English translation: Susan Jessop
Eka Aghdgomelashvili (41) and Mariam Gagoshashvili (26) are both sticking their neck out in homophobic Georgia to defend the rights of lesbians, bisexual women and transgender people.While Georgia is enthusiastic about becoming part of the ‘freeWest’, the country also maintains conservative traditions that make life very difficult for gay men and lesbians. In the country of the Rose Revolution, a ‘pink’ revolution still remains a distant dream.
TEXT Janine van Doorn
Still No Pink Revolution in Georgia
Eka Aghdgomelashvili, the only woman who dares to talk openly about homosexuality on Georgian television, is making a quick visit to the offices of Mama Cash in Amsterdam. She works with an organisation called the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG) which stands up for the rights of lesbians, bisexual women and transgender people (LBTs), and she is in the Netherlands representing WISG at an international conference in the Hague. She is tired after days of long meetings but also really pleased with the contacts that she has been able to make. We have arranged a virtual conversation via Skype with Mariam Gagoshashvili who works with the Women’s Fund in Georgia (WFG). WFG supports Georgian women’s organisations and is particularly conscious of providing support to groups that are marginalised and neglected, such as LBT groups.
Eka begins by telling a bit of the history of her country which lies to the east of the Black Sea and borders Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Georgia’s history is one of the chief reasons that Eka’s organisation faces such challenges in its work to empower lesbians, bisexual women and transgender people and to fight the society’s homophobia. Since Georgia declared its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, the process of constructing a more democratic society has been difficult. While the reality is not so rosy, a lot has been accomplished on paper in the creation of a freer society.
During Soviet times, gay men could be punished with three to six years in prison, and lesbians were usually diagnosed as schizophrenics and committed to psychiatric institutions. After declaring independence, Georgia removed homosexuality from its list of criminal offenses in 2000, signed the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, and took steps to protect gay men and lesbians from discrimination in employment. But president Saakashvili, who came to power in the wake of the famous Rose Revolution in 2003 and promised better living conditions, had his hands full in dealing with internal armed conflicts and pervasive poverty. More than half of the Georgian population lives under the poverty threshold. In this context, human rights faded into the background as a political issue.
National independence also saw an increase in extreme nationalism and hatred toward ethnic and religious minority groups. In recent years, homosexuals, along with criminals and prostitutes, have become one of the most despised groups in the society. The church, politicians and the media have all demonised homosexuals, who are seen as enemy number one of traditional national values.
Mariam explains how lesbians are seen in Georgian society: ‘A lesbian is “masculine, sick, aggressive and frustrated”’. Lesbians violate unwritten rules with respect to how women are supposed to live their lives.Women are expected to be subservient to their husbands, to devote themselves to motherhood and to enter marriage as virgins.’ Some people believe that there is slightly greater tolerance of lesbians than of gay men because sex between women (i.e., without a penis) is not real sex and, as a result, lesbians can still be ‘virgins’ when they marry. All women who fail to conform to Georgia’s sex role and gender norms are vulnerable to punishment in the form of family violence, enormous pressure to marry, and, sometimes, even literal confinement. Women who do not marry are treated as child‐ or man‐haters who refuse to fulfill their traditional roles and duties. A woman who consciously chooses not to marry has to be both very strong and economically independent.
’It is also important to realise that talking about sexuality, in any sense, is a big taboo here’, adds Eka. ‘According to the Orthodox Church, which has significance influence and has exerted a powerful effect on public opinion in recent years, the purpose of sex is reproduction. As a result, homosexuality is regarded as perverse. It is a step in the right direction that the Church has acknowledged that gay men and lesbians exist, but still we are supposed to remain invisible and not bother anyone. In recent years, it has become fashionable to whip up fear and homophobia by spreading the rumour that a Gay Pride event will be held here in Georgia. Last August, the Church organised a big demonstration in the city of Batumi against this supposed Gay Pride. Many of the church’s followers took to the streets, even though there was no Gay Pride planned. At this point, gay men and lesbians wouldn’t dare to think of organising a Pride event!”
