Remembering May 17

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia.  It was on this day last year that I realized I could not live long-term in Georgia.

I don’t want to start any debates around homosexuality or any sexuality.  This blog isn’t a platform to preach my personal beliefs.  I can respect opinions that differ from mine, but I have no respect for what happened in the video above.

What happened on May 17, 2013 was an example of the power of the church superseding the power of the law, and it put many lives in danger.  A small group of peaceful protesters were attacked by a crowd of 20,000 men led by Orthodox priests who broke through the meager police barricades.  Many of the friends I’d made through the Women’s Fund in Georgia were attacked and nearly killed, and I would have been there with them if I hadn’t been working that day.  I’ve still found no conclusive information on what punishments, if any, were doled out for these attacks.

It was difficult to manage my reaction to these events.  I knew I had to choose my battles; I was there to work in microfinance, not to fight fanaticism.  The vast majority of Georgians describe themselves as Orthodox Christian churchgoers, and the Orthodox Church considers homosexuality to be a sin.  87% of people in Georgia believe that “homosexuality could never be justified.”  If I spoke out, I would alienate my coworkers; if I said nothing, my conscience would remain inflamed.

So I stayed home that weekend, cried a lot, and performed a delicate operation on myself: I carved out my anger toward the homophobia and sexism and buried it somewhere in the back of my mind.  I sewed a heavy dose of moral relativism and objectivity in its place.  Time to put on your anthropologist hat… no judgment or anger, or you’ll never finish out the year.  This is a different culture.  Control your emotions.  You’re here for work, nothing more.  I felt like Bruce Banner talking himself out of a “HULK SMASH!” transformation.

Though I was able to suppress my anger, I experienced an irreversible loss of trust.  The warm fuzzy feelings were gone.  I knew that it was not a place in which I could settle or raise a family.  My days in Georgia were numbered.  Just finish your contract and get out.

A fellow Western visitor to Georgia described this feeling of disappointment in a blog he co-authors with a friend of mine:

“There are just some things that turn sour and there is nothing you can do about it. It was like having a long-distance crush for absolutely ages, then finally going on a date with someone. The first date goes fantastically well, so you go on another which is wonderful too, but then, just as you hold hands over the post-dessert brandy, they crack an anti-Semitic joke. Or a racist one. Or a homophobic one or, I don’t know, they admit that they think Margaret Thatcher was a great woman….

“The more I read about the place, the more it was obvious – despite the undeniable beauty and fascination of the place, to a large and very real extent, Georgia is a homophobe and Georgia is a misogynist. I’m not talking about everyone and I know this will upset some, many even, who might say, ‘why focus on the negative?’.”

Like Richard wrote, I know the attacks were not representative of the opinions of all Georgians.  I know the violence was later denounced by the church and the government. And I know that my Georgian girlfriends are gentle, warm-hearted people who would never approve of this kind of hatred.  But the bad “joke” was cracked and could not be undone.

May 17 was one of many “aha” moments that showed me I would never fit in in Georgia.  But the realization that I wanted to leave also left me feeling guilty and unqualified as a microfinance professional.  A lot of people move to developing countries for work and are able to separate their personal feelings toward the culture from their professional life… right?  Am I just not as strong as they are?  Do I take things too personally?  Would it have been easier if I’d moved there with a boyfriend/partner to serve as a buffer and support system?  Should I have tried harder?  Is it even appropriate for me to reveal my opinions about this on a travel blog?

Readers, have you ever lived in a place where your personal beliefs clashed with the local culture and religion?  How did you manage this, if at all?  Could you ever settle in a place where your beliefs made you an outsider?

***

As the anniversary of these attacks nears, I wish there were something I could do to show my support for the brave few who publicize their support for the LGBT community in Georgia.  From what I understand, there will be no May 17th demonstrations this year in Tbilisi.  The threat is just too great.  I understand why safety is the primary concern, but it frustrates me to think that last year’s attackers might interpret silence as surrender.

