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Holding Hands

This article was produced in the framework of the "Unprejudiced" project with the support of the Eastern Partnership Programme and the German Federal Foreign Office in January 2022.

Cedrik Pelka
Anano Gudushauri
Lusine Voskanyan

Some people cannot live like they want to. They do not feel home because they are not welcome by everybody in their home country. Many members of the LGBT+ (Lesbian-, Gay-, Bi-, Tans*-) Community from Eastern Europe emigrate to Western parts of the continent with the hope to find a better future for them and their partners. However, gay couples in Western Europe also still have their struggles. The problems are different but in all European countries people still have to fight for their rights and equality.

It is even harder for women - if a woman falls in love with another woman, things can get very complicated. It depends on where you live. Three couples from Armenia, Georgia, and Germany tell their stories. They face discrimination and sexism. But there is hope, representatives of NGOs say, because something is changing.
Armenia - Don’t show who you are

Karine and Naneh first met four years ago when they started to work together in the winery industry. Their names are fictional, because they are afraid of showing their identity in the media. “Will you marry me?” This was the first thing that Karine wrote to Naneh. Since then the two women started dating.

Homosexuality has been legal in Armenia since 2003. However, relationships that have a gay identity are still condemned by the vast majority of Armenian society. Therefore, queer people continue to hide their identities. A coming out can be a life-threatening action. Most of the gay couples here live for many years presenting themselves as best friends to their families and colleagues. Only a narrow circle of friends are aware of the real nature of their relationships.

Most of the gay people prefer to live in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where they can find relatively more freedom and privacy compared to the provinces. Karine and Nane live there, too. Their story is unique since in four years of dating they managed to find ways to be more open about their sexuality.

A few years ago, Naneh’s family found out about her relationship with Karine and since then she has been at war with them. ‘’There was a period when I had been living with Karine for a month. But suddenly one day my parents met me after work and told me they wanted to talk to me. I went home with them, more precisely they forced me to go. They do not let me live with Karine anymore,’’ Naneh recalls. Now the lovers meet only after work. Karine still tries to hide her relationship from her father. The other members of her family know about it. They all love Naneh because they respect Karine’s decisions and her lifestyle. She doesn't even want to imagine how her father will react if he finds out about her identity.

In daily life, the couple is quite open about their relationship. Most of their colleagues and friends know about its nature. There are very few places where the couple hides their identity. “People accept us as we are and love us in both of our workplaces. The only problem is my family. If they were okay with us, life would be much easier in Armenia”, says Naneh.

In spite of some incidents, two women are able to hold hands or hug each other in public. Sometimes they catch others' staring at them but they do not care about it at all. But sometimes incidents happen. “Once we were standing near the traffic light, Karine pinched my cheeks and kissed me. At that moment, a guy who was standing near us with his girlfriend got really angry and told us to go and love each other somewhere else. It caused a verbal fight between him and my girlfriend. He left us alone only when we had to answer back”, says Naneh.
Karine and Naneh try to focus on positive encounters. Often people, even heterosexual couples, say that they serve as a role model for them. 

Maria Zaqaryan, Community Officer of the Pink Armenia Organization, says that homosexual couples do not have the same rights as heterosexual couples have. They usually cannot hold hands, kiss, or show affection in public places. These actions can lead to aggressive reactions up to violence and hate speech. They can even be beaten up. “People always say you can do whatever you want at home but not in public. However, no one says the same to heterosexual couples”, says Maria Zaqaryan.

© Goethe-Institut e.V. / Getty Images She notes that the prohibition of discrimination based on sexual identity is mentioned neither in the constitution of Armenia, nor in other legal regulations.  Maria Zaqaryan explains: ‘’We had a lot of cases when gay people asked for our help because their families found out about their relationships. Most of the families accept neither their children’s identity, nor their relationships. They face violence, psychological or economical pressure. Frequently, they are being kicked out of their houses“.

The laws always show a discrimination and an unequal treatment. Homosexual marriage is forbidden in Armenia. It means that gay couples cannot adopt children because their relationship does not have a legal status. Because of this, most couples do not imagine their future in Armenia. They want to leave their homeland to find a place where they can be who they are.

Like many other homosexual couples in Armenia, Karine and Naneh as well think about leaving the country one day. “We want to marry officially and start a proper family and leave all the criticisms towards our relationship behind”, says Karine. She hopes that this will be possible in another country.

 Georgia - Gay people are still targets of extremists groups

"What if - every day starts with these two words in my mind - what if we were normal. Or what if that were normal" - says a 22 years old girl who is in love for the first time. Her lover is also a girl, a few years older.

