I just happen to like apples, and I’m not afraid of snakes

There’s a story that’s now legendary among some of the earlier TLG groups. There was a trainer – I think for group one, but possibly two – who was especially inclined to give the volunteers a distortedly rosy view of Georgia. Once someone asked her if there were any dangerous animals to look out for in the country. She replied something like “There are no dangerous flora or fauna in Georgia. Years ago there was a poisonous snake, but we found it and killed it.” To TLG’s credit, by the time my group arrived in Georgia this person was no longer a TLG employee.

It’s kind of a funny story, I guess, especially if you have experienced the “there are no problems in Georgia” attitude that prevails here (an attitude which is both one of my favorite but at times one of the most frustrating things about being here) and it hearkens back to the humorous “There is no sex in the USSR” quote that Georgians tend to be familiar with. I’ve heard the story a number of times, starting from my first day in Tbilisi after training in Kutaisi, and I’ve repeated it to a number of TLGers. “There are no poisonous snakes in Georgia” has become a bit of an in-joke and a common punchline among a certain segment of my friends here.

Unfortunately now this post is going to take a bit of a morbid turn. You see, I was talking to a Georgian friend about the highly controversial issue of homosexuality in Georgia and she remarked “…but there are no gay people in Georgia.”

Can you see where this story is going? I can’t help but mentally finish that remark with “…years ago there was one gay person in Georgia but we found him and killed him.”

I’m not telling this story to suggest that Georgians actually hunt down and kill gay people. There are, in fact, a number of openly gay people in Georgia who are very much alive. It’s just a bit of black comedy. But the two remarks – that there are no poisonous snakes in Georgia, and that there are no gays in Georgia – do seem to represent the same overall cultural phenomenon.

Basically, Georgia has a number of social structures within which certain topics are open for frank and honest discussion but outside of which those topics are either lied about or not talked about at all. In other words, there are certain issues that are personal issues, that you don’t talk to anyone else about; certain issues that are family issues, that you can talk about within the family but not with neighbors or strangers; certain issues that are national issues that you can talk to Georgians about but not foreigners; etc. Understanding and recognizing this system in practice is absolutely integral to comprehending certain Georgian habits and tendencies and cultural phenomena.

For one thing, it explains why my Sex in Georgia post was such a big deal – basically, to have a foreigner comment on such topics breaches the sanctity of the in-group that is permitted to discuss such issues. It explains why so many of the Georgians who commented on that entry lied outright about things like sex, marriage, patronis, bridenapping, and other things that I wasn’t supposed to be talking about. That post was sort of a crash course for me in navigating these discourse taboos, and I’ve managed to avoid generating controversy at that level since then by being more and more able to recognize and negotiate the in- and out-group topics.

Of course, by even mentioning gays in this post I’m treading dangerously close to that border again. Homosexuality is a major in-group issue. I doubt that any Georgia actually believes that there are literally no gays in Georgia – as I said, there are at least some openly and publicly gay Georgians; Tbilisi has gay bars and a gay pride parade – and yet I have heard and read any number of times that homosexuality is completely foreign to Georgia.

I can actually understand the impulse not to talk about it. Georgians were forced, in Soviet times, to adopt a number of cultural practices that they felt went against their Georgian-ness. Georgians are thus wary of cultural imperialism, and will go so far as to cite not only the Soviets, but the Mongols, in explaining their hostility to being colonized by outside forces. The West and the US in particular are notable for their cultural imperialism – for exporting rock and roll, blue jeans, and McDonald’s to every corner of the earth.

So if you’re a Georgian, you don’t necessarily want some arrogant American telling you how to live your life. And so on issues of disagreement – issues like homosexuality – sometimes it’s preferable to just head off discussion altogether then get yet another lecture from a liberal foreigner about how your religion and traditions are oppressive and outdated.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe there are Georgians who genuinely do believe that there are no gays in Georgia. And in this particular case – the issue of gays – Georgia is hardly alone. Google tells us that there are no gays in Iran or North Korea (ironic that the countries God told George Bush to put in the Axis of Evil both deny the existence of homosexuals) and there’s even that Australian politician who claimed there were no gays in his territory, which in a hilariously ironic twist is actually called “Queensland.”

But my inclination is that in Georgia the denial is less about ignorance (like in the Australia case) or face-saving (like with Iran) and more about a desire to work out social issues without outside intervention.

And of course, Americans don’t really have the standing to be pushing our ideology around on this particular issue. There are school districts in America that fire openly gay teachers to “protect” American children from the “gay agenda,” and it’s still politically viable in America to run as an anti-gay candidate, and even to scare up votes with threats about the “sanctity of marriage” or “troop morale” or whatever bullshit nonsense conservatives are using these days to distract from the nation’s real problems that they are too lazy or corrupt to try to address.

Sorry about the rant. Anyway, I’d love to write about what the situation is like for gay people here in Georgia, but I’d have nothing to write about. There are no gay people in Georgia.

