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.