Velistsikhe is a small, quiet village about two hours from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It is plain and remote, and in colder months, when snow and rain sweep south from the Dagestani border, cars are often stranded in its boggy, barely paved roads.
Velistsikhe’s best-known assets are its wineries. There are three major ones and even a winemaking museum. Almost everybody else makes their money from wine, too—the evidence for which is dotted everywhere in the shape of kvevri, giant earthenware pots, buried to the neck in dirt, in which grapes are left to ferment for up to six months.
The prettiest part of the village is its cemetery, small but ornate and encircled by wrought iron and flower bouquets. This is where Sabi Beriani is buried. In November 2014, she was attacked and stabbed to death in her Tbilisi apartment. Her body was then set on fire. She was 23.
In keeping with Georgian and regional tradition, most of the graves at Velistsikhe cemetery are marked by black marble headstones, with portraits of the dead rendered in photographic detail. Beriani’s is no different. But while she died a woman, her headstone depicts a young, androgynous boy, perhaps in his late teens, staring dolefully at the viewer.
It was the best Beriani’s mother, Tamar, could do. The village rallied behind her when the news of Beriani’s death reached Velistsikhe. After all, she was 40 and had lost her only child. But everybody also knew that Beriani was a transgender woman and activist, who regularly appeared on national television shows.
It was a life few, if any, in Velistsikhe would condone. Beriani had spent her life campaigning to be recognized as a woman. Now dead, nobody besides Tamar—not even Tamar’s own, deeply conservative father—would allow that identity to rest with her. Tamar is short, with rounded cheeks and striking, brown eyes. I met her on Orthodox Easter Sunday last year. In Georgia, it is customary to mark the day by visiting the graves of lost friends and family members. The cemetery was packed with mourners. As Tamar laid roses, panettone sweet bread and Beriani’s favorite soda beside the headstone, many of them stopped and stared.
It was little surprise: Georgia, a former Soviet state in the Caucasus region, is a deeply conservative place. It claims to be the second country ever to adopt Christianity, in the fourth century. Research by Gallup in 2015 found the small nation of 3.7 million people to be the most religious nation on earth: 83 percent of Georgians adhere to the Georgian Orthodox church. Barely 1.5 percent either do not follow a religion or declined to disclose so for a 2014 national census.
The Orthodox Church is Georgia’s most powerful institution. Informed by a history of conquest and persecution, it promotes some of the most conservative social views anywhere. The awareness of gender identity and sexual orientation have inspired a cataclysmic rage among its clergy. Sexual minority groups are roundly denounced as evil. The 2014 World Value Survey ranked Georgia the third-most homophobic country on earth, after Jordan and Iran.
In 2013, Georgia made global headlines when a small gay pride event was attacked by Orthodox priests and other members of the public. Rights campaigners hoped it would be a nadir for the country, which has become a key battleground in a cultural and political struggle between Russia, its former hegemon, and the E.U. and NATO—both of which it has attempted to cleave closer to.
Their hopes have been dashed. Amid the crescendoing culture war, life for LGBT Georgians has become more perilous than ever. Hate speech occurs frequently in local media. Individuals are attacked, and gay-friendly events are usually called off over bomb threats and promises of violence. Even vegan cafes have been targeted by a growing number of far-right activists.
The most vitriolic hate is reserved for the nation’s transgender community. Beriani’s case is one of several deaths within the transgender community in recent years, and most everybody with whom I have spoken fears for their safety.
That Easter Sunday, Tamar was one of several mothers grieving a transgender child.
Tbilisi is a strange and arresting city. Its red-bricked, Byzantine sulfur baths and Ottoman Old City sit beside fin de siecle streets and oddball Soviet and post-independence modernism. In just a short walk along the meandering Kura River, visitors can see remnants of Arab, Mongol, Ottoman and Russian rule in what was once a major Silk Road trading post. It is a visually perplexing place. “There are cities that make sense,” a National Geographic columnist wrote recently. “Then there’s Tbilisi.”