So I’ll follow Richard’s advice: “By raising awareness of Georgia, by being brave and facing up to the good things and the bad, perhaps this change can slowly come about.”

The least I can do to support my friends is to raise awareness about daily challenges for the LGBT community there.  Below, my friend Natia explains the events of May 17 from her perspective as a participant in the demonstrations.

Interested in learning more?  Explore the following links:

45 comments

  1. I lived in the country Benin, West Africa, for a year and a half. Besides the obvious misogynistic culture, the physical harassment I had to deal with for being a women (even when I dressed as the locals did), were difficult enough to deal with, but even more difficult for me was the culture of Domestiques. Domestiques are essentially indentured servants, a by product of past times of slavery. This practice is currently outlawed, but in a country with such poor governance, the laws don’t reflect reality. I lived with a local family for my first 3 months in the country, and they had 3 young children living with them who were cousins somehow, but essentially worked like Domestiques. Monique, about 6, Sentiche, about 9, and Jacque, about 10. Ages unknown, pretty malnourished, a slew of other health problems- yet they did almost all of the physical chores around the house. Sweeping the yard, washing all the household clothes by hand, the dishes, taking care of the animals, running errands, cleaning the latrines, most of the food preparation, indoor cleaning- they would work until midnight each night, and wake up before the break of dawn to start their household chores again. I was told that they lived with that family in exchange for going to the school there, that’s why they do all the chores- but it got to the point of ridiculousness. For example, if my host sister spilled something on the ground, she would call for one of those 3 kids to come and clean it up- even though she could bend down herself and clean up her own spill, instead of adding an extra thing for the kids to do! I’ve seen them have to work through intense illness (Sentiche had a 24 hour period where she was vomitting almost every hour- thankfully she was fine), they had no time to actually study or do their schoolwork, which purportedly was the reason they were living with the host family to begin with.

    This was very difficult for me to reconcile- I got very close with my host sister and brother, and still keep in contact with them to this day. It bothered me that they were such great, wonderful people, but were so entrenched in this cultural practice that I deemed unjust. I tried talking with my host sister and brother about this, and why it bothered me, but they never quite got it and I didn’t want to come off too judgemental and have that affect our relationship. So how I dealt with the Domestique situation, which was morally reprehensible to me, was to treat them as well as I could, and show my host sister and brother how I felt by my actions. I would give presents to both my host family and the Domestique cousins equally, spend as much time as the young kids and I could afford together, try to help them with some of the chores, play with them, or just sit with them and sing school songs with them. I snuck off extra food to them when I could, and just tried to show them that I cared.

    I realize this is a very long comment, but I really wanted to explain the situation so that you got the entire context. I appreciate you being so open on your blog about your own internal struggles, and I really do love the light you shed on Georgian culture all the time- not to mention the great photos! It’s hard to be true to yourself and do what feels right when you live in a culture that would give you problems for it. Recognize and give credit to what you love, be fair and honest with what you don’t, and don’t feel bad about that.

    And as for the sexually charged verbal and physical harassment I had to endure, those are stories for another day.

    From one GoT fan to another,
    MJ

  2. Also, I just want to say how horrified I was when I watched that video. I had no idea about what went on and just seeing it brought tears to my eyes.

  3. “Readers, have you ever lived in a place where your personal beliefs clashed strongly with the dominant culture?” – Oh, Meg, I feel like you just summed up a lot of what I’ve been feeling recently actually.

    I feel like my blog has been so negative since I moved to Korea but, the truth is, I want to write about the good *and* bad things that I experience. I kind of glazed over the fact that I had such a hard time when I first moved to Mexico City and only started writing when I was really enjoying everything. I don’t want to make that mistake again. Especially as, recently, witnessing some horrific things in one of the schools I work at – abuse which is more than just corporal punishment (which is illegal here – that was my moment when I realised I couldn’t ever really settle down here and raise a family.

