It has been a growing cliché to remark upon the cultural shifts that have occurred in Tbilisi over the past decade. Gone are all the generic references to the former Soviet Union and men in black not smiling. Saakashvili’s greatest dreams have come true and Tbilisi’s hybrid of exoticness and refinement has reached the tastemaker’s class. You no longer have to worry about getting hit up for a bribe or randomly shot. Tourists come to Tbilisi, and more importantly they overwhelmingly love the place. It is the closest thing to the last unspoiled place in Europe. There is a new Tbilisi that is dynamic, on the vanguard of culture, and they have first class accommodation for all the posh journalists that have come to marvel in the fact that Tbilisi is not some Soviet backwater. Tbilisi is at last “European.”
Lost in this story of change has been the shift in sexuality in Tbilisi. It has been not so much a sexual revolution as it has been a process where the shame that surrounds sex has slowly started to disappear in the city. Undoubtedly, there have long been reactionary forces like the church and the state that have looked to suppress and hide Georgian sexualities. Equally so, chauvinism has been entrenched in the educational system and common life. That said, the long held reputation of Georgia being this sexual void, full of kargi Ninos and homophobic Giorgis, has never really fully told the story.
Tbilisi has always been home to a robust counterculture that has challenged these sexual norms. Whether it be hosting the first Soviet rock festival or being home to a strong literary community, Tbilisi has never been a provincial city but cosmopolitan and dynamic, compared to other urban centers outside the Moscow/St. Petersburg/Kyiv axis. As such, it is natural that Tbilisi started the process of removing the shame regarding sexuality and expressing itself openly.
Although there is no exact, empirical evidence of this sexual awakening, the role of sexuality has been elevated throughout Georgian society. With a nascent middle class in Tbilisi, more young individuals are able to move outside their parent’s homes, enabling them to invite whomever they want over for whatever purposes. Furthermore, dating apps like Grindr and Tinder have allowed individuals to locate other similar individuals to explore sexually. Most of all, groups like the Equality Movement have continued to work towards challenging the social structures that have sustained oppression. The walls of these oppressive structures are starting to show cracks.
Thanks to these barriers slowly being removed, sexuality has played an integral role in shaping Tbilisi’s cultural output. Central to Tbilisi’s growing reputation as a countercultural center has been the role of nightclub Bassiani. Receiving massive praise from western media outlets, Bassiani has cemented itself as Tbilisi’s epicenter of culture. The co-founders of Bassiani have been vocal in asserting that the club is a safe space for all sexualities to openly express and celebrate themselves. For the first time, Bassiani has started to host a monthly queer night called HŌRŌOM (meaning “war dance” in Georgian but also a lovely play on words), which was organized by the very people assaulted back in 2013 during the International Day Against Homophobia. This marks not only an open defiance of hatred, but also a show of confidence in the face of those homophobic, bearded men.
Equally, in a fashion scene gathering increased momentum, sexuality permeates throughout different Georgian designers’ work. With the heavy emphasis upon black leather material and provocative cuts, designers, specifically like Situtationist have never shied away from evoking sexual expression. George Keburia has looked to evoke sexual politics with pieces displaying the word “GAY” printed above machine guns. What is evident in every major Georgian culture success story lately has been a challenge to oppressive sexuality and a new confidence to approaching it.
Capturing this shift in sexuality in Tbilisi has been photographer Omara Gogichaishvili. Gogichaishvili has been a long stalwart of the Tbilisi counterculture, regularly frequenting Canudos, which was perhaps the most important bar in shaping Georgia’s current generation and captivating the western press’s imagination. He currently does the lighting at Bassiani, where he also does a lot of his photography work.
At the heart of Gogichaishvili’s work is showcasing a Tbilisi that is sexually fluent, curious, and confident. He locates those spaces in clubs, apartments, and bars where sexuality is exercised to its fullest. His work does not operate to lament the regular assaults and murder of members of the LGBT community, women, or other sexual minorities. Rather, he looks at how the subjects in his photos celebrate their desires and claim spaces as free from the hatred that was so regularly projected upon them. They are in those spaces to be securely themselves, or at least someone else till the following morning. Their confidence marks the fact that Tbilisi’s trajectory is being dictated by its post-Soviet generation demanding openness. Gogichaishvili’s work notes the limited shelf life of influence and power that conservative forces have. The taboo regarding sexuality is dampening and individuals want to be who they are. More than that, they want to fuck.
Speaking to Gogichaishvili about growing up in Tbilisi, he states, “In the 90’s and early 2000’s, we had avant-garde fashion designers and popular punk festivals, but this community was rejected by popular society. For example, during my teenage years, I had a lot of problems in the street because of my earrings and colored trousers, which sounds very ridiculous and absurd now. Someone once even pulled a knife on me because of my skinny jeans.” However, change is in the air in Tbilisi thanks to cultural, economic and technological changes enabling individuals to challenge oppression and liberate themselves from the molds previously offered to them.
As Gogichaishvili notes, taboos regarding sexuality are being openly challenged and no longer do people feel restricted to oppressive sexual norms. This isn’t to say that things have reached the level of acceptance and sexual liberation that many desire. Members of the LGBT community and women are regularly subjected to violence for publicly displaying their sexuality, or merely just being themselves. In the last year, incidents like the murder of Zizi Shekiladze and police brutality suffered by Equality Movement members Levan Berianidze and Tornike Kusiani reminds Tbilisi that homophobia remains a life and death issue. According to Gogichaishvili, “Today Tbilisi has a desire to develop, moving forward with quick steps, but the grave ghosts of the past are so deeply in our genes that they need a long time to disappear.”
For now, the desire for change must co-exist with a strong strain of homophobia but few could ever recall a moment when Tbilisi appeared so open and more confident in itself sexually. Through increased contact with the rest of Europe, thanks to a new visa regime, and an ever growing counterculture, oppressive sexuality will increasingly be challenged by individuals that want to be free to love someone, even if it is just for the moment. As Gogichaishvili argues, “A couple of years ago the “Orthodox Parent Union” was fucking our brains, they’ll end up sucking our dicks.”