I’m Valita Gorelchaniki, a fitness instructor and the founder of the first fitness academy in Georgia. In addition, I am implementing an educational project in a penitentiary institution – I help convicts get a professional education in fitness and when they get out of prison, they too have a profession that they will use in the process of re-socialization.
Rejecting classical female models since childhood
My last name is Ukrainian and that often confuses people. This is my step-father’s surname, I’m Georgian on both sides of my parents. I was born in Russia, spent 8 years there and then my family and I returned to Georgia. I had a very contrasting childhood and I remember the years spent in Russia well. When I came here I didn’t know any Georgian, I learned it only by listening. Recently I’ve been trying to improve my grammar as well.
I remember my favorite book used to be “The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree” – a small but dramatic story by Dostoevsky, which describes social injustice, how unsafe children are and how they need to be protected. I always liked negative characters since being a child, I related to them more. One of them was The Snow Queen – a woman that didn’t represent a classical female model. The classical female model was too basic for me, and I always searched for something special and in this case, this special type was The Snow Queen.
I always had a feeling that I never found out anything new about myself. I’ve always thought and still think that it’s absolutely normal to be the way that I am, the way I was born. I have always been the way that I am now and I do not remember the change from one state or to another, or the process of realizing something. Consequently, I’ve never had a problem of accepting myself.
I never even tried to hide my identity. It just never happened that I realized something, identified it and then thought that it might affect my life negatively, or that it damaged my environment, people around me… I didn’t have to come out either. I just started being friends with girls and people started asking me questions – if I liked them and so on. That’s when I said that yeah, and it’s completely normal for me.
However, there was a moment of realization that what’s normal for me might not be normal for others – for example, my mom, who has always been quite homophobic. Now, years later, her active homophobia has become more passive and at this point, it’s more or less acceptable for me as well. I think this is her freedom of choice – just the way I have the freedom to be the way that I am, other people have the freedom to like me or dislike me, accept me or reject me. The same way that I don’t allow other’s to violate my freedom, I do not want to violate anyone else’s freedom and its quite a thin ice to walk on for me.
The title of the strongest woman and the project for convict women
I used to be a professional sportsman and I ended my career in 2016. The first sport in which I was internationally successful was powerlifting – a strength sport, and I became a European and World champion. Then I switched sports and I got into Mas Wrestling – it’s a board wrestling match, and here as well I won the World Cup. In 2016 I got a trauma and gave up sports, because it’d take me too long to recover from it and I was getting too old anyway. At the same time, I started doing other stuff and sports was not a priority anymore.
When the Weightlifting Fitness Association and the Sports Ministry in Georgia granted me the status of the strongest woman, I decided to use this status in the correct direction. I really wanted to go to a penitentiary and hold a Fitday, to popularize healthy lifestyle. When we actually did it, the feedback was so good that on the way back in the taxi, I told my partner that I thought that the girls needed way more than this one-day event, that a long-term project was needed. I started thinking about a long-term project and realized that it had to be related to vocational education, it had to be interactive and not online teaching. The Pandemic was an additional difficulty, but with the help and engagement of the penitentiary service, to which I’m really thankful, everything turned out to be successful.
For me, this project is a new experience. The only thing I knew was that there was a subordination and a particular format of interacting with the inmates, but by the end we arrived at a point in which besides learning, we entertained each other in so many ways. We have 20 girls that are engaged right now, they are working hard and the results are great as well. The project has been on-going for 4 months and we have 4 more months left. When we are done with this, we want to continue afterwards, if we have enough resources.
When I was involved with sports, I never felt discriminated as a woman by the Georgian teammates. There was one time when I was in Kyrgyzstan for the world championship, where up to 30 people from different countries lived in the same space (The sports base has always been considered a neutral area where people from many different countries, faiths and cultures live together). It was summer, and it was hot, so I was wearing just a normal sports T-shirt, I was standing and rooting for our teammates. A Kyrgyz guy came up to me and told me that he thought that women shouldn’t wear such clothes and they should cover up their tattoos. As this happened I had a terrible feeling of injustice, so I turned to him and said – I am a citizen of a free country, I wear what I want, especially that I am in a neutral territory. I am neither Kyrgyz, nor Muslim, I am here for a world championship and you are just telling me to wear a long-sleeved shirt. This was the one moment of discrimination, more particularly – an attempt at it, that I didn’t allow.
I also recall this one time, when I went to a wedding in Tianeti. It was absolutely shocking to me that they had two separate tables – one for the men and one for the women. To this I said that I would sit wherever I wanted to, so I sat down at the table that men were at. This was my protest, it was quite positive – I smiled to everyone, I didn’t feel aggression toward anyone, but I still stated my position.
In general, I think the problem is the unambitious character of a Georgian woman. In Georgia, women are often financially dependent on men. So what if you got married, you still should get education, work… This is a problem in mentality, families, the upbringing. A woman should have her own source of income – I have heard so many stories that a woman has been beaten by her husband for 10 years, but she has neither anywhere to go, nor any resources to live alone. This is an absolute financial dependency, when you cannot do anything on your own. This violates your rights, and you yourself violate your rights when you have no ambition to be a fulfilled person.
We have to become normal for our own sake
The fact that Georgian law does not allow queer marriage, for me personally, is not really an issue, because I have never thought about getting married. I do not have to be in a specific legal relationship with my partner in order to leave them some property – I can just simply re-register the property if I need to. However, the fact that I don’t need it, doesn’t mean that others don’t. I think that the government should think of other alternatives, but I can’t really say how much of a perspective it is for Georgia. People are particularly against gay marriage, because they believe that two men/women should not live together, that they cannot raise a child together, etc. I know a lot of heterosexual families in which the child isn’t brought up in a healthy environment – I have seen children be beaten by their mothers many times, this is not a norm. Meanwhile, they might have husbands too, and their family to be considered a “good” one, but that doesn’t really mean that it’s a healthy environment.