    I think it’s inspiring that you’re feeling like you can really talk about everything that went on in Georgia now, everything you’ve bottled up and felt like you had to swallow and put at the back of your mind for so long. You’re amazing.

  4. Pingback: Recap of May 17, 2014 in Tbilisi | Soulshine Traveler

  5. chaotic

    This just breaks my heart.
    You grow up to fully love your country and be very patriotic (as you may have noticed while being in Georgia) and you then see shit, that is happening there (I am currently not living in Georgia) and it makes you feel so angry… and so used by your own country, your own countrymen, your (or what used to be) church. Especially, if you happen to be gay/lesbian/transgender, or disabled, or as your friend pointed out, a woman…
    But it won’t help if I only talk about how actually friendly we are as a nation. Sadly, We are not friendly at this moment in history. Last year kids were beaten by people who are supposed to preach love. Last year, a girl was attacked because she had short hair and small breasts (so she was obviously a lesbian, right?…). This year, what should be a protest against homophobia and transphobia, turned into a shitty made up “family value” day (in a country, where some days ago a woman was killed by her ex-husband, where every 4th woman says, she has been a victim of a gender biased/ domestic violence, where abortion rates are so high, because having a girl isn’t that cool, where 15 year olds get married and leave school, because sex isn’t something you are supposed to naturally want, you have to legalise it!).
    But mostly, it breaks my heart every time I see 2 women, or 2 men hold hands in a country, where I live now (I still have faced xenophobia, mind you, not everything is perfect in a first world country) and I know, so many of Georgians won’t ever be able to do so in their lifetimes (hell, not even heterosexuals are welcome to show affection towards each other :D). And I am sorry, that people who visit us see shit like this and never want to go back, but our discomfort is nothing compared to the marginalised groups, who have to live there day after day and have a government that does literally nothing to protect them, because the church says so. And I feel like, despite speaking against hate, we (an also not so small group of Georgians) largely fail our own brothers/sisters.

    • Chaotic, you hit the nail on the head. One of the things that was so disorienting to me about Georgia is that everyone kept telling me how wonderful Georgia is, and asking me to reiterate this sentiment constantly (especially in toasts at supras). Social problems are often ignored to keep up this semblance of a perfect, hospitable, Godly nation. If I pointed out such problems, I was treated as some kind of traitor, or a spoiled rich American who does not understand real tradition and culture, or simply a “bad girl” bozi. This cognitive dissonance is such a strong social pressure.

      Like the stories you mentioned, I was also a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault/harassment in Georgia. I wish my memories of Georgia were dominated by the good things (the scenery, the music, the beauty and kindness of my close friends, the art, the cuisine, etc.), but unfortunately the bad things have affected me much more deeply.

      I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you to feel this tug and pull, to want to love your country but to see so clearly the problems that others prefer to ignore. Thank you so much for your honesty and your support.

  6. I liked this post. I share your thoughts and emotions. unfortunately, Georgia is my F***ing country. Sometimes I think, why, why do I stay here?
    I think every year on May 17th I will go back to that day when priests chased my friends, family and me with stools.
    It took so much to get over it and here it came back again…
    p.s. thanx for reading my blog. I’ll look into yours/

    • Pasumonok, I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you to feel like a stranger in your own land. I’m sure the pressure to leave is great, but perhaps you are doing more good from within? I so appreciate your blog. It has helped confirm many of my own feelings about Georgia and taught me many more things I never knew. Thank you.

  7. Pingback: remembering may 17 |

  8. Thanks Meghan. I still can’t really write about this, but I’m so glad you did. I’m nervous about tomorrow, but I’ve been doing what I can–wearing a rainbow bracelet to work (but not on the streets, unfortunately, because that’s not safe), and talking to people when I have the ability to do so. It’s frustrating and exhausting, though.

    • I’m glad I can talk/write more freely about this now, Emma. I totally understand how your position limits your ability to speak out as much as you’d like to, and I love the idea of taking small steps where you can. Stay safe this weekend!

