Virgins, Homosexuals, and Churches, Oh My!

Wow, I’ve really been struggling to write anything of late. Life feels busy. But I don’t feel like there is much to report. Time continues to move very quickly. I’m not getting things going as quickly as I would like, but I do have a few projects in the beginning stages. One, which I believe I alluded to in an earlier post, is a rather ambitious project involving creating a cooperative nonprofit made up of nonprofit organizations with social enterprises. The idea is to help these organizations find a market for their products by working together. The goal is to open a store front in a more touristy area of Tbilisi. We would also help member organizations develop marketing and business plans for their products and advocate for tax policy changes for social enterprises. Currently they are taxed at the same rate as corporations. It is a VERY ambitious project and I will be lucky to see it get off the ground by the time I leave. But I have started the effort by drafting a concept paper for the project and am currently in the process of soliciting feedback.  If I’m successful in getting this going, it will be quite an accomplishment. One really wouldn’t expect to do something as big as this during her Peace Corps service. But I’m trying to not tie too many of my hopes up in this project as there are sure to be numerous roadblocks along the way and there is a good chance that one or more will be insurmountable. Peace Corps service is all about patience, flexibility, and managing your own expectations.

One activity I have really come to enjoy is my weekly English conversation class. I will admit that I agreed to do it only reluctantly. I REALLY hate teaching. I always have. But somehow it has come to be the highlight of my work week.  After a rough start, I now have a better sense of how each class should be structured and what students are hoping to get from the class. People keep coming back and the class continues to grow. So, I guess I am doing something right. I also use the class to learn about Georgian culture and attitudes. For example, in my class yesterday, we talked about culture and traditions. The conversation eventually led to the Westernization of Georgian culture. They see some of the more traditional values changing, particularly in the capital of Tbilisi. For the most part, young people think these changes are inevitable and that in some ways it will be for the better.

One value that (awkwardly) came up in class was the importance of Georgian women being virgins when they marry. Note:  no one cares if men are virgins, and in fact, it is common for teenage boys to be brought to brothels as a sort of coming of age ritual (ugh). The class agreed that the emphasis on virginity was already beginning to fade and in 10-15 years would no longer be important. But for the moment, the #1 form of plastic surgery in Georgia is “virginity restoration”. Yeah, that’s a thing. Homosexuality also came up in our conversation. On May 17, the International Day of Action Against Homophobia, there was a riot of thousands of largely clergy members in Tbilisi when a few dozen activists wanted to rally in support of gay rights. It was violent and ugly.

What is meant by gay rights in Georgia is entirely different than what we refer to as gay rights in the States. In Georgia, they aren’t asking for the right to marry or even have civil unions. They would just like the right to be who they are, openly, in the public. An opinion I’ve heard from many Georgians, and I do believe it reflects the majority opinion, is: Of course, there have always been homosexuals. In the past, they kept quiet, got married, had children, and practiced their perversions secretly. Why do they have to be so vocal about it now? This is a recent open letter that gives some insight into Georgian attitudes towards homosexuals. 

These conversations put me in an awkward position. My job here is not to change the culture of Georgia. In this particular case, my job is to help them develop their English skills. However, it is rather difficult to not gently point out that asking someone to live a lie is a form of oppression. New vocabulary word, yay! And how exactly do you respond, when a student, one of your best students, says that homosexuals are sick, as in mentally ill. I just pointed out that not so long ago, Americans believed the same. But things have changed. Conversations like these illustrate how far we have come in the States with issues of gender and sexuality. And while we still have a ways to go, I am so very happy that I am not a citizen of a country that defines both gender and sexuality almost exclusively through the lens of “nature”.  

I’ve long been a critic of American capitalism and imperialism. But living in Georgia, I’m shocked to find a nascent pride in the openness and relative freedom of our country. In class, we also discussed stereotypes about Americans. I was pointing out some of the stereotypes that aren’t true about Americans. We aren’t all fat. We aren’t all rich. We don’t all own guns. And one student gave an example of another stereotype: “Americans are free.” I found myself saying, no, that one is true. I, of course, being me, had to back track and say that it is not laws or social rules that limit American freedom, but economics. Because, let’s face it, Americans with means are free. Those who are born into poverty or even a general lack of resources aren’t. But I would still take our economically limited freedom over the moral and social restrictions of Georgia any day. Because 75% of Georgians are Orthodox Christians and the Orthodox Church is the most powerful institution in Georgia, rather strict religious beliefs define most of the moral and social code of Georgia. While the U.S. has its share of religious fundamentalists who seem to wield more power than is warranted by their number, they in no way dictate American values (even if they believe they do). I’m tremendously grateful that I grew up in a country with religious and ethnic diversity. Now, if only we could stop praying at the altar of capitalism.

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