Childhood-Plekhanov street, jumping on garages and climbing trees
I grew up in Tbilisi, on Agmashenebeli Avenue, in a very busy, crowded area. There was a very big yard between the buildings and I was there all the time, day and night. I had many close friends, neighbors and strangers. Perhaps my favorite memory is when my friend Anna and I would jump over garages, climb trees, discover some secret places, like an old, abandoned factory yard.
These years are also bad memories and traumas. When I was very young, I used to fall out of bed at night. They took me to a neuropathologist and it turned out that stress was to blame – our bedroom was on the side of the street and all this civil war, shootings could be heard and seen very well, and probably because of that my nerves were damaged. In addition to this, lack of electricity, lack of gas, lack of food, etc. Good thing I was a child. This period was even more difficult for my parents.
Self-determination and coming out — “God, don’t let me be a lesbian”
During puberty, when girls liked boys from class and neighborhood, I didn’t like anyone. I was a little surprised, but I was clinging on to my childhood, I didn’t want to grow up, I still wanted to climb on garages and trees.
Later, when I already knew what sex is, I sometimes had fantasies about women, although there was no sympathy for a specific person. I was worried, I thought: “Oh God, don’t let me be a lesbian” and I prayed sometimes.
I didn’t like anyone at the university either. But I was studying psychology and I started reading Freud about sexuality, where he says that all people are bisexual. It was a turning point in my consciousness. I realized that this was normal and it turns out that this was the “problem” with me.
“At no point did I feel that my mother didn’t love me anymore, or that she was mad at me, or that she was angry. On the contrary, he stood by me all the time, even though she herself needed internal work to accept and understand all this, because these were the first days of LGBTQ activism in Georgia.”
I accepted myself after gaining knowledge and was so happy about it. I told all of my new friends, I practically came out. I was 18-19 years old, but since I didn’t have any experience and I didn’t have any object of sympathy, everyone took my words lightly: “Wow, Mariam is so strange, she is doing something strange, original” and other similar comments. This was the early 2000s or the late 90s, when LGBTQ issues were virtually non-existent in the discourse. There were rumors about a few famous people, specifically a gay man, and that was it. A Georgian LGBTQ person, especially a woman, was not in my consciousness then, I did not know anyone who was queer.
Years later, I went to Budapest to study, where I first liked a girl and kissed her. I was 21 years old at that time, and when I returned to Georgia, I laid out the facts for my friends.
My coming out was not a one time thing. At the age of 22 I thought that I was a bisexual. I even had a boyfriend, but I fell in love with a girl when I was 23. This was my first queer love. Later I realized that boys don’t interest me and so I came out the second time.
Family- unconditional love
I had to tell my mother. I didn’t want to, I wasn’t going to. When I was living and studying in Budapest, my mother put me in touch with Eka Ostomelashvili and told me that she was founding an LGBTQI organization. I used to come to Tbilisi periodically and went to inclusive. There were the first meetings of the community. We were probably 30 people at most. There I met one person who was very bad for me. We had a small affair and when I didn’t want to continue the relationship anymore, they didn’t let me. This went on for years – I went to Berlin, I had a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and during this time they kept following me, coming to the window and calling my name. They had someone they knew in the mobile operator company and was writing to my relatives from my phone number, etc.
“I was in Tbilisi, on July 5th last year. I took a taxi to my mother’s place, my father arrived soon after- he was very worried. I think he understood that what we had to face was injustice, that I, his daughter, was in real danger.”
I went to my mother to ask for help, because I realized that I could not handle this alone. Not only did I tell her that someone was bothering me, but that they were queer and so was I. Perhaps this information was too much. I remember that she was worried, scared, but she helped me a lot and stood by me in every way. That evening she asked me; “Is it my fault that you are like this? Did I make a mistake in your childhood?” She went through some kind of process emotionally, but at no point did I feel that she doesn’t love me anymore, or that she’s angry. On the contrary, she stood by me all the time, even though she herself needed internal work to accept and understand all this, because it was the first days of LGBTQ activism in Georgia.
After that, I became more involved in the work of Inclusive, then WISG. I also worked with my mother at the Women’s Foundation, where we went through a serious political education together. When I was having a bisexual phase, I thought that I would end up liking some guy, but then I realized that it wouldn’t happen.
My mother didn’t want me to tell other family members. I knew that she was trying to avoid the drama. They would blame it on her feminist work, and she wanted to avoid problems. I was bothered, because I thought she didn’t fully support my coming out.
My brother took it very well. He is very open minded and has many queer friends. I am very lucky in that regard.