  9. Ciprian

    It might take a while, but I want to believe that such hatred, small mindedness and indoctrination is on the losing side of history, even from a basic evolutionary point of view. I would love to see this medieval type of religion disappearing – I think it is at the root of many problems in the world. I often wish polytheist religions had survived instead of monotheist religions. At least polytheists admitted multiple ‘divine solutions’ and perhaps the world as a whole would be a little less self-righteous. Also, most people in that video are men. Excuse my generalization, but why are men such dicks? There are many examples of violent events around the world, but you rarely see a significant presence on the women’s side; it’s usually men.
    Thank you for sharing this. You’re a source of inspiration for me. I hope you’re well.

    • I hope so too, Ciprian. Unfortunately it’s going to take a while. You know, I’ve always had an affinity toward polytheist religions too, partly because they incorporate female deities and priestesses, and mostly because they have such damn cool stories. 😉

      Thank you for reading. Hope to hear from you again.

    • It’s only because men are faster and push stronger and are somewhat more aggressive, due to testosterone. Behind the crowds of men, also stood sizable crowds of women egging them on, waving branches of nettles to strike down their homosexual enemies.
      Believe me, women are no strangers to the cruelty and evils of mankind. We all play that game. Behind every Augustus, there is a Livia, and at the side of every Hitler there is an Ava. Where there is a human, there is seflishness and destruction. If you want to deem yourself an angel for “being a woman”, good luck. The only reason men are in the cameras are because they’re bigger and stronger and can push the women out of the way in their rush to do harm.

        • I think it’s always like this, Nicole. Generally, Russia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East are NOT friendly toward LGBT community. Even during Soviet times, when religion was basically forbidden by the state, homosexuality was illegal. It is culturally hated and feared, and the religious fanaticism only makes it worse. Now, the church is growing in power in Georgia and Russia, and for some reason has targeted homosexuality as somehow representing all things perverted and Western. It’s often viewed as a Western invention that we are intentionally spreading, like a disease, among their people. It’s ironic, because Georgian men are often brought by their uncles to whore houses to lose their virginity at the age of 14 (to become a “real man”), and I’ve heard SO many stories of illicit gay sex (which they don’t consider gay?), constantly cheating on wives with prostitutes, etc. They’re hardly pure as the driven snow.

          • Oh wow. This is awful. Are you serious about the whore houses at age 14? Now that is sick. What is wrong with people? I just don’t get it. And homosexuality occurs in all races of people not jus the west. Now I see why you left. I could never live somewhere so intolerant.

  10. Hello, Cheerio

    Incredibly well said. I agree with Jessica, above, my jaw dropped when watching those videos. Thank you for opening up about this and for sharing this with us.

    Like so many others, I’m outraged by such hatred still lingering in our world but I guess it’s that hatred that fuels us to rise above and be our better selves. We have to at least strive for it, for better, for healthier, and for more acceptance and love.

    • Thanks, Cheerio. I was also outraged by the hatred, and perhaps more so by the silence that followed it. Even those who disagreed with the violence seemed to want to sweep the event under the rug and pretend it never happened. “Everyone’s human, they just lost their tempers.” Priests mobilizing 20,000 angry men is a temper tantrum? I don’t think so.

      Anyway, thank you for reading and reacting to this, Cheerio. 🙂 Hopefully I can help make a small contribution by sharing this information.

  11. My jaw dropped watching those videos. I think it takes a strong person with a strong sense of self to realize when and where they need to draw the line between keeping on that anthropologist hat as you call it and staying true to themselves and their beliefs. I don’t blame you for reacting the way you did to that incident. I have had my differences with some of the cultures I have encountered during my travels and my life abroad but nothing as extreme as this. No matter what a person’s belief is on any topic or controversial “issue” that difference of opinion should never be expressed with hatred or violence. I applaud you for writing about this in such an eloquent manner and bringing some light to this big problem in Georgia. I had no idea this was going on.

