“Love is love, always and everywhere” — Is what Niko was trying to say on May 17th 2018, as surrounded by police and homophobes, at a protest in front of the Administration of the Government of Georgia. It was here, when he got attacked by a stranger. Niko became the recipient of aggression several times after that, before moving to Germany. He stunned a lot of us by his generosity, including towards his attacker. He says that he doesn’t regret it and would still go to that rally today, but he wants to not be defined by this day, not to be remembered by people only by this, and to be freed from May 17, 2018, although he thinks that it is an important part of his life.
Queer spoke to Niko about his childhood, church, religion, family, coming out, society’s attitude and many other issues.
My name is Niko Gorgiladze, I graduated from the Faculty of Science and Arts of Ilia State University, majoring in history. And I have been looking for myself ever since.
I grew up in Kobuleti, near the sea, and it is very important for me. I think I had the privilege of having a trauma free and happy childhood, unlike many queer people in Georgia. I was safe because I didn’t come out, nor did anyone suspect me. I do not have an answer whether this was good or bad. It was good in a sense of protecting me from traumatic experiences, and bad because when one finishes school, without having knowledge of sexual identity, it is a tragedy, and showcases the gaps in the educational process, and the importance of sexual education.
I was also protected by the fact that I was an altar boy. People had a certain sense of respect towards me, although I think it was not just due to me being an altar boy.
I dislike when someone remembers their childhood, as something too grim or too bright. I did have traumatic experiences, which occurred due to Georgian reality, but in my case they were not caused by my identity. In general, I do not remember myself as unhappy.
“Being in church brought me the feeling of absolute joy. I started fasting at the age of 9, later I became an altar boy. My family was not religious at all, I got baptized by my own will. No-one pressured me into it. I would attend at 7 a.m. mass, receive the eucharist and then go to school.”
Recently I have been remembering how I used to walk on the beach with my grandfather. He was a man who rarely spoke. When I’m very tired, I miss that moment with my loved one, holding hands, silently walking back and forth on the beach.
“I started getting to know the world through church”
Many believe that I left church because “I became a homosexual”. This is not true. The process started way before I started contemplating my identity.
I was not just an altar boy, I started comprehending the world throughout church. For 10 years church was a part of my everyday life. It was my alternate space, if there ever was a right person at the right time, it was my priest. He gave me a lot, and I think, I also gave him a lot. We had an amazing, intellectual relationship, I would not stay in church for 10 years to just pray and fast.
Being in church brought me absolute joy. I was 9 when I began fasting and became an altar boy. My family was not religious, I even got baptized by my own will. I was not pressured into it, even more, I didn’t even have my family’s support. I would attend at 7 a.m. mass, receive the eucharist and then go to school.
“I’ve had homophobic views, I’m part of that culture, and obviously when the culture is homophobic, whether you’re gay or not, you have all this ugliness, misogyny or homophobia.”
I studied theology from day one, I knew how to read old Georgian. Even now, I have a gospel written in Nuskuri, which I still read. This language is very dear to me, I read faster in Nuskuri then in modern Georgian, as I also served as an acolyte.
On May 17, 2013, I did not have a unequivocally queer-friendly position. I had Facebook and access to the Internet, but whatever circle of friends you have in reality is the same on Facebook and the same information comes. Information was spreading around me that a group of people came out with serious financing, with their agendas and decided to purposefully corrupt our youth, that they were naked, priests were forced to do violence, etc.
I was watching these scenes on TV with my childhood friend, a monk. There were other people from my church. We watched how priests and altar boys were running around, with furious faces, chasing activists. I remember asking if they thought it was acceptable and everyone answered that violence was wrong. Of course, members of the church going out on Rustaveli was wrong altogether, but back then the only information I had was what the priests were posting on Facebook pages. Some claimed to have gone there to stop the violence.
“I was observing everything from the perspective of the gospel”
I was among those who preached not to boil everyone in the same cattle. My position was, that “I am against violence, but they should not come out on the streets”.
