Lousine Shamamian vividly remembers the moment her mother read her diary in their Brooklyn home at the age of sixteen. She laughs about it over our Zoom call, joining in from Los Angeles, but can still viscerally recall the horror of realizing her classified teenage secrets had been exposed to the last person she’d want to spill them to. “This is a leftover of the Soviet way of doing things,” she says with a chuckle, reliving her teenage years coming to terms with her lesbian identity entangled with this lack of privacy.
“I wrote that I was curious and I said I wanted to kiss this girl, it was very innocent—and she read that!” At the time, Lousine was a shy student attending Brooklyn Tech High School when many people had not “come out,” meaning the process that people who are LGBTQ+ go through to accept and share their sexual orientation or gender identity. Knowing how upset her mother was, Lousine decided not to come home that night—though it felt like a year to her.
“I didn’t even know where I really stood on the matter, but it made [my sexuality] very out in the open for us,” she states. “I didn’t get to come out on my own terms, it just happened.” According to The Guest House, coming out can often be a traumatizing experience for many queer individuals, considering most are met with anger, frustration, and even abuse, neglect, or abandonment. In their words, this moment of personal celebration can quickly transform into heart-breaking disappointment.
This was also the early nineties when anti-gay legislation surged—most notably when Clinton signed a 1996 law into action defining marriage as a legal union only between a man and woman, denying same-sex couples from this rite of passage on top of receiving federal benefits. Only a couple of years later, the heinous torture and murder of young, gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard would shake the nation, bringing to light the deathly repercussions of coming out.
Lousine suddenly had to grapple with her lesbian identity thrust into the open, in addition to recovering her relationship with her mother, Araksi, and defining what her sexuality meant. “It was not easy early on because this was something my mother never come across. So this idea of a gay kid, it’s just something she couldn’t even fathom,” she explains. “She really had to reconcile with growing up in a culture that never talks about this—but ultimately, my mother is so brave.”
Araksi Shamamian herself faced her fair share of struggles with feeling othered. Born in Yerevan, with parents who escaped eastern Turkey during the Genocide to Syria and Egypt and then repatriated to Armenia after World War II, Araksi came to America in 1978. Lousine retold her grandparents’ traumatic journey to Armenia, considering they were so excited to go to their romanticized homeland, saying: “It’s such an interesting story that very few people know. There were many promises made of how wonderful it was and there were so many fruits on trees, but there was no one to pick them.”
Araksi chimed in, phoning in from Brooklyn, adding that though her father was a successful businessman in Egypt, they spent their nights sleeping on the grass in a barn without plumbing amongst wolves in Yerevan. “There was no food,” adds Araksi, sternly, recalling their move. According to family lore, Drtad Leylekian, Araksi’s father, was the first to bring lahmajun to Armenia, baking it in a brick oven. Despite this claim to fame, the family—like many who repatriated to Armenia during this tumultuous chapter—was severely ostracized from Armenian society. “They were really made to feel like ‘the Other,’” said Lousine. It came as no surprise, then, for Araksi to be wary of her daughter being shunned from society in their supposed safe haven of America—but Lousine was steadfast in her decision to stay true to herself.
After her mother confronted Lousine about her sexuality, both felt an awkward tension at home. Araksi was initially very upset and shocked. “I think my mom took it very personally,” she shares. “After my mom read my diary entry she confronted me, she was so angry and couldn’t understand how I could possibly want to kiss a girl. She repeated herself often those first few months—Asking, “Was I not a good mother? Why would you do this to me?” It took many painful months for Araksi to understand this wasn’t personal and her daughter couldn’t control who she loved. “It took many conversations and a lot of time for her to understand that the last thing I would ever want to do is hurt her, cause her pain, or make her feel anything negative, I explained that this was about love, about feelings I couldn’t control and with time and patience, she saw past me being a lesbian.” In the meantime, Lousine became the unofficial lesbian spokesperson after publicly kissing her girlfriend in the school hallways. Instead of keeping everything hush-hush, this unlocked the door for discourse amongst the student body. She frequented student government sessions and feminist organizations, even starting her own, Womyn’s Club, with her best friend. “This kiss became something that provoked dialogue in school because no one had ever done anything like that before, and so I became a conduit for this conversation.”
No one wants to disappoint their parents but this is a part of who we are. That’s the dilemma for so many LGBTQ people—do I do what feels right at the risk of losing my parents’ love?
This advocacy was made easier in one of New York City’s most prestigious specialized high schools, but it was a different story at home—which she described as living two lives. “Even though I was out in school, I kept my sexual orientation very private in the house. No one wants to disappoint their parents but this is a part of who we are. That’s the dilemma for so many LGBTQ people—do I do what feels right at the risk of losing my parents’ love? For some, it’s potentially losing the safety of a roof over their head.”
Her mother often raised concerns about her daughter’s safety and chances of employment. Lousine, who is now an Emmy-nominated Los Angeles-based television editor, recalls Araksi reminding her of what could happen to those who are openly gay in Hollywood. “This was around when Ellen first came out on her TV show. And they canceled the show. And my mom was like... ‘See?’” Araksi laughed at this memory, now realizing this full circle moment.
Lousine has since been thriving in Hollywood as an openly proud lesbian, happily engaged to her Armenian fiancée Maral, and recently wrapping up her first movie. She has worked as an editor on Untucked for RuPaul’s Drag Race, a highly-rated reality drag queen competition, for which she received an Emmy nomination. She has also worked on the last season of Ryan Murphy’s Pose, a drama about New York City’s ballroom culture throughout the 1980s and 1990s—a story near and dear to her heart. “It started out as pure luck that I’ve been able to work on stories about LGBTQ people, and then it shifted as I got to connect with people who were driven to tell similar stories,” she shared. “I just feel so grateful that I’m a part of this because we don’t hear these stories and it’s so important that they’re told.”
Araksi has since come to embrace her daughter, even participating in Lousine’s multi-episode YouTube series, Lousine: Lesbian Matchmaker To The Straights, a comedic take on love and dating. Lousine has also helped other queer Armenians have open conversations with their families, organizing “Soorj Sessions” with the LGBTQ+ Armenian Society (GALAS) for families and friends to build community, work with social workers and therapists to help de-stigmatize coming out.“There are a lot of Armenians who are accepting, and that’s what’s beautiful about these Soorj Sessions—seeing parents say they love their child, no matter all this negativity from the outside world.”
Their hope for parents with queer children is to understand this risk that comes with coming out. “I just wish families and people would understand that if someone is gay or bi or trans or lesbian, and they’re open with it, it’s a huge risk and it’s not easy,” Lousine stated. “It’s not like you do it once and it’s over, for some people it’s a daily courageous act. We do need allies, and it should come from those of us who are in a place of privilege around this issue.”
“In a culture where we’re so worried about what everyone else thinks, it takes a lot of courage for a parent to put all that aside. What’s more important is the love of a parent for a child,” Lousine adds. Araksi couldn’t have agreed more. “I’m proud of my daughter. She’s my angel. I love her so much, so it doesn’t matter who she likes.” She reaffirmed this tearfully: “I love her.”