Tbilisi’s most dominant building, however, is Sameba, a sprawling, cavernous Orthodox cathedral, 101 meters high, that looms over the city’s historic center. It is Georgia’s largest place of worship—Christian power incarnate. Sameba was consecrated in 2004, 13 years after Georgia became independent from Soviet Union, by Ilia II, the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox faith, who has headed his religion since 1977, when life for Christians was very different.
Under communism the church was persecuted. In the 1920s, when Georgia was swallowed into the Soviet Union, the church was outlawed and priests were executed. In 1943, Josef Stalin, who was himself a Georgian-born Ioseb Jugashvili, eased church restrictions. But the institution was closely monitored, and infiltrated, by the KGB, the feared Soviet security agency. When Ilia took over as patriarch he managed just 50 priests. Now there are over 1,700. Its 10 archbishops drive around in big, black government-purchased SUVs, and the church receives millions of dollars of funding from the state each year—all of which is tax-free.
Ilia is widely considered to be Georgia’s most powerful man. He commands a flock that politicians can only dream of, and doesn’t mind using his platform to push back on social reforms, like LGBT rights. The patriarch has called being gay a “disease,” and his reactions to right-wing violence perpetrated against sexual minority activists have been tepid at best.
The Orthodox clergy do not take kindly to perceived acts of heresy. Street sellers outside churches who are deemed not to have paid tithe have been physically attacked, as have Halloween parties. One particularly zealous priest, Basili Mkalavishvili, was known to cudgel Jehovah’s Witnesses with an iron crucifix and gloat about it afterward.
Mkalavishvili was imprisoned in 2004 after the nonviolent Rose Revolution brought West-leaning Mikheil Saakashvili to power, whom E.U. and NATO leaders hoped would turn Georgia further from its Russian neighbor and closer to European integration.
But in 2012, Saakashvili was defeated by Georgian Dream, a center-left party led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, whose personal fortune had helped pay for Sameba’s construction. By then Mkalavishvili had been free for five years on health grounds. But in 2013 he showed up, alongside dozens of priests and others, to attack a small group of people who had turned out in Tbilisi to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia.
The mob hurled rocks and chairs through a police cordon and smashed a van, in which the LGBT marchers had taken shelter, with sticks and bars. By the time the group escaped the mob, a dozen people, including three police officers, were injured. Ilia described the ambush as “impolite.”
Politicians condemned the attack, but they stopped short of condemning the church. Nobody would risk Georgia’s biggest voting bloc. Courts acquitted those accused of the bloodshed. It left the LGBT community wondering if their country would ever protect them. Activist groups grew scared: Many dissolved altogether, and others splintered and grew disorganized. Voices against the violence went quiet. At the time the movement “was kind of gaining momentum, because they were publicly active—and at least they could talk about their problems,” Salome Ugulava, a reporter with the online magazine Tabula, told me.
But “in this very conservative society where the church is that powerful, and the state is not able to defend the people, I guess you can understand why the LGBT activists are so weak and disorganized in Georgia,” she added.
In 2014, Georgia’s government signed a sweeping anti-discrimination bill that “aims to eliminate every form of discrimination,” Misha Darchiashvili, a former deputy defense minister, told me. But it would not save Sabi, nor the victims of subsequent brutality. “The community does not really trust law enforcement,” a U.S. State Department official in Tbilisi said. “They’re actually hesitant to call the police because they don’t believe they will receive justice.”
Levan Berianidze is one of the people who has continued the fight. He works with Equality Movement, one of the county’s most visible sexual minority rights groups. We met one afternoon at Cafe Gallery, a smoke-filled bar overlooking Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s grand, major thoroughfare. It is one of a tiny clique of venues considered truly gay friendly.
But there is no rainbow flag outside Cafe Gallery, and police once stormed it, demanding to see people’s ID. “It’s not like we feel safe here completely,” Berianidze told me. “You will still get your head kicked on if you’re making out with a guy.” Before 2013, most hate was directed verbally. “A guy would get called a faggot before, because abuse was gender based,” he told me. “But now the violence has really increased.”
