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Rights and repercussions: The paradox of LGBT life in Georgia

Former Soviet republic makes progress on paper as discrimination continues

Georgia is a study in paradox, says LGBT activist Natia Gvianishvili. “The gap between what rights are guaranteed to [LGBT people] by law and what rights we can enjoy out of those rights is really big.” Credit: Salome Tsopurashvili

“My parents died not having found out the truth about me — although they suspected something,” the invisible narrator says in a tone that oscillates between matter-of-fact and subtle emotion.

“All parents can feel it . . . but parents usually choose the position ‘I won’t believe, because I don’t want to.’”

The protagonist’s voice overlays The Price of Being Me, a 14-minute documentary in soliloquy that recounts a 32-year-old lesbian’s discovery and experience of her sexuality in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The film traces her early infatuation with another 12-year-old girl for whom she devotedly gathered flowers every day on vacation, but whose parents whisked her away because they suspected . . . something. She also reveals her loveless — and eventually conflict-ridden —marriage to a man whom she bluntly informs that her love of women is a physiological need. She has a child with him but eventually meets a woman with whom she and her daughter now live.

She never once appears in the film, not even in silhouette, out of respect for the privacy and reputation of her partner’s parents, who cast their daughter’s relationship with the narrator as friendship. “If it crosses the frame they offer, even by an inch, you can feel all the negativity arise,” she says. “That’s why I can’t show my face today; I don’t want that family to be harmed. I respect and love them very much.” She doesn’t want any hurt or harm to come to her partner or her daughter either.

“Families reject their children because of this; sisters reject their brothers,” she says. “I want society to accept me the way I am, but can you imagine what price I’d have to pay?”

As her subject reveals the plot of her life, filmmaker Liana Jaqeli’s camera provides aerial and ground-level glimpses of Georgia’s rural and urban landscapes, but she studiously avoids showing its citizens’ faces, in a move of symbolic solidarity with her film’s hidden storyteller: if her lesbian lead can’t be seen, then neither can they.

The Price of Being Me is a production of StudioMobile–Accent on Action, a social-justice media vehicle Jaqeli created in 1998 as an alternative to mainstream media’s poor representation of — or indifference to — Georgia’s marginalized and vulnerable communities.

She has since produced several documentaries to counteract the sexist, xenophobic and homophobic attitudes that she says prevail in Georgian society. The films have been aired on television, inspired discussion on talk shows and been used in training workshops to increase awareness about the country’s Azeri and Armenian populations, people with disabilities, women’s rights and the LGBT community.

When Jaqeli embarks on an LGBT project, she is careful to scout out and select locations that are as remote as possible or can be secured easily. She accepts the risks that naturally accrue to doing the work she does. “Once you make documentaries on these topics, you are not allowed to be afraid,” Jaqeli says through her translator, Natia Gvianishvili, an LGBT activist.

Still, Jaqeli insists on attaching only her own name to the LGBT-themed projects — despite the arguments of her crew of usually about five people — to buffer them and their families from potentially violent repercussions.

Georgia is a study in paradox, Gvianishvili says. “The gap between what rights are guaranteed to [LGBT people] by law and what rights we can enjoy out of those rights is really big.”

She notes that homosexuality was decriminalized in 2000, and since then there have been a number of progressive amendments to Georgia’s laws. The labour code prohibits firing gays and lesbians because of their sexual orientation, but trans people are not protected under the new amendment. The law governing patients’ rights now includes LGBT people, and, as of 2012, the criminal code provides for stiffer sentences if there is evidence that crimes committed were motivated by prejudice or hate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  

But the progress is essentially on paper only.

“The amendment in the criminal code has not been applied to any cases known to us,” says Gvianishvili, indicating that the community has been researching the issue. “We have only been receiving negative answers from different courts. Either the judges or prosecutors are not prepared — and it’s been two years now — to use the particular amendment or it’s simply a lack of political will.”

Georgia even has a national human rights strategy that encompasses LGBT issues, but the raft of LGBT-friendly legislation and policies — part of a checklist of obligations Georgia needs to fulfill to gain entry into the European Union — is lost in translation on the cultural ground.

