First, you have to register on the website of Bassiani, Georgia’s leading techno venue and one of the most highly regarded clubs in the world. You are instructed to enter your name, date of birth, ID or passport number, and your Facebook URL. These steps completed you are told to wait. If accepted you will, the site assures, soon receive an email with a QR code that is your free ticket to Horoom Nights, the biggest, most influential queer party in the whole of the New East.
Some Western party-goers might look askance at providing their personal information to a club, but here in tiny, conservative, Orthodox Christian Georgia — a place where some 90 per cent of the population tell pollsters homosexuality is “never acceptable” — the cloak and dagger is necessary. Each Facebook profile is carefully vetted by activists of the Equality Movement, an LBGTQ rights NGO. They look at what you share and who your friends are, filtering out freeloaders and homophobic provocateurs — they have rejected some 2,000 applicants in the 18 months Horoom Nights has been active. But those who get the confirmation email get a ticket not just to a gay night in the cavernous concrete catacombs of Bassiani, but an invitation to a social revolution in the making.
Horoom has everything you might want from an upscale gay night: friendly security, a euphoric dance floor, the occasional drag show or BDSM performance, and “dark rooms” where people can have sex. Although dark rooms are just a small part of Horoom, they serve an important role. The 18-30 LBGTQ youth who patronise this club almost all live in small Soviet-era flats with their parents and grandparents. In the main, they cannot take their partners home, so the dark rooms provide a safe place. “If you go on Grindr and talk to any other person, the first question you get is: ‘do you have an apartment?’” says Levan Berianidze, an Equality Movement member and one of Horoom’s organisers.
“I went to the dark room one time with my partner,” a patron told me, “but I didn’t like it, people were using their phones for light and were gossiping and talking politics.” Using your phone for light (and photos) is strictly forbidden: it’s right there in the email, the first rule, Horoom’s version of “you do not talk about fight club” (indeed, the organisers were at first reluctant to allow photos to be taken for this piece, and everyone depicted in them specifically gave their consent). It makes sense: in a country where homophobia is the norm and where compromising sex tapes are used as a means of government oppression and personal revenge, the organisers want people to feel secure. But talking politics in a dark room sums up the spirit of Horoom: a full-on gay techno rave and an activist away-day at the same time. The two parties I went to were both well attended by members of Georgia’s NGO community, and the organisers are sensitive to criticism that they preach to the choir by catering to Georgia’s pro-Western, liberal elite. Part of the reason tickets are free is to encourage people from all walks of life to come to Horoom, but it still feels like a pretty upper-middle crowd.
In fact the only thing that is noticeably different from a club in Berlin or London is the absence of readily available drugs: Georgia’s absurdly draconian drug laws and heavy handed police put a dampener on that side of the party. But this too is something that might be about to change. As well as Horoom, Bassiani has helped give birth to a major drug liberalisation campaign that is beginning to change the law. “All of the activists are united on the dance floor,” says Tato Getia, one of the founders of Bassiani. “There are maybe four of five different movements, and when I see them interact is on Saturday night.”
There is definitely a sense that Horoom is driving change for the LBGTQ community in Georgia, partly because it acts a physical location — a “safe space”, to use the much maligned term — where individual people can come and realise they are part of a wider community. The sense of liberation is palpable. “That is what Horoom is about,” says Giorgi Kikonishvili, formerly of the Equality Movement and now Bassiani’s queer party organiser. “We all have the sense of belonging. You have to belong to some kind of community. When you’re gay in Georgia, your friends, your family, nobody knows about you. But suddenly you see Horoom, hundreds of people having fun together with you, you start to belong to this community, the community builds and that’s how it gets bigger and stronger, that’s how you start spreading your opinions and making an impact on society and beating homophobia.”
“For me, Horoom, it’s just the beginning. Look at the history of both clubbing and LGBT rights. They’ve always been very connected,” says Levan Berianidze. “Because unlike other minorities, LGBT people don’t really have the supportive kind of surroundings with them when they’re born. If you’re an ethnic or religious minority, at least you have a mum or dad who belong to the same identity. For LGBT people it’s not like that. And for most LGBT people, growing up means they don’t really know that there are other LGBT people in this world.”
According to Emmanuel, a Nigerian immigrant and Horoom regular, the night is “a breath of fresh air”.
“It means I can go to a place and not be scared. It means I can go and not worry about who the guy next to me is. I go there and I know that everyone there is gay or gay friendly. Everyone there is comfortable with everyone.”