Then what happened was that one of the altar boys confessed to me that he was gay on a skype call. I was observing everything from the perspective of the gospel. I thought that everything happening around me was God’s will. Even though I knew nothing of liberal theories, for me God was not a strict dude, but a being of absolute love, one that loved everyone. I was riddled with questions, if Bible says that homosexuals go to hell, then why did god make him this way? Since then I started gathering literature, first in fields of theology, then medicine. But I didn’t know I was gay yet…
It has to be considered that by that time I had already decided to enroll in the Theological Academy and later become a monk. I had already told my family that I was not going to get married. Maybe this is why I had suppressed my sexuality, hidden it away.
After that I moved to Tbilisi, to study. I was still an altar boy, yet I already had disagreements with the institution of the church. It has to be noted that Ilia the second and the church never made violent statements, on the contrary they condemned it. This was the only information that reached me. In Tbilisi I found out that the church was behind the violent groups. When I was in Kobuleti, I seriously thought that our sweet and holy head of the church had to overcome so much; that this kind man was put in this situation; that evil priests acted against his will. That is how naïve I was.
I used to have homophobic views as well, I am also a part of that culture so it is apparent that weather you are gay or not, in such a homophobic environment, you will also have this ugliness in you, be it homophobia or misogyny. However I never had aggression in me, even though I was aware of this identity.
Before university my bubble was very closed off, later it opened up, a lot of new people came into my life and I was able to learn about different positions regarding various subjects. I was never stupid or closeminded so I could make my own conclusions from these opinions, when the chance arose. The position I formed was radically different from the official position of the Church.
Before that, I always had the feeling that the patriarch was a pro-European man, I always shared his statements. The confrontation between me and the congregation first occurred after the statement of Spyridon, who said in 2015 that after the invasion of Russia into Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus should become one state and called the congregation to pray for this.I shared this statement and wrote, “You are a d*ck.” At that time, I was still an altar boy. When I arrived in Kobuleti, I went to the church as usual, I didn’t even think that I did something that I shouldn’t have done. One of the altar boys ran out and started screaming at me to get out, that I was Bokeria and Bendukidze, I think the third name he mentioned was Soros. The service was practically ruined. The priest came out and told us both to leave. I said that I would not go, because I came not to them, but to God, and those who didn’t like it could leave the church themselves.
I left the church without even returning my altar boy attire. My priest contacted me once and offered to go to one of the monasteries, where he was supposed to hold a service. Our relationship was already cold, as we had too many differences, yet I still had a lot of love and respect for him. He came to pick me up with his car and a choir singer. I was wearing a piercing, and everyone thought that I would take it off, which obviously did not happen. If I would take it off in Kobuleti, I wouldn’t put it back on in Tbilisi either. I got into the car and when the front lights went on, my piercing shone like a star.
I think it was the first time in a Georgian Orthodox church that an altar boy stood pierced during an overnight service. The nuns stared at me with amazement, but no one said anything, because the man, the priest, comes first in this system and then comes the woman. My priest said nothing of the matter.
I officially quit in 2016. Easter service had just started, when I realized that I had nothing in common with any of those people. Christ says that he is where 2-3 people have gathered in his name. So these people have to be united by love and stand as one.
I took off the Sticharion and left. Everyone was busy and no one noticed as I went outside. Alone at night I felt God standing by me.
“For me, the church as a system used to be a guarantor of peace and security, and national identity; yet now it is the first enemy of progress, freedom, statehood and the future in Georgia, it stands as the main office of the Kremlin in Georgia..”
I must say that being a part of the parish was not just a negative experience for me. It is possible to gain a lot of knowledge and kindness from Christianity, which I did. Yet, unfortunately my case is an exception in our reality. As you can see people who have been in church their entire life, and have done nothing but evil, somehow, while preaching morality to others.