Beriani’s death shocked Berianidze. It was the first time someone he knew from the community had been killed. What followed compounded the grief. Levan Kochlashvili, who had beaten another transgender woman, Bianka Shigurova, the night he killed Beriani, was deemed to have acted in self-defense and sentenced to just four years in prison.
I met Tamar shortly after that verdict. Her voice dropped as we spoke, having eaten a huge Easter dinner and drunk several rounds of chacha, a potent, local grappa. Tamar’s father had stormed up of the dining table halfway through, slurring anti-gay slogans. Tamar told me he had once pulled a knife on Sabi. Back then Tamar had been angry and defensive. Now, she told me, she just felt lost: “I hope for justice, but I don’t know now.”
In January, Kochlashvili was sentenced to 10 years’ jail at a Supreme Court of Georgia retrial for the murder of Beriani and the assault on Shigurova. But not before thousands of Georgians had taken to social media to declare him a hero and a defender of “Georgian values”—often a shibboleth for anti-gay, ultra-nationalistic views.
A month later, Shigurova was found dead in her apartment on Tbilisi’s gray, drab perimeter. She was a part-time actress and model, with a love for dancing she satisfied at a seedy, Turkish-run club beneath the city’s Radisson Hotel. Shigurova, like Beriani, was active in national media, jeered and heckled by talk show hosts and newspaper columnists. She was rawboned, with deep, dark eyes and a timid, soprano voice. She loved attention and the stare of camera lenses but hoped she could one day afford a nose job.
As a teenager she had left Lanchkhuti, a languid, spitball town four hours from the capital, to find acceptance. Instead, she faced a life of increasing isolation, forced from regular work waiting tables into prostitution (many transgender Georgians fall into sex work). She was evicted from home after home until eventually she found herself in one so far “that many friends couldn’t get there,” friend and filmmaker Elene Naveriani told me. It was there, broke, cut off and exiled from the city center, that a gas pipe leaked, and Shigurova suffocated alongside her pet dog. She was 22.
Soon after Shigurova’s death, I met Giorgi Nebieridze, a photographer and close friend, at a cafe in Berlin. He was shellshocked, and angry, and held out little hope for Georgia. “People are leaving because any liberals, gay people, trans folks or even anyone who reads a book are being persecuted,” he said. “But Bianka wanted to stay, firstly because of her family—she crazy loved her family—and secondly believing that someday she would get this freedom, this happiness.
“She had these extremely utopian views on the world. She thought the world was a good place,” he added. “But it isn’t, and in Georgia it’s definitely not.”
Nobody in politics offered condolences to the families of Beriani or Shigurova. That November, a third transgender woman, 32-year-old Zizi Shekeladze, died a month after being attacked while waiting for a bus. Her assailant had bludgeoned her with a concrete bar before slitting her throat. In 2016, the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group, a local watchdog, recorded 20 attacks on transgender and gender nonconforming people in Georgia.
The violence has continued this year. In February, four transgender women were attacked at a nightclub in the capital. In March, a Miss Transgender competition was scrapped over threats. A gay pride film screening in May was abandoned when somebody called in an anonymous bomb threat.
Georgia is becoming a prime example of what happens when hate speech meets law enforcement apathy. “The general picture is getting worse,” Naveriani told me.
In May 2014, in Tbilisi’s red light district, Giorgi Chkhartishvili was approached by a man who expressed interest in organizing a transgender rally in the city, a year after the pride march was attacked. The stranger told Chkhartishvili, a sex worker, he would be given 40,000 Georgian lari (around $16,000) to set up the event—with the explicit expectation that it, too, could be attacked by a mob. The reason: to destabilize Georgian politics ahead of the country’s proposed alliance with the E.U.
The man claimed to represent the Eurasian Institute, a pro-Russian NGO that lobbies for closer ties to the Eurasian Economic Union, a trading bloc of five former Soviet states led by Moscow. At first, Chkhartishvili agreed. Then he backed out. His contact responded by offering a new passport and transport to Kazakhstan. It spooked him.