Bassiani is a famous place. Often talked of as one of the world’s best clubs (and as the best by, weirdly, Hostel World), it is a thing to behold. Unfolding corridors in the basement of Georgia’s biggest football stadium lead you to an empty Olympic swimming pool that serves as the dance floor. The broken tiles, raw concrete and dizzying lights give the venue a post-apocalyptic kind of chic that just can’t be found in the West — it’s like clubbing in the Blade Runner pyramid. Like most of Tbilisi’s serious nightclubs, it’s always been proudly gay-friendly, but for Bassiani, there was still something missing. “If you don’t have a healthy queer scene in the city it’s impossible to have a healthy clubbing scene. The two are connected,” says Getia.
But, he adds, Horoom was also founded as an “intentional political statement” in response to the pervading climate of homophobia in Georgia, and the regular violence that is meted out to sexual minorities, often with the acquiescence of the authorities. It has become a symbol of just how far the country has come in the last few years.
“Trying to create something different to beat homophobia, it all started for me from 17 May ,” says Kikonishvili, referring to the day that is now known as “the pogrom”. On that day, in broad daylight on Tbilisi’s central square, a mob of tens of thousands descended on a tiny group of LBGTQ activists and allies who had gathered to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Led by priests in full vestments, and in full sight of the police, the mob descended on the fleeing activists, trapping them in municipal busses and pursuing them through the centre of the city. The activists were lucky to escape with their lives. Four arrests were made but there were no convictions.
“I was there. I was one of the ‘pogrommed’ guys. And, like, 10 or 15 minutes after the pogrom, as soon as I realised that I escaped I started thinking. I saw the situation in which we were living, and I started thinking that we had to become more resistant. We had to change the direction of the movement. We had to change the direction of everything,” Kikonishvili continues.
“I felt that we needed something more besides these organisations and NGOs and stuff. Something which combines culture, entertainment, music. So when Bassiani started, this idea evolved quite naturally.” In the run up to the third anniversary of the pogrom, Bassiani and the Equality Movement put their heads together, and Horoom Nights was born. “Basically, Bassiani wanted to help us,” says Berianidze, “and we wanted their help desperately.”
The organisers knew there were risks involved when they planned the first Horoom. “It was really risky. We had high hopes, but at the same time we were prepared for the worst,” says Getia. “We were on the alert. But it went really smoothly. Nobody could have predicted it.”
“At first we were very careful about being public. The first 10 or 12 events were just closed on Facebook, so only invited people could see,” says Berianidze. “And we just went public step by step.” Since then the event has become established, and is one of the most notable regular nights in Tbilisi — everyone has heard of it, and yet there has been no significant reaction from Georgia’s increasingly combative conservative forces. As in most of the world, Georgia’s right wing is making its presence felt, leading “Marches of Georgians” targeting foreigners in central Tbilisi, and winning seats in parliament. But in spite of the initial fears of the organisers, the party is going from strength to strength. “We had one guy here, one of the organisers of the March of the Georgians. He organised a demonstration right here,” says Berianidze. “But it was unsuccessful for him, only 20 people came, and then they just left.”
The success of Horoom is attributable both to the passion and drive of its organisers—both from the clubbing side and the NGO side — but also to the breakneck pace of change in Georgian society as a whole. When asked how the situation has changed since he was pogrommed in 2013, Kikonishvili just says: “drastically”.
“When I look at the new generation on the dance floor, I realise that they have been raised in a totally different country than I was,” says Getia. “I truly feel jealousy towards the young generation” (Getia is 27). “There are so many ugly things still happening in this country in a political way, in a societal way, in a propaganda way, that I think it’s our duty to face this and to change it because then it’s our children who have to live here.”
The next generation are already growing up in a very different Georgia. In recent local elections, an out gay woman, Nino Bolkvadze, stood as a candidate. She didn’t win, but she was warmly received by voters. While parts of the government drag their feet and appeal to the Orthodox base, and while the police still don’t take violence against sexual minorities seriously, there is a sense that a corner has been turned, and Horoom Nights is both a symbol and a driver of that change.
The name Horoom comes from a celebrated Georgian war dance, the khorumi. “The story of the dance is that the dancers come onstage. They look around, and then they come together, they have the “war”, and then they win,” says Kikonishvili. “So it is 100 per cent our story.”
Text: William Dunbar
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