Mariam Kvaratskhelia, 27 years old, Tbilisi
I’m a bisexual woman, co-founder of ‘’Tbilisi Pride’’ and LGTB queer activist.
I was 13-14 years old when I first had a relationship with a woman. It was my first experience, but it was so weird and unacceptable that I ignored it in my mind, as if it never happened. Many people say they were homophobes in the past. I’ve never been a homophobe in my life, it wasn’t really on my mind. In the 12th grade, I was studying in the U.S in a school exchange program. There I had my first transgender friend, my classmate. Years later, when I was about 20, I began to think about it again, I acknowledged it, discovered it, and accepted myself as I am.
At first, it was very difficult for me. First of all, it was a big problem to find someone like me. This was before I started working for an LGBT organization and being active in the community. No one talked about these topics around me, I had very few lesbian and bisexual friends. Because we live in a heteronormative environment, I have always been accustomed to men flirting with me; as if it was a simple and natural fact and therefore I had a lot of barriers and complexes when I tried a relationship with a woman. It was difficult for me to make the first step or any action at all.
The breaking out moment in my life was May 17th, 2013. Then I was working for one of the non-governmental organizations and I was in charge of monitoring the May 17th rally. I have seen violence of incredible scale on that day. I saw thousands of people who wanted to see blood. I saw how they were throwing stones at us and tried to attack the bus full of lesbian women and community supporters. Then, this yellow minibus became a tragic symbol of May 17th. At one point, I fell into such a quagmire that I fell to the ground. On this day, I saw how people in this country hate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people. They hate them so much, that they are ready to kill them. Seeing this injustice and oppression awakened an activist in me. I started researching LGBTQ issues, participating in various events. May 17th gave me the strength to talk openly with my friends, co-workers, and people around me about my sexual orientation.
In 2015, I got myself involved in LGBT activism. I found out what LGBT organizations existed in Georgia at that time. There was “Identity” and “LGBT Georgia” – a small organization and I wrote to the director at that time, David Mikheil Shubladze, that I was interested, even if as a volunteer. A few months later, David wrote to me that they had an opening for a project manager; it was a small project for preventing HIV / AIDS, and so I started working. At that time, three people were working in this organization, then the name was changed and it became “Equality Movement”. We grew from year to year when I left, we already had 40 employees and we had 5 regional offices.
I started coming out slowly at first, with my friends. Fortunately, I was lucky not to have many homophobes as friends. Everything happened by itself, I didn’t need to personally explain to everyone that I liked women. Then I came out to a few of my relatives, cousins, and it went well. Not long ago, in 2019, I told my brother. He also knew my girlfriend and I’m happy took everything well.
I never explicitly said anything to my parents about my orientation, I’m very worried that I never mustered enough strength o do so. But the reality is that I’m frequently on TV, I always talk in the first person and position myself as a queer woman, as a member of the community and I never talked about myself in the third person, as a rights advocate or an activist. My parents are supposed to know all this, but they seem to block this information and even today they think I only work on these things and I’m not an LGBT community member myself. They don’t want to acknowledge that. There were some painful experiences in my life, including violence. I talk about them in different spaces, but sadly I haven’t talked about such important moments with my parents. Sometimes I think they don’t really know me. They don’t know many things about me and it sinks my heart. I’m probably afraid of their reaction and I don’t want to fully come out of my comfort zone. I don’t know why, but it seems that in this country most parents and children have similarly distant relationships. It’s very painful for me. Seeing me on TV is usually big stress for them, they always cry and beg me to leave “this business”, leave those LGBT and NGO organizations. Even though we all live in Tbilisi, I’m not able to see them frequently, most likely deliberately. I try to see them every week, but even it’s too much because it always becomes a discussion of my life and work – it’s very hard for us to agree on things. Aside from LGBT issues, this also applies to political affairs and the whole act of communicating is so daunting that I try to avoid this situation. I would probably be twice as happy and strong if I had my parents’ support. I don’t know; maybe it will happen someday.