“They were going to take me to Astana, and after that nobody knows what would happen to me,” Chkhartishvili told a Guardian journalist. “I told him that I had changed my mind and I had made all their plans public and am out of their game. Then the phone went dead.”
That transgender people would be targeted as cannon fodder for a political dogfight is shocking but not surprising: In the cultural war for Georgia’s future, LGBT rights have been exploited as a key battleground between Georgia’s conservative heritage and its liberal future.
The Eurasian Institute is just one of a number of NGOs and media outlets playing their role in a heightening propaganda war between Russia and Europe. Others, including Eurasian Choice, the Young Political Scientists’ Club and the People’s Movement for Russian-Georgian Dialogue and Cooperation—none of which would comment for this story—have planted stories in television, newspapers and websites pairing Georgia’s move toward Brussels with a loss of cultural dignity and sovereignty. None posts its donors online. But many Russian groups list them as affiliates on their own webpages.
Immigration is one key topic. When Georgia announced its E.U. visa program, Russian-language outlets falsely reported that it was part of a deal by which Georgia would be forced to house Syrian refugees.
But sexual minority rights have become the key focus of most organizations. And the Orthodox Church, which has close ties to Russia, has been decisive. Ilia II studied in Soviet Moscow and is widely believed to have ties with Russian state security. He has toed the Kremlin line in recent years, calling Vladimir Putin a “very wise” man who “will do everything to ensure that Russia and Georgia will be brothers once again.” (I contacted four members of the church for this story: Three hung up when I explained my work; another didn’t answer.)
Georgia’s politicians have been loathe to criticize Ilia. Last year, ahead of parliamentary elections, Georgian Dream drafted a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Same-sex marriage was already unsanctioned, suggesting an attempt to rally rightwing voters. Politicians queued up to kowtow to priests for photo opportunities and news bites.
Georgian Dream “performed marvels during these (last) four years,” said Ivanishvili, before the poll. “We were heading toward the abyss… If you don’t believe me, listen to the patriarch.” Georgian Dream swept to power with almost 50 percent of the popular vote.
Georgia’s constitution maintains the separation of church and state. But a 2002 concordat altered that by granting Orthodoxy official recognition and a special consultative role with the government. Since then the Georgian state has exercised increasing piety toward its religious leaders. The Church has led bills on gay marriage and blasphemy in recent years. And it has helped increase pro-Russian sentiment across the country—if not having directly endorsed the Kremlin.
Georgians have a tough relationship with Russia. In 2008, Russian tanks and soldiers steamrolled local defenses in the region of South Ossetia across just five days of conflict. Hundreds died and almost 200,000 were displaced; about 20,000 of them have yet to return home. Cyber warfare and an intense information war were also deployed, to back the “responsibility to protect” that Russia cited in “liberating” Russian-speaking South Ossetians. The rest of the world rejected Russia’s argument for what now appears to have been a dress rehearsal for the war in Ukraine.
The Russian “PR campaign” in South Ossetia failed to win over Georgians or the international community, said Giorgi Lomtadze, a Tbilisi-based researcher at media watchdog IDFE, which has monitored Russian-backed propaganda in Georgia. But it was the beginning of an assault on the local media landscape that has been amplifying ever since.
Some outlets are more nuanced in their attacks on Georgia and the West, focusing on policy and politicians. Others are less so. One recent report by Facebook-published Politicano pictured American political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski with “Osama Bin Laden.” The picture in fact depicted Brzezinski, who died in May, with a member of the Pakistani military. Others have claimed that Britain financed Hitler during the Second World War and that Turkey is harvesting the organs of Syrian migrants. (In fact, the article’s accompanying video contained images of victims of Russian bombing in Syria.)
Combined with Abkhazia, a territory home to some quarter of a million people on the Black Sea that seceded violently in 1994, Georgia has lost a fifth of its land to Russian-led, or sponsored, aggression since it broke free from the Soviet Union.
