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:
- “Georgia: Where does the Church End and the State Begin?”, from Eurasianet
- Official site for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia
- “Attitudes toward Homosexuality in the South Caucasus”, research by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers
- An explanation of the clashes from the Orthodox point of view: The Georgian Church for English Speakers