TBILISI -- One Sunday evening in early February at the Klara bar in Tbilisi, Nata Talikishvili, a transgender woman, was performing comedy during a semi-regular weekend slot.
As usual, Talikishvili's performance attracted an audience of several dozen, many of whom are from the LGBT community. The room was so full that some couples were sitting on each other's laps, while others spilled into a side room.
Despite prevalent transphobia and homophobia in Georgia, sustained by the influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the evening had a relaxed atmosphere. There was no security on the door and the shutters of the ground-floor windows were open, with passersby often looking in. A rare public voice in a sea of conservatism, Talikishvili, 32, is becoming an emblem for how the stories of Georgia's trans community can be told in public and -- so far -- without backlash.
At one point during her performance in the Georgian capital, someone from the audience said: "Nata, you and trans people are so full of energy. You're always bringing fire." Talikishvili smiled and replied: "No, darling, the only one in our community who brings her own fire is Madonna."
A caustic joke that makes plain that no subject is off-limits for Talikishvili, the audience burst out laughing. Madonna was not a reference to the American pop star, but a transgender woman who set herself alight in front of Tbilisi City Hall to protest the state's lack of support for sex workers during the coronavirus lockdown. Madonna survived, with many individuals and organizations raising funds for her recovery.
"Nata is the first person in Georgia who's really guided us into the world of transgender people and brought life from the very inside," said 34-year-old Giorgi Kikonishvili, co-founder of the Creative Collective Spectrum, a multidisciplinary collective of artists and activists. "She's given us a perfect glimpse into the lives of transgender people. She looks at something that can be a sorrowful life in a very funny way, laughs at our own tragedies. She can laugh at anything."
Talikishvili's performances can last from two hours to five and are unscripted, which, she says, is more likely to get a better response from her audience, many of whom are her friends and people from the trans community. "When I've planned it in the past, it always goes wrong," she said, adding that it's precisely the shared stories reminisced over with friends in the audience that are the best. "With my performances, sometimes it's sarcastic and dirty, sorrowful, and sad. Emotionally, it's very up and down."
Talikishvili's sketches often touch upon her experiences as a sex worker. One story, which had the audience in stitches, described her encounter with a Georgian priest. After taking the money, which Talikishvili said was several times more than what she usually received from clients, she met a number of her transgender friends, many of whom were in financial difficulties. Offering to pay their taxes and debts, one of her friends asked how Talikishvili could possibly get that much money in one night. "Sisters, it was sent to me by God," she replied.
Born in a village in the Kvemo Kartli region of southeastern Georgia, Talikishvili came out as transgender to her grandparents who were raising her when she was 5 years old. At the age of 14, when her grandparents died, Talikishvili moved to Tbilisi and began sex work to survive.
"The big problem and stigma is that when you come out as trans, society automatically considers you a sex worker. Sex work becomes directly attributed to the trans community," Talikishvili said. "You get a lot of verbal and physical abuse. Both mental and physical health problems of trans people have gotten worse, often from stress. The most important thing is that our family should accept us. Families shouldn't reject children [who come out as trans] because when they do, often these kids have to go onto the streets and turn to sex work to survive."
Georgia still does not recognize same-sex relationships, with both marriage and civil unions reserved only for heterosexual couples. Although a 2019 poll from the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute showed that public attitudes towards LGBT people in Georgia had improved by 4 percentage points, the renewed 2023-2030 humans rights strategy recently adopted by the Georgian government reveals that the commitment to "combat discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity," which featured in an earlier iteration of the strategy, had been removed.
In July 2021, Georgia made international headlines when Tbilisi Pride was attacked by far-right groups, galvanized by priests from the Georgian Orthodox Church. Dozens of journalists were attacked, with one dying from his injuries a few days later. The attacks, which included the desecration of an EU flag in front of parliament, alarmed Georgian society and sparked consternation from the international community.
"Georgian society is very paradoxical," said Kikonishvili, emphasizing that the depiction of Georgia in the media and by the government as an ultraconservative, God-fearing society is not accurate. "I think in their hearts, most people are not very aggressive or homophobic or conservative." Across the road from the Klara bar is a queer arts gallery, which does not self-censor or hide some of its more outlandish or sexualized shows. "Since opening Klara, we have not had a single problem with the neighborhood," he said.
Kikonishvili put the success of Klara and the community's acceptance of what they do as a result of communication, of an openness that makes aggression or hostility difficult and unusual. "If you close the door or window and say, 'No, you can't come in,' then of course they'll be aggressive. In our case we opened the door. We have open windows. Everyone can look into Klara. At this small urban scale, it works."
For now, Talikishvili's performances will remain offline. She considered recording her performances and posting them online, but concerns about a societal backlash deterred her from doing so. "On the one hand, raising visibility is sometimes a good thing and helps our community, but on the other, sometimes it can become dangerous."
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Although popular perceptions of trans people in Georgia are still largely hostile, there are a growing number of initiatives that aim to support the trans community. One called Temida, a queer-activist organization, is leading the way; last fall, it held a conference in Tbilisi in order to raise awareness and address the problems facing the trans community.
Despite its small size, Tbilisi has a vibrant alternative art and music scene, most of which is inclusive of the LGBT community. It is this community, including those who identify as heterosexual, that makes up much of the support for Talikishvili and similar artistic ventures.
"It's probably the 10th time I've listened to a Nata show," said 23-year-old Tako Khamitsashvili at one of her performances. "I wanted to learn about trans people in Georgia. Nata has taught many of us a lot."