Some Georgians are increasingly using TikTok to explore and express their identities; others are trying to reach out to compatriots, predominantly the young, with messages of equality and tolerance.
‘It upsets me when I’m sometimes told “look, you don’t look gay, so you’re a nice guy” but if someone wears make-up or a dress and so on, they don’t like and don’t love them’, Zurab Maisuradze, a Georgian TikToker with almost 9,000 followers complained in a video in which he wore make-up in solidarity to others.
Zurab, a 41-years-old strategic management and communication consultant, has gained his own share of haters, as well as supporters, after taking on homophobia among Georgians in his videos.
Many of Georgia’s TikTokers say they joined the service last year on the background of the anti-coronavirus lockdown. Zurab was among them.
‘It's a very diverse platform with various demographics and it is very democratic. If your video is fun, you really can reach thousands of people with your message’, he tells OC Media.
Zurab says that sometimes he ignores the hateful messages that at times flood his videos while other times he responds to them with humour.
@newfreedomstudioyou think you can heart me? #fy #fyp #foryou #foryoupage #lgbtq #gay♬ Bulletproof - La Roux
He says this can make all the difference.
‘I have witnessed a few people starting with terrible, aggressive hate comments and then… some of them really change — some become fans’, Zurab says.
Nika Beridze, a 30-years-old Georgian immigrant in France, is among the Georgian ‘gender provocateurs’ on TikTok due to his provocative clothing and dance videos.
@beridze_nika4 Répondre à @nikaxalvashi1 მომითათუნე.:rolling_on_the_floor_laughing::heart::rainbow-flag::flag-ge::nail_varnish:#ფორიუმეთქიიიიიიიიიიიი:sparkling_heart: #ფორიუ #საქართველო #pourtoi #foryou #global #foryoupage ♬ original sound - 777
This has, at times, led to hateful comments being left under his videos. ‘A bullet in your forehead is what you need’, says a commenter under one of Beridze’s videos, in which he offers flamboyant moves to the background of Georgian traditional music.
‘Many think that LGBT individuals don’t have the right to dance to Georgian traditional music, which is, obviously, nonsense… Their negative comments don’t get to me at all. I don’t give a damn’, Nika tells OC Media.
Freely and conspicuously expressing themselves online has not always been an easy journey for gender-bending and queer Georgians. It’s not uncommon to see videos from them responding to angry compatriots that leave comments filled with bigotry and hate.
Lado Mkheidze, a 23-years-old yoga instructor with almost 33,000 followers on TikTok, knows the price of both fame and advocacy.
But he says he has no intention to back down.
‘I think what drives you mad is that as an openly gay individual, I’m so successful and happy in this country’, Mkheidze says to his detractors in his usual handstand yoga position in one video.
A new dimension for activism?
Some of those breaking gender norms don’t even self-identify as part of the queer community, have no interest in changing people’s minds, or don’t even try to go viral on TikTok, treating the platform as a tool to have fun and explore their skills for self-expression.
Some of the queer Georgian TikTokers OC Media spoke to also remain ambivalent if their experimenting with gender-crossing clothes or just sharing their thoughts on TikTok qualifies as activism. Others disagree.
‘Probably these videos are a form of activism, and when many people are writing every day to say they appreciate your videos and the messages make someone's life a bit easier, I'm very happy to be part of it then!’, Zurab Maisuradze told OC Media.
Seventeen-year-old Likuna lives in Georgia’s eastern Kakheti region and does not participate in community meetings offline, but she does talk about her lesbian identity on TikTok.
In several of her videos, she has addressed the homophobia she has been subjected to by family members as well as abusive language online.
‘These [hateful] words might not mean anything to you, but you hurt others with them. Not everyone is indifferent to what you say’, she wrote in one of her videos.
‘Of course, there are people who swear at me pointlessly… [but] I’ve also felt some warmth and support from strangers here’, Likuna tells OC Media.
GrlzWave, a Georgian feminist multimedia project endorsed TikTok from early on.
In conversation with OC Media, GrlzWave’s co-founder, Tekla Tevdorashvili, says that TikTok is not free from hate speech and they too face it, ‘mostly coming from male teenagers and young boys who were raised in a sexist, homophobic society and are not aware of the consequences their words might have on other people’.
Nevertheless, Tekla says TikTok has served as a safe haven for the marginalised communities and differed from other social media platforms Georgians used.
‘Because of this, we specially tailored our content for this platform. We try to keep up with trends and fit them into the feminist context’.
@grlzwaveIdk how does that make sense but whatever ##makessense ##feministhood ##feminist ##feministhouse ##lgbt ##lgbtq♬ 아무노래 - ZICO
In their videos, Grlzwave provide information on feminism and misconceptions about it, women’s reproductive health, sexism, gender stereotypes, and relationships.
GrlzWave, according to Tekla Tevdorashvili, have successfully explored a ‘whole new target group… such as young girls and queer individuals’.
For Nata Talikishvili, a transgender woman responsible for community outreach at Tbilisi-based Georgian rights group the Equality Movement, reaching out also means doing it online.
Natia tells OC Media they took up TikToking last winter to communicate with people with ‘informative and funny videos’, some specifically made for the platform.
She says that despite the younger demographics, they still receive a lot of negative comments on TikTok.
[Read more on slowly shifting public attitudes on OC Media: More young Georgians say queer rights are important than not, poll finds]