    • Thanks so much for the support, Jessica. I realize that most people have no idea that this kind of stuff happens in the Caucasus. For the most part, it gets swept under the rug by most Georgians who don’t feel particularly moved to support the victims, for fear of getting lumped into the same category as them. But this had a huge impact on me while I was living there. I no longer “trusted” Georgia after this outburst. And it was grueling to stay silent and subdued for so long, difficult to focus on my work when I knew these kinds of things were happening. Now I’m happy to shed some light on it.

  12. I will watch these videos, and I promise to do this. However, I have never even heard of this International Day Against Homophobia. In India, the Delhi High Court ruled that homosexuality is legal, and then the Supreme Court upturned that ruling. There were protests against the archaic ruling by the Supreme Court. Then, we decided to go about our business – straights went straight, bisexuals went bisexual, and gays went gay. In short, we all continued down our merry paths. I think the Jama Masjid termed homosexuality as unnatural, but no one really cared. No Hindu priest, as far as I know, made any comment. So, life carries on. We have too many other things to worry about in India!

    • Hi Rajiv, thanks for giving some insight on the situation in India. It sounds like it is not an issue that is discussed much in the public space, for better or worse. I think most Georgians feel the same way, generally: to each his/her own, as long as it stays in the bedroom. When the discussion becomes public, then fear takes over. And like you said, there are a lot of pressing issues to deal with in both of these countries which may eclipse gay rights issues. But for me personally, this was one of those moments that irreparably damaged my “relationship” with Georgia, and I feel like it’s important to talk about these things openly so we don’t ignore the fact that this kind of hatred exists.

  13. This must have tough to write, but I think you did a good job without hating on Georgia. You never said you hated Georgia, but this is just one aspect you do not support of Georgian society. And I think you have the right to voice your beliefs which I realize you could not do while living there. Living there and having to stay silent must have been so tough, but what could you have done? I don’t know if I could live in a place long term which clashed that much with my beliefs. I don’t want to have to watch my tongue every time I open my mouth. I don’t want to have to dress more modestly just because I’m a woman (visiting as a tourist is different) or have to feel restricted in where I go because I am a single woman.

    And the same goes for America too. There are negative aspects to our culture as well (in case any Georgians do feel offended, but they shouldn’t. No country or way of life is perfect and I think everyone realizes that) and we have had similar things happen like what you experienced in Georgia here as well. Just thinking of the race riots in the 90s in LA as one example which were set off by the beating of Rodney King by white police officers.

    • Thanks Amelie. Yes, you hit the nail on the head: living in a place like Georgia requires sacrifice from a progressive Westerner. And I’m not talking about hot water or air conditioning. There is a constant subtle pressure when you live in such a devoutly religious country. I was able to tolerate it for a while, but I got to the point when I had to choose between my happiness (and principles) and my field of work. It’s unfortunate, but life is too short to have to live in a permanent closet like that, at least when you have the freedom to live otherwise. I’m very lucky that I have that choice.

  14. Your article has made me think about how I would react given such an event and if I’m honest, I would like to think that I would rise up and speak out, but in reality this is always harder than it seems. I’ve never experienced a violent situation like this but I did live in Spain for a year as an Atheist, surrounded by friends who were devoutly Catholic. As a teacher I noticed that the church did have an affect of the aspirations people had for their daughters (in comparison to their sons) I’m ashamed to say that save asking a few probing questions of close friends, I never brought up a proper discussion or opened up about my concerns. It became the elephant in the room – and I found myself actively avoiding the topic at dinner parties and gatherings. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Rachel. It’s definitely hard to speak up when you feel like you’re completely surrounded by disapproving people. I can definitely understand how you felt as an atheist in Spain (I’m also an atheist, though I kept that secret while in Georgia). It can be a very alienating experience to live in a religious country. I realized early on that my options in Georgia were to keep quiet or lie about my non-religiousness, or be open about it and become the elephant in the room myself. I realized that I was there for my career, not to create a social movement, so I kept my mouth shut. In the end, it didn’t matter, because I never would have fit in or been totally accepted anyway.