Anti-gay propaganda, therefore, has become a perfect way for Russia to exercise soft power. Almost all Abkhazians and South Ossetians speak Russian, as do older Georgians who lived through communism. They are prime targets for groups spreading disinformation about the West. “Gay marriage and gay rights have become a way to discredit the West, and to show that the West has a hold on us,” Ghia Nodia, a political analyst and former minister, told me. “So if people want to maintain a traditional culture, they have to fight the West.
“Some say that 20 percent of Georgia is occupied by Russia,” he added, “but that 80 percent is occupied by the United States. And this is an occupation of immoral behavior, values and expression. This is the ‘propaganda’ of gay rights: that everybody should become gay. It has convinced some people … who are not skinheads but similar in their outlook, who try to attack physically people they consider to be ‘pederasts.’”
Internet and print outlets have become “more radical” in their opposition to LGBT rights, said Beka Gabadadze, a Tbilisi-based social worker. He runs training camps on tolerance, which were recently decried by the far-right publication Asaval-dasavali. In an editorial, the paper called for the termination of the training camps and for Gabadadze and his colleagues to be kicked out of Georgia.
The Orthodox Church is seldom outwardly pro-Russian. There are many leaders vehemently opposed to the Kremlin after Soviet rule and the South Ossetian War. But they share social values. And less liberal ideology in Georgia means more followers, and power, for Ilia and his clergy. A “group of clergymen” are, alongside NGOs and loyal political parties, “trying to promote the message that if Georgia joins NATO and E.U. the country will lose its identity and traditions,” Darchiashvili told me.
Add to this an intensification of geopolitics around the Black Sea, and sexual minority rights have become not just a way to swing Georgian voters toward Moscow’s values, but to destabilize the country enough to seize control of the region, whose importance has increased following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Russia, Turkey and NATO have ramped up rhetoric and war games in the past two years. William Lahue, the head of the NATO Liaison Office in Tbilisi, told me pro-Russian propaganda is acting “quite robustly” in response. “And among all the Russian speakers it’s a dominant voice,” he said. “There’s this idea that Allies are gonna come in and force out the Russians militarily, and this is not what NATO is all about.”
Lahue and his colleagues spend much of their time countering this narrative and educating church leaders that they can embrace rights while being “as religious as they want.” Recent attempts to provide a fulcrum against Russia have ramped up, as NATO has urged Georgian authorities to be more proactive in protecting its people from disinformation. Yet neither NATO nor any other major group has been strident in its defense of LGBT rights. It seems that they, too, want to avoid the wrath of the clergy.
“A lot of people are saying that Russia has got what it wants at the moment,” Sandra Khadhouri, a NATO strategic communications adviser, told me. The government refuses to have state websites or official communication in the Russian language, she adds. That’s “a bit of a mistake, because if the propaganda’s coming out in Russian you need to use Russian to counter it.”
Because of this, and the piety of local politicians to the patriarchy, Georgia is becoming an ever-more perilous place to be a sexual minority. Far-right groups are becoming more emboldened to threaten and attack gay and transgender people.
Before writing this story, I asked several gay and transgender Georgians whether they thought it was more or less dangerous today than it had been in the wake of the 2013 pride assault. All said the country is worse now. “Almost every day I face problems with attacks and violence,” one man told me. Others pointed to the deaths of Beriani, Shigurova and Shekeladze and wondered when the next killing would be.
Anti-gay pogroms are already taking place in Russia and its Caucasian vassal in Chechnya. There is no suggestion of such state-sponsored violence in Georgia. But the country’s politicians are turning a blind eye to verbal and physical assaults that are terrifying its transgender community.
Like the kvevri in Velistsikhe, Georgia’s leadership is happy to bury itself in the ground and wait. That policy condemned Beriani to death and Tamar to a life of sadness. As we sat, after dinner, beneath an old, black-and-white photo of Beriani as a boy, Tamar told me she sometimes dreams that Sabi is alive and in her arms, that she is a mother again. But then she awakes, and Sabi dies all over again. The least Tamar wants for her daughter now is to be allowed the identity in death she fought and died for in life.
“I want Sabi remembered as a sweet girl,” she said.