Bart Nikolo, a transgender man living in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, spends his winter nights gathering kindling for the sex workers who wait for clients near Heroes’ Square. It’s something he’s done for years. After driving around for hours picking up fallen branches, he stacks them in neat piles, creating small fires that radiate a feeble heat.
When policemen try to fine him for “littering”, he explains what he tells should be obvious: that he’s only trying to help ensure that these women, many of whom are also transgender, do not die from the cold.
In the absence of government support for queer people, Nikolo feels that the burden of care has fallen on the LGBT community’s shoulders. During the pandemic, in particular, government aid has failed to reach its most vulnerable citizens, including those facing socioeconomic problems and gender and identity-based discrimination.
Many trans people who aren’t able to pass as cisgendered are pushed into dangerous, unstable and often illegal work, such as prostitution. This makes it difficult for them to access healthcare, housing, mental health services and unemployment assistance.
I met Nikolo in October 2020 on the upper floor of Success in downtown Tbilisi, the city’s only gay bar. “I started by fighting for my own rights,” he told me. Horrified by the bigotry he faced when he first came out as trans in 2006, he set up Equality Movement, an NGO for queer advocacy, in 2011.
“Word of my desire to help [other LGBT people] spread fast. I discovered that there were hundreds of people who needed it – more than you would think,” he said. Since then, Nikolo has helped many LGBT people navigate the challenges of a system that has for decades vehemently oppressed the voices of sexual minorities.
Church and State
Georgia’s hostility towards LGBT rights, Nikolo told me, stems from the contradictions between the two pillars of Georgian national identity, the Church and the State.
When the United National Movement (UNM) party rose to power following the ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003, it promised to overturn the stagnant Soviet political economy and culture by introducing widespread neoliberal reforms, government-led modernisation projects and closer ties to NATO and the EU.
But UNM’s desired shift towards a Western-aligned national identity was at odds with Orthodox traditionalism. An overwhelming 87% of the population identifies as Georgian Orthodox, and the Church – which considers homosexuality immoral, inappropriate and an affront to God’s design for humanity – is trusted far more than the government.
UNM’s rise to power led to a period of polarisation – along with a rise in poverty and inequality that has left the country’s most socioeconomically marginalised people, including queer people, at greater risk of exploitation and discrimination.
While homophobic stigma has inhibited above-ground queer organising, more widespread internet access has enabled inclusive values to take hold in underground communities.
The internet is a major meeting point for Tbilisi’s queer people in the absence of physical safe spaces
“It was only with the advent of the internet that new identity categories became available,” writes Georgian feminist studies scholar Anna Rekhviashvili. This new form of connection helped mobilise clandestine gay networks, she explains, which eventually emerged in a small number of visible sanctuaries – such as Success – in the 2010s.
The internet continues to be a major meeting point for Tbilisi’s queer people in the absence of physical safe spaces and LGBT-affirming resources.
Homophobia vs solidarity
In May 2013, a small rally in central Tbilisi to mark International Day Against Homophobia was ambushed by thousands of angry protesters. Many of them, including Georgian Orthodox priests, violently attacked the gay rights demonstrators.
Russian millionaire and ultra-nationalist Levan Vasadze was a prominent participant in the 2013 ambush. Last month, he announced his plans to enter politics with a new movement Unity, Essence, Hope – abbreviated in Georgian as ERI, meaning “nation”.
Recently, Vasadze talked of destablisation if Tbilisi Pride takes place in early July. “We give the government time,” he said, “to cancel the events, otherwise people will react to the government’s decision” and “will not allow the ‘anti-Christian and anti-Georgian’ activities.”
Vasadze “is doing nothing to discourage extremist and nationalist bigoted views, and that’s disturbing,” said Ian Kelly, the US ambassador to Georgia 2015–18. “His power comes from uniting the opposition and creating a situation that’s very much ‘us-vs-them’.”
Such developments are alarming, but they highlight the importance of solidarity – and improved connections – within the queer community. Giorgi Kikonishvili, a gay rights activist in Tbilisi, was among those attacked in 2013 and remembers it as a turning point for the Georgian LGBT movement.
“But,” he said, “we need to start working together very fiercely.”
In 2018, Kikonishvili and Nikolo set up a private Facebook group called LGBTQ News. It now has almost 4,000 members from Georgia, Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and offers advice on how to “be queer” safely in public.
Social media is increasingly important. “I have around 5,000 friends on Facebook,” Nikolo said. “This is how I find ways to help people. I can be available to anyone who needs me 24/7. Social workers aren’t always around – but I am.”
For example, he remembers when a trans sex worker jumped from the window of an apartment building in the middle of the night to escape a threatening client (she survived). “I spent the night chatting with her friends, trying to figure out what happened, what was going on. It becomes a kind of therapy,” he said.
Nikolo and Kikonishvili have used their Facebook platform to start the Transgender Solidarity Group, to raise money for tran sex workers forced out of work during the pandemic and excluded from emergency government aid.
Some of this money was spent on food, delivered to the sex workers by Natia Gvianishvili, a local lesbian feminist, and Nikolo. “I fought really hard with the state to get a sticker for my car that allowed me to be outside during the [pandemic] curfew,” he said.
At one point, Nikolo worked three days straight without sleep, as his initial list of 40 people in need quickly grew to more than 100.
The alternative public sphere that has blossomed around Nikolo’s online group helps its members through small, human gestures. But it also works in wider ways – germinating ideas for petitions, engaging in outreach with other NGOs, and even generating court cases that could have the potential to change the law.
Nikolo is advocating for laws that would allow trans people in Eurasia to legally change their gender without undergoing prohibitively expensive sex reassignment surgeries. In 2019, he filed a (still ongoing) case at the European Court of Human Rights.
Nikolo and Kikonishvili describe this fight for recognition as a legacy of the 2013 attack on the gay rights rally. In a video of that day, which they showed to openDemocracy, a car carrying activists inches through angry crowds under the escort of a lone police officer, who pushes the protesters away with his hands. Kikonishvili pointed to himself in the video, cowering from the stones, sticks and metal bars that almost shattered the car’s windows.
But what he remembers even more than the violence, he said, were the barricades that had been erected by the police to keep back the crowd of anti-LGBT protestors. That dividing line symbolised for Kikonishvili how, on his side, a small part of Georgian society is quietly demanding acceptance. The rest, on the other side, want to snuff them out.