They got to know each other at work, at the office, where they had a prayer corner. With lots of crosses and candles. As the staff said, it was a corner of kindness. But for those two girls, it was a corner of fear. It caused constant discomfort for 22-years-old Anna and for 25-years-old Mary. Their names are also fictional. They think it's funny that their first conversation took place near the prayer corner. "Don't you pray?", Mary asked Anna. As she says, she had high hopes that Anna would answer “no”. Since the Orthodox Church in Georgia is constantly persecuting LGBT+ people, the Parish is not tolerant of them either.

As they recall, Anna did not answer and just smiled. After this, their relationship began. This relationship is hidden by the name of "ordinary employees” at work, "best friends" at home, and "friends” on the streets. But actually, they love each other with all their hearts. As they say, they want to shout so loud that they are in love with each other, but they know that they will face big problems, as many did after coming out in Georgia.

Civil movement "Tbilisi Pride" opposes homophobia in Georgia. Their goal is to create an environment in the country in which LGBT+ people will be protected, accepted, and free. To achieve these goals, Tbilisi Pride organizes Pride Week every year. One of the components of the week is the “Pride March.” However, the march has not been held in Georgia yet.

On July 5th 2021, Tbilisi Pride organized a “March of Honor”. Information about it was spread a few months earlier, and the Georgian government was warned and asked to protect members of the March.

© Goethe-Institut e.V. / Getty Images

However, on July 5th, members of the violent groups occupied Rustaveli Avenue, where the “March of Honor” was planned to be held. Among the ultra-right groups were the priests. The Georgian Patriarchate announced prayer in the church on Rustaveli avenue and asked the parishioners to attend. Two prayers were offered on this day. 

People were aggressive and did not like it when journalists called them "the members of the violent groups". That is the reason why they beat media representatives. 53 Journalists and cameramen were injured on Rustaveli Avenue that day. Law enforcers could not control the situation because they were too few. About 50 police officers were mobilized on Rustaveli Avenue, while the number of ultra-rightists was several thousand. 

Lekso Lashkarava was one of the injured cameramen. He was beaten by 20 men for a half-hour on that day, while on duty. His eye was damaged, and the facial bones were broken. After this, a surgical intervention was necessary.

On the morning of July 11th, he was found dead at home. The results of the forensic examination are still unknown, and after this it must be determined whether there is a connection between the beating on July 5th and the death on July 11th. 

Because the members of violent groups took the place at Rustaveli Avenue, rushed and destroyed the Tbilisi Pride office, and beat the media representatives, the "March of Honor" was canceled.

Anna and Mary were not going to the march. Though they wanted it to take place. As they say, they sat in front of the TV all day and watched what was happening on the central avenue of Tbilisi. They hoped that the violent groups would be disbanded by the police and LGBT+ people and their supporters would be given the opportunity to March with Honor. 

However, when they saw the journalists and cameramen beaten, they were afraid that they would not be able to get any information soon. TV station chiefs said the journalists' safety was not guaranteed, so they could no longer cover the current events on Rustaveli Avenue.

There was violence because people like Anna and Mary wanted to be who they are - and they wanted to show it to the world. "I was very ashamed on this day. I was ashamed that I lived in Georgia and realized that I wanted to leave this country," says Mary. Now she is trying to convince Anna to move abroad. Anna has not yet decided to go to a foreign country and live with Mary.

Germany - hidden discrimination

Something is changing for the members of the LGBT+-Community in Germany. Couples like Lisa Seemann (22) and Johanna Friedemann (24) also feel it. Their names are not fictional. They met over two years ago via the dating app Tinder. They live together in the German capital, Berlin. The city is known for the fact that people are mostly open to different lifestyles: More than 65.000 people came to the Christopher Street Day parade last year. So it's not a problem, Lisa says, when they walk through Berlin holding hands as two women. Nasty comments never actually come, she says. "Sometimes a few looks get stuck on us, but we take that with humor."

That's the way it is in most bigger cities in Germany, they say. The fact that they can be open about their sexuality, they think, has mostly to do with the Internet and social media. On TikTok and Instagram, thousands follow their account "Free2BeThatWay." Every day, they see Lisa and Johanna living together as a lesbian couple. "Young people can see many videos of many different couples. It becomes something normal for them. When I was little, I didn't have the possibility to see how easy it can be to live like I want to," says 24-years-old Johanna. Her girlfriend Lisa adds, "They just see that there are more people who are like them. You're not wrong or different when you realize your sexual orientation is not straight." Besides them there are many more channels on Instagram, TikTok an Co. which show diversity.