  15. Indonesia is a widely tolerant country where people from different religions and races live together and build the societies. However I feel that as the number of progressive-thinking people grows, so does that of the conservatives. In this vastly Sunni Muslim country, Shia minority often face indiscriminate violence, while other minority groups occasionally face similar hostile treatment, albeit very localized to certain regions. When it comes to LGBT rights although not as strict as its neighbors (Brunei and Malaysia), the majority of Indonesians still see it as a sin. However change is happening, albeit slowly, even in the company where I work now people accept the fact that one of the leaders is gay.

    One of my closest friends even had this discussion with her husband before they had a kid. She asked him what he would do if their kid turns out gay, because she herself will accept and love her kid no matter what. So there has been some encouraging signs of a changing society, but there are also signs that the country is becoming more and more divided. It frustrates me most of the time, but up to this day I never cease to do whatever I can to take part in bringing progress to the country. So I understand your frustration, Meghan, and I hope you won’t have to experience the same thing again, ever.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Bama. I think in most parts of the world, acceptance of homosexuality is still a big issue. Of course religion plays a big part of it. But like you said, change seems to happen on individual bases, when one person decides to love her baby unconditionally and irrespective of his or her sexual orientation. Or when someone befriends a person they later realize is gay, and chooses to remain his friend. Small steps like this “humanize” gay people to the religious majority, and even if it doesn’t lead to total acceptance, hopefully it will stop the violence.

      Any difficulty I faced in Georgia is trivial compared to what the Georgian LGBT community faces. Yes, I felt isolated and depressed, but at least I had an end date in mind. I could leave. It’s much harder for people with Georgian passports to get out. Praying that nothing bad happens on Saturday… though I’m not hopeful. My friends in Tbilisi just posted this on Facebook:
      http://www.tabula.ge/en/story/83261-police-officers-demanded-information-on-lgbt-employed-in-caf-gallery

  16. Thanks for writing this. You know, it’s my personal preference to vocalize outrage, especially towards hate. So, you’re indeed a strong person to have gone through this. Much stronger than I!

    • I know that is your preference, and I wish I were bold enough to have been that way in Georgia. I thought about that a lot when I read your recent post on personal brands. I had created this artificial brand (maybe even a mask) in Georgia that was thick enough to be bullet-proof and so heavy to carry around. I was always hiding the fact that I am a progressive, liberal, sexual, secular woman, who deeply dislikes the homophobia and sexism so rampant in their culture. But what could I do? My job was not to change these things. If I ran around talking about that all the time, people would eventually ignore everything I said, or maybe throw me out of the office out of annoyance. But now, from afar, I can open up about this stuff a little more. Thanks for reading, Franco!

      • To be honest I wish I was more like you. My emotion can sometimes get the best of me, and when I’m angry about something I can’t keep my mouth closed. Then, of course, I come across as insane! I totally support what you had to do to get through that time of your life. Love your blog, no need to thank me for reading it, you’re a gifted writer.

  17. Well said. A heart felt and honest look at your place in a society that is ultimately toxic. Of course not all Georgians are homophobes but the pressure placed on them by the society in which they live by the church and a frighteningly agressive re-emerging soviet mentality in many quarters, keeps them silent. If they do not speak up, if they are too frightened to speak up then who will speak for them? I am proud to be associated with you Soulshine Traveler. I am proud that you are and learning about yourself from the experiences you have had and I am proud to call myself a fellow survivor.

    • Thanks Sarah. Your encouragement has really helped me to finally open up about these kinds of things. I was so afraid of making people upset, but now I realize that maybe it’s good medicine. The conversations have to start somewhere. Silence is so dangerous.

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