A Response to Brooke Ashjian Regarding the Armenian and LGBT Communities

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Brooke Ashjian at Fresno Unified School District board meeting. Photo by Peter Maiden.

By Hanna B. Mardikian

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by LGBT Fresno and is republished with permission https://lgbtfresno.com/news/opinion/4048-a-response-to-brooke-ashjian-regarding-the-armenian-and-lgbt-communities

In the most recent statements by Brooke Ashjian, the current president of the board for the Fresno Unified School District, he equated the movement for the rights and well-being of the LGBT community to the actions of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, when they massacred more than a million Armenian people.

The Armenian community is an important aspect of the diverse community of Fresno and the Central Valley. Recognition for the Armenian Genocide is an important movement in and of itself. Much as other communities have deep historical scars from institutional and systematic oppression, the people of Armenia faced massacre, exile and diaspora. They arrived in America seeking freedom from discrimination and from oppression.

Here in Fresno, the Armenian community has established itself in the form of churches and annual events such as the Blessing of the Grapes, which has a history of over a century. Local businesses such as Armenian bakeries enrich the cultural landscape of this city. At my own middle school, there was an Armenian club. It is notably common to meet people with last names like Ashjian, Hakopyan, Agbashian, Andresian—or my own, Mardikian.

I am the granddaughter of the late superior court judge Robert Z. Mardikian, a prominent contemporary figure in Fresno’s Armenian community. I am also a lesbian. I disagree wholeheartedly with Brooke Ashjian’s message.

The Armenian community and the LGBT community have a great deal in common. To be LGBT does not mean that one belongs to a specific nationality, ethnicity, or race—that is an important difference. Like myself, a person can be of both groups. From my vantage point, I can see that the histories of the international LGBT population and the diasporic Armenian population have several important similarities. Just as the Armenian population has been subjected to atrocities at the hand of a dominant social group, so have various populations of LGBT people around the world.

In Germany during the Holocaust gay men were placed in concentration camps alongside Jewish people and other marginalized groups such as the Romani people. In a number of countries around the world today, being homosexual or transgender is punishable by death, and in nearly every country our population experiences a level of oppression, suppression and marginalization. As we speak, LGBT people are being detained and tortured in Chechnya.

Here in California, where we are perceived as having a peculiar amount of power, it was only quite recently that conversion “therapy” was made illegal— despite being near unanimously denounced by every professional psychiatric and psychological association. Parents are still able to remove their children from their lives and send them to various institutions throughout the country to be systematically abused into renouncing an inherent part of themselves. More commonly, it is still legal to physically, spiritually and emotionally abuse LGBT children at home. It is legal to ostracize someone for being LGBT in several spheres—at home, at church and in private schools. I won’t speak of legal philosophy, and I don’t advocate applying legislative intervention to churches. That will not be my point here.

My point in mentioning that is that our population, the LGBT population, is not a group that is in institutional power. Much like the Armenian population in 1915, though to a different degree and in a different way, we are a group at the mercy of institutional power. We can wage no wars, we have no army—our recourse is through the proper channels of the judicial system and through advocacy utilizing our fundamental rights as Americans, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Armenians did not have that. It would’ve been a very different history if the Armenian population had the right to self-advocate as the LGBT community does.

We, the various nonprofit organizations and other advocates of the LGBT community, are not systematically oppressing Brooke Ashjian.

Contemporary advocates for social justice operate by a principle of intersectionality. This was a concept developed by American civil rights advocate and scholar Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. It is captured in the words of Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives.” One cannot effectively advocate for one marginalized group struggling against systematic oppression by stepping on another. When marginalized groups are denied rights and privileges, it is frequently by congruent means and to similar ends. When we advocate together for the value of diversity and dynamic inclusion of marginalized groups, we are much stronger.

Just as my middle school had valid reason to organize an Armenian club, so do the schools of the Fresno Unified School District have a valid reason to organize a Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA). Even in the absence of bullying and harassment, which will hopefully someday be a reality, these are still necessary spaces for nurturing the positive growth of people’s inherent senses of self and identity. These are places to celebrate the aspects of ourselves that are painfully absent, excluded and covered up in the predominant culture.

To Brooke Ashjian—I have not addressed the practicalities of your intention in your function as school board president, as you have confirmed that you will abide by the law. Even if you do not resign, you are now aware that you will be observed for the extent of your career in case you should choose to act to alienate LGBT students further. I hope that you stand by your intent to do right by your students. Furthermore, I hope that you grow as a human being to embrace inclusion and safety for marginalized groups within the public school system.

You have a great deal to learn from the LGBT community. I recommend that you quietly attend events hosted by the GSA and the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) as it is in the nature of the community to build bridges and educate people.

You are coming from a position that is ignorant, but common. You are representing that default position that we would very much like to see more people in our society grow out of. You have the opportunity to represent that growth. If you do not step down, you have a responsibility to move forward and grow into a better person than who you have recently shown yourself to be.

Editor’s addendum: Since this article was written, the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) board held its regular board meeting on Sept. 13 where Interim Superintendent Bob Nelson was named FUSD superintendent. Nelson had originally pulled the topic of Ashjian’s comments from the meeting’s agenda but after public backlash by LGBTQ advocates and local faith leaders, he reinstated it. The meeting went two hours longer than scheduled as 60 public comments were made by community members who support and those who oppose Brooke Ashjian’s previous comments against LGBTQ-inclusive sex education (which is required under California’s Healthy Youth Act), his calls to “teach Judeo-Christian values” and his comparison of LGBTQ activists to the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide.

At the meeting, a large group of FUSD employees stood up and read a statement in solidarity of all students inclusive of all races, religions, sexual orientations and gender identities. Later Board Secretary Claudia Cazares addressed the public saying the FUSD trustees had no authority to remove, demote or censure president Ashjian. In August, Christopher de La Cerda penned a public apology for Ashjian’s comments and asked for his resignation with the support of fellow trustees, Valerie Davis and Cal Johnson. Ashjian has refused to step down. The next FUSD board meeting is Oct. 11 at 5:30 p.m. where the possibility of repercussions for Ashjian will be on the agenda again. It is open to the public.

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Hanna B. Mardikian is a volunteer with causes related to the Fresno LGBT community, animal welfare, and advocating for the Fresno homeless population. When she isn’t volunteering, she works, attends a local college to become a nurse and creates artwork using mixed media and traditional drawing mediums.