It was difficult for my father. I may not have told everyone, but I never hid my identity. Therefore, I thought the whole family knew, including my father. It so happened that I was filmed in one of the first Georgian documentaries about LGBTQ people by Lia Jakeli. Where I, Davit Mikhel Shubladze and Giorgi Kikonishvili came out. We talked about our sexuality and so on. After May 17, 2013, this film was shown by Gogi Gvakharia in the Red Zone. I was already in America then. My father wrote to me: “Me and my boys are here, drinking and watching you on TV. How cool, we are proud of you, and drank your toast” so I assumed that he knew everything, that he accepted me.
Three years later, when I started a new job with “lesbian” in the title, I wrote to my father that I was moving to New York. There was nothing ambiguous anymore and it was directly written “Lesbian”, so he couldn’t ignore this topic and he got angry. We didn’t talk for about a year and a half. Then we reconciled when I came to Tbilisi, then we ran into each other again, etc.
“Even though I had support from close friends and family, it doesn’t mean I was safe from homophobic aggression.”
I was in Tbilisi, on July 5th last year. I took a taxi to my mother’s place, my father arrived soon after- he was very worried. I think he understood that what we had to face was injustice, that I, his daughter, was in real danger. My girlfriend came for my birthday. My father met her and liked her very much, he took me to a separate room and said: “Dad, I think she is a very good woman.” It was lovely. So everything came to its place little by little .
I don’t think it is necessary for everyone to come out, it is individual. This is a phenomenon from Western culture that may not be necessary for everyone. I’ve been living in America for 9 years now, and things are very different here — teenagers talk to their parents about their personal lives, sex is not taboo, sex education is part of the school curriculum. Therefore, it is accepted that people have boyfriends, girlfriends and talk about it. My father couldn’t believe that I had a boyfriend and I had sex.
Before coming out, it is important to have supporters, friends who will stand by us, because it is difficult to do it alone.
Society and friends who do not believe
No one said that they were leaving because of my queerness. They just didn’t believe me as I was very feminine. They didn’t take it seriously, they laughed about it and it was very painful. Periodically, I needed to prove that I was queer. All this probably affected some relationships, it naturally distanced me from people, people who I love very much. My childhood friend, for example, who argues with me about my identity every time I come to Tbilisi. I don’t think they can accept me. But I still have many of my childhood friends, most of them straight. I don’t know how it happened, but I was very lucky to have such an open minded circle. This is also a privilege in some way. I understand that I grew up in the center of Tbilisi, among educated people, which are the middle class, etc. However, despite all this, in the same circle, my acquaintance’s parents say terrible things about me. I am talking about people who are scientists, who teach in universities. I had a girlfriend whose parents were professors, but when they found out about us, they treated us very badly, they locked this girl in the house. I don’t want to say that education always means being open minded. The two can coexist very well. I just got lucky.
“We were very naïve. May 17 was a big lesson for me, I grew a lot after that”
However, even though I had support from my closest friends and family, it does not mean that I was protected from homophobic aggression. Because I have never hidden my identity, I have always been out as a member of the community and also very visible as a queer and feminist activist, I have often been a target or victim of discrimination and violence, such as denial of services, not being allowed somewhere, physical or verbal abuse, violence by both: strangers and the police. If I didn’t have the support of my family and friends, these incidents would probably have broken me psychologically, they would have destroyed me. This support made me strong enough to deal with the facts of violence and discrimination.
We are a collectivist society in Georgia on some level. This has its pluses, although you always know that your decisions have consequences for society, the collective, the environment, so you make a choice between your personal freedom and the comfort of other people. Between comfort and freedom, it is probably clear that freedom has more weight.
May 17, 2013 and disappointment
Sometimes I avoid telling the details because it is very heavy. However, it is necessary to talk about it.
Then Nana, my mother and I worked at the Women’s Foundation, and our partners were Identity and WISG, which organized this action. As a member of the community and an informal activist, I was involved in organizing issues, I also attended the meetings of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Nana was there as a representative of the Women’s Foundation and as my mother.
Different organizations were responsible for different groups of activists. People from Identity went to Pushkin Square and since it was difficult to enter there, we met people from WISG at the corner of Vachnadze and we were going to go up together. There were also miscommunications, including the Identity’s employees not telling us about the timing, etc., which I won’t go into, but that was also the basis of the split.
