Gay in Tbilisi - In and Out of The Closet
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In The Closet

“Are you sure you are not recording?” Giorgi [not his real name] needs to be reassured. As a gay living in the closet, he defends his privacy and identity, fearing the judgement of what is still an homophobic society. 

When we meet ,he’s browsing for a sex companion in one of Tbilisi’s cruising areas. Tucked away from the fuzz and buzz of the capital, the area transforms at night - darkness is a friend in this labyrinth of underground passages, as it provides what Giorgi and scores of others like him need to pursue their desires - anonymity. Silent looks cross, like Cupid’s arrows launched at potential partners. A returned gaze means a tacit accord is signed and the two are off to an intimate walk in the nearby city woods. As the sweltering summer heat is still clasping the city, about ten men well in their 30s are cruising.

A handful of people know Giorgi is gay. He shuns online dating and avoids LGBT-friendly bars. Like the other two times he’s been here, Giorgi drank, and quite a bit.  For those who like him who do not dare coming out, alcohol is needed to pull down the inhibition and pick up the courage to go and look for sex.

Now 35, Giorgi is under pressure from his family and society to get married - most probably he’ll give in and wed. Most probably he will keep on living a double life.

“I sometimes struggle to come to terms with my sexuality, sometimes I am at peace with it. But do you think this kind of behaviour [cruising] is ok?!” he asks me, seeking approval.

A car slows down near us and the driver leans out of the window and curses the place - “a den of fags.” That moment breaks the fragile tranquility - Giorgi gets nervous, he is upset, no longer willing to talk. He politely ended the interview. 

This cruising spot in uptown Tbilisi is a maze of underground passages, providing the secrecy that individuals populating it at night need as they seek a sexual partner.
A shadow heads towards the woods by one of Tbilisi’s cruising areas. Buzzing with life during the day, the area is deserted at night and it attracts sex workers and individuals who have not came out and live their homosexuality in secret.
Gays-in-the-closet like Giorgi live a double life - they give in to social norms and keep their sexuality secret. Those in their 30s face pressure from their families to wed. Many do, and keep their double life alive after marrying.

The first time I visited Pleshka, as local residents call the area, I was accompanied by Antoshka and Sandro, two health workers who regularly come to distribute free condoms to MSMs, men who have sex with men, and transgender sex workers. These two groups are more at risk than others to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, yet most men coming to Pleshka (a Russian word which indicates “an area different from its surrounding,” like a blank spot) would not call themselves gay or MSMs and would not allow the health workers to approach them, unless recommended by a person they already know.

Lela comes to Pleshka every day - a transgender sex worker - this is where she gets some of her clients.

“Most of the people passing through here at night know what this place is about. Few would happen to come here by accident or just pass by with confusion,” she maintains.The others come at a risk. 

Lela, a transgender sex worker at the cruising area defends herself with a gas pistol.

The 2014 anti-discrimination law prohibits any form of intolerance, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, but the lack of effective enforcement mechanism means that when four men physically attacked two transgender women in Pleshka no real investigation was conducted. The murders  of transgender women between 2014 and 2016 had the same fate so Lela carries a gas gun to protect herself and her colleagues do the same.

Work is another problem. From 2006 the Labor Code of Georgia bans discrimination at the workplace based on sexual orientation, yet most transgender Georgian women turn to sex work as the only way to support themselves as they cannot find any other employment. Even renting a flat is a challenge.

“Most of my friends, even from my childhood, know about me, who I am. But in front of my parents I am still a man,” she admits. In a country where people consider homosexuality a sin, transexuals face even worse treatment and she has thus far avoided getting on the hormone therapy to full transitioning. She still hopes her parents will understand she is a woman trapped in a man’s body - one day.

Homophobic graffiti on a wall along the Mtkvari, Tbilisi’s main river.

Out of the closet 

Tucked away in a side street in downtown Tbilisi, a heart on fire-shaped neon light welcomes customers at the Success Bar. The first, and still the only, openly gay bar in the country, Success opened in 2000 but it soon had to adapt to the environment and it soon did not honour its name - no spark, only a handful of customers.

When in 2016 a friend from New York visited Nia Gvatua, the 27-year-old Tbilisian was asked to go to a gay bar and she realised that the only available option was dark and unappealing Success. So she decided to bring a new life to the place, rented it, renovated it and reopened it in March 2017 offering a funky, hip, and safe environment for the gay community to socialize.

“At first I just wanted a bar, but then when I opened it, I realized the responsibilities that would come with it,” she explains. “I was glad to see that gay people were happy for Success, that they felt warm and welcomed, especially transgender individuals as they are twice more oppressed than gays and lesbians.”

The Success Bar. The only openly gay bar in Tbilisi was opened in 2001 but soon fell into oblivion. It reopened, with a new image, in early 2017.
Nia Gvatua, the owner of Success bar. The 27-year-old brought new life to Tbilisi’s only openly gay bar in early 2017 and has faced harassment, including on social media, since then. The bar was also robbed but the investigation has stalled.
Nia Gvatua next to a neon heart, one of many neon decorations inside the two-room bar.
A neon-shaped heart on flames in the intimate smoking room at the back of the bar. Despite the lounge being a public space, its customers shun the camera.
Dimmed lights reflect and twinkle off the walls as a customer enters the bar.

The peace did not last long. Traditionalists frowned upon the gay club openly promoted on social media and Gvatua’s Facebook page was suspended due to the large number of reports sent to the administrators. Homophobic comments flooded social media, with people openly calling to purge Georgia from gays. Among the detractors of the bar, also Sandro Bregvadze, one of the organizers of the homophobic and anti-immigration “Georgian March” in summer 2017 who resigned from his government post in February 2016 claiming he was under pressure to compromise on his principle over same-sex marriages.

In early July 2017 the bar was robbed - thieves stole the expensive music equipment, on top of cash and drinks, for a total of $8,000. Back then Nia had the impression that the police was reluctant to investigate the case, but after three months, the case was resolved when the robbers were spotted on a street camera near the bar with their faces clearly visible. Her former security guard is held responsible for the robbery and is now facing a prison sentence or a fine. The other three participants in the robbery were set free of all charges after admitting that the former employee was the initiator of the the crime. After the robbery, came a flooding, and Success reopened in early September 2017.

Security guards are in service and Gvatua is determined to call for reinforcement in case the bar gets attacked.

“I want to think that it will not come to that,” she laments. “We are in the centre, in case of an attack I hope the police will react quickly, it is their responsibility to help.”

“If you ask me, homophobes don’t exist, narrow minded people behave as such [due to the lack of education and exposure]. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger, and I got stronger over the last few months. I think everyone can be accepted and I am trying to prove this, a small step at a time. I am determined to make Success just that, a success.” 

Chai Khana
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