As a teen, he didn’t know any queer Armenians. He later found them in books — and started his own library
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The only books in J.P. Der Boghossian’s home as a child were Bibles and a set of encyclopedias. So from a young age, he sought out all the books he could get his hands on — from “Calvin and Hobbes” to “Beowulf.”
“What was magical for me was that there were other ways of living,” he said. “This world that I was trapped in wasn’t the only way of living.”
Today, Der Boghossian travels in more expansive circles: The St. Anthony, Minn., resident is the equity and inclusion officer at Normandale Community College and the board president of the Armenian Cultural Organization of Minnesota. But he grew up in a devoutly Christian Armenian American family in lower northwestern Michigan.
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As a teenager, he hoped his faith would lead to conversion. Now, he identifies as queer: a self-affirming term used by many people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and non-heterosexual. But when he was younger, he desperately hoped he could change. He read through the Bible three times, gave sermons and tried to prove himself worthy. He hoped that his conversion would come before the end times. But the conversion never came.
Books helped him escape that cognitive dissonance. In high school, he worked in a local library, where his job was to put away books. But the librarian often scolded him when he’d get distracted by the books he was supposed to shelve.
The closest reflection of himself Der Boghossian saw in literature was William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “He’s trying to navigate a hostile world and existential crisis,” he said. “He doesn’t know if he’s going crazy or not. That resonated with me on a certain level.”
In his 30s, as Der Boghossian started coming to terms with his queer identity, he turned to books again. He realized he didn’t know any queer Armenians, and didn’t have anyone to talk to about the intersections of his identities. “So I tried to find some books, and realized it wasn’t that easy,” he said. “There’s no library.”
So he created one. Der Boghossian, now 39, launched the Queer Armenian Library: an online archive of literature, film, music, and art offerings by and about queer Armenians. The blog, which went live at the end of November, includes a synopsis of each work, reviews, film trailers and instructions about where a reader can find the original material.
Identifying and tracking down these works of literature was not a simple task. There were no queer sections of Armenian bookstores or BuzzFeed top-ten lists. Some blogs and magazines provided recommendations for queer Armenian literature, but they weren’t comprehensive. He developed an elaborate internet research strategy to find as many resources as he could. He tracked down books that were out of print and films that had been censored.
What started out as a passion project to identify literature that would speak to his own experience has become a resource for readers all over the world. Der Boghossian long felt like he had to keep his sexual and ethnic identities separate. Now, this project has become a way to reconcile different parts of himself. He hopes the art, literature, film and music available in the library will help others, too.
“You realize, Wow, I am not alone,” Der Boghossian said. “There are others that are like me.”
An ‘existential dynamic’
For decades, Der Boghossian struggled with exploring what it meant to be both queer and Armenian. Homosexuality is still heavily stigmatized within the Armenian community, he said, and he experienced internalized shame and guilt.
“When you’re talking about being cast out from your faith tradition, that’s not just your friends and family, that’s in the cosmic sense,” he said. “So that was a lot of internalized trauma around that as well.”
Historical trauma lives on in the Armenian community, too. A century ago, the ruling party in the Ottoman Empire led a genocide against the Christian Armenian minority in Western Asia. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1923, through massacres, burnings, drownings, torture, disease and starvation — about three-quarters of the Armenian population.
Der Boghossian’s mother’s family fled to France as refugees after the genocide, and immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. The Armenian diaspora is now spread throughout the globe. In the U.S., about 1,000 Armenian Americans live in Minnesota, while more than 100,000 live in the Los Angeles area.
As a leader in Minnesota’s Armenian American community, Der Boghossian appeared on the front page of the Star Tribune in 2019, criticizing Rep. Ilhan Omar for her “present” vote on a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide. When the vote became a political attack line against Ilhan in a heated primary campaign the following year, Der Boghossian described Ilhan’s work to rebuild trust with the Armenian community. In a video posted to Twitter, he accused her opponents of using the genocide recognition as a “political football.”
But some ramifications of the genocide have played out less publicly. Der Boghossian believes Armenia’s historical trauma continues to echo in the community’s religious and social mores. For example, the faith holds that procreation is central to marriage — even more so than in other Western Christian traditions. “You need to marry Armenian and you need to have Armenian children and that is your duty as an Armenian,” he said.
Der Boghossian continued, “There’s also a component that queerness is a choice, and that we are Christians, and you need to be Christian because you have family members who died in a genocide because they were Christian. So there’s these two elements that come into play from the genocide itself that takes on a much more existential dynamic than it would in France or England or Sweden.”
For Der Boghossian, that legacy meant he grew up feeling like he couldn’t be his full self around his family. And as he would later discover, it meant the sexual orientation of some renowned Armenian writers remained hidden for years after their deaths.
Two of Armenia’s most celebrated poets in the early 20th century, Vahan Tekeyan and Yeghishe Charents, were gay or bisexual. Filmmaker Sergei Parajanov spent four years in prison in the Soviet Union in the 1970s for being bisexual and subversive. (Martin Scorsese has called his film “The Color of Pomegranates” “a timeless cinematic experience.”)
“Some of our great poets, some of our great thinkers had to hide it,” Der Boghossian said. “Even today when they’re talked about, everyone erases their sexuality. No one ever, ever talks about it at all.”
‘I wish I would have had that when I was a kid’
One of the first books Der Boghossian found that resonated with him was a young adult novel, “One Man Guy,” written by an Armenian American author and featuring an Armenian American protagonist. “I wish I would have had that when I was a kid,” he said. The novel shows an optimistic look at a teenager’s first romantic experience.
The Queer Armenian Library entry details the book’s awards, features an excerpt from the book cover, offers a video interview with the author and instructs readers where they can order a copy.
Reading the novel as a fully grown adult brought him joy, but also a sense of wistfulness and grief that his own coming-of-age was so different. “It isn’t the experience of a lot of queer Armenian youth today,” he said. “It can be more so. There’s more of a chance of that happening. But it’s still not the majority experience for queer youth.”
Another of his favorites, listed on the top “shelf” of the website, is a 1992 memoir, “Lion Woman’s Legacy,” by Arlene Voski Avakian. Though the author is of a different gender and a different generation, he found remarkable similarities in how she wrestled with themes of historical trauma, race, gender and family.
“There was again that relief when you finally read somebody saying what you’ve been thinking,” he said. “You feel heard, you feel represented for the first time in writing. But there’s also this sense of anger, that Arlene wrote this in the early ’90s. Why isn’t this widely read? Why isn’t this widely talked about? The silence didn’t need to happen.”
A map of the world
Curating the library has shown Der Boghossian the contours of the queer Armenian world. While he’s found more queer Armenian writing and art than he dreamed existed when he first started looking, the collection represents a small sliver of Armenian literature.
“You see your world expand, and the same time you see the constraints of your world,” he said.
Still, he no longer sees his queer and Armenian identities as separate.
In the beginning, the library’s contents showed him the existence of other queer Armenians, connecting him to people with similar experiences across geography and generations. Now, so does the website’s readership. When a visitor from a new country views the blog, WordPress colors that nation pink on its readership map. As members of the Armenian diaspora around the world visit the library, nation after nation lights up in pink.