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Now I Can Speak: A Queer Armenian Comedienne Finds Her Voice

by | Jan 6, 2015 | Interview

Nora Kayserian is a mother, counselor, bibliophile, and most recently, a published children’s book author.

Reconciling our culture with our identity and bridging the two without shame is something many queer immigrant folks struggle with. Every now and again, there are those who unapologetically challenge stereotypes and standards by simply being themselves. I had the pleasure of conversing with storyteller and performer Lousine Shamamian who stands firm in her queerness by using the camera to connect her communities and deliver her message in a courageous way. The difficult and brave journey to get to the point she’s at now took many years, but, lucky for us, this only seems to be the beginning of her ever-evolving talent. The video below inspired me to interview Lousine and share it with the Hye-Phen audience.

NORA KAYSERIAN: What were some of the struggles you faced as an Armenian immigrant in New York as well as coming to terms with your queer identity?

LOUSINE SHAMAMIAN: I was very lucky growing up. I grew up in Brooklyn, in a very diverse neighborhood. We lived next to my aunt who brought us to America, so we were very close to our family. At age 8 my parents moved to a house further out in Brooklyn. The public schools I went to were filled with children of immigrants so I never felt like I had to assimilate or try to fit into a culture that was homogenous. All of my friends had a different skin color with so many continents represented. I didn’t grow up in an Armenian community because there were very few Armenians where we lived but I was always encouraged to speak Armenian at home and I went to Armenian school on Saturdays in Manhattan. I felt more “other” when I was among Armenians than when I was with my diverse group of friends because growing up I looked very different from other Armenians. People seemed to think I was adopted and for a while I began to believe it too. It’s very difficult to identify as a lesbian or gay person in our community because there is so much judgment to begin with on every level from the way you look — I was always a heavy girl so I’ve been criticized for being overweight. I was always scrutinized for so much, so this just added this layer that I never thought I could share openly. You can criticize me for being fat or how I dress but those are superficial things, whereas this is much deeper. That iced me out. I don’t think I feared it to the degree that I would be disowned but I felt like I would never be let in, in a genuine way. So I kept it hidden for a long time. In high school, I came out when I was 16. I personally wouldn’t have chosen to do that at the time but my girlfriend was very open and kissed me in the hallways at school, which was not common at the time. Without realizing it, I ended up being the topic of conversation for my fellow students who through me brought LGBT issues to their homes. At home, I came out because I had to — my mother read my diary when I was 16. After that, our relationship was very strained. For 12 years she thought I was just “going through a phase” and would constantly ask if I had changed my mind.

NK: Was it a struggle for you to reconcile your two identities and bridge those the two without shame?

LS: Up until recently, I would have never admitted that I had shame about being gay because I was forced to come out at 16 and had to deal with it publicly at school and ended up being a leader in that arena throughout high school and college. But reconciling the two … I always kept them separate. Although I’m very proud of being Armenian — any opportunity I have to expose my culture I take it — but having my gay identity and my Armenian identity coexist didn’t happen until I did this video with my mom. I had no connection to that feeling of shame until we had to sit down and talk. Also because my mom and I never really had the coming out conversation because essentially I was dragged out, I felt stunted around my own internal coming out process. The ability to feel empowered by my choice to come out wasn’t given to me, so I just went through the motions for a long time and I didn’t dig deep and come to terms with these two pieces. Later on, when I got into comedy and started Lousine: Lesbian Matchmaker To The Straights and the first video was released and I got positive feedback from fellow Armenians something started to shift inside. The night the series launched I woke in the middle of the night thinking, I should come out to my mom on video. Let me do something good, something that will have a real positive impact for my community. I was terrified when starting the video because ultimately, for me (and I think for a lot of people) the worst pain is disappointing my parents. That’s what I was overcoming by having that conversation. To own who you are in light of potentially disappointing your parents is a very brave act. But it is an essential act for real growth and evolution to take place. We have to be better than our parents; we have to be more evolved and part of that is owning your identity and not cowering to the expectations of your parents. Deep down in their hearts I don’t think my parents would want me to live by their limitations. I think generally all parents deep in their soul want their children to thrive but how can I do that without embracing all of who I am? The process of making that video was when I really confronted my shame and surpassed it. It was such a gift. I had no idea that that was going on. For 21 years I had no idea that I had internalized so much shame, until I had to prepare for that moment that my mom and I sat across from each other. By the time we were done shooting, I had overcome that shame. It was very powerful for me.

