Meet Nino Bolkvadze from Georgia
For Nino Bolkvadze, a lawyer, an LGBTI activist, and the first openly lesbian individual running for office in the history of Georgia, the meaning of the rainbow flag – a life in colour and joy – became clear when she came out publicly on Georgian national television in 2015. Bolkvadze describes her decision to publicize her private life in this former Soviet country not as revenge against the local social system, but as a revanche, a recovery of lost territory. Growing up between the city and the countryside, married at 16, and now a successful lawyer with two grown children, it took Nino 20 years to accept herself.
Raised between the capital Tbilisi and the Georgian countryside, Nino’s childhood is intertwined with the country’s tumultuous transition to democracy. She found shelter in books and stories during her childhood, and literature is still an influence in her creative work. She often felt the need to save others, including her father, whom she saw profoundly changed by the Soviet penitentiary system.
But Nino had to fight her own battles first. At the age of 15 she fell in love with the new girl in class. It was a scandal. The girl’s parents moved her to a new school, while Nino had to change schools. She married early in life, in denial of her true self and hoping to be “cured”. Such struggles are hardly surprising or unique in a highly conservative society where “the severity and frequency of hate crimes against LGBTI people remains a challenge despite the progress made in recent years”, according to the FNF. When it comes to human rights, Georgia has sufficiently progressive legislation but their implementation has proven problematic.
'Everyone can or should come out – they have to do it when they are ready and prioritize their own safety. Accepting oneself is the crucial thing, the rest can wait for the right time.'
Nino’s life changed after the events of 17 May 2013, when a peaceful LGBTI community assembly was attacked by violent counter-protestors. That meant she couldn’t hide anymore but she acknowledges that not everyone can or should come out – they have to do it when they are ready and prioritize their own safety. For Nino, accepting oneself is the crucial thing, the rest can wait for the right time.
In a poor country where the promises of the ruling classes have failed and the pandemic exacerbates existing economic hardships, the fear of the “other” can be an effective weapon for maintaining power even though it doesn’t solve the country’s real problems, Nino says. She believes the solution lies in education and reforming justice. For her, it is not a question of two sides, but of changing outdated practices. The identity which is used to brand and reject the LGBTI community needs to be turned around to show that, first and foremost, they are the same as everyone else, people with differing values and political tastes. She leads by example – she ran for office on a platform that articulated the problems of the community and presented her to the public as someone sharing the values of an established political party.
'The identity which is used to brand and reject the LGBTI community needs to be turned around to show that, first and foremost, they are the same as everyone else, people with differing values and political tastes.'
In Georgia they had rumours homosexuals were brought in from the West, Nino says. A person with a different sexual orientation used to be invisible. People need to tell their story and media should reflect upon and report these issues. This is why now she travels around the country giving talks. She often receives letters from young girls who tell her that their parents’ opinion of them changed after hearing her lectures. She acknowledges that there are places she still can’t go, but she is relentless: “Step by step we will win. We will show who we are, and we will gain more and more support.”
In 2019, the government refused to protect Tbilisi pride: LGBTI community members gathered outside the Chancellery on 14 June but were attacked by far-right activists. The Pride took place on 8 July for only about half an hour before participants had to disperse due to threats from far-right groups. Nino still considers this a success and does not expect a utopia or an easy victory. But her legal successes in the field of human rights, plus recent political actions in Georgia – like the signing of a memorandum for LGBTI protection by 15 political parties – give her hope for her three main goals: advocacy for liberal values in Georgia, legalizing civil partnerships, and eventual political representation of the LGBTI community.
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