Life in the Caucasus can be difficult for those who deviate from accepted norms. Across the Caucasus, strict patriarchal policies, sexism, and homophobia are common, and many people from the LGBTQ community risk persecution if their identity is discovered.
The Calvert Journal and O-zine talked to activists who have lived in the region, or are part of their larger diasporas, about fighting against stereotypes and societal expectations in life, work, and art.
I was born and raised in North Ossetia. My family is religious, and I couldn’t tell my parents about my sexual orientation. I was ashamed of having these desires inside me. When I was a teenager, there was all of this pressure from society. I was quite handsome, and girls wanted to hang out with me, so I thought, “Why not?” But it never went further than a kiss. There was an openly gay man and an open lesbian woman at our school: but [I always thought about how] that boy was from a nice family, how he had nothing to lose. I bullied him, threw brooms at him, insulted him. It was my own brain trying to work out if I was homophobic or not.
The LGBTQ community barely exists in the Caucasus. There is no LGBTQ-cafe in Ossetia, no safe spaces. When you meet a guy on social media, you have to wait at least a week before you even show your picture. You need to know if you’re talking to a real person. There used to be an organisation here in Ossetia whose members would get in touch with guys on Hornet, and when they met, they’d beat them up, take videos, and blackmail them, trying to get money.
All the same, people in Ossetia know about me, because I’m the only person who would ever wear something unconventional or outlandish, Lady Gaga style. When I lived in the city of Vladikavkaz, I founded a group of free-thinkers. We wore bright clothes: in Ossetia, if you’re wearing light blue instead of dark blue or black, you’re already a “faggot”. Local markets didn’t sell brightly-coloured clothes, so we ordered them online, or had them made by a tailor. I was never beaten up, just harassed. But I always travelled by car and only went to certain expensive places. Even then, we often got into trouble, including being detained by the police.
Ultimately, LGBTQ people are leaving the republic, and so did I — gay men have it easier in northern Russia. But I want to be something of a hero for the Caucasus when it comes to representing the local LGBTQ community. Bloggers like Andrey Petrov are already doing it in the European part of Russia. He’s a guy who has opened doors for many people through his online activity, just by putting makeup on, as a man. But Caucasians don’t have a hero like that yet.
I work as an art director of a publishing house called Clever: we publish books for children and adults. But I also have an Instagram blog where I write about books, feminism, body positivity, and self-love.
I was born and raised in the Russian republic of Dagestan. The patriarchy is very strong there: women can’t leave their husbands and are forced to live with violence because divorce is seen as something shameful. Even a survivor’s family will often take their abuser’s side. I lived in Makhachkala with my mother until I was 17, and once I graduated from high school, we moved to Moscow. I was raised in an educated, literate, and non-religious family — my mother did not keep with any traditions and did not force them onto me. Even growing up, I realised that it is wrong to judge people by their orientation, gender, or skin colour.
But a couple of years ago, I started getting messages on social media. They said that girls with tattoos like me had nothing to do with Dagestan, and that they would kill me, rape me, and so on. There were promises to find me in Moscow and avenge the fact that I was “degrading the Caucasus”. There were lots of messages like that, and I used to be really scared of them; I deleted pictures, refused to give interviews, or publicly say that I was from the Caucasus.
“There were promises to find me in Moscow and avenge the fact that I was ‘degrading the Caucasus’. There were lots of messages like that”
Now my friends try to calm me down and say that the situation in Dagestan has changed, but I still wouldn’t like to test that theory at the risk of my wellbeing. At some point, however, I realised that it is impossible to constantly live in fear: that this hatred is not my problem, and it shouldn’t stop me from being myself.
Then, one day at work, we published a book called Stories for Little Girls Who Like to Dream, where we collected short biographies of great Russian women. Feminism became my passion for doing good. I wanted to write about women and help them. I had the idea of creating my own website. In mid-2019, I made t-shirts with a print that would read “Love you” in the mirror, so that girls could see it in their reflection and be reminded to value themselves. I donated all the profit to the Sisters Foundation — an independent charity that provides a refuge for survivors of sexual violence. The more I talked on my blog about feminism and my experience of being in an abusive relationship, the more messages I got from abuse survivors who had nowhere to go, and who didn’t even know that crisis centres existed. In the end, I decided to donate 25 per cent of all profits from my clothes and accessories sales to women in need.
If my environment in Dagestan did influence me, it only did me good: I know what I don’t want to be like. I definitely don’t want to get into somebody’s business, or judge them.
I grew up in Russia in a fully oriental family: my father is from Azerbaijan, and my mother is Azerbaijani with Turkish heritage. It has made for an eternal fracture in me: in Russia, I’m a “black-arse” and a “churka” [slur for people from Central Asia and Caucasus], and in Azerbaijan, I’m a “rus uşağı” (Russian skank). Living on the crack between two cultures is like living in a place where earthquakes happen every hour.
At the age of 15, I realised that my female classmates like boys. The older I got, the more often I was initiated into the “greatest sacrament of a woman”: marriage followed by having children. Of course, no one talked about sex, because in Muslim cultures, sex is like Voldemort, That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. Later, I realised that I am lesbian, which means I will never make my parents happy. I understood that they would never make peace with this, never accept it, never understand, or embrace me.
I used to watch coming out videos from other countries — a peculiar act of masochism. It’s tragic that a person can love and respect Azerbaijani culture and their family with all their heart but then face the scariest choice of all: family or yourself. Here, compromise is almost impossible, which is why we hear stories about sham marriages, double lives, and endless lies so often. Here, a lie can save you.
It took me a long time to realise how much I needed to come out, first of all, for my own sake. I think, when you’re a lesbian from a Caucasian family, you never give up on the hope to wake up “normal” one day, fall in love with a man and have children, just so that your family can accept you and so that society wouldn’t chew you up and spit you out.
With time, it has become clear to me that until I came out to myself, my internalised homophobia wasn’t going anywhere, and the world wasn’t going to become a better place. Only honesty has that special power of transforming someone from within. No wonder the road that scares people the most is the right one.
I am studying to become an art director and work as a designer. I’m openly gay and have been writing posts on social media about my orientation since 2017. At some point, I started a YouTube channel: I thought that I had something to tell people. Social media is the space where I can communicate the thoughts and feelings I have about what is going on in one area or another, be it design, or the LGBTQ community.
I was born and I live in Moscow, but my father is Georgian, and when I was a child, we would stay there with my grandparents for a month or two each year. Even though Georgia is an open country, traditional values are still strong there.
From childhood, there was pressure from my relatives who would ask me where my girlfriend is, when I would get a wife and kids. Of course, it was more of a joke, but when such things are said so often, it isn’t perceived as humour anymore — it just causes this feeling of obligation, that our traditions must be kept.
I often get comments and messages saying that a man with a Georgian surname shouldn’t have a blog like mine, that I am degrading my family and my country. I don’t react. I just say that it is my own business, my own social media account, and my own life. Talking to people who do not know what tolerance and equality are, is useless.