That Georgia’s traditional culture renders lesbians invisible is no surprise. Mariam: “Lesbians are so invisible in Georgia that our language doesn’t have a word for lesbian.’ Among themselves, lesbians tend to use English words. Mariam, for example, describes herself as queer, an umbrella term that encompasses everything that is not heterosexual. During our conversation, Eka frequently refers to the L group. Lesbians are not only invisible to the outside world, but also to each other. Eka: ‘Lesbians look so ‘neutral’ that you have a hard time seeing who is gay.’ Mariam: ‘The universal image of ‘the lesbian’, to the extent that it exists, just hasn’t reached Georgia yet.’ The number of places where lesbians can find each other and come together is extremely limited. Mariam: ‘Research has shown that much of lesbian life takes place online, and that many relationships have virtual beginnings. And of course women also meet each other through mutual friends.’ In rural areas, where not everyone has access to electricity, let alone the Internet, lesbians, bisexual women and transwomen are much more isolated and often cannot make contact with each other. ‘Furthermore, social control and the lack of privacy are so great that anyone who deviates from the norm is punished. It is impossible for my organisation and the groups that we support to reach lesbians in rural areas. It will be a long time before rural lesbians get organised and stand up for their rights. For now, we try to encourage heterosexual women to feel solidarity with LBTs. Hopefully, they will see that lesbian rights are an important part of women’s rights.’
In cities, women can be somewhat more anonymous, which increases the possibilities for finding others who share your sexual orientation. WISG’s ‘women’s club’ and a just‐opened lesbian bar in Tbilisi are the only places in all of Georgia where lesbians, bisexual women and transgender people can meet each other. Eka: ‘We cannot openly advertise ourselves and just let any outsider come in. That would be dangerous for the group. Of course, our members can bring friends along to introduce them to the club.’ Security is a charged issue since the police raided the women’s club. ‘In December 2009, when our club was still using the space of another friendly organisation, the police made an unexpected raid. Policemen who were not wearing uniforms and who had no identification or arrest warrants locked up the chairperson of the organisation in one room, while I was locked up with eighteen women in another room. Our bags and mobile telephones were taken from us. The men said nothing about why we were being held. They threatened to kill me if I didn’t stop asking to see their identification. They were extremely aggressive, used degrading words and threatened to reveal our sexual orientation to our fathers and brothers. For most of the women, that would have been absolutely devastating. After being confined for five hours and without being ‘outed’ to our families, we were allowed to leave.’ In the wake of the raid, the intimidation of Eka and her colleague continued, and other human rights activists have reported similar events. ‘During the weeks after the raid, we were followed by the same faces and the same cars. The very visible support of international organisations like the COC (the national LGBT activist organisation in the Netherlands) and the Dutch embassy helped me to avoid further harassment. Finally, we took our case to a judge, but the judicial system has refused to investigate the police misconduct. So, we will now raise our case with the European Court in Strasbourg.’
Despite the initial shock, the incident has actually made the women stronger and increased their sense of solidarity with each other: ‘We really understand now what we mean to each other.’ Eka’s determination to speak openly about homosexuality has not been diminished; she has never felt vulnerable because of her sexual orientation. ‘In my case, it has always felt very natural and unproblematic. Sometimes I had a female partner, sometimes a man. I have never felt that I had to explain myself to anyone. I had the ‘advantage’ of growing up without parents. So compared with other children, I had a lot of freedom, and my family respected my privacy. That is quite rare for women in our culture.’
During her own process of ‘becoming conscious of her sexual and emotional preferences’, Mariam always had the support of her feminist mother. Mariam studied abroad for two years, including in Berlin, and, by Georgian standards, she experienced an unknown degree of freedom. She was very tempted to remain abroad, but in the end she chose to return to her native land. ‘It was difficult, and if it hadn’t been for my work and the support of my mother and friends, it would have been unbearable. To be oppressed and unfairly treated as a gay person just because of the country you were born in feels incredibly unfair. It is really difficult for me to accept. At the same time, I understand that the world beyond Georgia is also not a paradise and that homophobia and sexism exist everywhere.’ She has found the social pressure to be invisible and to conceal one’s sexuality extremely difficult since she returned to Georgia. ‘I feel an incredible sense of resistance, and I try never to give in to the pressure. Unfortunately, for my own safety and the safety of those that I care about, sometimes I have to. I always say that visibility is our greatest tool as activists, even though our efforts to be more visible are often punished.’
The personal stories that Eka and Mariam hear from other women who have benefitted from the work of WISG and WFG are evidence that progress is being made, even if the steps are small.
‘One of the projects that we financed brought together girls for the very first lesbian, bisexual and transgender summer camp in Georgia. It was so moving to hear the girls daring to talk about their sexual identity, their experiences and their struggles and to see them return home stronger and empowered. That is the foundation for taking the next step – feeling strong enough to stand up for yourself and your rights.’ Eka remembers how the women with whom she has now closely worked for five years first came into the WISG office: ‘If you asked them a question, they got red in the face and couldn’t say a word. Thanks to all of the activities that we have organised together, they have grown a lot as people and have really developed their own lives. Last year, they spontaneously joined an international action to protest the stoning of a woman in Iran. I thought it was a great success that members of this group could stand up for another marginalised group. You know that you’ve come far when you feel solidarity with someone else!’