Some of my friends were there to support us, straight guys, cisgender guys, as well as my mom. I don’t know how, but soon it became obvious that we are participants of the rally. The crowd surrounded us. There were some policemen who, apart from doing nothing, on the contrary, told us not to get upset, not to agitate these people, to disperse, etc., but there was no way we could leave, these people were preparing to kill us. 20-25 people and some policemen were standing at the corner of the building and we could see a mob in front of us. We were lucky that a UN employee had come, but as a private person, although she had a badge. This saved us. If it wasn’t for that girl, the police wouldn’t do anything to protect our safety. They made a protective line at her request, and hid us into the building entrance. The mob shouted, spat at us, threw stones at us.
We were inside for some time, then some additional policemen came, there were yellow mini buses parked nearby, they drove one of them to us. They made a small protective line, it was chaos. They told us to crouch down and cover our heads with our hands, because the crowd was throwing things at us. We entered the mini bus, but it was surrounded on all sides. I don’t know how we managed to get out of there. They tried to open the doors, broke the windows, threw everything at us – stones, sticks, someone threw sausages at us. They wanted to drag us, they pulled our hair, we had scratches everywhere. One or two policemen followed us. One of them really stood out, somehow he managed to close both doors and keep the mob out.
“It turns out that solidarity, supporting each other has limits, sometimes it’s just rhetoric and when it comes to action, we falter a bit.”
Somehow we broke through this mob and were taken somewhere towards the Tbilisi sea. Then they sent us to our houses in police cars.
The subsequent period was even more difficult. In addition to the trauma of that day, no one felt safe anymore, there was fear of leaving the house, aggression from the neighbors. Aggression towards all queer people has increased, creating safety issues at all levels. We tried group therapy but it was not very effective. We were all traumatized and trying to take care of each other as best we could. I remember that period very vaguely…
The fact that people were outraged and came out in the streets the next day was positive, yet many of us had the thought: “Where were you yesterday?!”
From today’s point of view, I realize that we were very naïve. It was a great lesson for me, I grew a lot after that. I very naively believed the state’s promises in that situation, because the Ministry of Internal Affairs gave us guarantees, but I realized that the police and the state will never protect our interests.
It was very painful that a large number of social activists did not come to the rally. I really carry this disappointment. It also changed my attitude towards the feminist movement in Georgia, because my non-queer friends from independent feminist groups were not there. It was a turning point, when it turns out that solidarity and mutual support has limits, sometimes it’s just rhetoric and when it comes to action, we falter a bit.
This day created divisions in the LGBTQ movement as well. It became clear who was the target of oppression the most: queer women and trans people, while gay boys were the first to board the specially designated evacuation buses, talking to and reassuring donors. Of course, this day was very difficult for everyone, but for some it was more difficult.
I’ve had disappointments before, but this was the last straw that made me realize I don’t want to be there anymore. First of all, it was a moment of self-preservation. I needed to rest, change the environment, and rehabilitate not only from May 17, but from everything. I also needed to rethink my activism.
“As a queer person, you feel safe in America. As a woman, there is no big difference, there is cat-calling and harassment here too”
My then girlfriend and I left for America very soon after May 17. Already in the spring we were thinking about applying as refugees, but I was lucky enough to be offered a job. They also financed my girlfriend’s immigration process and we moved.
Live in America
We went to San Francisco. I had been there before and knew I wanted to move there. The job turned out to be there. There are many people there, yet it’s a small town, and I thought it would be like Tbilisi. It was very important that I did not get into a completely foreign environment.
We left very unprepared, we didn’t know where we were going. We were lucky that a completely random acquaintance suggested we stay with them. It was a big apartment, they lived with two other people and they had a dog and a cat at home. Two people and two cats just bursted in. We were there for 3 weeks.
We were looking for an apartment. Americans are very strange people. They make friends with you, but no one bothered to actually explain the everyday details. Things like the fact that you cannot rent an apartment if you do not have a credit history in America. I was working, my girlfriend was looking for apartments. We probably visited ten apartments a day, every day for three weeks. In order to do this you need to fill out an application and pay a fee to get your credit history checked. We were paying this money, but we had no credit history. When we realized what was going on, my office gave us a letter of guarantee and with the help of that we were able to get an apartment.
We didn’t know where to buy things, so we bought snacks, sandwiches, and food from the pharmacy. Then we found a big supermarket with all sorts of fruits and everything. It was bliss.
Our first month in the US was a bit comical, we didn’t know where we ended up, who we were. Maybe because we were so traumatized after May 17, we didn’t investigate properly. We had very little salary, we were very poor, then we slowly came to our senses.
It is very difficult to immigrate, although we were very lucky because we had visas and were not illegal. However, I have never regretted leaving and I am very glad I took this step.
