Thursday, 24 February 2011

In Georgia, a grisly murder highlights vulnerability of gay people

Hotel Tbilisi Marriott in Rustaveli AvenueTbilisi Marriott Hotel via Wikipedia
Source: Eurasianet

by Giorgi Lomadze

A grisly murder in Tbilisi’s Courtyard Marriott Hotel is focusing attention on the issue of homosexuality in conservative Georgia.

Twenty-six-year-old French engineer Stéphane Cohen, an employee of the French transportation company Systra, was knifed to death on January 27 in his room in the posh hotel. Cohen was in Georgia to help the Tbilisi government set up a city tram system. A 17-year-old Georgian male, recorded on hotel security cameras, has confessed to Cohen’s murder.

Police say robbery was a possible motive – the detained suspect ran off with Cohen’s laptop computer, mobile phone and camera – but declined to comment further to given the case’s “sensitive” nature and the ongoing investigation.

While questions remain about the circumstances surrounding Cohen’s murder, Tbilisi café owner Irakli Kutateladze, who describes himself as the dead man’s close friend, told that the Frenchman met his suspected murderer through, a dating site actively used by gay Georgians. Other members of Georgia’s gay community confirmed that they saw Cohen’s profile on the dating site.

Unlike Cohen, who had his own picture posted on his profile page, most of the 285 Georgians registered on the website use fake identities to shield their true names. “Steph told me he was going to meet that kid, even though I advised him against it,” Kutateladze said, adding that the victim, as a foreigner, did not fully realize what type of person he was meeting.

Police have not stated publicly how Cohen and his murderer first met.

Homosexuality remains a taboo topic in Georgia, where deviations from traditional Orthodox Christian values are frowned upon and public discussions of sexuality are shunned. An estimated 91.5 percent of Georgians think that homosexuality is never acceptable, according to a 2009 survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers. Rare media attention to the topic of homosexuality has done little to change public perceptions.

Save for a few shady cruising areas and a couple of gay-friendly bars in Tbilisi, that attitude means that Georgia’s gay community largely operates online, in a realm of secret avatars and blind dates – all designed to shield gay Georgians from the scorn of family, friends and the general public, commented Tamta Melashvili, acting director of the Diversity Research and Community Activism Association. Melashvili’s group is the only Georgian non-profit organization that directly deals with sexual minorities.

“They lead several lives, among their families, circle of friends and on social networking sites,” said Melashvili. In public, most Georgian gays maintain that they are heterosexual, she added.

Some gay Georgians say that the secretive nature of Georgia’s gay life increases the vulnerability of homosexuals to crime. Fear of social ostracism and, sometimes, physical abuse, drives the gay community underground, into “a dark corner,” as gay rights activist Davit Mikheil Shubladze put it, where screening for potential troublemakers on dating sites can prove difficult.

“The way I do it is I speak to the guy for a while to figure out who I may be dealing with,” said one gay man, Vakho, who insisted on using a fake name. “Once I reach the comfort zone, we pick a place to meet. But I always get the creeps when I show up on the site. What if it is someone that you know, or some freak?”

Gay activist Shubladze said he once turned up at such a rendezvous only to meet a group of men who tried to harass and blackmail him. Turning to the police for help is often not the best recourse as one may face more harassment, he said, citing several prior such experiences.

Vakho says that dealing with a foreigner is often safer for gay Georgians. “They are here temporarily, they do not run with the same crowd that you do, they are grown-up about the whole thing, and the chances that you will be outed are few,” he said.

Many gays name their own family as the top obstacle to coming out of the closet. While it is unlikely for a Georgian family to disown its member on these grounds, Shubladze said that many Georgian gays say they would rather spare their parents the distress that the truth may cause.

“Coming out to my family was the hardest,” agreed 22-year old Giorgi Kikonishvili, a magazine columnist and one of Georgia’s few openly gay men. Kikonishvilii said that his mother and brother quickly moved beyond the initial shock and accepted his orientation.

Gay activist Shubladze calls on fellow gay Georgians to be similarly open about their orientation and show solidarity with each other as a group whose voices and votes should command attention.

A few see Cohen’s murder as a signal to Georgia’s gay community to come out from that “dark corner,” and lay a claim to the rights and protections to which all citizens are entitled.

But few Georgian gays seem inclined to follow such appeals; they say they prefer simply to try and play it safe. “This is Georgia. It is not Castro Street [in San Francisco] where you march with candles and fight for your rights,” Vakho said. “Family, not rights, is everything to most of us. No rights, status and safety could compensate for me the pain the truth may cause to my mother.”

“I am staying in my closet,” he concluded,” and I am going to have a full life there.”

Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

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