When Gary Freeman, who is gay, moved to Glendale more than 30 years ago, he was welcomed with eggs and rocks thrown at his home and the word “fag” written in graffiti with a felt-tip marker on his car’s window.
Times have changed, said Freeman, 72, and he hasn’t since experienced overt discrimination for being gay.
But a group of locals decided this year that a celebration of Gay Pride Month in Glendale is long overdue.
For the first time, the ACE/121 Art Gallery, Abril Books, Roslin Art Gallery, Gaucho’s Village and the Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society have organized a series of LGBTQ-themed events, including art shows and a speaker series.
Freeman, a co-curator for ACE/121’s art show titled “QUEER,” said he hasn’t seen an LGBTQ event this large and visible in his three decades of living in Glendale.
It’s a big step for a community that is home to the largest population of Armenians outside of Armenia, a community that is, generally speaking, known to be conservative.
“This is a groundbreaking event, because nothing like this has ever happened,” said Lousine Shamamian, a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society, or GALAS. “This is a right of passage for the organization and the Glendale community.”
ACE/121 Art Gallery is kicking off the month of events at 6 p.m. Friday. Attendees can walk from that exhibit to the Roslin Art Gallery’s exhibit titled “The Many Faces of Armenians: A Celebration of Queer-Armenian Art” and finish their night with an after-party at Gaucho’s Village restaurant.
For the remainder of the month, the galleries will host panel discussions with prominent Armenian authors, a film preview and a spoken-word event called “Homo-centric.”
Grey James, an artist who was the leading force behind the effort, said he wanted to build a community where he felt comfortable. He looked to ACE/121, which is also an apartment complex, for housing specifically because it would give him the opportunity to do that.
“I wanted it to be a big gay noise, a big gay presence in Glendale, because in my 15 years living here, that’s something that just hasn’t been here,” he said.
James went to several art gallery owners in the city, asking them to participate. All but one — Arno Yeretzian, owner of the longstanding Abril Bookstore and Roslin Art Gallery— said “no.” James and Shamamian credit Yeretzian for being an ally and validating the events by having an established business respected by the Armenian community.
The ACE/121 Gallery sent out an open call to artists to answer the question “What makes you queer?” in an art piece or paragraph. It received dozens of responses from LGBTQ and heterosexual artists and writers. Yeretzian’s exhibit also features straight and LGBTQ artists from all over the world.
Yeretzian said that Armenians, like the LGBTQ community, have long been discriminated against. He hopes the exhibit will highlight similarities and bridge the gap between Armenians and the LGBTQ community in a peaceful way.
“Armenians and the LGBTQ community have shared a similar past and experience, so I want Armenians who still haven’t opened up to see the parallels,” he said. “I don’t mind revolution, but art is the best way to open up a society.”
The opportunity for Glendale to welcome this type of event didn’t arise until recently, James said.
The city was known for a long time as a “bedroom community”— where LGBTQ and heterosexual residents alike would go to work and come home to the privacy of their homes. Glendale’s rapidly developing downtown and arts culture has opened the doors for social change, he said.
GALAS, which is based in West Hollywood and was founded 20 years ago, has avoided holding events in Glendale for years, despite the fact that it serves many of its residents. People feared they would be seen by their friends, family or neighbors, Shamamian said.
Many Armenians share a sense of responsibility and pride in their culture because of the lingering sting of the Armenian Genocide, Shamamian said. That makes many LGBTQ Armenians feel like they have to choose between their sexual or gender identity and their culture, she said.
“There are always going to be the people who are going to have hate and who are going to be opposed to us having an outspoken presence in the community, but I don’t think they’re the majority,” she said. “For GALAS to be celebrating LGBTQ pride in Glendale — the heart of the Armenian diaspora — is a profound marker of the progress the LGBTQ Armenian community has made.”