Velistsikhe is a small, quiet village about two hours from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It is plain and remote, and in colder months, when snow and rain sweep south from the Dagestani border, cars are often stranded in its boggy, barely paved roads. Velistsikhe's best-known assets are its wineries. There are three major ones and even a winemaking museum. Almost everybody else makes their money from wine, too — the evidence for which is dotted everywhere in the shape of kvevri, giant earthenware pots, buried to the neck in dirt, in which grapes are left to ferment for up to six months.
The prettiest part of the village is its cemetery, small but ornate and encircled by wrought iron and flower bouquets. This is where Sabi Beriani is buried. In November 2014, she was attacked and stabbed to death in her Tbilisi apartment. Her body was then set on fire. She was 23.
In keeping with Georgian and regional tradition, most of the graves at Velistsikhe cemetery are marked by black marble headstones, with portraits of the dead rendered in photographic detail. Beriani's is no different. But while she died a woman, her headstone depicts a young, androgynous boy, perhaps in his late teens, staring dolefully at the viewer.
It was the best Beriani's mother, Tamar, could do. The village rallied behind her when the news of Beriani's death reached Velistsikhe. After all, she was 40 and had lost her only child. But everybody also knew that Beriani was a transgender woman and activist, who regularly appeared on national television shows.
It was a life few, if any, in Velistsikhe would condone. Beriani had spent her life campaigning to be recognized as a woman. Now dead, nobody besides Tamar — not even Tamar's own, deeply conservative father — would allow that identity to rest with her. Tamar is short, with rounded cheeks and striking, brown eyes. I met her on Orthodox Easter Sunday last year. In Georgia, it is customary to mark the day by visiting the graves of lost friends and family members. The cemetery was packed with mourners. As Tamar laid roses, panettone sweet bread, and Beriani's favorite soda beside the headstone, many of them stopped and stared.
It was little surprise: Georgia, a former Soviet state in the Caucasus region, is a deeply conservative place. It claims to be the second country ever to adopt Christianity, in the fourth century. Research by Gallup in 2015 found the small nation of 3.7 million people to be the most religious nation on Earth: Eighty-three percent of Georgians adhere to the Georgian Orthodox church. Barely 1.5 percent either do not follow a religion or declined to disclose so for a 2014 national census.
The Orthodox Church is Georgia's most powerful institution. Informed by a history of conquest and persecution, it promotes some of the most conservative social views anywhere. The awareness of gender identity and sexual orientation have inspired a cataclysmic rage among its clergy. Sexual minority groups are roundly denounced as evil. The 2014 World Value Survey ranked Georgia the third-most homophobic country on Earth, after Jordan and Iran.
In 2013, Georgia made global headlines when a small gay pride event was attacked by Orthodox priests and other members of the public. Rights campaigners hoped it would be a nadir for the country, which has become a key battleground in a cultural and political struggle between Russia, its former hegemon, and the EU and NATO — both of which it has attempted to cleave closer to.
Their hopes have been dashed. Amid the crescendoing culture war, life for LGBT Georgians has become more perilous than ever. Hate speech occurs frequently in local media. Individuals are attacked, and gay-friendly events are usually called off over bomb threats and promises of violence. Even vegan cafes have been targeted by a growing number of far-right activists.
The most vitriolic hate is reserved for the nation's transgender community. Beriani's case is one of several deaths within the transgender community in recent years, and most everybody with whom I have spoken fears for their safety.
That Easter Sunday, Tamar was one of several mothers grieving a transgender child.
Tbilisi is a strange and arresting city. Its red-bricked, Byzantine sulfur baths and Ottoman Old City sit beside fin-de-siècle streets and oddball Soviet and post-independence modernism. In just a short walk along the meandering Kura River, visitors can see remnants of Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, and Russian rule in what was once a major Silk Road trading post. It is a visually perplexing place. "There are cities that make sense," a National Geographic columnist wrote recently. "Then there's Tbilisi."
Tbilisi's most dominant building, however, is Sameba, a sprawling, cavernous Orthodox cathedral, 101 meters high, that looms over the city's historic center. It is Georgia's largest place of worship — Christian power incarnate. Sameba was consecrated in 2004, 13 years after Georgia became independent from Soviet Union, by Ilia II, the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox faith, who has headed his religion since 1977, when life for Christians was very different.
Under communism the church was persecuted. In the 1920s, when Georgia was swallowed into the Soviet Union, the church was outlawed and priests were executed. In 1943, Josef Stalin, who was himself a Georgian-born Ioseb Jugashvili, eased church restrictions. But the institution was closely monitored, and infiltrated, by the KGB, the feared Soviet security agency. When Ilia took over as patriarch he managed just 50 priests. Now there are over 1,700. Its 10 archbishops drive around in big, black government-purchased SUVs, and the church receives millions of dollars of funding from the state each year — all of which is tax-free.
Ilia is widely considered to be Georgia's most powerful man. He commands a flock that politicians can only dream of, and doesn't mind using his platform to push back on social reforms, like LGBT rights. The patriarch has called being gay a "disease," and his reactions to right-wing violence perpetrated against sexual minority activists have been tepid at best.
The Orthodox clergy do not take kindly to perceived acts of heresy. Street sellers outside churches who are deemed not to have paid tithe have been physically attacked, as have Halloween parties. One particularly zealous priest, Basili Mkalavishvili, was known to cudgel Jehovah's Witnesses with an iron crucifix and gloat about it afterward.
Mkalavishvili was imprisoned in 2004 after the nonviolent Rose Revolution brought West-leaning Mikheil Saakashvili to power, whom EU and NATO leaders hoped would turn Georgia further from its Russian neighbor and closer to European integration.
But in 2012, Saakashvili was defeated by Georgian Dream, a center-left party led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man, whose personal fortune had helped pay for Sameba's construction. By then Mkalavishvili had been free for five years on health grounds. But in 2013 he showed up, alongside dozens of priests and others, to attack a small group of people who had turned out in Tbilisi to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia.
The mob hurled rocks and chairs through a police cordon and smashed a van, in which the LGBT marchers had taken shelter, with sticks and bars. By the time the group escaped the mob, a dozen people, including three police officers, were injured. Ilia described the ambush as "impolite."
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