“Georgia?” My mom’s voice came in tinny and thin over the slow wi-fi. “Where’s Georgia?”
“Northeast of Turkey, north of Armenia,” I said. But I knew that probably wouldn’t help.
“Where’s Armenia?” she asked, laughing.
Our conversation continued for a while like that. I was far away from the typical backpacker routes through Western Europe and the Mediterranean, nestled in the Caucasus mountains between Europe and Asia. Being gay in a conservative country famous for its level of homophobia, the distance felt much greater, but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to interview members of the Tbilisi LGBTQ community for their take on queer life in the home of one of the oldest denominations of Christianity.
In the Beginning
Tbilisi made global headlines on March 17, 2013, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Identoba, the country’s first official LGBTQ rights organization, organized a rally for activists, but when the Church caught wind of their plans, they organized a counter-protest that quickly turned violent.
More than 20,000 counter protesters were bused in from all over Georgia, broke through police lines and began chasing the LGBTQ rights activists through the city. Priests and churchgoers were recorded throwing stones at and beating protesters and passersby, and trying to knock over buses, injuring at least 28 people and hospitalizing 14.
But according to locals, the church doesn’t have as much influence as it once did. Videos of priests trying to turn over buses, throwing stones at protesters and spitting on people was a drastic departure from the holier-than-thou image they’d been able to project and preserve for over a thousand years. And then, there was a Game of Thrones-level scandal. Archpriest Giorgia Mamaladze was convicted in 2017 of attempting to poison the Patriarch’s aide with cyanide. Combined with the May 17th incident, the people of Georgia started to see the Church as less trustworthy, and their cultural influence has waned accordingly. But they still have a lot of political influence.
Miko Shakh, an activist in Tbilisi, says the church’s presence in government is at the root of many of the LGBTQ community’s issues in Georgia. Like many in the community today, he was inspired to come out and become an activist when he saw the 2013 videos.
“The Church funds several NGOs around Georgia that campaign against LGBTQ rights, and spread misinformation,” he says. “Since they’re not legally allowed to run the campaigns directly from the church, the NGOs serve as satellite organizations. But there are leaders of the Church in the government that act as the Church’s political wing. If we send a letter of intent or registration form to make a protest, or any kind of event for LGBTQ people, the religious members of the government reserve those spaces instead and refuse to let us gather.”
Instead, activists focus on finding more LGBTQ-friendly contacts in the government to work with directly. “Imagine, this is where Stalin is from,” Miko says. “Some older Georgians are proud of this fact, and believe we should be deporting and executing gays. So finding someone in government who is just plain neutral towards LGBTQ rights is a win for us.”
Equality Movement of Georgia
Giorgi, a young social worker and medical student in Tbilisi, works for Equality Movement (EM), Georgia’s largest LGBTQ organization. Their mission is to ensure access to health care services, mobilize and support social integration, and form a supportive environment for empowering women and the LGBTQ community. After working in an HIV testing office in Telavi, he relocated to Tbilisi for university and took on a position as the outreach coordinator in addition to providing HIV testing services, and helping people get access to Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (or PreP), a medication that can reduce the likelihood of HIV infection by more than 90% when combined with proper condom use.
“An outreach worker does outreach in clubs, bars… places where the community gathers. There’s maybe 5 of us in Tbilisi,” he says. “There’s also a gay club, Success, which is where we’re going. And there’s a place where transgender sex workers are working. At midnight, they’re working and we go out there and getting them condoms, lubricant, hot coffee, stuff like that.”
Because people are afraid to be out publicly, part of EM’s outreach work also takes place on dating apps like Grindr, Tinder, and Hornet. The office’s Grindr profile, for instance, is just a picture of a bottle of PreP with the name “PreP and Testing.” There’s no mandatory sex education in Georgia, and when I ask if people knew enough to protect themselves, Giorgi laughs.
“No. That’s why we have some high numbers of gay people who have HIV. They don’t have knowledge or practice how to use condoms. They don’t know about HIV/AIDS, PreP, prevention methodology, or many other things,” he says. But not for lack of effort from EM. They tried developing public school programs to teach students sex ed, but those initiatives were dead on arrival. Administrators claimed teaching sex ed to students would teach them to make “homosexual contacts,” and denied even simple programs that aimed to teach children proper hygiene, calling it “gay propaganda”. Many LGBTQ students drop out of school as well, because they feel unsafe or lose support from their families when they come out.
