Ukraine. Israel. Gaza. The world is full of war-torn hot spots, but beyond those in the headlines every day, there are others worth knowing about.
One of them is personal to Jirair Ratevosian, an Armenian American gay man and congressional hopeful.
In late August and early September, Jirair Ratevosian visited Armenia and the disputed border region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is home to 120,000 Armenians but has been claimed by neighbor Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which residents refer to as the Republic of Artsakh, was blockaded by Azerbaijan beginning last December. Since then, its inhabitants have been cut off from food, medicine, and electricity, Ratevosian says. During his time there, he saw 22 trucks with supplies blockaded.
“It just makes it real what’s at stake for Armenia and the region,” he says of his trip. He says the government of Azerbaijan is intent on ethnic cleansing.
Ethnic cleansing is well-known to Armenians. In 1915 and 1916, when Armenia was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, anywhere from 600,000 to 1.5 million of the country’s people died in what is now known as the Armenian Genocide.
Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former prosecutor in the International Criminal Court, has called the recent blockade genocide by starvation.
The current crisis is “top of mind” for Armenian Americans, Ratevosian says.
He is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in California’s 30th Congressional District, which has the largest population of Armenian Americans in the nation. It includes parts of Los Angeles and neighboring communities such as Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and West Hollywood. It’s represented by Democrat Adam Schiff, who’s vacating the seat because of his 2024 run to succeed the late Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate.
The district also has a large LGBTQ+ population, and Ratevosian is one of several community members running, including Sepi Shyne, a lesbian who’s the mayor of West Hollywood, and nonbinary drag queen Maebe A. Girl, a member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council who challenged Schiff in 2022. (The Advocate plans to profile those two candidates in the near future.) All the out candidates are Democrats, and the district is heavily Democratic. In California, members of all parties run against each other in the primary, and the top two advance to the general election.
Jirair Ratevosian says that if he’s elected, he will work on behalf of all marginalized people in the U.S. and abroad; his priorities for Armenia include fighting for a lift of the blockade as well as strengthening U.S.-Armenian relations.
This week, he addressed other priorities by unveiling the American Dream Act, which he would introduce in Congress to benefit women, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ people.
It would expand resources for LGBTQ+ youth, assure culturally competent health care for LGBTQ+ Americans, address health disparities among racial and ethnic minorities, improve access to reproductive care and assisted reproduction, expand the availability of HIV prevention and treatment, pursue a permanent status solution for immigrants who came here as minors, make it easier to vote, and more, he says.
“I’m committed to tackling health care costs, bringing down the cost of prescription drugs,” he adds, along with reducing student debt and aiding small businesses.
He supports the Equality Act and would work to write abortion rights into federal law, as the Respect for Marriage Act did with marriage equality. He was at the White House for President Joe Biden’s signing of that legislation last December.
Ratevosian worked for the Biden administration in the State Department, where he was a senior adviser for health equity policy from 2021 until May of this year, when he began his congressional campaign. His duties included helping to oversee the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a.k.a. PEPFAR, a global program to fight HIV and AIDS. He was the highest-ranking Armenian American in the department. Before that, he was on the transition team for Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Earlier, he spent four years as legislative director for Democratic U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California, chiefly focusing on health care and foreign policy, and seven years at Gilead Sciences, where he was a corporate social responsibility director, helping to get its medications to some of the world’s poorest regions.
He grew up in the Sunland neighborhood of Los Angeles, the son of Armenian and Lebanese immigrants.
His family has a legacy of political engagement, he says. He is inspired by his grandfather and namesake, who was an anti-Communist activist in Armenia when it was part of the Soviet Union and ended up being exiled to Siberia, where Ratevosian’s father was born.
“I’ve always had an interest in politics, mostly as a means to help people and bring about change,” Ratevosian says.
If elected, he says, he’ll work with Republican legislators when possible and fight them when necessary, as he did when he worked for Lee.
“If you’re going to make change, you have to create dialogue,” he says.
The candidate, 42, came out to his parents when he was in his mid-30s. He was moved to do so by AIDS/LifeCycle, a ride down the California coast to raise funds and awareness; he’s participated in it twice.
“That gave me the courage to have that conversation with my parents,” he says.
Initially, the news wasn’t well received; his mother didn’t speak to him for a month, he recalls. But she’s since done a complete turnaround and is strongly supportive, he notes.
Ratevosian recently married fellow activist Micheal Ighodaro, who came to the U.S. as an asylum-seeker from Nigeria 12 years ago and is executive director of Prevention Access Campaign, a global nonprofit fighting the HIV epidemic.
The two became a couple when they were both volunteering for Biden during the Iowa caucus in 2020. Ratevosian proposed when they were on a hiking trail; hiking and cycling are among his favorite hobbies.
He sees the 2024 election as an opportunity not only to bring his experience and expertise to Congress but to increase the diversity of voices there — and California’s 30th district is one of the most diverse in the nation.
“We need a Congress that looks like the people we serve,” he says.
This article originally appeared on Advocate.com, and is shared here as part of an LGBTQ+ community exchange between Q Voice News and Equal Pride.