Today I am my own god, I no longer believe in eternal life. After detaching myself from institutionalized religion, I saw gods in all the kind people around me. I contemplated on what importance did the biblical god have in my life and realized that it was none, I was completely self-sufficient. Most people think that we need god for moral values or self control. I have formed my morals, I know very well what is acceptable and unacceptable for me, good and bad. I never needed God for that, and I don’t need it now. Nor do I see the need to prove that just because I’m not religious doesn’t mean I’m not good.
For me, the church as a system used to be a guarantor of peace and security, and national identity; yet now it is the first enemy of progress, freedom, statehood and the future in Georgia, it stands as the main office of the Kremlin in Georgia.
First love and coming out
I didn’t find my identity until I was a student, although discovering my sexuality at a late age is not normal. But as it happened, I’m not unhappy with it, because when I found myself, I never had a moment of not accepting myself or depression. I was the happiest, when I answered to myself.
Of course, I felt attraction towards boys from a very young age, but I couldn’t explain what it was. When I was asked who my girlfriend was, I always answered with a girl’s name, and I really thought so because there was no other model—the culture tells you that you are a boy and you have to fall in love with girls.
“I was living with my friends, and first came out to them. Their reaction was very adequate, which gave me a false idea that everyone would view my happiness the same.”
I was already a student when I met a boy on the train from Kobuleti to Tbilisi, towards whom I felt something different as soon as I looked at him. I became interested in this person, and soon I realized that it was an interest that I had never felt before. I wanted to kiss him. It was the first time I confirmed with myself that I like boys.
When I arrived in Tbilisi, I got home, and was very happy. I came out to my friends straight away, and their reaction was very adequate, which gave me a false perspective that everyone would receive me being happy this way. Later I had to go through many battles and my surroundings completely changed. At that time I saw it as a tragedy, but, from today’s view, it was all very logical.
Reality is not like western movies where you tell your parents you are gay and they just hug you. When I get asked about coming out, I always tell people to wait until they are financially and mentally ready to support themselves, as it often means that you will have to move out at least temporarily. But coming out is very important, it is like taking a deep breath and removing a lot of weight from your shoulders. I emphasize with people who want to come out, especially if you want to do it for those whom you love. Plus, you want to check if they really mean it when they tell you that they love you. I thought that those who truly loved me would stay by my side, and if they don’t love me, why would I be upset about them leaving? This is exactly what happened. Recently some of my friends have returned and I would never refuse to take them back in.
I have never hidden my orientation. I always answered the truth when asked about it, even in dangerous situations. I had and still have a principle of not hiding who I am. The biggest insult to myself would be to deny it.
“My mother fought for me to the end without telling me anything about it. I heard from others that she is no longer friends with someone, she had an argument with someone, she went through something.”
I want to tell queer people that there is no situation from which there is no way out. Find someone you are comfortable with. If you don’t have anyone like that around, you should definitely change friends, find alternative spaces and start coming out step by step.
With my family, I chose the attitude of answering honestly if they had asked. I thought they were afraid to ask this question, that I would answer them when I was ready. I thought that parents always knew, especially when you don’t hide it.
In reality, I ended up coming out to my family twice, both of them were public. First was May 17 2018 and the second was on Gogi Gvakharia’s show. My family didn’t treat 2018 as coming out. Media mentioned me as a queer activist, gay activist, but they pretended not to notice. It is still like that. My father has asked me multiple times whether I am going to marry a German girl or a Georgian one. At this point it is just funny, I no longer want to argue about it, especially as I am so far away, I started cherishing all my relationships.
I think it was Giorgi Kikonishvili who wrote that one needs to come out to parents every time as they hope you could have “ungayed”.
My mother came to visit me in Germany, before we managed to talk about it. I told her that Gogi Gvakharia was making an episode of his show about me, she got a bit tense, why do you need it, do you want everyone to talk about it and so on. After the show came out I shared it on my Facebook page, I didn’t warn her in advance. I knew she’d watch it, but she didn’t contact me for a while so I got a bit worried. I was getting angry at the same time, how could she not react, even bad at least. That’s when I saw her public comment: “I love you the way you are”.