As for the non-legal aspects, I can recall one story. When I won the world championship, I had a wonderful resume and I was looking for a job. One of the clubs straight up told me that I wasn’t attractive enough and that I looked like a boy, and they were searching for a girl that would wear crop-tops and attract men’s attention. About this I asked – “what about professionalism?” Sadly, this is a normal thing for Georgia. There are plenty of companies in which people are hired depending on appearance, and then these employees fail to fulfill their responsibilities and meet the previous expectations. I have never felt anything negative from the clients, because I am normal for myself as well.
We have to become normal for our own sake. As long as we keep hiding within ourselves, nothing will change.
The freest person
I am a normal person that chooses their own partner, the way of expression of their inner or outer worlds, whom to be with, how to be, how to act… The main thing is that I do not break any social norms, the rest is my privacy and freedom that doesn’t concern anyone.
I think that there is no such thing as absolute freedom, because humans are dependent on so many things – their instincts, their close friends, environment, politics, the situation in the country, etc. Generally, there are people around me that have an adequate perception of the world, I do kinda leave in a bubble. When I see that someone around me tries to pressure me, I change the environment. I never stay in the destructive environment because it’s not worth it. I don’t stay in places in which I’m restricted or misunderstood.
A person cannot live in a hostile environment and be happy at the same time, it’s impossible.
We exist and we are Georgians!
I think Pride is one of the means of communication with the public. I think that public should be held in a way that is more acceptable for our society. The politics of more visibility have the same aim, but the society should be prepared for this. However, even if Pride is being held in such a country as Georgia, still no one has the right to do the things that happened on March 17 and July 5.
Sometimes I have to be tolerant of homophobes as well, because often those people do not know why they don’t like me, they can’t identify their emotions and hatred toward me; they hate me before they even know me. When I think about it I say that it’s a result of an effect of a particular environment and of that person’s narrow worldview, however, whatever happened on July 5 was utterly disgusting to me. There were people there that do not have a narrow worldview at all, but were encouraging others to go and fight – those people were out there to beat someone up. When a person wants to cut off a gay man’s head or chase after some kids that have long hair, that’s just removing one’s own pent-up aggression. I look at this problem in more depth and do not think it is only related to homophobia, biphobia or transphobia. The problem is that so many people in our society have feelings of extreme hatred and disgust – it scares them.
We don’t have a culture for caring for a person’s psycho-emotional state, people don’t go to therapists, psychiatrists. We don’t have a way to fight this aggression. To find this, there is a need for human and financial resources – people with good incomes go to psychologists, because such services are expensive, and education in this aspect is very needed. It is crucial for the state to take care of this, the way it happens in developed countries.
I remember, a taxi driver once told me – “People like that shouldn’t exist in Georgia!” I asked him – “why? Are you more of a Georgian than I am? Do you love the country more than I do? Do you do more things for this country than me? Why am I any less of a Georgian because of my different orientation?” His answer to this was “that’s not appropriate behavior”. You know what the problem is? For them a sexual orientation and behavior is the same thing, they have no knowledge of social psychology, they cannot identify either of those and they think that being gay equals bad behavior, being gross and perverted… It’s hard to oppose everyone, to argue with everyone, it’s impossible and besides – we need a more large-scale approach.
Another big problem is the lack of communication with the queer community – in Georgia no one comes out and no one communicates with these people as with gays. We communicate them as with people that hide their identities. I always say that if you are hiding or ashamed of something, or you have some reasons to not be showing it, then this communication will never happen and the society will never realize that gay people are just normal people and there’s nothing special about it. There’s such a misconception that there are no gay Georgians and all of us are hiding under it. What should I, a fulfilled person, be afraid of – losing my family? A family that will reject me because of the gender of my partners is not a group of people that I view as close to me. I’m talking about those people that have succeeded in life, that have the ability to come out and say that yes, we exist, we are Georgian, we do a lot of things around here. I’m not saying that they need to constantly talk about this – come out once and support those people that do not have enough resources for the given moment. Tell them – “Here I am, everything is okay for me and everything will be okay for you as well.”
Sexual orientation should not be assigned such a tragic meaning that can scare, bully, and stress people out. People in Georgia are really afraid of being judged – we constantly think about what others will say about us. We try to fit everything around us and this will never work out – we have to be happy ourselves and we should live for our happiness.
Altering the hostile environment, accepting ourselves and constant self-development
I believe that Georgia has the resource to develop. The sad thing is that we do not use that resource. The youth gives me the reason to think positively – I see the potential, but they do not have the environment, which they can go to, get necessary information, where they can widen their worldview. We need more free educational centers; we need more professionals that can deliver information about the queer issues.
We can contribute in this process as well – for example, I am a fitness expert-lecturer, and I can educate people in the fitness field; my partner is a psychologist, she can approach people with her profession, etc. We have to mobilize our strengths and resources and pay more attention to the adolescents. We might not be able to affect adults that already have their own frames; however, with the new generation we have a chance – to help them adopt the right worldviews. Of course, the state has a big role in this as well.
We need self-development in order to survive. As long as we are dependent on someone, we will always have to give things up and it will all end in destruction, because we are giving up on ourselves, our wishes. 3 things are necessary – changing the hostile environment, accepting ourselves and constant self-development. We have to develop ourselves and others – have you grown as a person? Achieved a certain stage? Now go and help others as well.
When you have the resource, you will go and help others as well. This is what matters.
The interview was prepared with the support of Women for Georgia (WFG)
Author: Nina Urushadze
Photos: Vakho Kareli