Fatima Romanova wears an understated black shirt and brown pants, but a colorful glittery t-shirt peeks out underneath; her hair is stylishly short and combed on the right. She waits tables at a café in Tbilisi's old district, decorated with flowers and paintings on the wall. One of the paintings is of a girl in a flowery dress and red shoes.
“I love dresses, I’m a girl and of course I want to wear them, but I choose not to, for my safety,” Fatima said.
In her passport, Fatima, 27, has a different name -- a man's -- that she asked not be published. She is transgender, but now opts to express herself in public as a man after suffering a series of brutal attacks three years ago. In one she was attacked on the street by a group of men; in another a man with whom Fatima had been friendly learned that she was transgender, became angry, and threw her out of a moving car in the center of the city.
“The police came, I gave them the information about the car and driver,” Romanova said in an interview with EurasiaNet.org. “Then they took me to the police station where I identified the driver from surveillance camera footage in the area, but the case was dropped. After this, I decided to adapt to a hetero-normative society, it's better for my safety,” she said.
In total, she has been attacked 10 times, but the police have failed to investigate any of them, she said.
Zizi Shekeladze, a transgender woman, was beaten and had her throat slashed in Tbilisi on October 14, and died in hospital on November 23. Since then, there has been a spike in attacks on transgender women in Tbilisi: on November 27, there were two separate attacks, one on a single transgender woman and one on a group of five women.
“We're seeing an unhealthy situation with respect to transgender people,” said Ucha Nanuashvili, Georgia's state ombudsman, to the website Kavkaskiy Uzel. “There have always been attacks, but after the attack on Zizi Shekeladze, these cases have become more common.”
In theory, transgender people and other sexual minorities are protected from discrimination under Georgian law. Since 2012, discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” is considered an aggravating circumstance under Georgia's criminal code. In 2014, Georgia adopted another law banning all forms of discrimination. The law was adopted as part of a deal with the European Union to gain visa-free travel for Georgians to Europe. But enforcement mechanisms were watered down during the legislative process after the provisions faced opposition by conservative groups and the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Since the adoption of the laws, courts have taken the discrimination provisions into consideration only in “a couple” of cases, according to Tamar Dekanosidze, a human rights lawyer at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association.
Investigators and courts are rarely willing to prosecute on grounds of discrimination, whatever the basis, Dekanosidze said. “This article is not used in practice, neither in cases of homophobia and transphobia, nor in other cases of discrimination on different grounds,” she said.
One gay rights activist in Tbilisi, Beka Gadabadze, was attacked this May on the busy Rustaveli Avenue by a man shouting homophobic slurs. Even though the police arrived on the scene quickly and arrested the attacker, who then admitted in court that he assaulted Gadabadze because he was gay, the court declined to press discrimination charges.
“He attacked me and my friends and threatened to kill us, and claimed in the courtroom that he didn’t want to live in a country where gays could walk openly. The judge never stopped him when he was saying this,” Gadabadze said. “He was just fined 100 Georgian lari (about 40 U.S. dollars), but nothing about hate crime or hate speech was mentioned.”
The Georgian Public Defenders office does not keep statistics on hate crimes against sexual minorities, but in a statement to EurasiaNet, it said it was currently handling seven cases that could be considered hate crimes against LGBT Georgians.
The feminist NGO Women's Initiatives Support Group has registered 35 instances of attacks on LGBT women this year. But that likely undercounts the real number, said Tsiala Ratiani, the group's lawyer.
The same day as the attack on Zizi Shekeladze, local activists rallied in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs demanding justice in the case. The day after the attack, a suspect was arrested. Prosecutors have not yet said whether they intend to charge the suspect under hate-crime provisions.
Georgia's socially conservative culture is a factor that victims of LGBT-related discrimination must contend with on a daily basis. Problems can rise unexpectedly.
In 2013, for example, Romanova took part in a LGBT rights demonstration in Tbilisi on May 17, the international day against homophobia and transphobia. She was fired from her job – at another cafe – the next day.
“When I arrived at the cafe, several men from the neighborhood were swearing and spitting at me in the entrance,” Romanova said. “My boss met me and told me that I was fired because I was 'protecting gays.' I never had any warning or any problem with my employer before. This happened the day after the demonstration.”
Romanova threatened to sue for being fired on grounds of her identity, but none of her coworkers would testify in support of her in court. Some were afraid of the boss, others shared his prejudices, she said.
These days, Romanova only rarely indulges in her favorite clothes, mainly on special occasions like Halloween. “Of course I want to wear lipstick, make up and high heels; I love it,” she said. “I'm a girl, but here fear does its job.”
Tamar Kikacheishvili is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.