Natia Gvianishvili, director of NGO Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group and Nika Ghviniashvili, manager of NGO LGBT Georgia Resource Centre talk about transgenderness and the issues faced by transgender people in Georgia.

What is transgenderness?

Natia Gvianishvili: ‘The word “transgender” is used to describe a person who identifies with a different gender than the one is expected from the society based on the person’s biological sex. To bring up an example, when a person is born, they are usually of either male or female sex. A specific gender upbringing is then assigned to a child accordingly. Different behaviours and features are expected from girls and boys. In the cases when a child experiences incompatibility with the behaviours that are enforced upon them and grows up identifying with the opposite sex, we can talk about transgenderness.’

What is a transition process?

Natia Gvianishvili: ‘The so-called “sex change” surgery is also known as “sex reassignment” and is in fact a series of surgeries. The transition process can, but doesn’t need to include chirurgical surgeries. Transition is a process during which a person changes their societal role, so it corresponds to their gender. It is connected to behaviours, clothing, and appearance. In most cases it is connected to hormonal therapy. To bring up an example, a transgender man (a person who is biologically a woman but identifies as a man) will ingest testosterone to appear male to the degree desired. One can also undergo surgeries such as mastectomy (breast removal). It is important to mention that many transgender people choose not to undergo certain surgeries in order to come to terms with their own identity.’

Is there a fear of transgender people in the Georgian society?

Natia Gvianishvili: ‘There is a high degree of transphobia in the Georgian society. Luckily, there only was one case of murder of a transgender person in Georgia. Still, many transgender people become victims of murder worldwide. Up to two thousand transgender people were killed during the past seven years, three hundred only in Turkey. 20 November was chosen as the international day of commemorating transgender people who fell victim of murder.’

Nika Ghviniashvili: ‘The majority of victims are transgender women. In most places there is a strong image of what it means to be male and it is considered shameful to have a biological man be seen publicly in a dress.’

What forms of discrimination do transgender people face in Georgia?

Nika Ghviniashvili: ‘Many transgender people can’t find employment. In state structures there is attention paid to sex as indicated in a person’s documents which can prevent the person from getting the job. It appears that it is impossible to change the sex marker in Georgian documents. Currently, there is a court case pending of a person who refused to have their sex marker changed. The legislation demands from the person to have their sex fully changed, i.e. to have undergone transformation. There are flaws in the state’s logic. Sex change is a plastic surgery and if it is requested, then the state should also finance it. Most people can’t afford the surgery. Also, according to the new law, prescriptions are required to buy hormones. Doctors aren’t educated enough about transgenderness and request a special certificate to prescribe hormones. In order to receive the certificate, one has to undergo examinations every two years, including psychiatric and hormonal tests.’

Natia Gvianishvili: ‘On top of doctors not necessarily having enough education, Georgian legislation doesn’t regulate the medical issues concerning transgender people’s transition. One can go to a doctor and say “I need testosterone”, but it is impossible to present an evidence that one needs the hormone except for the person’s need to receive it in order to conform to their gender. If the hormone causes harm to the person who’s taking it, it can cause problems to the doctor. The issue is very complex reaching the Ministry of Health. We’re working on guidelines for doctors, but achieving change is a long-term process.  There is also the issue of changing the sex marker in official documents. The international practice and human rights recommendations say that a person shouldn’t need to undergo medical procedures in order to receive their documents. Transgender women, biologically men, are the most vulnerable group to discrimination, as transgender men are more easily accepted in the society. They have problems finding employment, which pushes many of them into commercial sex work, which turn makes them even more vulnerable to violence and discrimination. Although the Georgian legislations forbids gender-based discrimination, including the employment regulations, it is very difficult to prove in court the actual reason for not getting the job or for a layoff.’

What issues do transgender people face on societal level?

Nika Ghviniashvili: ‘In families, the first reaction to a person’s transgenderness is that of treating it as a psychiatric condition. Formerly, cases of throwing transgender people away from home were common, although now the level of awareness is higher. There are parents who say “my child is still my child”. Still, there are cases of “house arrests” and attempts at forced treatments. Families also have concerns that a transgender person will ‘spoil’ younger relatives, which makes the person to become withdrawn. Also, if the society is strict towards you, the family will often follow, deteriorating the family relations in effect.’

Natia Gvianishvili: ‘Since Georgia’s independence our rights have been used as a tool of vilification among politicians. The homophobic language is always on the rise before elections or important political developments. The issue of Zurab Zhvania’s sexual orientation was always brought up as an accusation. These issues are manipulated when the government, the opposition, or the Church, which is a political actor as well, needs to advance a certain interest. This is harmful, because it makes the level of societal aggression towards us rise in an artificial way. In 2013, many counterdemonstrators said that they didn’t give a right to Saakashvili to organise “gay parades”. This is bizarre as the United National Movement never stood up for our rights during their nine-years’ rule.’

Nika Ghviniashvili: ‘Georgian media operates in a sensationalist way; whatever sells best. Transgender people are often used as “exotic animals”. Instead of focusing on the humane aspect of a person’s experience, they create more aggression towards them.’

Natia Gvianishvili: ‘Our media is relatively politically engaged and although there might not be pressure per se on behalf of the state or the Church, certain media outlets have their political sympathies. Journalists lack education and professionalism. They don’t make effort to research the topics they are trying to cover, especially the topics which are unpopular among the society. TV journalists also tend to choose respondents in such a way that people who are ready to discuss the issue using arguments meet priests, public figures such as politician Jondi Baghaturia (United National Council) or businessman Levan Vasadze who are known for being homophobes, and celebrities who have nothing to do with the topic. These people respond to arguments with hysteria that appeals to a conservative viewer. There is no debate on such issues in media. The role of the media in Georgia today is not to present correct information to the society in a neutral and objective way. They aim at increasing their ratings.’

What is a way forward?

Natia Gvianishvili: Let’s take transgender women participating in talk shows. Journalists should attempt to ask questions that aren’t aimed at provoking a scandal. If a person doesn’t have media experience, it is very easy to manipulate them in such a way that they say something that is harmful for them, the case, and the society in general. Media should try to cover these topics in a neutral way, of which we have some positive examples. Speaking of the state, the legal framework should be improved so it includes solutions relevant for the LGBT community. Nowadays, transgender people are the ones who are least included in the legal framework, given the issues of sex reassignment and transition procedures. NGOs research these issues and are familiar with international practice. We are ready to help to make a change, although more motivation on behalf of the state is necessary.

Reported by Dominik K. Cagara. This report is a shortened transcription of the talk. Some of the quotes contain abbreviations and reformulations in order to render the spoken language more reader-friendly.