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Voice | ‘Our families are as holy as yours’ — stories of acceptance

17 May 2019
‘I’m proud that I have come so far being who I am and didn’t give in’, Drago says. (Tamuna Chkareuli / OC Media)

Despite widespread homophobic attitudes throughout the Caucasus, there are some queer people who find acceptance for who they are — from their co-workers, their friends, and their families. Below are the stories of three queer people, from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

Drago — a stage pseudonym — is a 17-year-old boy from Rustavi, Georgia. He is a make-up artist, a fashion model, and a drag performer. Everywhere he walks, he gets unapologetic looks —  openly wearing women’s attire, with dyed hair and make-up, he does not expect anything else. The courage to be himself, he says, comes from his mother, who always supported him along the way.

‘I’ve had many different interests since I was a little boy. I always had long hair, was friends with girls, and never wanted to participate in boyish games. There were attempts to change me, mostly from my father, but I would always resist.’

‘This resistance was what I grew up with. I remember once he tried to cut my hair while I was asleep, but I woke up and he couldn’t do anything. He took me to a boxing class and bought me boxing gloves, but that didn’t work either. He is the kind of man that won’t accept anything new.’

‘My father sometimes ambushes me in the street, asking me to at least dress “normally”. But I don’t want to hide who I am.  And it was not just him, but other male relatives too. For my own safety, I ended all relations with my uncle and my grandfather. Everyone was trying to influence me; some still do.’

Drago often rides the minibus to get around Rustavi. Two weeks ago, a man punched Drago from outside the bus and tried to escape. (Tamuna Chkareuli/ OC Media)

‘Except for my mother. My mother was the only bright light of my life. She was always by my side and till this day, stands by me no matter what. In my childhood, she would always resist my father and defend me, and now, after years, it’s the other way around. I often defend mum when people tell her nasty things — that happens a lot. The majority of it comes from my father, but for the last four years, luckily, we have lived separately and I feel free.’

‘My father wanted, because of my identity, to deprive us of the flat in Rustavi and throw me and my mother out, but thanks to support from the Equality Movement [a queer rights group], we won the case in court.’

‘We are much happier now. I’m a happy person and have everything I’d ask for thanks to my mother. I’m dreaming about going abroad and becoming a professional make-up artist, and she supports this idea. I want to be accepted and not to feel like a zoo animal. My mother is ready for me to leave. Of course, at first, she didn’t like what I did. But I have quite a decent income from my work, and she likes that I’m independent.’

‘I was only 13 when I first called the police’

‘At school, everyone accepted me surprisingly well after some time. They knew me well and no one was aggressive towards me. I was the first one to dress differently in school and was bullied because of this, but there was never any physical violence. I think they also knew that I was aware of my rights and would always defend them.’

‘I was only 13 when I first called the police — they [the attackers] tried to take off some of my personal belongings that looked different. I have had to call the police almost every year since then.’

‘My mother was the person who taught me the most important thing — I need to be able to survive alone. There are situations when no one will help me, except myself.’

‘The latest attack happened around two weeks ago, when I was sitting in a minibus, and a man punched me from outside and tried to escape. I took down the contact information of witnesses, I went out and photographed the car plate from outside, and I memorised the attacker’s face. I was able to identify him later, and now he’s about to face justice.’

‘A true parent loves their child no matter who they are’

‘From my mum,  I learned to be courageous and strong, like she is. She is a fantastic woman.’

‘She has had to endure so much because of me. My mother is my other half. If not for her, I wouldn’t be here, and I can’t imagine life without her. It would be a life of suffering.’

‘A mother is the door to the rest of the world. She is the first barrier in a queer person’s life, and if she’s with you, you don’t care what the world will think.’

‘I would love to have a family in the future, and also raise my child with acceptance, no matter what. A true parent loves their child no matter who they are. My father is not a true parent to me, and I’m not ashamed to say that.’

[Read on OC Media: Forced from home for being queer]

‘My classmates, friends, and people in my neighbourhood in Rustavi also recognise me and help me. They know me better than my father ever did. I’m proud that I have come so far being who I am and didn’t give in. I have several relatives who share this point of view, among them the husband of one of my mother’s relatives who genuinely worries about my safety.’

‘For 17 May, he asked me to go on a picnic with them to stay safe. My mum is not that afraid, by the way. There are many things that have changed for the better in society, and we are hopeful.’

On his way to a meeting with his lawyers, Drago said he is confident the law will be on his side. (Tamuna Chkareuli / OC Media)
Drago’s friend, 14-year-old Mia, who is also queer, came to support him while he met with his lawyers at the police station. (Tamuna Chkharelui / OC Media)

‘The most important day for a queer person’

‘17 May is the day of fighting hate for me. It’s a day of standing together and I feel it’s the most important day for queer people. Unfortunately, this beautiful day was stolen by the [Georgian Orthodox Church] and became the day of Family Purity.  Well, I would like to tell them that our families are pure too, and we can join them in their celebration. It was a provocation, assigning it [the day of Family Purity] on 17 May, IDAHOTB.’

‘I would say to those who want to talk to their families but are afraid — have the courage to make the first steps. If you do it carefully, you have a good chance of being accepted. But it also depends on the parent. And I don’t think that a parent has to have “modern thinking”. There is nothing modern about the idea you should love your child.’

‘I’m probably one of the lucky ones’

(Shari Sirotnak / Unsplash)

Gor (not his real name), 40, was born in Vanadzor, in northern Armenia. Around 15 years ago, he began to rethink his identity and discovered he was bisexual. Gor currently works in a beauty salon in Yerevan. He says that when he first started working there, the director of the salon was not interested in his sexual orientation, but rather his skills.