Much of this is driven by the Georgian Orthodox Church and its influence on Georgian culture and politics. The Church teaches that homosexuality is an “anomaly and illness,” and presents sex in general as a taboo. But efforts to bring Georgia’s understanding of LGBTQ people resulted in a turning point in the Church’s influence.
Building a community
If you look for information on the LGBTQ community in Georgia online, information is sparse. Unlike in some other more progressive countries where there are listings of gay-friendly businesses, doctors, and events, Georgians rely almost entirely on social media and word of mouth to organize events and share places that are safe to be out.
“We used to be in a really unsafe part of the city,” Giorgi says of the EM headquarters. “It was in an area with older people, a lot of conservative people. We tried to throw a house party, and it ended with a neighbor coming and beating my best friend in the street.”
Most areas of the city turn out to be dangerously heteronormative, but the office has moved across town since the attack. Now, their office is near the University and most of their neighbors are young people, and they haven’t had any issues since the move. They’re even able to hold weekly meetups in a new cafe area uptairs, and still plan parties on a regular basis.
Nino is a tennis coach from Tbilisi and she’s big on the party scene. “There are few clubs now. There’s Success, which is small and there’s always people there. There’s an abandoned pool under the stadium that turned into Bassiani, that’s kind of where the techno parties became popular. Techno music is basically the anthem of LGBTQ people in Georgia. I love going to kiki there.”
“What’s a kiki?” I ask. All I knew about kikis was from a Scissor Sisters song from 2012.
Miko explains that for them, a kiki is a huge party with techno music. “There are dark rooms, dancing, sexual liberation, things like that. At a certain point we realized that you can’t have community if everyone is totally repressed.”
He has a point. According to a 2004 World Bank report on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Georgia, “a majority of men who have sex with men are involved in sex industry, however not because of poverty but lack of partners characterized with higher level of occasional contacts.” If you’re stigmatized for being out, or having a long time partner, long term companionship isn’t a readily available option. That’s why risky behavior is more common among the LGBTQ community.
But a lot has changed in the past 15 years, Miko says. “So we have these kikis so people can be themselves and let loose. That way we can come together and focus on other important things like activism, they’re not forced to be sexually repressed their whole lives.” The kiki at Bassiani is the largest and most important for them, and they call it Horoom, which refers to a traditional Georgian battle dance — a not-so-subtle nod to the battle they’re fighting for the right to live openly.
The advent of queer spaces and clubbing radically changed the situation in Tbilisi. The community creates, disseminates, and uses techno music as a form of protest against homophobia, sexism, and racism, and Horoom provides them with precious space to gather, be themselves, feel safe, and develop a sense of community.
“It used to be chaos,” Nino says. She drops some sugar into her coffee and stirs, her eyes getting glassy. She breaths in deeply and continues after a pause. “There was nothing for us before. Just lonely people. Now it’s not so bad, and I can be out to some of my friends.”
“And your family?” I ask.
“I don’t think I’ll ever tell my family. I don’t really see a reason to. My grandma, she’s old and I don’t want her to hate me. My dad is really traditional, and when I tried to tell my sister she thought I was lying so we never talked about it again. She even asks me still when I’m going to have a boyfriend. Maybe I’ll have to get married to a man some day, I don’t know.”
Not unlike the American South and Midwest, coming out to family can prove impossible in Georgia for many reasons. There’s still a great sense of shame around being LGBTQ, it’s difficult to find employment once you’re out, and Georgia’s culture heavily emphasizes intergenerational family relationships as the basic unit of society. Lose your family, and you lose your livelihood and home.
Access to Care
Giorgi says these are the kinds of people that are hardest to reach out to. So few people have enough financial stability or privilege to be out that they ‘play straight’ to their family and friends to hold on to some sense of normalcy. They’ll marry and have families, all while refusing to see doctors or connect with anyone in the community for fear of being outed.
This isn’t just a problem for LGBTQ Georgians, though. Sex is such a social taboo that Georgians often avoid seeing a doctor for STIs because they fear social backlash, which has meant an upward trend in STIs around the country. Although intravenous drug users account for 70% of new HIV infections, and only about half of all those living with HIV in Georgia are even aware of it (compared to 85% who know their status in the USA).
