Saturday, 3 November 2007

Out in public

Recent examples from Georgia and Azerbaijan; relatively recent - from Armenia

For the first time ever, in Tbilisi gay guy came out in public during a reality TV show. He was immediately expelled from that show. No news then, some would say. That’s how things are in the South Caucasus. True. But the only fact of coming out in public was significant itself. I want to praise this courageous 20 yrs old guy from Tbilisi. His name is Pako Tabatadze. This case received a widespread coverage in media, both local and international. Perhaps, the best coverage in terms of understanding the subject matter and professionalism was by RFE/RL.

“Pako Tabatadze had dreams of stardom. Tabatadze, a 20-year-old dance teacher, was among 12 young Georgians selected to compete in the fourth season of "GeoBar." The popular reality television show, a Swedish import that purports to promote social diversity in a former Soviet republic, features "real-life" characters who live and work together as they vie for the chance to run a fashionable bar. But when Tabatadze came out, his dream ended.”

However, not everything was as straightforward as it may seem. There was a big deal of manipulation involved in this whole story. Manipulation by certain people, producers of that reality show, who played on person’s desire to lead an open life as gay man and stage-managed his actions for their own purposes. Basically, they used him to boost the show’s ratings, and then threw him away.

As perfectly pointed out by RFE/RL reporter, “his sexual orientation [was] apparently too "real" for reality television.”

“He says the show's producers selected him largely because he is gay. But they then turned around and kicked Tabatadze off, telling him that the network had received disapproving calls from the public and the Georgian Orthodox Church following his debut.

"It was the show's producers who told me [to come out] - they told me they would include me in the project if I was going to admit that I was gay," Tabatadze said. "Of course they knew that this was going to cause quite a stir. If they didn't want me, they should not have let me into the project. But if they wanted me, then why did they kick me out?"

“In the course of the show, Tabatadze performed a provocative dance and declared his sexual orientation -- all in keeping, he says, with the producers' efforts to mold his image into that of the stereotypical, effeminate, gay man.

"They gave me new a haircut, shaved one side and put my name on my head," he said. "When I went to shoot the opening clip, I hated the makeup they gave me, and didn't want to be filmed like that. But they said if I didn't want to do it, I could leave."

According to Pako, he intended to come out in another TV show in few weeks. However, producers lured him into doing so in their programme, under their terms. Certainly, Pako was also partly to blame since he ‘allowed’ these manipulations happened. However, do not forget, on the one side of this story is a young, inexperienced, ambitious man who wanted fame, but who also wanted to live his life openly as gay man. An easy target for manipulations. On the other side are show biz producers who make living out of exploiting people’s sensibilities and personal circumstances.

"GeoBar" is a program that should primarily show young people's relationships and their struggle for success from a positive angle," Koba Davarashvili, director of Rustavi2 TV which hosts the show, was quoted as saying by the Georgian English-language daily The Messenger, adding that one person's "social problem" should not be the focus. Can this statement go any more ridiculous – “one person’s social problem”, “positive angle”?! What is so negative with young person’s desire to live his life openly? Director of Rustavi2 TV since was resigned to “return to business”, whatever that means. It’s not clear whether his resignation has anything to do with this case.

Paata Sabelashvili, head of Georgia's only LGBT rights group Inclusive Foundation, says overcoming the public's negative perception of homosexuals is a tremendous challenge. "In this respect, things have always been difficult in Georgia, for it was only seven years ago that homosexuality was decriminalized -- and this has left a significant mark on the public mentality," Sabelashvili said. "On top of this, there is no reliable source of mass information on this issue, and the media are openly homophobic. Hence, society regards homosexuality as limited to [the public's] understanding of it as a disease, crime, debauchery, or sin. These four definitions are predominant in relation to homosexuality." Change “Georgia” to “Armenia”, and you won’t need to change anything else in this statement, except that gay male sex was decriminalised in Armenia two years later, at the end of 2002.

Inclusive foundation in Georgia did a good job in compiling homophobic statements by officials and media monitoring. As I understand, this monitoring is to be continuous.

There are unconfirmed reports about calls from Georgian Orthodox church or government intervened by demanding Pako’s dismissal from the show. There are even speculations that “the Patriarch called President Saakashvili who then contacted the administration of the TV company.”

Pako Tabatadze is considering a legal action against discrimination. If unsuccessful locally, he may consider appeal to European Court in Strasburg. If this case goes to court, it perhaps will be the first case in the South Caucasus when gay man takes a case to a court against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In fact, as I learned, the Inclusive Foundation, LGBT rights NGO in Georgia, forwarded this case to the Ombudsman's office. I understand that Ombudsman’s office is currently studying the case.

Georgia is the only country in the South Caucasus who has specific article in the Labour Code (adopted in 2006) that explicitly outlaws discrimination of employees on the basis of sexual orientation. But who cares what is written in legal documents. What is more important is what Patriarch says. Forget about state/church division. The intrusion of Georgian church into the state affairs and as a ‘nation’s moral guardian’ is increasing to the frightening levels.