I have been here for 10 years now. Now I live in New York. I work for the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, I am the Director of Programs. There are several foundations in our organization, one of which is international, which I lead. We have a budget of about 5 million and we support queer, trans and intersex movements and activists in the Eastern and Southern parts of the world.
“I can’t bring myself to go back”
As long as I’ve lived in America, I’ve been in coastal cities that have historically been much more progressive than the rest of the country. San Francisco and New York have always been favorite places for the queer community, safe spaces. There are far more legal protections in America than marriage equality at the federal level. I, for example, am still married to my ex, we are very lazy and we couldn’t get a divorce, so we have a very good relationship. As a queer person, you feel safe here. As a woman, there is no big difference, there are cat-calls and harassment here too. I could be alone on the street at 4 o’clock in the morning in Tbilisi and not be afraid of an attack. You feel threatened here, but it has nothing to do with my queer identity.
Queer activism in Georgia and the trauma of May 17
The movement is separated, but it exists, and there is a diversity of perspectives, not everyone is of the same opinion, and more than one voice is heard.
However, part of the conflicts arise from the traumas that we have in the movement, and I don’t think we understand the significance of this. We fail to realize the role of collective trauma. If we do not treat this trauma, these relations will never be fixed. It is very important to pay attention to this. For example, healing practices are very important, there are also local methods in Georgia. There are other tried and tested approaches like meditation, art therapy, yoga, somatic therapy, etc. I had an idea that the people participating in the May 17th action would gather at some kind of outdoor event, where we would work on these traumas in different forms of meditation. I really want to do this someday, because without understanding these injuries, it will be very difficult to consolidate the movement.
For me, there are several important criteria in LGBTQI movement: to what extent do the topics on which the movement works affect the public discourse, what is the diversity of opinions and voices and the number of actors. There is great progress with all three criteria. There is not just one type of activism, there are different strategies and a place for everyone in this unified ecosystem. Social change is not a linear event and always depends on the context, the period. We do not know what is the right strategy, the combination of different contexts, periods, strategies creates an effective result. It is very important that not everyone does the same thing, there is not one leader that everyone supports.
I realize that I don’t live in Georgia so I can’t feel what the queers in Georgia go through, even though I visit sometimes and try to meet with the activists.
The 17th of May made a big impact on the generation that was involved in activism at that time. We perceive reality with much more difficulty. My friends who are in Georgia are seeing some progress, but not as much as the new generation of activists who don’t have this trauma. They don’t have that fear, they are much more optimistic, which is good. I think it is necessary to learn from the experience of the predecessors, the movement, and take this into account, but on the other hand, it is also good that the new generation does not have this trauma and burden, they have more ambition and ability to fight.
I see a lot more queer people in public spaces now, there are a lot more queer-friendly places, and so-called bubble, which is receptive of queer community, has expanded. It is felt at every arrival. Last year, July 5 was also a kind of verification, whether it is really so or not. I realized that maybe the bubble has grown, but the distance between the bubble and the rest of the country has also increased quite a bit, there is polarization. The majority is still not at the level for real acceptance to emerge and there is no political will to do so.
Social change takes a lot of time. Not even 10 years have passed since May 17, and not even 20 years have passed since the first LGBTQI organization, INCLUSIVE, appeared in Georgia. This is a very short period of time for serious, fundamental social changes to occur. It will probably take another 20 years and then some more. Social change is accompanied by increasing resistance, which is painful for the people who are the target of it all, but it is a natural part of change.
“I miss Tbilisi and the Tbilisi model of relationship the most”
I never make long-term plans, because I don’t know what I will want in 5 years and what my priorities will be. Now I am comfortable in New York. I thought about going to Mexico for half a year and living there. I am not thinking about Georgia. I didn’t come this year either. It’s the first year I’ve missed because last summer was really hard, plus the war in Ukraine, and for me the combination of so many things means I can’t relax. I don’t even know how to live, I can’t bring myself to go back. It sounds very selfish, but we all need to take care of ourselves. I may want to someday come back, I don’t know yet.
The main thing I miss is the cultural moment — what kind of relationships we have as people, what kind of model of friendship there is. I miss it so much and I’m looking for it all the time. Most of my friends here are expats and I always try to surround myself with people who culturally share the same type of relationships, but it’s not quite there. Deeper, closer and… I miss it very much in Georgia. It turns out that collective society was very good. When I lived there, I became interested in individualism. Here is the other extreme and you feel very isolated, even though you have friends and relatives. In addition, I miss Tbilisi itself, I love this city very much, and even more so, Plekhanov, my streets where I grew up, the aesthetics and energy of Tbilisi.