However, based on the comments under their photos and videos, they see that there is still a need for education. "Mostly it's men who ask disgusting questions. It's often about our sex life. Very personal things. They wouldn't ask that a heterosexual couple," says Lisa. But that doesn't make her angry. In fact, she's very relaxed. "There are some people who have never dealt with the issue and who may have been raised differently. I think it's great when people ask questions and are open to consider that heterosexuality isn't everything. But if they say they can't accept me like that, then I don't want anything to do with them either." Not everyone is confident enough to think like her.

The situation for LGBT+ members seems to be getting better in Germany. The Lesbian and Gay Association of Germany (LSVD), one of the largest associations for LGBT+ issues in Germany, is also cautiously optimistic right now. Representatives say that discussions are finally taking place. Even though LGBT+-Members are still not represented everywhere and there are also still some people who spread hate and incitement, just the fact that there is so much discussion about this in society is progress, the LSVD says. "Ten years ago, I didn't know any celebrities who were openly gay or lesbian. Today, a few of the most important German politicians live openly gay lives," says Markus Ulrich from LSVD. Big companies are also celebrating Pride Month, showing LGBT members in their advertisment, and support them in general - at least they pretend to. In fact, companies like the German car company BMW show the pride flag on their German Instagram Channel, but not on others like on its Saudi Arabian Channel. Ulrich calls that “pink washing” in Germany.  It was even a long way to get there. At least they would do something, says Ulrich. 
© Goethe-Institut e.V. / Getty Images

Even a few years ago, LGBT members in Germany had much less rights than today. Marriage for all was only passed in the German Parliament in 2017 after many years of discussion. In the end, 393 representatives voted in favor, but at the same time 226 voted against it. Today, homosexual marriaged couples have the same privileges like when it comes to certain laws about taxes. But other laws still discriminate against people who are not in a heteronormative relationship. Yet, if two women are married they are allowed to adopt a child, but it is much more difficult for them to do it than for a man and a woman who live together. A lesbian couple for example has to pay more money for this process and gets less support by the government - even if one of them is the biological mother and the other woman wants to become a legal mother. They also get checked multiple times by workers of the youth welfare office if they are able to raise a child together and they have to answer 10 to 15 questions which ask for a lot of personal details about their lives. It is even harder for two men to adopt a child especially if neither of them is the biological father. For example they have to go to the court many times to explain why they want to raise a child together. These are all things which heteronormative couples do not have to do. Another example is blood donation. In other European countries such as the United Kingdom or Spain, anyone who does not exhibit so-called risky sexual behavior is allowed to donate their blood. In Germany, men who are not in a relationship and who sleep with other men are automatically considered to have risky sexual behavior. They are not allowed to have sex with another man for four months. Heterosexual men do not have to wait. 

"At work or in the sport clubs, there are still many people who think about their outing several times. People from the LGBT+ community know exactly when and how to show their affection with their partner in public or talk about their sexual orientation" he adds." Someone should not need to have a coming out anymore. We're much further by now. I don't always want to have to emphasize that I'm a lesbian. It is something normal. After all, heterosexual couples don't have to have their coming out," says Lisa. Even though she and Johanna often don't have to think about how they act in Berlin, in Johanna's hometown Dresden, however, things are different. When the soccer club Dynamo Dresden has a home game and the two are visiting the city, they do think twice about kissing in front of other people. They report that many people would stare at them. Lisa even fears, "If someone is in a bad mood and then maybe has had something to drink, I wouldn't put it past some people to hit me." Luckily, it hasn't come to that so far. But it is almost normal that you can hear homophobic slogans in soccer stadiums - often very present shouted by only a small number of people. A few players in amateure leagues still scream “What a gay pass”, if a teammate plays a bad pass. These examples show how diverse and divided the society in Germany is.

In fact, there are few figures on homophobic attacks. Statistics have only been recorded since 2020. Before that, hate crime was only summarized in general terms. This short period of time already makes clear: the number of hate crimes is rising. "However, it is not clear whether there are more attacks or whether more people dare to file a complaint," explains Markus Ulrich. LGBTQ-Members dare to talk about discrimination more often. However, it is undisputed that there are still regular verbal and sometimes physical attacks.

"I would like to see more diversity. In the media and school textbooks, for example. All ways of life should be seen as normal because nobody can say what is normal and what's not," says Johanna. Things which are normal on Social Media are still “exotic” in everyday life in Germany. Until full equality is reached, Johanna and her girlfriend Lisa are trying to do their part on Instagram and TikTok to break down prejudices and show that everybody can be who they want to be.

How do we want to live?

Changes can be seen in many European countries. Members of the LGBT+ community do not want to hide anymore. But they do. They want to raise their voices. But they can’t.They want to live a normal life. But it is not possible everywhere, yet. People fear experiencing violence. And even in countries which seem to be the pioneers of LGBT+ rights’ movements, people still have to fight for equality. It is still a long way until everyone can hold hands as they want.
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