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18 Responses to I just happen to like apples, and I’m not afraid of snakes

  1. Karol says:

    I’ve just returned home after a week in Georgia and I can recall a peculiar conundrum I had to face there: how to at all costs avoid being outed (which was the advice of your fellow TLG-er) and at the same time submit myself to the cultural code of conduct and keep kissing all the Georgian men I met. I hope it doesn’t sound irrespectful or insensitive, but the at first that was just weird…

  2. Ilyk Eyaj says:

    There are no gay people in Georgia…..This is hilarious! You can’t help but see the humor in this, it’s very funny.

    Your post reminds me of the time I had a spider bite on my leg. I kept telling people that it was a spider bite and I always received three unique responses:
    1. Spiders don’t exist in Georgia.
    2. There are spiders in Georgia but they don’t bite because they don’t have teeth.
    3. There are spiders in Georgia and they bite but they aren’t poisonous at all.

    I was bitten by a Brown Recluse Spider when I was a child….I do know what a spider bite looks like.

    The spider bite, that I had in Georgia wasn’t serious. It was harmless, it itched and the skin surrounding the bite was swollen. I tried to handle the problem on my own by going to the pharmacy and the pharmacist told me that it was impossible that a spider had bitten me, since there aren’t spiders in Georgia. So, she gave me a syringe with an ampoule for a bee sting. The only problem is that I didn’t have a bee sting and I’m not allergic to bees. Finally I went to a doctor who told me, “You do have a spider bite. It’s NOT poisonous. You’re just having an allergic reaction to the bite.”

    I see the humor in this. The best part is that I was walking around with a syringe in my purse for a month after the spider bite, like a heroine addict.

    You’ll find a similar attitude in many other countries, from what I’ve seen living abroad for many years.
    There aren’t any “insert noun” in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania,etc.
    Great stuff!

  3. --> says:

    Neal,

    One serious question to you (two actually), it probably deserves a separate post:

    What do you think is the best way to combat ignorance? How would you personally do it if you would be given this task and some authority?

  4. Natarajan says:

    Heh, heard something like that from an uncle, that the British brought homosexuality to India. But apropos, you might enjoy this blog (link is to a particularly poignant post): http://damascusgaygirl.blogspot.com/2011/04/my-father-hero.html

  5. pasumonok says:

    lololololololololololololololololololol!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    “we had one gay guy in georgia and we killed him years ago” –lol!
    i loved this post. there is one thing, though: “Tbilisi has gay bars and a gay pride parade”
    who gave u this info? there is no gay bar in tbilisi and there has never been a gay pride. people keep claiming these things exist coz they are afraid of them. gay bar and pride is like a monster in closet (is that joke too obvious?).
    i once held a seminar and one of the themes was homophobia. when the guest speaker was asked about a gay bar, he answered that there is none and somebody in the audience said a wonderful phrase (seminar was in english and misuse of grammar was intentional) : “if there was a gay bar, it wouldn’t”.
    if there was a gay bar, it would have been destroyed like a poisonous snake. and then people would say: ” we had a gay bar, but we burned it”. only this time, it would be true.
    as for the pride, that’s a whole other tale.
    some people let a rumor out that there would be a pride in batumi. but instead of rainbow flags and same-sex couples, a bunch of god-fearing, proper georgian men assembled in batumi that day. they stomped their feet and yelled how they wouldn’t allow gay pride to happen. except…it was not even planned to be held.
    several years before that, people got all angry becoz of the same rumor. but really, there was an event using a slogan “all different, all equal”. but it did not include gays.
    why are these rumors spreading? to create fear. to justify stuff like :”these fagots are going to take over georgia!”
    i liked the post , it was funny.

  6. pasumonok says:

    p.s. do u really wanna write about it, or did u just write about it for a dramatic ending?

  7. Tamara says:

    Neal, you obviously write in an interesting way, but I guess you make lots of mistakes, as its seems you ask too much to wrong people about those issues you post here, or you are just surrounded by the ignorant people, who have no idea what are those mentality changes Georgian society faces today… You criticize Georgians for what they’ve been living through for centuries, what they’ve experianced and brought till today?? I think if all the stuff you sum here up about Georgians is far from healthy criticism and seems to be your personal protest to one of the oldest nations traditions and identity, culture and personality, which took this people in XXI century, while mentioned ancient Egyptians, Maias, Greeks or Perians do not exist today, as their identity had been vanished. That’s why we Georgians still try, though it seems ugly to someone like you, to survive in this globalization wirlpool, which definitly destories everything our ancestors had built during this centuries.. It is a gift for us and we try to save, whats bad in this??? If u don’t like, u can easily pass away.. The majority of Georgians like the way they live, so let us choose our priorities… People like u come here and go soon, but the problem is you all are now over 10 000, so that makes me think Georgian nation will be transformed soon in so called western way, but in real it would be the ugliest society ever, thats what people like you tries to do here!!!

