If I had a coin for every time I explained I was traveling to Georgia – ‘The Republic of’, not the US state – I’d be a wealthy man. Admittedly, to many Westerners it’s not high on the bucket list, overshadowed by higher-profile neighbours Turkey and Russia.
But following a invitation from a friend to visit him in his newly-rented apartment in Tbilisi, I felt instantly curious – and torn.
It’s legal to be gay in Georgia, but the country is so entrenched in Orthodox Christianity that LGBTI people are often victims of abuse and violence.
When it comes to where queer travelers in the West choose to vacation, many of us vote with our wallets, supporting the economies of well-catalogued gay-friendly destinations, such as Sitges or Mykonos. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But why limit your experiences of the world exclusively to places that are tolerant to your sexual leanings?
In all anti-gay countries, LGBTI people exist. Take a trip anywhere, access a few apps and you’ll almost certainly find the rainbow tribe.
For these people, the experiences and examples set by more liberated countries can be a source of inspiration and hope. Thanks to an ever-growing global consciousness via the web, change is unstoppable.
And assistance can take many forms. We can help by making sure their stories and struggle are not forgotten, reaching out with support and solidarity to help give them a voice. Yes, as travelers we can snub countries because of their anti-gay laws and rulers. But let’s not forget the people themselves.
I want to meet these people – as a journalist, and as a gay man.
That’s how, after a five hours of flying from London via Istanbul (there are no direct flights from the UK), I came to find myself sitting with the country’s leading LGBTI activist (more on him later) on an entirely self-funded trip to Tbilisi: a city full full of fascinating contradictions.
The very walkable destination is commonly given the ’east meets west’ label, but I don’t see it. It’s keen to forge relations with Europe and on the drive into the city centre, lampposts are bedecked with Euro flags while local landmarks are floodlit blue and yellow, as the country celebrated a series of European Days in a bid to forge relations with the EU.
Then there’s the architecture. There’s the odd austere concrete hangover from the Soviet era, but on the whole things look largely European and vaguely Parisian.
The only exceptions are the fast-disappearing rickety wooden houses of the Old Town and the domes of the Islamic quarter, home to the city’s only mosque and a series of bathhouses tapping into the sulphur springs that inspired the monarchy of the day to crown Tbilisi the capital.
Then there’s the unpredictability. Pedestrian crossings exist but are largely ignored by drivers. According to local etiquette, it’s perfectly acceptable for a friend to rock up 10 minutes late to a meet without apologising. They may not even show up, and then ignore any texts or calls. It’s not bad manners, just a Georgian thing.
Even the weather is changeable. Because the capital is surrounded by mountains there can be blazing sunshine one minute, torrential thunderstorms the next.
One of my favourite things about the city is the plethora museums and galleries – most can be found on the main artery of Rustaveli Avenue.
The Georgian National Museum is a good place to get an overview of the country; one of the most chilling exhibits covers the Soviet occupation of Georgia, charting how during the period from 1920 until independence in 1990 some 880,000 citizens were either killed or exiled to the notorious gulags. This is just the ‘official’ documented figure but it’s startling to consider how much the country suffered considering it was the actual the motherland of Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin.
The nearby Art Museum is home to the country’s Treasury – an extensive, sparkling collection consisting mostly of icons and religious ceremonial paraphernalia dating back to the arrival of Christianity in the region. Meanwhile, the National Gallery hosts a collection of early 20th Century work from Georgia’s most acknowledged talent.
The aforementioned bathhouses are strictly ‘look but don’t touch’, echoing the attitude towards homosexuality. Indeed, while two local guys can walk down the street, one with his arm around the other, it’s seen as a blokey thing. When tourists do it, it’s frowned upon.
These are testing times for the LBGTI community in Tbilisi. On May 17 local LGBTI supporters took to the city’s main street to celebrate International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO). Problems arose after the Georgian Orthodox Church decided to hijack the day and lead a march celebrating ‘Family Day’ down the same thoroughfare.
Some 10 arrests were made with court action seeing seven of those subsequently fined for graffiti. But since the clashes, out gay men continue to be assaulted on the streets and the city’s LGBTI community centre was forced to close temporarily after far right activists began to rally on Facebook to mobilise for an attack on the premises. It’s now reopened and is back in business offering weekly socials and a hub for help, advice and support.
‘There’s a problem in that the state doesn’t recognise or see the needs of LGBTI people, while we have no formal lobbying group to push for change. But we also realise that a change in the law will not change people’s attitudes,’ advocate Beka Gabadadze tells me over a beer at the gay-friendly Gallery Café.
‘Supporting LGBTI issues is seen as something Western so Russia has been helping fund organised homophobia here. And the church continues to hold great power,’ he adds.
As a result, there has been a significant rise in the figures of those diagnosed HIV positive and it’s now estimated that one in four men who have sex with men now carry the virus. Due to the influence of the church, discussing sexual matters – gay or straight – is taboo across the country and awareness of the risks of unsafe sex is hazy.
It also doesn’t help that Georgian culture is by tradition very patriarchal. Femme guys and trans people are not flavour of the month with many members of the community and, according to Beka, receive little tolerance or sympathy from society at large. The result is that many gay people chose to remain closeted and find it hard to speak out about attacks or oppression, whatever form it takes.
‘Despite all this I’m still optimistic for the future, but change will take a long time. Today’s students are now openly discussing queer issues for the first time. They are beginning to see that the church organises believers in hate and, as young people become more questioning and critical of the church, the state will eventually change,’ he concludes.
Until then, gay life will continue to centre around the city’s LGBTI community centre together with the gay-friendly venues of the Gallery Café with it’s weekend dance nights, the after-venue Success, as well as the clubs Bassiani and Mtkuri. There are also the obligatory cruising grounds but they are obviously at your own risk. ‘They’re still safer than Rustaveli [Avenue] was on May 17,’ jokes Beka.
Yes, things could be better for the LGBTI community in Georgia. The important thing is that they realize this. They’re not happy to just sit back and accept things as they are. History is shaped by those whose who shape it. And that’s what just what Beka and his comrades are doing.
My thoughts and support go out to them. And perhaps after you have read this, yours will too.