Politicians, journalists, and civil society observers covering the theme of drug use, in conjunction with the LGBT community in Georgia, are very familiar with the ‘White Noise Movement,’ which stems from anti-drug legislations which put drug users for small offenses behind bars for years. For consuming only a small amount of marijuana, Paata Sabelashvili was thrown into jail back in 2009.
Since 2006, when he began raising his voice against legal discrimination and abuse cases against the LGBT community, Sabelashvili has become one of the most famous activists on the scene. His endeavours to go beyond inhumane drug policies and include HIV epidemics and other problems relating to the LGBT community in Georgia and Eastern Europe. Working now from an office in Tallinn, he sat down to discuss with GEORGIA TODAY his future goals and the current situation of the LGBT community in Georgia.
What are you doing in Estonia at the moment? Why did you move out of Tbilisi?
I moved to Tallinn last year to join a regional organization which works for HIV/AIDS prevention among gay men and trans people in various regions of Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA). The organization is called the Eurasian Coalition on Male Health (ECOM), and covers more than 10 countries, including Georgia.
So, why Tallinn and why now?
I started with LGBT activism in Georgia a dozen years ago in 2006. Then, in 2009, I was busted for weed when the police brutally raided the offices of the Inclusive Foundation, which was the name of the first LGBT NGO in Georgia. This is how I came across drug user rights activism. Last year, we, the civil rights activists, succeeded in putting the Parliamentary Healthcare Committee behind a new draft package to reform the punitive drug policies which Georgia is notorious for. At that point, I felt that this drug policy reform is irreversible and that it was only a matter of time to see fruition. What really worried me was the new study in Tbilisi and Batumi, conducted among men who have sex with men (MSM) – the public health term to conveniently avoid mentioning the term gay. According to the study results, 25% of gay men in Tbilisi and around 23% in Batumi were HIV positive. Initially, much lower rates were increasing twofold every 2-3 years. I still worked on the problems of drug policies, especially when I had to scale up essential services to stop an epidemic damaging to my community. This job proved pretty hard. When you talk to politicians in Georgia, they look at you like an outcast and the mere fact that you are able to come out, speak out and talk to them pretty much exhausts them, not even mentioning their understanding of me as a community activist. Therefore, I decided to move to work on a regional level and target the problem on a larger scale. Georgia is the first country in which an epidemic outbreak was recorded in such a magnitude due to the high levels of homophobia, ignorance, and fear. Other countries are to follow if we do not target the issue at a regional level. This was my long, yet logical path to where I am right now. In Georgia, there are quite a few outstanding activists, tackling this and other issues on the ground.
Can you elaborate more on the organization you are working for right now?
I work for the Eurasian Coalition on Male Health (ECOM). We are based in Tallinn, Estonia, and cover more than 10 countries across the region. The region neglected appropriate HIV prevention, thus leading to an increased percentage of gay men and trans people having HIV, compared to the general population. In fact, gay men are 24 times and trans people 49 times more likely to live with HIV compared to the general average. We are now facing a situation in which we don’t have sufficient resources to effectively respond to the epidemic. Therefore, we work to find the best minds, both in the region and globally, to get them to pull on one string and work on the needs of the people, who were historically left behind. We understand that the key to successful prevention strategies lays in improving national legislation. For example, we still have two countries that criminally punish LGBT people, namely Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Furthermore, we constantly attempt to provide and sustain sufficient resources for the fight against the outbreak. This is important and works only in conjunction with ensuring a quality of services, which would make them viable enough, even if they were not free to the community.
On a regional level, we also realize that all the communities, be it gay and trans, drug users or sex workers, women, prisoners or migrants will find a common ground to fight together. We are putting together initiatives that envisage activists from across different fields to fighting hand in hand to amplify each other’s actions.
How is White Noise doing at the moment? What are the next projects you want to tackle?