    Yes, my generation of Georgians have some problems, thats natural… We’ve seen wars, various kinds of conflicts; we’ve seen no direction where our country’s going… we’ve drunk Coca-cola, jeans and all that stuff.. The mixture of Georgian mentality to global understanding had’t went well.. thats why we are now so confused, not knowing weather to speak loudly about sexual minorities or sex itself, again sex and sex and sex and sex, but is it so important for Georgian society right now to discuss all this, when we face edgy problems, which has to be the top priority for the future settlement…This nation lived and will go on its way as it is, globalisation intervenes but not so deeply to make obvious changes in our identity…and u meanwhile spend your precious time in all this useless tittle-tattle, which has no idea and purpose at all!!!

    p.s. I just wonder, when you will leave Georgia, what are you going to write about?? I guess you will find GEorgian immigrants, wherever u are, and try to explane transcendental aspects of their behaviour…

  8. Tamara says:

    and please, excuse me for my english….

  9. zango says:

    This post is way overdue … I thought we agreed on Saturday eve :)) …
    Reading through Tamara’s well argued comment all I could think of was this episode from the Family Guy that I can’t stop marveling at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpP7b2lUxVE

  10. In2Travel says:

    I found this interesting document from the US military issued to troops deployed to Georgia http://deploymenthealthlibrary.fhp.osd.mil/Product/RetrieveFile?prodId=134 . Yes there are poisonous snakes and Kyli will be happy to see that there are also spiders that bite. Anyhow, according to the US military!!!

  11. you may call me Casimir says:

    Found this post and the one linked earlier rather interesting (I had been wanting to read for a while, but Georgian school internet only recently unblocked your blog). As a TLG volunteer with by no means a fluency but a certain sufficiency in the Georgian language, I get asked unsolicited about my sexual orientation by Georgian men with alarming frequency — with, you know, a certain intent always visible behind the question. Even after explicit statements that I am not gay I have been propositioned for sex twice and attempted to be molested once. What you said earlier about Western women being a perceived only sexual outlet by Georgian men applies very much to Western men as well, perhaps even more so because the issue is such a taboo in this country. Well, actually, my personal opinion is that most Georgian men don’t really have sexual orientations and would gladly have sex with a tree if it would let them and no one knew about it, but perhaps I am jaded.

    Homosexuality exists in Georgia.

    From somewhere in West Georgia…

  12. --> says:

    > There are no dangerous flora or fauna in Georgia.

    Here is THE perfect example of such behavior/thinking:

    http://michelleingeorgia.blogspot.com/2011/04/my-friend-got-bride-napped.html

    Comments section, last ones, from Alexander

  13. pasumonok says:

    i wish we would just give it a rest…i mean it is not that big of a deal, civilization or no civilization, why can’t we just let others do what they like?
    at this point , all i ask is that people stop committing hate crimes; they can be homophobic or have “georgian mentality” or whatever. but it shouldn’t poison others’ life.
    everywhere i go, i come across gay issue. i am so tired of arguing. and, to tell u the truth, i am tired of the issue. it is not even interesting anymore.
    the other day people at my work were talking about tlg (they needed tlg for some study program) and my co-worker said ” well, as long as they are no sexual minorities among these volunteers” and the other was like, “i made sure they are not”, and then ” but how can we be sure, SOMETIMES YOU CAN’T TELL IT BY JUST LOOKING AT THEM, WHAT SHOULD WE DO IN THAT CASE?” that was a serious conversation between two adults!
    i wish all of us would lighten up (me included) and stop making this such a huge thing.
    and by the way, whoever thinks that great civilizations did not have gays, should re-read history of ancient greeks.
    ignorance is strength!

  14. Pingback: Sex in Georgia: The Anniversary | Georgia On My Mind

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  16. Remishvili says:

    I am a Georgian girl. And I’m pansexual. I live in Germany tho so I won’t have that much issues when I come out (I’m still in the closet). Georgia has a really shitty past and the people there are very religious and sometimes very stupid too. They like handling things their own way and if they have an particular opinion towards something then you can’t change it no matter what. They try to tell visitors that Georgia is a great country with great people but that’s not true. We have corrupt politicians, not enough money, slum-like cities, bullshit people, people who still believe that communism was a great idea etc (as you can see much crap) so naturally homosexuality is a taboo zone. I remember being at the beach in kobuleti and talking to my grandma (she is a doctor) about homosexuality. She seriously told me that homosexuality is an illness and that it’s dangerous. If course she would think that. She studied medicine in communist Russia. After that some old lady begun to tell us that homosexuals are equal to satanists because they don’t obey the rules of God and I completely lost my shit. Unfortunately my parents where raised that way so And if I come out I will propably lose my family. Maybe there are no gays in Georgia but what about Georgian gays?

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