Pako says he has openly lived as a gay man for quite some time and has found acceptance among his family and friends. "Now, when walking down the street, I have to hang my head low." As Georgia Today reports “since his debut on Bar 4 [a reality TV show] he is now commonly subjected to abusive comments on the streets of Tbilisi.”

*photo of Pako Tabatadze (source: Rustavi2 TV)

Last month, at the same time as in Georgia, there were coming out + outings in Azerbaijan too. But the situation there was not quite similar. Well, it was probably the first time someone came out publicly in Azerbaijan too, during the press conference. But the reasons for that were quite different. It was not a personal statement per se. Simply, a show biz producer came out in public to out his rival, famous pop singer Kerim. Apparently, there is conflict going on between these two rival clans in music industry in Azerbaijan. So here we are, gay guy came out for the only reason - to out and fight his rival.

The only ‘encouraging’ fact of this story was that apparently that show biz producer did not think that being out gay will ruin his career, although he probably assumed that it would do quite a big harm to married singer Kerim. But hey, it’s an entertainment field we are talking about, where, as opposed to ordinary world, being gay, to some extent, is considered not so ‘deplorable’, even in Azerbaijan. The same is true for other ex-Soviet countries, including Armenia. We have our famous in/out singers (and not only) too.

*photo of singer Kerim (source:

In Armenia, the most famous attempt of ‘outing’ was observed in 2004 when head of extreme far-right nationalist group Armenian Aryan Order threatened to 'out' senior members of parliament and government. As expected, it remained a threat but he made enough noise to get noticed. Homophobia reached its highest levels back then, involving media, parliamentarians and government representatives.

Another talked about in various forums case of ‘outing’ was allegedly conspired by students of one of Armenian main universities. A ‘profile’ of the head of university, including his mobile phone number, was posted in one of popular Armenian gay personals sites.

I remember years ago newly established Armenia TV at least twice invited gay Armenians for a talk show. It was quite a step from that TV station, perhaps the fist time when gay issues were publicly discussed in presence of gay person. In one instance it was a guy who covered his face with a mask, for obvious reasons. However, the other guy was not afraid of being there openly and spoke out his life story without any cover. These were THE DAYS when I thought something is going to change in Armenia. And I remember that despite various misunderstandings and occasional homophobia in the audience, it was possible for organisers to create more or less healthy environment there. Unfortunately, early promises for Armenia TV did not live up long, these shows were scrapped (I assume, partly due to some rumours going on back then). Since then, it was pretty much steady downfall for Armenia TV, which became anything but innovative, diverse, and fresh. Interestingly, I do not remember any public outrage back then, there were discussions afterwards, especially among students and younger generation, but nothing particularly hateful that I could recall.

It was important back then and important now to increase gay visibility in a society, to ‘expose’ people to ordinary gay men and women, to educate public so that being gay would eventually become something ordinary, and not only an exclusive for entertainment field. My impression is that our society became less tolerant over the past few years.


artmika said...

BBC's Matthew Collin has related post re Georgia in his blog here (thanks Onnik for the link!)

Anonymous said...

I think the population in Armenia (the so-called average Armenians, even local rabiz and hill-billies) are more tolerant and open to understanding to smth they "fear" then the local intelligentsia and the political elite. Most of the time the homophobia in the society is fed by dumb-ass, stupid polliticians who detain the power nowadays an, of course, the Armenian Church. If we can understand the behaviour of politicians and clerics, the suprise comes from the "thinking" class - intelligentsia. I'm sorry to tell this, but I have a profound feeling that there is no "intelligentsia" left in Armenia. Nor Stalin, neither Ottoman Turks ever achieved such a high level of "brain cleansing" in Armenia. This so-called transition to a market economy and democracy has beheaded the nation. I wonder how long it will take to restore the damage.

artmika said...

Actually, I witnessed this situation not only in Armenia, but elsewhere too. Very frequently, I found, say, tolerance towards gay people among those average members of society, rather than more educated, supposedly intelligent people, belonging to the ‘elite’ of the society. How many times I’ve been disappointed in their intelligence!

Back to Armenia, I do not think that the problem is in transition to democracy, but rather in lack of it. Unless we have proper democracy, and by that I do not mean only free media, but institutional and legal levels, we will have what we have - 'no intelligentsia' situation, as you said. Because they are the people who left in this country, others, more capable, with greater potential to contribute to the developments in our country continue leaving, which is, I agree with you, some kind of ‘white genocide’ (? – I think that’s how it’s called, but may be I am wrong in terminology, but the meaning is clear, I hope). Those capable people cannot stand intolerance, conformism and grey-ness surrounding them. Some may blame them for being weak, not fighting enough, and leaving the country in the hands of ‘no-intelligentsia’. But I understand them. Talented people want to have possibilities to express their talent. But when on every step they got oppressed, they find their way forward, which is – out of the country, to be who they are.

However, there is some promising new young wave emerging - in arts, civil society. They are not many. In fact, most of the representatives of ‘civil society’ disappointed me so far, with their selective approach to human rights and impossible conservatism and traditionalism which they supposedly aim to break. But that promising wave is slowly increasing in numbers and who knows, may hopefully take over and become real intelligentsia of future? Trying to be optimist here, because otherwise there will be no prospect at all.