Confirmation That We Exist

Confirmation that we exist

Natia Gvianishvili, a 28-year-old Georgian activist who jokingly describes herself as “a lesbian for a living,” is featured in the upcoming documentary by StudioMobile, a grantee of The MATCH Fund. We had the opportunity to interview Natia for the 2015 International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (May 17). The Director of Georgia’s Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group, Natia shared with us the drive behind her LGBT activism in a country where, in a recent survey, 75% of teachers (yes, teachers) agreed that “people of a different sexual orientation create danger to the country and public.”

Tell us about what it’s like to work for a grassroots women’s organization in Georgia:

Georgia has only really had a civil society since the 90s when the Soviet Union dissolved, and Europe and America started investing in development. Now, there are many NGOs working on human rights and women’s issues, but informal grassroots groups have only emerged in the past three or four years and don’t have much professional capacity. Georgia as a society is conservative and patriarchal. Some of our biggest issues are domestic violence, gender-based violence, and [lack of] women’s political participation. The laws that exist to protect women are not inclusive of LGBT people and, regardless, these laws are often not implemented in practice.

What motivates you to do the work you do?

When I came to the realization that I was gay, I thought, ‘okay, what am I going to do?’ I never told anyone, and I promised myself that I would become straight. In Georgia, there are very few people who are out. When I decided to contact the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group in 2009, I saw that the problems I experienced were not only mine. Since I have the opportunity—my parents aren’t homophobic and I have an education—why shouldn’t I use this to help others? People ask me what I do, and I joke that I’m a lesbian for a living.

What are your plans for May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia?

This is complicated. Last year, the Georgian Orthodox Church claimed May 17th for themselves. They named it the ‘Day of Traditional Family.’ It was humiliating. The State couldn’t guarantee our safety, so we had to stay in our homes or stage invisible protests.[1] This year, the Church is taking it to another dimension. They are hosting a march, a series of concerts, and dancing contests in the streets of Tbilisi all day long. We can’t announce our own May 17th plans yet because of security issues. We are talking with government officials to see if we can have guaranteed protection, but even when the police have promised this in the past, they have shown up in small numbers, wearing light summer uniforms with nothing to protect us or even themselves. We can’t trust them. So we have started a photo campaign called #thisstreetistaken to show that there is no place for hatred, xenophobia, homophobia or transphobia. ‘Do you see that one street is occupied? Occupy another one.’

The official theme of this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia is “LGBTI Youth.” What is Georgia like for LGBTI youth?

The lesbian community in particular is quite young. There are only one or two out lesbians over 40, because these women would have grown up during Soviet times when coming out was almost impossible. My generation realized they were LGBT quite late. We are a clan-based society, and Georgia is economically weak, so people live with their family of origin much of their lives. Once you’ve established a certain way of living, it’s hard to change. The most active segment of LGBT activists is between the ages of 18-25. These young people were born into the internet. They have more access to information and have learned really easily how to filter it. We have to be really attentive, though, to make sure that youth realize the potential risks of coming out.

Describe your collaboration with StudioMobile and your decision to be interviewed in the most recent documentary:

At Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group, we are trying to mainstream LGBT issues into Georgia’s human rights and gender agenda. Our collaboration with StudioMobile is a collaboration with like-minded individuals. What I like about StudioMobile’s documentaries is that they are very focused on the human being in front of them. Most people have not met anyone who is openly LGBT, so to see a regular person [on screen], it really changes people’s minds. Lia [the Executive Director of StudioMobile] is a role model. StudioMobile has really achieved something.

In StudioMobile’s previous film, I couldn’t bring myself to come out. I wasn’t ready for it. But it was empowering to see my friends talk to StudioMobile. We fight the same fight. If they did it, I knew I could, too. We speak on behalf of our friends who can’t.

How can Canadian LGBT women support Georgian LGBT women?

Lesbian women in Georgia tend to be invisible inside the women’s movement. Learning more about the Georgian context is a form of support. The more people think about us, the more visible we are. It’s one more confirmation that we exist.

[1] Out of fear for their own safety, LGBT activists could not publicly recognize the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia in 2014. Instead, they left their empty shoes in the public square and painted local staircases in rainbow colours.