This was very emotional for me. I didn’t expect such a comment. From any of my queer-supportive acquaintances, even if one was my mother, those words wouldn’t hold as much value because for them it’s a normal reaction. But my mother, who had no experience of this, who does not even have a higher education, who does not really have these values, for whom such a notion is alien, was still able to say this. This is unconditional love for me, which is very emotional.
“I don’t want my mother to only be preoccupied by me. She has done more for me than I had expected, I no longer want to burden her. Georgian women are already constantly living the lives of their children. “
She fought for me till the very end, without ever telling me about it. I would find out from other people that she had an argument with someone, or is no longer friends with someone, or went through something.
We’ve never discussed this topic. I don’t see the point of doing so, at this point. This may be a defense mechanism, as I don’t want to hear things I don’t agree with from them.
Plus, I don’t want my mother to only be preoccupied by me. She has done more for me than I had expected, I no longer want to burden her. Georgian women are already constantly living the lives of their children, at least the generation that I am talking about right now. I am already 26 years old, I am no longer a minor. My mother has a younger son, Luka. She is at an age where I would like for them to spend time on issues that have not been resolved because of me. Some may think this is wrong, but this is more comfortable for me and I think for my mother as well. I am completely acceptable for her.
I also have an older brother. I would prefer not to talk about him. When the events of 2018 happened, my relatives didn’t dare to approach me, so all the pressure landed on him, including that of peer pressure. He was told that as an older brother he should have dealt with me. So I don’t want to mention him, as I know they will keep bothering him.
As for our relationship, we were very different from early childhood, so we didn’t have bad relationships, yet we were always distant. He has never insulted me for my identity. After May 17 2018, he asked me why I did it and told me what my family had to go through, because others wouldn’t tell me. We haven’t spoken about this since that day. We have a normal relationship, we ask about each other’s things when I call home. If I were in Georgia, I would have had a very strained relationship with my family. I realize that distance determines a lot, we have more opportunities to think things through.
“Recently, a friend told me that he has not had a relationship with his mother since childhood. He lives abroad, he has everything he wants, but he said that his dream is to hear his mother’s lullaby and feel her hug him. He would forgive her everything and would be very happy…”
I always try to shield my family from this topic. One of the reasons I moved to Germany, except for the fact that I physically no longer could stay there, was to insure that I had my life and my family had theirs. This is practically impossible in Georgia.
Most of gay men are suffering from guilt, which in turns causes mental problems. Unfortunately, very often families abuse this and limit all freedom for them. I am privileged in this regard, I have not experienced any violence, pressure, oppression within the family
I would like to tell queer people to never give up on themselves. Live, enjoy freedom, and never refuse to live your life the way you want to, for no one even for your family. At the same time, I may be contradicting myself, but it’s important for queer individuals to understand their parents considering the context. There are so many factors like: cultural, financial, religious and so many more, which prevent parents from understanding their children. Despite everything, they should never think that their parents do not love them. I think it’s the patriarchy, the system, this whole ugly culture that says those words through their parents, not their mom or dad. Fortunately, I have not heard such words, but many people have, and I know that it is difficult for them to accept what I am saying now.
“Queer people are not allowed to exist as separate from their families in Georgia. You are their shame, that neither they nor you can wash off, so you walk around covered in shame your entire life. “
Sometimes I felt very uncomfortable when I posted about my mother, because not many gay men have the comfort of that. Recently, a friend told me that he has not had a relationship with his mother since childhood. He lives abroad, he has everything he wants, but he told me that my dream is to hear his mother’s lullaby and hug her. He would forgive everything and be very happy…
Society and friends
For a queer person, the main pressure is society’s attack on the family, as they often worry about their family more then themselves. Pressure from the neighborhood, relatives, rumors, among them, which often is very primitive. This also affects their health. For example, my mother’s tear membrane was damaged. I found out about it too late. My father was told at work that they would kill me in his place; that they would put me in a psychiatric hospital, etc., as a result of which he became ill. In Georgia, coworkers are like family; you spend a lot of time with them. Now imagine that these people, practically your family members, tell you things like that.