In order to combat new infections in the LGBTQ community, EM offers community classes and produces literature on the risks of unprotected sex, how to use condoms, and other important sex ed topics. They also offer free HIV testing and prescriptions for PreP. But there are even barriers in that process.
“We have an AIDS center. Everyone’s afraid to go there,” Giorgi says. “I was asked to go there because they are not protecting personal information. People were going there, people don’t want to go there and get meds and get testing, but we have some quick tests and some services and they can get it here instead.”
“They don’t protect personal information?” I ask.
“When you go, the testing room is like, the door is open. There’s maybe 7 women sitting there and everybody… sometimes they’re shouting the last names loudly. Everybody can hear it, even in the corridor. That’s why they’re afraid to go. But for example, there is [an] HIV positive persons list, and when they are making signatures, when they’re getting medicines, they can see other peoples’ names and surnames. That’s why HIV positive people are afraid to go there and get services. Because everybody knows about your HIV status. It’s normal, nobody wants to shout their health status.”
I decided to go and see the process for myself. EM uses 4th generation HIV tests, which involve nothing more than a prick of the finger and a few minutes of waiting, and they can detect new HIV transmissions within two weeks of infection. After the test, he quizzes me about my sexual history and fills out a two-page form. My identity is codified as several random letters and numbers, and he instructs me to take it to the AIDS Center a few metro stops and a short bus ride away.
After some struggle finding the right building, I walk into an open room with 8 nurses sitting around a room chatting. They take my paperwork, bring in an English-speaking doctor, and she tells me I need to get some blood work done first and come back in a week. The door to the office remains open, and several younger people hang out in the corridor and look in as I’m getting my blood drawn. I sign some papers, stuff the copy they give me into my backpack, and I’m on my way.
A week later, they gave me a call and I come back in to check on my results and get my prescription. The English-speaking doctor accompanies another woman and myself into a more private room where they explain how PreP works and how often to take it. The doctor opens an enormous binder with handwritten notes and spreadsheets of names. On the left are names, written in Georgian, and to the right of each of the names is a (-) or a (+). She runs her finger down the page until she gets to my name and holds the book up and says something in Georgian. I guess the other people on that page should be glad I can’t read Georgian. But after that, she hands me my prescription and tells me to come back in a few weeks to get more tests and a longer, 3-month supply. There’s no payment or anything else to take care of.
Considering that just a few years ago, most Georgians had no idea what ‘gay’ or ‘LGBTQ’ meant, Georgia has come a long way. Moving forward, Miko believes the biggest issue is money, and economic independence.
But Georgia is listed as a bit of an oddity, especially in the context of its neighbors. Georgia has non-discrimination policy embedded into its constitution, aiming to protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodation. On paper, this looks great. According to Equaldex’s map of LGBT protections around the globe, Georgia looks even more liberal than the USA — but that’s not the reality many Georgians live.
“If you’re LGBTQ, especially if you’re a feminine man, you’ll only be hired in hospitality. It’s not possible for a lot of people to come out because they will simply be out of work,” Giorgi says. Trans people are at much higher risk of discrimination, family abandonment, and violent attacks in Georgia. Giorgi says this is probably because trans people are more identifiable on the street, whereas cisgender members of the community can hide in the closet, so to speak. And despite Georgian constitutional law that is inclusive of trans people, it’s nearly impossible for them to find regular employment because of widespread discrimination. For that reason, many of them turn to sex work.
While the protections exist, those laws don’t have teeth, and there’s no clear plan on how to enforce those policies. In effect, those provisions were added to the constitution to look good to Europeans investors and tourists and there’s no real effort to hold landlords or employers accountable for discriminatory lease refusals or firings. Even when those cases are taken to court, lawyers can exhibit homophobia, or even refuse to defend their clients outright. And if you can’t risk your sexuality being made public, there’s not much else you can do besides withstanding discriminatory treatment.
“If you can’t work, it’s hard to even think about activism,” Giorgi explains. “So I think as long as employment discrimination exists, that’s just the biggest difficulty. The community needs money. It needs financial stability.”
Still, Georgia is that tiny green speck on the map in a sea of red. LGBT Azerbaijanis from the east, Armenians from the south, and Chechens from the north are increasingly turning to Tbilisi as a place of refuge, and as the community grows and Georgian culture evolves to be more welcoming and tolerant, younger Georgians like Nico, Giorgi, and Miko will lead the charge for their community. Some day, and maybe some day soon, EM’s mission will become reality.