It’s very hard for me to be an activist. It’s very hard to be visible to the public, especially when it’s about such a sensitive issue. I don’t strive to do it, it’s just my teammates tell me I have to do things because there’s no one else. It’s rare to see an LGBT activist that will talk about themselves in the first person and agree to appear on TV. I always feel the pressure that I have to be the one to do all this until new people appear, until our numbers grow. On top of all this, there’s also pressure from my family and relatives, questioning my sanity and the reasons why I do this…
Recently I had a very bad experience with a neighbor. On May 18th, the second day after May 17th, for no apparent reason, my neighbor from the floor below came to me screaming, appearing willing to physically hurt me. Formally he provided a reason that I had loud music playing the other day, but finally, we found out that he had a problem with my line of work – my landlord also told me also he called her about it. I had to call the police and they issued a restraining order. A month passed by and we haven’t run into each other; hopefully, it will continue this way. For three weeks already there are daily protests at the “Tbilisi Pride” office. People stand there with some banners containing messages of hateful speech and protest our work and existence. It’s very depressing to go in and out of this office every day, walking through a corridor of shame and hearing all those insults. It’s also depressing when people ask me about my work in everyday life. I’m afraid to answer honestly because I do not know what kind of attitude they’ll have hearing it – it may arouse aggression. I’m a cis-gendered woman and my self-realization isn’t causing hate-motivated crimes; in this aspect, I’m very privileged. I haven’t had problems with my appearance, my gender identity, or behavior; but when it comes to being an activist and the public seeing you from that angle, there are barriers for me. Despite everything, I’m doing the work that’s very important to me and where I’m most motivated; I can’t even imagine doing something different. This isn’t just work, it’s like I’m fighting for all of my friends and people that are discriminated about this.
I’m very proud that a lot of people from the community contact me and say thank you for what I’m doing. They write to me that they watch all my public appearances and take my cause to heart. This visibility gives me a chance to tell about me people who need my help. I’m a privileged person and the means and resources I have are not available to many community members, so I always try to help them.
Despite being very hard living this routine, I try to also grow professionally. Right now I have good news – I’m going to study at Sussex University in Briton, Great Britain, fully subsidized. I was very happy because there was a lot of competition. Also, I feel that I need a break, because – and it’s very hard to explain what we went through organizing Tbilisi Pride 2019, – but it was a very hard feat and this process practically devoured my mental health. That one year I had such a stressful period that I went to a psychiatrist for several months and took medicine to at least be able to think.
We decided to organize “Tbilisi Pride”, started working on it, announced it, and since then, fought on all possible fronts. We’re used to aggression from conservative or ultra-right groups, but on the other hand, the government treated us so dismissively that I felt like I was nothing. We begged them on meetings to acknowledge our right to come out in the street, that we had a constitutional right to do so, and that we shouldn’t be scapegoated from public space like this. The government didn’t agree to us on this, was indirectly denying us these rights, and actively pressured us to cancel the Walk of Pride. Simultaneously, there was also a difference of opinion between activists and community members and that’s always harder on me than hearing some fascist’s swear words and comments. I think these people are fighting with me and I respect their opinion, so having a conflict with them is most stressful for me, and affects me the most. We, the Pride’s organizers, received death threats. They wrote to me that they’d kill me if I didn’t stop. This hasn’t been investigated even after a year… In the first week of the Pride, on the most active and stressful day, we received these threats and pastors and far-right groups surrounded our office, we had to evacuate and temporarily move to another organization’s office. At this time, there were some alternative groups forming in the streets, people were walking around with bats and threatening our members. You feel responsible because you started all this, and all this was very hard and stressful for me, my mental health, and the people around me. This experience changed me and I’ll never be the same Mariam as before. I always say that before 2015, when I became involved in activism, I was a free, easy-going girl, never knowing depression or feeling down. After that, everything changed and I always have to think about injustice around. You have to explain simple truths to people, explain that two adults can love each other, not meaning harm to anyone and having real feelings. Despite explanations, we encounter cardinal opposition. Also, it’s a problem not seeing progress immediately, activism takes years, but I really can’t deny that we’re seeing progress. I believe we’re going the right way and activism, talking about this is a solution; but our lives also fly by and we want to see results – we only live once and knowing that achieving something will take 50 years seems a bit far. There are also disappointments in this fight, problems, and it takes a toll on me. Hopefully, our movement will become stronger. I see it – more people are active in this space, more are coming out, talking about this, I just want all this to happen faster.
I’m going to rest for some time now, I’ll see everything from the outside, reevaluate everything, return much stronger and will fight homophobia like never before.
Author: Nino Gamisonia
Photo: Geda Darchia
Translation: Mariam Kajrishvili