I refused to accept this state of affairs as unchangeable. I still do. While we LGBT+ Armenians in the world can, and do, articulate our identities in our mother tongue regardless of the vocabulary’s imperfection, this shortcoming of vocabulary makes that a greater challenge than it needs to be.

And while I have the good fortune of another language with which to express myself, I refuse to be erased from, or hamstrung in, my mother tongue. In my case, to have my parents control the storm of Armenian-language family discourse on my identity was incredibly chagrining.

As I now live outside any of the Armenian diaspora’s major population centers, and as I was single for many years, I could afford to put this off in some measure. Then I started dating other women, my frigid relations with my parents began to slowly warm, and I felt a newfound sense of urgency. Even if I lived outside the diaspora, I simply had to be able to express myself to my parents, and to do it smoothly and clearly. If I had to coin new terms, I would. If the space did not exist for me in my mother tongue, then I would carve that space out myself.

So, with all of this in mind, and fueled by righteous indignation at heart, I took what I saw as the only sensible course of action:

I got to work.