Queer people are not allowed to exist as separate from their families in Georgia. You are their shame, that neither they nor you can wash off, so you walk around covered in shame your entire life. Any appearance of yours will be a problem for the family. I was not planning to leave after May 17, 2018. I was categorically against it and told everyone: no matter how many millions of you are out there, I will still not leave, you are the ones who will have to flee. I am a citizen of this country and I will live here. These words are still choking me, as I strongly believed it…
“I did not run away. I was ready to face all the pressure from society, but on me and not on my family.”
When I arrived in Kobuleti for the first time after May 17, I felt normal. I didn’t feel any tension because my family members didn’t say anything. At this time, I needed to overcome both the trauma of the May 17th violence and the two subsequent cases of violence, when I was gang-attacked and thrown from public transport. Should I work on getting over it or on the news that followed it all? My little brother was already playing sports, also studying at the same school where the principal told me that I brought shame to the family. I did not run away. I was ready to face all the challenges from society, but on me, not on my family, my younger brother.
I am sure that the pressure is still there; it’s just, my family members won’t tell me about it. We live in a society which will not miss a chance to call one out; directly, or indirectly. To this day, a stranger might approach my mother on a packed mini bus and ask her: “what drove your son crazy, why did he do it?!”, while she is there with my younger brother.
I left, we are separated by all of this distance, and yet, my family can not live without being reminded about my story.
In Georgia, if you are a homosexual, you must control your every move. You can not hold your partner’s hand in public, can’t kiss them goodbye, and so on. Some talk of the rights to live and work, but self-expression is just as important for developing a healthy social life.
“A gay man in Georgia must spend his life making sure he is not making someone else feel bad. And where does it leave you? As soon as you say you are there, it is considered untimely selfishness. Then when is the right time? I look at middle age queer people who’s time has never come. “
There was a time, when I went to my friend’s birthdays alone, yet this ended up as one of the most stressful moments of my life, because, after getting drunk other guests started mocking me with so-called “harmless” jokes that were actually homophobic. For some reason, people think of homophobia as only physical violence. At times like this you don’t know how to react, you are under double stress- if you argue with them (and you must do so, as it is a matter of your dignity), it turns out, you are ruining the mood and you don’t want to be that person. Or you must sit through these insults, which are not just “harmless” jokes. And while all of this is happening, your friends keep telling you: “Cut it out, Niko, you know, I would not invite homophobes to my party?!”. As if they are teaching me what a homophobe is.
A gay man in Georgia must spend his life making sure he is not making someone else feel bad. And where does it leave you? As soon as you say you are there, it is considered untimely selfishness. Then when is the right time? I look at middle age queer people who’s time has never come.
I don’t like that queers mostly have queer friends. But it happens precisely for these reasons. I always tried to fight it. I wanted to be part of society, not isolated. But then you already realize that you get tired of this constant struggle; a person does not want to live in such an environment where they have to fight all the time. You need adequate friendships so are not in constant explanation mode with them.
Those who insulted me, those who attacked me, I remember them less. I remember those people who had something to say and didn’t. I had a feeling I deserved to be told that…
A lot of people have left my life due to my identity. But I forget resentment and bad moments so easily and quickly that I always have a hard time remembering why we fought or argued. Besides, despite everything, I’ve become very sensitive lately, and I still don’t want to hurt them. I guess they also had a lot of reasons somehow. That doesn’t make them right, but still.
I had a period when I blamed myself, including for hurting my family. Then I came to the conclusion that society was to blame and that I have every right to live. My only crime was that I live, and the right to live cannot be a crime.