The government doesn’t really care whether these policies resonate with society, Gvianishvili says. Public displays of same-sex affection can provoke aggressive reaction, and there’re no such things as gay bars, she says.

“We have a couple places that are gay-friendly, but they would never publicly declare they are for fear of being attacked,” she adds. “The presence of LGBT people at these places signals that this is a safe place. Otherwise, nightlife for LGBT people is non-existent.”

This year the LGBT community didn’t take to the streets to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) as it did in 2012 and 2013, since the state couldn’t or wouldn’t provide security.

Gvianishvili recalls the virulent backlash that 100 activists faced from an angry mob numbering between 20,000 and 40,000 people during an aborted attempt to mark IDAHOT in May 2013.

“We got out of there alive,” she says, though some people suffered concussions in the violence that was unleashed. An Amnesty International report on the incident says that of 17 people reported injured, 12 had to be hospitalized.

The human rights organization condemned the lack of security and the tardiness of the authorities in penalizing those responsible for the violence.

“It is becoming a dangerous trend in Georgia to condone and leave unpunished the acts of violence against religious and sexual minorities if they are perpetrated by the Orthodox religious clergy or their followers. It is simply unacceptable for the authorities to continue to allow attacks in the name of religion or on the basis of anyone’s real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia program director at Amnesty International, in the aftermath of the chaos.

Gvianishvili says four people are being tried in a case that has been going on since last year. “There are many, many witnesses to question, so I hope that the ruling will be made before I have grandchildren,” she says.

In the wake of the violence, she says, the community reached out to the Ministry of the Interior to push for a hate-crime liaison within the police department, but nothing has come of those overtures.

While the investigation into last year’s attack dragged on, attacks on people who don’t conform to society’s gender norms continued throughout May in the capital, Tbilisi, after the IDAHOT event, Gvianishvili notes.

“Trust in police is quite low in the LGBT community, especially when it comes to trans people involved in sex work and gay people that hang out in cruising areas which are raided,” she says. “Police are not trained how to speak to LGBT people or on what sexual orientation and gender identity is, what hate crimes are and how to investigate, so someone goes to the authorities and gets a homophobic attitude from an officer, this spreads in the community — people are afraid of being treated worse than by a perpetrator.”

The community is closely monitoring how authorities investigate the murder of Sabi Beriani, a 23-year-old transgender woman who was killed at her Tbilisi apartment that was set on fire in early November.

While a man has confessed to killing Beriani and is in custody, Gvianishvili says there is no indication thus far that Georgian authorities will be guided by the relatively new criminal code amendment to investigate her murder as a hate-motivated crime.

If they do, she says, it would set a useful precedent in the fight against the sense of impunity that fuels the violence against LGBT people.

Gvianishvili, who interviewed Beriani for a chapter on transgender people as part of a study on discrimination against LGBT people in Georgia, remembers her as a very courageous woman who was open about her gender identity and made a number of television appearances to talk about transgender issues, even as she faced discrimination from the society around her.

“She was taking all aggression as something she expected for her openness,” Gvianishvili says.

Gvianishvili had been culling some of her transcribed recordings the day she found out about Beriani’s murder. “I couldn’t delete her interview; unconsciously, I couldn’t delete it. It was the last thing I had from her.”

Gvianishvili attended Beriani’s funeral, which was held in a village two hours outside of Tbilisi. She was initially apprehensive about how residents would treat Beriani’s family, but her fears subsided when she saw how supportive they were. “Everyone knew she was trans; I couldn’t hear anyone speak ill of her. They only said how kind and nice she was.”

Still, Gvianishvili says, she and some of the family’s friends were upset to see that Beriani was buried in a man’s suit.

In the days after Beriani’s death, Gvianishvili and fellow activists wrote blogs and took to social media to counter media coverage that misgendered her and to challenge comments aimed at dehumanizing her.

But there were occasions where Beriani’s memory was honoured, including the Transgender Day of Remembrance and the International Day Against Gender-Based Violence. As Gvianishvili marked the latter, she was moved to see that a vigil in a western Georgian town included a photo of Beriani.

“I almost cried when I saw it,” she says.