Georgia: On Gender Equality, Pride and Freedom in Tbilsi

Publication

Apr 2, 2020

By Mariam Minadze

I have admired Nia Gvatua´s courage and determination to try and break the raging gender stereotypes in Georgia since I first met her. For the last three years, she has been the manager of Success, the country’s first and only self-proclaimed gay bar. “I was always different,” she told me, “and they would call me crazy, nonetheless the key is to dare and step up.” Which she did. I am 25 years old. My country bears the name of a woman: Georgia, but it is far from qualifying as female-friendly, or for that matter accepting of anyone: spirited women, transgender individuals, gay and lesbian people, and whoever threatens Georgia’s male-dominated society. People here believe that if you’re not heterosexual, your entire family is doomed to carry the eternal burden of social shame. In Tbilisi, the capital city where I live, there is more awareness and tolerance, but also more aggression and fear. I often receive covert looks from people. hey stare at me because I am strong-willed and it shows, I have an ambitious persona and I love it. Yet, if I am indeed challenged personally and at work, I am still considered “normal.”

”Now can someone explain what is normal and who sets the standards?

 Georgia is one of the few countries in the former Soviet Union that directly prohibits discrimination against all LGBT people. But in real life, homosexuality is still considered a major deviation from the highly influential traditional Orthodox Christian church that sets the country’s moral grounds. Only last year did Georgia allow public celebrations for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. But pressure, physical and psychological, remains a fixture in LGBT people’s daily lives, be it at work, in social life, even with friends sometimes, let alone families. Religious leaders too have launched a “fight” against gender diversity, and the Orthodox Church declared May 17 “Day of Family Purity.” The event has been “celebrated” for seven years now mostly by radical groups.

Since the exception makes the rule, the only “partly accepted” transgender woman in Georgia is Kesaria Abramidze, a model, who has been Georgian contestant in the annual contest Miss Trans Star International 2018, where she reached the semi-final, taking the 5th place. As contradictory as it might seem, she also received the “Miss Popular” vote. 

So what changed in the last nine years?

Nia is what changed!

Success isn’t just another bar but a unique space in which one can breathe and bathe in Georgia’s nascent diversity. Conversations are free flowing and inclusive, everyone can express  themselves on the small dance floor. “Earlier in our society it was thought that there were no Georgian gays,” Nia tells me. 

The non-smoking venue is located in the crowded center of the city, two minutes away from main Rustaveli Avenue. At the entrance, by the glass door, stands an imposing bouncer whose looks are only matched by his friendly demeanor. He’s seen a few raids by homophobic individuals but, today, there is an anti-discrimination law that protects us and all perpetrators have been arrested.

Meanwhile, inside the darkly lit room, tolerance is at home. The atmosphere is cozy: red lights, feathers and paintings of various body parts and lots of mirrors, the music is blasting and people come from all gender orientations. There’s a small dance floor at the back of which lies the resting room – the most “popular” space in the bar as patrons get to know each other well. There is also a single bed in an open space on the second floor and no dress code throughout it all. I’ve watched a man sporting a tuxedo dance with a guy wearing a sparkling t-shirt and long, even more shiny earrings. Or you may bump into someone wearing no clothes at all. The diversity and the free expression make for an exponentially interesting experience.

But out there, in the streets, in magazines, cinemas, restaurants and overall public spaces, trans lives in particular can sometimes remain tragic, as sex work is prevalent and often the only option.It is more difficult for trans individuals to study and work, andmost can’t rely on their families either. When trans people  try and rent a flat, owners are reluctant to keep them as tenants given that they are so frequently attacked. Sometimes, even clients of trans sex workers are the ones likely to harass or beat up transgender individuals in public. It will take 10 to 15 years to see a change when the older generation retires, Nia and I agree. Thankfully, Gen Z is more open-minded and progressive. 

A few months ago was the premiere of the Georgia-set drama And Then We Danced. Set against the backdrop of Georgia’s traditional dance scene, And Then We Danced revolves around a talented young dancer who develops feelings for a male rival in an environment where gay relationships remain taboo.

What happened was predictable — people have tried to disrupt the movie premiere. Some are called the “hidden gays,” who protest homosexuality and resent those who are comfortable with it. 

Set against the backdrop of Georgia’s traditional dance scene, And Then We Danced revolves around a talented young dancer who develops feelings for a male rival in an environment where gay relationships remain taboo.

Georgian society still needs to educate its people and face reality: we are diverse and should be equals. The only relevant question isn’t about who others are but who we are ourselves.

And I am asking, Who are you?

At Success most seem to have come up with their own answers. You can tell by the smiles, by the sparkles and by the fact that nobody feels the need to judge others. 

Ultimately, Success is a sanctuary where labels die and humanism prevails.