One of the most under reported aspects of modern Georgian society has been the sexual transformation that’s occurred in the past decade. With the emergence of dating apps like Grindr and Tinder, along with an increasingly cosmopolitan society, Georgia has become more sexuality confident and open. Despite the continual role of reactionary forces, like the church, looking to feed into a prevalent homophobia, it is obvious, with the Georgian president musing about the need to respect members of the LGBT community and the emergence of a vibrant gay party culture, that tolerance is growing in a country that once witnessed a mass assault on a Pride Parade in central Tbilisi. Georgian sexuality no longer needs to linger strictly in brothels and hidden kisses.
However, with this transformation comes the need for greater sexual education and speaking about subjects treated as taboo, like Sexually Transmitted Infection (STIs). Strangely, STIs strike at the heart of sexual anxieties, perhaps more than any other issue of sexuality. Ironically, with the proper medical treatment and precautionary measures, individuals living with any STI are able to lead equally fulfilling lives. Yet, panic and anxiety continues, particularly with regards to HIV. In the post-Truvada years, the stigma attached to STDs tend to be the most damaging long term effect. This is hardly to say life remains easy for those with STIs.
To understand the reality of living with HIV in Georgia, we reached out to our friend Gocha Gabodze. Gocha works in PR with a number of NGOs and is a board member at the Equality Movement. Gocha has also been living with HIV since the age of 23. We reached out to him to understand what life is like living with HIV in Georgia and how he contends with the damaging stigma that continues to surround HIV.
Can you please speak about how you contracted HIV? What was your first reaction?
Despite the fact that I had a lack of information about HIV/AIDS, I always kept myself aloof. Nevertheless, the day came when the answer to the test showed a suspicious positive result. Despite the fact that I had information about HIV, I had always felt indifferent to the subject. Nevertheless, the day came when a test came back positive. It was shocking and I was sure that it could happen to everyone except for me. I didn’t want to accept this as my reality. I knew test results are almost never wrong but I still lingered to the hope it was all a dream. I was not the one to have unprotected sex but there were two instances. I can only assume I contracted HIV from one of those instances.
Accepting my new reality was a complicated process because in Georgia there is still an abundance of discrimination and a shortage of psychological support. Sadly, the internet and friends were almost the only resource to guide me through my new life. I began to study HIV, becoming acquainted with other individuals that are HIV positive, and began to overcome my fears.
Increasingly, research into HIV has made major leaps in recent years whereby, with the proper medication, an individual can lead a largely normal life. That said, the stigma towards HIV continues. How has this discrimination and fear of HIV shaped your life?
Depression and stigma is unfortunately often more dangerous and severe for HIV positive people than the HIV infection itself. After understanding the nature of HIV, I thought that everything I had previously done was lacking, I stopped studying at the university, and started researching about HIV. I constantly had feared that this virus would affect the quality of my life but soon after the start of the treatment I allowed myself to accept that life would not be dark forever, with the right treatment and a healthy lifestyle. I slowly returned to my old rhythm and started living with much more purpose.
When I start a new relationship, there is always a certain awkwardness when and how I tell my partner about my HIV status. For many people this is a challenge, sometimes we stopped meeting, and sometimes it was very painful. But this is not the majority, and most people are understanding and loving about the matter. These relationships tend to be very solid and pleasant. Among my friends, work colleagues and family it has never been a problem. Despite the occasional embarrassments with medical personnel, I can say they never refused me treatment.
In terms of your own health, how is your access to the medication you need and the medical checkups you need? How do you believe the Georgian state could support you more?
With the support of the Global Fund in Georgia, medicines and medical examinations are now available free of charge. In the nearest future, the government should take these expenses. This is not enough though.
Unfortunately, there are many systems and infrastructure problems that create problems for myself and others with HIV. As a result, some people even quit taking medication because of frequent confidentiality violations due to the system’s failure and impairment. For instance, each patient who goes to the clinic to take medicines has to stand in line with other patients. Because of this, one of my relatives has been randomly informed about my HIV status from a person who saw me in the line at the clinic. Likewise, when we are taking medicines, we are signing a journal where you can see personal information of other HIV positive people. This is a violation of the law and my human rights. However, no one upholds the law for those suffering with HIV or AIDS. It is so problematic that I do not want a legal dispute.
The so-called “AIDS Doctor” institute has appeared in Georgia that I don’t know if there is any similar circumstance in any developed country. The consultation with the doctor is exactly the same problem as with obtaining medication. Because there is a lack of medical support, you are forced to stand in line for your consultation and you have no idea if you will get to see a doctor. You are regularly forced to speak to the nurse outside a private office. Personally, I think this is unjustified.
The number of newly discovered infected people is increasing. Which is the result of people not taking proper preventive measures and a high stigma. The mortality rate is also very large in Georgia as it is usually too late for medical institutions and treatment becomes much harder. HIV tests are not promoted. Out of date preventative measure are leading to more and more deaths.
Lastly, can you speak about your aspirations for the future? What dreams do you have for your future?
I hope to make some contribution in the future in changing the stigma of HIV in Georgia. Through my profession it gives me hope because I have been working to provide more awareness since my diagnosis but I have not had the opportunity to work on HIV / AIDS specifically. I want to continue learning and have more opportunities for career advancement. I never dream of dreams, I live for everyday purposes.
Translation Credit: Nini Kapiashvili, i.e. our favourite person in Georgia