White Noise is reinventing itself as we speak. We – and by saying that, I mean that I still volunteer for WNM – are getting ready for the post-decriminalization period. We need to demonstrate readiness to play our unique role in making change happen. Change does not happen because of the government – it happens in our hearts. State services failed to provide its citizens with guidance and support. Instead, it opted for the path of oppression and war. We are also ready to go off the negotiating table to barricades. We are always ready for this. But, it is like having nuclear warheads, never really wanting to use them. We are also ready for massive disobedience acts; should government need this push from our side to finally reform the shameful and degrading policies.
How do you engage in activism right now? What are your main methods and tools to draw attention to the issues you are advocating?
Activism is like an incurable chronic disease. You don’t have the option to decide to be sometimes in, but other times out. You either are an activist, or not. You cannot undo activism; you cannot leave aside information that urges you to act on it. I believe that every activist’s path, experience, lessons, victories, and failures are what shape the movements the most. My path has been very unique because I was a gay activist, who was put in jail because of drug related offences serving 5 years on probation. Initially, I started to work for harm reduction networks on issues like HIV, Hepatitis C, female users and similar topics, but eventually ended up in the totally horizontal grassroots voluntary movement White Noise.
This was before I moved. After moving to work on a regional level, I came close to other things and different situations. I realized that we need to go beyond mere intersectionality between communities. The concept of intersectionality basically says that gay men can at the same time be drug users and sex workers, for example. But we need to realize that there is, in fact, one community, which is oppressed under different names and labels. We need to collect the cases of oppression for each community and transform them into a powerful joint liberation movement. In practice, this has already been done by joint actions and initiatives, but we need to spur their work. One additional reason for what makes White Noise a special organization is its true characteristic of a super-community, like a community of communities, which adds to each other’s endeavor for liberation.
What do you see the LGBTQ movement politically moving towards in Georgia?
I remember interviewing Ulrika Lunacek, part of the European Parliament and member of the Austrian Green Party. She was describing her political career as a feminist lesbian activist to her mandate at the European Parliament. Back then, 10 years ago, it seemed impossible to imagine something similar happening in my native Georgia. However, last year, during local elections, we have seen the mainstream political party – Republican Party – openly endorsing the lesbian woman Nino Bolkvadze to run for local elections. I was very sceptical at the beginning. I feared that she would undergo very hostile encounters during her campaign, alongside with being pressurized and perhaps marginalized. But luckily enough, I was wrong. It was amazing to look at how strong and determined she was. So, this resemblance of Ulrike and Nino really made me think about how we underestimate our own power, our own jurisdictions.
Do you feel the movement is gaining strength or has declined in importance over recent years?
Not only has the movement been growing constantly, but it has also set the trend for civil rights activism and activism in general in the country. Right now, based on my very personal and firm belief, the movement is the trendsetter. It sets the bar for new activism in Georgia. When we put together a rally gathering ten thousand people over night, such as the Birzha Mafia rally, political parties attacked us publicly accusing us of being part of the Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream enterprise. Thinking about it, it is actually funny, as I wish to have been part of it, as we would have been done by now. We have even been heavily criticized by movements of fellow activists. They are pushing for bringing the medicalization vs. criminalization argument to the forefront of the debate. The argument basically goes – if addiction is a mental disease, why the heck do you put us behind bars? However, I think these movements shouldn’t take this question so literally. I believe it to be rather rhetorical. What if I do not really feel sick? Does it make me a bad drug user? It sounds like I should be dying to live up to society’s expectations. We think these arguments are sickening and not winning or convincing. On the contrary, the positive messages that White Noise has put out try to show to the public that there is only one solution to reconcile the relationship between drug users and the wider public. The more authorities and the general public hunt us down, the more harmful drugs we consume to compensate for this constant fear and persecution, thus eventually leading to more severe consequences. We try to show to people that we care. We care for each other. We do more than the police can do or should do.
Finally, do you feel supported in your cause by many politicians today?
There are many politicians, literally in any party one can name that openly endorse the need to humanize drug policies. It seems like everyone supports the reform, but no one actually enacts it.