NK: What was the role of the camera in this process? Why did you choose to have such a private and difficult conversation with your mother on camera?

LS: Initially, it was to give something to my brothers and sisters in Armenia. Can I have this conversation publicly so that if they can’t have it themselves they can put on the video with their parents and say, “look they are Armenian and they’re having this conversation, maybe we can too”? That was the initial motivation — to do some good. But I didn’t realize all these unresolved issues would come out of it. It was an enormous gift for me. I was also hoping it would be a gift for my mother. Although she is very accepting now, our larger community and extended family is not. So I wanted to give my mother a chance to speak her truth and to speak back to all those people who are so judgmental. It was to empower my mother too because I don’t want her to have shame. I can deal with it because I can say this is not my community and I have a community outside of my Armenian community but she can’t. So I was very proud of her, she gave a response to all those people, and in my eyes, she had the final word.

NK: Why did you decide to go into comedy and do you use it as a bridge to come to terms with your identity?

LS: More than a comedian I see myself as a storyteller and performer. Initially, comedy was a very alluring option because it doesn’t matter what you look like. If you’re funny, you get on stage. So that made it a real option. With comedy, I don’t feel like I have to make a statement as a gay person but I do feel like I have to make a statement as an Armenian person who is gay. I felt such a passion about being Armenian while growing up. I remember when I was younger I always wanted to fight for Armenia; I felt a responsibility to my ancestors to bring justice around the issue of genocide. I’ve been trying to find a way to do that and I’m currently working on a solo show called “Shake The Earth” about my great grandparents and the story of survival and identity. It’s an autobiographical piece, about my struggle of identifying as Armenian and gay and wanting to be a spokesperson for my family and ancestors. Reconciling both pieces and telling my families story of survival is the crux of my solo show. I am applying to the NYC International Fringe Festival and if I get in, I hope everyone will come to see it in August 2015.

NK: How do you envision your role and contribution to the community?

LS: I hope that my comedy and creative projects, be the videos, live performances or writings will continue to inspire people from within the queer community, no matter what a person’s ethnic background. I also want to continue challenging the status quo within our Armenian community and the world as a whole. I think the best contribution I can make is to continue honoring my truth, taking creative risks, drawing attention to injustices and celebrating who I am and who we are as a community. Combating the shame that is often imposed upon us that we then internalize is one of the most important things I want to help eliminate. It is so destructive. It’s soul crushing and we don’t have to feel it. There is nothing to be ashamed of. For someone like my mother who is coming from a religious point of view, who is Armenian, talking about it with the compassion that she does, gives me hope. I want as many people to see it so that so they don’t feel alone. I probably need to do more to make sure that video gets out there. Also, to continue to work hard and make sure my solo show “Shake The Earth” happens– that’s the goal for 2015, for the 100th anniversary of the genocide. All Armenians feel a responsibility to have justice around the genocide but to have that piece connected with my identity as a lesbian, being a part of a group that our community as a whole tends to ignore or judge – to have both pieces exposed and celebrated, giving a voice to that is very important to me. It’s also my own personal battle, my whole life I’ve struggled with wanting to be a “good girl” and this goes against that and it’s one of my life’s challenges. This isn’t easy for me but by going through this creative process I hope it’s not just having a positive impact on me but many others too.

Nora Kayserian
Nora Kayserian is a mother, counselor, bibliophile, and most recently, a published children’s book author.