Two months into Georgia’s coronavirus lockdown, Madona Kiparoidze felt she had no options left.
Kiparoidze, a 19-year-old transgender sex worker, had seen no clients for 45 days, leaving her unable to pay rent and desperate for help. But as her line of work is illegal in the country, she did not qualify for the government’s financial aid program.
And so, on April 30 last year, she went up to Tbilisi’s city hall and set herself on fire.
Police officers swiftly stripped off her burning jacket before detaining her; Kiparoidze landed in the hospital with severe burns on her hands and forearms. When journalists asked her why she’d risked her life, she replied, “Because the Georgian state doesn’t care about me.”
Discrimination against queer people remains widespread in the South Caucasus nation even as it has enshrined LGBTQ protections in law while seeking closer ties to the European Union.
In 2010, Georgia was offered visa-free travel to the bloc’s Schengen area if it met a series of requirements aligning it with EU standards, which included greater protections against all forms of discrimination. As a result, in 2014, Tbilisi passed a sweeping anti-discrimination law that protects minorities against hate crimes and abuse.
In some ways, it’s helped — for example ensuring that spaces like Tbilisi’s only gay bar can operate relatively unscathed. But overall, the reality of most queer Georgians does not match up to the promises made on paper.
Transgender people remain particularly vulnerable, and especially so in the context of the pandemic, as many rely on sex work to survive.
Sex workers across Europe have faced enormous difficulty over the past year. But in Georgia, members of the transgender community say they feel they have in effect been systematically denied aid given the illegal status of sex work, a lack of other employment opportunities and the apparent reluctance of the conservative government to fully implement the EU-inspired anti-discrimination law.
Kiparoidze, in an interview in October, said the steps Georgia has taken to align with the EU on LGBTQ matters have been perfunctory — more about sending a signal to the EU than truly protecting the rights of gay and transgender citizens. The country’s visa-liberalization scheme with the EU entered into force in 2017 — partly on the back of reforms made to protect minorities — and the Georgian government set its sights on applying for full EU membership in 2024.
“It wasn’t the government’s idea,” she said. “But the government doesn’t even realize that without us, this integration [with the EU] wouldn’t have even happened. We feel used.”
The slow progress is in part rooted in the considerable influence the Georgian Orthodox Church wields over public and private life in the country.
One incident in particular shook the country’s LGBTQ community. In 2013, a small gay Pride event to mark May 17 — the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia — was ambushed by thousands of protesters and members of the Georgian Orthodox clergy.
“It’s still a mystery how we escaped,” said Giorgi Kikonishvili, a gay rights activist who was among the people attacked that day. “My classmates were there. My neighbors. My friends. They were all trying to kill me.”
The church subsequently designated May 17 as “Family Purity Day,” which has grown in popularity in recent years while many Pride events have been canceled.
Russia, whose government has pushed anti-LGBTQ legislation, also looms large in the country, and Russian-language media attacking queer people has become one way for Moscow to continue exercising soft power and instill a fear of Western values among Georgians.
The current conservative government has done little to quell such rhetoric — on the contrary: The ruling Georgian Dream party has spent considerable political energy on pushing through a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
And the 2013 incident did not remain an isolated case. In 2019, the Tbilisi Pride parade had to be called off after threats. Later that year, protesters attacked moviegoers at the premiere of a film about gay love.
A representative from Georgia’s interior ministry, who responded to a request for comment without disclosing their name, said that the “response rate of the police to the alleged crimes committed against the representatives of the LGBTQ+ community has significantly improved recently.”
They added that since 2018, the ministry has held “trainings on hate crimes and domestic violence” as well as “awareness-raising campaigns on the issues of discrimination prevention measures.”
Yet the threat of violence against minorities in Tbilisi is still so intense that Madona Kiparoidze doesn’t leave her apartment during daylight hours. Unless transgender people can “pass” as cisgender, they put themselves at risk of death, she said.
Her fears are far from unfounded. There have been several murders targeting transgender sex workers like her over the past decade: Sabi Beriani was stabbed and set ablaze in 2014; Zizi Shekeladze’s throat was slashed in the fall of 2016.That year, another woman, Bianka Shigurova, died of gas poisoning in her apartment; while it was ruled an accident, Tbilisi’s queer community remains convinced a client killed her.
Like many transgender people in Tbilisi, Kiparoidze was kicked out by her parents when she came out to them. At the age of 14, she found herself living on the streets.
At first, she often went hungry. She fell ill, and slept on benches in front of CCTV cameras for fear of being assaulted without witnesses. Eventually, she met an older transgender woman who introduced her to sex work, teaching her how to find clients in the capital.
She hated sex work then and still does now, finding it hard and humiliating. But it was the only way to survive. “I get a ridiculously low amount of money from this,” she said. “I don’t have any motivation or happiness.
“I can’t even work as a construction worker or a janitor,” she said. She dreams of becoming a psychologist and has borrowed course books from friends willing to share them.
Her journey is far from unique. Widespread prejudice means that many transgender Georgians struggle to stay in school or find above-board jobs.
Working informal jobs also has the advantage of not having to produce an official ID, which features the gender assigned to a person at birth, as Georgia requires reassignment surgery before legal documents can be changed. Such surgeries are expensive and not funded by the state.
Kiparoidze also feels NGOs have failed her. While local organizations, such as the Women’s Initiatives Support Group (WISG), try to help with free psychological services as well as condoms, lube and examinations for sexually transmitted diseases, they do not offer the long-term financial assistance that women like her need during the pandemic.
Natia Gvianishvili, a lesbian activist and researcher with WISG, acknowledged that the transgender community’s most pressing challenges were socio-economic. She said one issue is that NGOs do not even know the scale of the problem.
“They’re undocumented,” she said, “so we’re lacking this broader picture of what’s happening.”
She expressed cautious optimism that the interior ministry’s recent push to address violence and discrimination against minorities — which included the creation of a human rights protection department in 2018 — might ease the transgender community’s problems somewhat.
Kiparoidze is more pessimistic, even if things have also improved a little for her. After her protest at the Tbilisi city hall last year, she was offered a part-time job with Transparency International. It’s a start, she said, though for now, she’s also continuing with sex work to make ends meet.
She hopes that no one in Georgia’s LGBTQ community will do what she did. Although she does not regret it, she’s unsure how much her protest moved the conversation forward.
“I had to do something. I had to deliver my message,” she said. “Even if something only changes 1 percent somewhere in the world, then I would have achieved something.”
If you’re struggling and need support, you can find the contact details for suicide prevention hotlines across Europe here.