Departure and the sea seen from the train window
I remember leaving Kobuleti and seeing the sea from the window. I did it specially to arrive in Tbilisi a few days earlier. There was complete madness going on around me and I wanted to be alone for a while. I wanted to visit the places I loved and hadn’t seen in a long time. However, I did not know that I would not see them for so long.
” This country made me leave it. It was very hard to accept it- I thought I was strong from childhood. I had a feeling that I was defeated, that they had won. “
The first reason for leaving was physical safety. Two criminal cases were filed and the state did nothing to protect me. And the second reason is that I realized that not only I had a problem, but also my family.
My family saw me off from Kobuleti. This was the first time I saw my mother cry. I have never seen her so helpless and it was very hard on me… When I boarded the train, I cried a lot. I was angry at my country, I thought I didn’t deserve such treatment. When I left Kobuleti, I realized that the country was forcing me to leave. It was very difficult to come to terms with this – since childhood I was convinced that I was very strong. I had a feeling that I lost and they won.
I was going abroad for the first time, I was also sitting on a plane for the first time. I went to a completely foreign environment, completely alone. This made me grow a lot, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do the same in Georgia, for a variety of reasons.
Even though living here has so many benefits, I always have a feeling of injustice that I didn’t come here willingly, that my country is somewhere else. Rarely, but I also have the feeling that I was not able to succeed, despite the fact that no one agrees with me on this. But when I think, what would I be like if I hadn’t come, would I have been able to do anything at all? I think that I have treated myself and my family right by leaving.
When I left Georgia, living in the camp was not a part of the plan, yet it ended up that way. I was not ready for it. From this point of view, I cannot say that the conditions were very unbearable, but it was hard for me to get used to it. Suddenly I met so many strangers, I didn’t know the language. In addition, there were Georgians who were hostile towards me and some of them attacked me. I couldn’t get used to the food, common toilets. I’m laughing now, but I was late to take my clothes to the laundry and they didn’t let me, I had to wait another week and I cried a lot about it then.
I cried the most about the fact that even in these hard conditions, not once did I think about going back home. It was very emotional to think about the harshness of the background of someone, who prefers these difficulties, rather than going home… I thought I could talk about these topics without emotion, but it turned out to be emotional…
“I miss the sea the most. Someday I will definitely have a house by the sea.”
I was in Leipzig for three months, then I went to Dresden. I received a positive answer six months after I arrived in Germany, but it had a legal basis that I was declared a victim in Georgia.
The first year was very difficult for me. I was asocial, I did not communicate with people. When I was walking down the street, I had the feeling that someone was following me. A classmate at a language course touched my shoulder and I screamed, I had fears left and couldn’t stand being touched.
I can’t tell anyone not to leave Georgia, but they should know that it involves a lot of difficulties, requires a lot of effort and work on oneself.
Now I am studying in Dresden, working in an archive. Of course, there are homophobes here too, but the law protects you and society is much freer. In Tbilisi, you had to hide most of the time, it was depressing that the people with whom you would have a date had fears, they checked the already closed door of the apartment several times, etc. Nobody cares about your personal life here. In Georgia, if they get used to the fact that you are gay, then they wonder if you have a stable partner or not, and if you don’t, they will consider you inferior. However, I like my life as it is. I can have many dates, meet many different people. It is very interesting.
I miss the sea the most. Someday I will definitely have a house by the sea, be it Kobuleti or another city. As a child, when I went to the sea, I always had the feeling that there was another world beyond that horizon. Although I liked Kobuleti geographically, I loved the sea, the atmosphere. I always had the feeling that I don’t belong there and I want to be somewhere else.
I am still in the process of finding who I am and where my home is. It is a never-ending process. I will always be on the road to find what lies beyond that horizon. It doesn’t mean I haven’t found myself, it’s just that you can’t say the process is over until you’re done developing yourself.