‘To discover who I was was painful for me at first. I was a member of a very traditional family. There was no discussion inside the walls of our house about sexual minorities. Even talking about that topic was reprehensible for my parents.’

‘I was just 23 years old when I got married. It could be said that I had loved her since childhood. Everything was very smooth in our lives. But the peace didn’t last long. We didn’t understand each other. We were constantly arguing over every trifle. My love was broken. After a year of living together, we broke up. She went on her way and I went to work abroad.’

‘I had a girlfriend [in Russia] who had a pretty active and diverse sex life. One day, she proposed we go on a date, and another friend was also there. I don’t know how, but we started dating — all three of us — and at that time I realised that I had feelings for both of them. I don’t want to go into details, but I can say that I don’t hide my identity from my inner circle; I'm accepted, I'm loved, and I am happy.’

‘Soon they will break out of the chains of tradition’

‘The staff [at the beauty salon in Yerevan] is small; we’re just five people. Who I am is not a problem for my colleagues at all. I'm probably one of the lucky ones who has not encountered discrimination at work.’

‘My relationship with my parents is very warm; I often visit Vanadzor, recently, even with my boyfriend. However, our reconciliation was not so easy: outside the walls of the house, my boyfriend should be just a friend for neighbours and acquaintances. I shouldn’t talk to anyone about my preferences and life. My parents are not ready for the public’s attitude yet.’

‘Once, I was in my native Vanadzor. We had guests at home and the TV was turned on. During a TV show, one member of the LGBT community was speaking. You should have seen the reaction of my neighbours. They said so many bad words, threatening to kill that person, burn them in the centre of the square, cut off their genitals, as a lesson to other people like him.’

‘Years ago, my family didn’t accept me in any way, but now they do. I have strong and conscientious parents; I know that soon they will break out of the chains of tradition.’

‘I want to love everything I have in me’

Mavr

Mavr (not his real name), 20, works as a visual merchandiser in a network of high-class fashion retailers in a popular shopping centre in Baku. In the past, Mavr suffered from depression because he was afraid to tell people who he really was.

‘Mavr is my nickname for my friends and people close to me. When they call me Mavr, I understand, this person is my person, they know who I am and my preferences. My relatives know nothing about this nickname.’

‘When I was eleven, I saw a film where two men were kissing and heard the “gay” word. I understood how to be called then.’

‘I always thought that friends were people who would listen to you and try to accept you, but I had no such luck. My friends were the ones to whom I confessed for the first time about who I really am — in reply, they started mocking at me, saying it was all about my age, and was just a phase I was going through. I tried to convince them otherwise, but then most of my friends turned their backs on me. And after this failure, I closed myself off more, because I was afraid to lose everyone around me.’

‘When I was in the ninth grade, I was beaten by five boys in the toilet. They beat me many times after that, making it dangerous for me to attend school. I missed classes for two months because I was afraid of the attacks.’

‘She is the person who hurt me the most’

‘My mother has homophobic views. She found out the truth when she read my correspondence with my boyfriend in my phone. She told me it was terrible and incorrect, and asked me to live the life she had imagined for me. But she never ever called me a “faggot” or used any other insulting word. Anyhow, she respects me as a person, though she does not totally agree with who I am.’

‘We had many quarrels because of this, she even kicked me out of the house a few times. She is the person who has hurt me most, but because of her, I learnt to love myself despite this and to face every confrontation.’

‘Everyday I stand in front of the mirror for about an hour and practise love to myself. I sing songs and dance. And then look at myself intently, trying to feel that I am what I am. I also try to imagine I don’t have an ear, or a hand, and still practice loving myself. No matter how I could look or feel about my body, I want to love everything I have in me.’

‘I am popular, fashionable, and desirable’

‘I’m crazy about clothes. I adore touching clothes, smelling them, feeling their textures. Every piece of clothing has its feeling. Despite the fact that I wear luxury brands, I can also go to second-hand shops to find some unique clothes to create a look.’

‘Like girls put on their make-up every day, I come to my work and try to keep up the beauty and style concept in the interiors of the shops. I need to feel that everything is perfect and sophisticated to be satisfied.’

‘People in the fashion community and at secular parties I attend have made my life much easier. They don’t care what my sexual orientation is, this is not the first question.’

‘For them it just doesn’t matter whether you are a queer or not. It’s ok if you are. What matters is how smart, funny, and communicative you are. I met many people who were straight who tried to support me in my relationships, encouraging me, and that surprised me a lot.’

‘While before, people ignored me because of my sexual orientation — calling me a “faggot” — now many people are eager to be friends with me. I’m popular, fashionable, and desirable. They like my straightforwardness, appreciate that I can make compromises. And very few people think of my queerness as an obstacle. It just doesn’t matter any more.’

‘Now I have friends who remember my birthday without Facebook notifications. They care for me and are always there for me.’

‘Your sexual orientation is your personal preference’

‘If I sleep with men, and you sleep with women, it doesn’t mean I am not able to succeed in society, even a society as judgemental as ours. Your sexual orientation is your personal preference. Your place in society is how you express your talents, and that’s the only way queer people should be judged in Azerbaijan.’

‘You need to understand what you want to do and what you are capable of. The next step is to start doing it, without taking anybody else into account. They will accept you anyhow, seeing you as a professional, being in need of your skills. This is how to be accepted — but first of all, you need to accept yourself and not hate your true nature deep in your heart.’

Tamuna Chkareuli, Armine Avetisyan, Sabina Abubakirova.

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