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People gathered in opposition to LGBT rights during a march for International Women's Day in Tbilisi on March 8.

TBILISI – Gay rights activists in Tbilisi have taken up the case of a transgender woman who died on July 19 from complications of AIDS, saying the way she was treated by the country’s health-care system illustrates a gap between Georgia’s antidiscrimination laws and the realities faced by transgender patients.

Nino Bolkvadze, a lawyer from the Tbilisi-based rights group Identoba, says taboos against homosexuality cause many difficulties for lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men in the predominantly Orthodox Christian country.

But Bolkvadze told RFE/RL on July 20 that the 24-year-old who died of tuberculosis at the Batumi Center for AIDS and Tuberculosis, who has been identified only as Lika, faced even greater difficulties as a transgender woman with AIDS.

As a transgender patient, Bolkvadze argued, Lika required special treatment to ensure her “honor and dignity,” as required by Georgia’s law on patient rights, which forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

"Transgender people [in Georgia] are often alienated from their families at a very young age," says Nino Bolkvadze, a lawyer from the Tbilisi-based rights group Identoba.
"Transgender people [in Georgia] are often alienated from their families at a very young age," says Nino Bolkvadze, a lawyer from the Tbilisi-based rights group Identoba.

Georgia’s health system has a strategic plan on AIDS, but "there is no consideration in that plan for the special needs of transgender people," Bolkvadze said.

"Transgender people [in Georgia] are often alienated from their families at a very young age," Bolkvadze explained. "When this happens, they don't have access to the education and health-care systems and their economic situation becomes very difficult. They often have to become sex workers to survive, which makes them vulnerable to HIV infection."

"Among transgender people, the HIV infection rate in Georgia is 25 percent, which already means HIV is an epidemic for this group," Bolkvadze said. "If all this is not considered as part of the government's AIDS strategy, then HIV will always be prevalent among transgender people in Georgia and the death rate will be high."

Supporters of the LGBT community in Georgia take part in a rally to mark International Women's Day in Tbilisi on March 8.
Supporters of the LGBT community in Georgia take part in a rally to mark International Women's Day in Tbilisi on March 8.

LGBT rights activist Gocha Gabodze told RFE/RL that transgender people sometimes have to pay money for health-care services that would be provided free to others.

"Not everybody knows their rights and what they are entitled to receive from health-care institutions," Gabodze said.

Lika was admitted to Batumi's AIDS and tuberculosis clinic earlier this year when she became too weak from her illnesses to even stand on her own.

In a July 4 interview conducted at the clinic, Lika told the Batumi-based Batumelebi newspaper that doctors were refusing to treat her as a transgender woman -- insisting that their patients be treated either as males or females.

"I need special treatment," Lika said, referring to the hormone therapy necessary to bring her body into line with her gender identity. "I need special medicines and a special diet to support my treatment, but I am poor and I can’t afford it."

WATCH: The Hopes And Dreams Of Transgender Women In Georgia

The Hopes And Dreams Of Transgender Women In Georgia
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Indeed, medical research shows that cross-gender therapy provides an opportunity to greatly increase the quality of life for transgender AIDS patients by physically affirming their gender identity.

Lika also said that when she was a 6-year-old boy, she was sexually abused by two other boys. She said she became an active homosexual as a young teenager.

At the age of 14, when Lika’s family discovered her sexual orientation, she said they sent her away to live with relatives in Tbilisi. But those relatives also kicked her out of their home when they discovered her homosexuality, she said.

She lived in a Christian Orthodox monastery for about 18 months as an adolescent teenager.

It was after she reached adulthood and left the monastery that she became a transgender woman, she said.

"For the last few years, I survived by earning money as a sex worker," Lika said.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Ron Synovitz based on reporting by RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondents Nino Tarkhnishvili in Tbilisi and Eka Lordkipanidze in Batumi
Sepanta Niknam

A top Iranian body has lifted a ban imposed on a member of the minority Zoroastrian religion who had been suspended from his post on a city council in the central city of Yazd, Iranian media reported.

Sepanta Niknam was the only non-Muslim elected to the council in the central city of Yazd in May 2017.

He was suspended later in the year following a complaint by one of his fellow councilors.

It followed a statement from the head of the powerful Guardians Council that religious minorities should not have a representative in towns where the majority of the population was Muslim.

The Guardians Council, which oversees presidential and parliamentary elections in Iran and preapproves candidates, does not have any direct role in city council elections.

The reversal came after a widespread public outcry and criticism by President Hassan Rohani.

Ali Motahari, the deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament, had called the suspension illegal and said the verdict had been issued only based on the opinion of hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who heads the Guardians Council.

The Expediency Council, tasked with resolving conflicts between parliament and the Guardians Council, backed parliamentary amendments allowing members of recognized religious minorities to run for city councils, the government new agency IRNA reported on July 21.

The ruling allows Niknam to rejoin the city council in Yazd, where he had served during a previous term without facing any issues.

Rohani had contacted the parliament speaker over Niknam's case and last month called his suspension "saddening," according to the presidential website.

Zoroastrians are followers of the ancient Iranian religion Zoroastrianism. Yazd is one of their hubs and home to thousands of followers.

According to Iran's constitution, a total of five seats in the 290-seat parliament are reserved for recognized religious minorities -- Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians.

The Baha’i faith is not officially recognized in in Iran, where its followers face state persecution.

With reporting by IRNA, Reuters, AFP and AP

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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