I left London, and Paris a bit more than a month ago, and I’m travelling east.
I knew that progressively things would become more and more difficult, slowly walking my way out of my comfort zone: culture, language, habits, diet, growing importance of religion(s), random hygiene and cleanliness in some places, reliability of transports, road signs… and degrading gay rights.
I’m currently in Georgia, and I’ve only crossed countries where homosexuality was decriminalised in the early 2000s for the most recent. From place to place, I’ve seen dwindling gay visibility and poorer and poorer conditions of life for homosexuals: UK, France, and then Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia. One after the other they roughly form a gradient pattern from green to red of gay freedom. Actually, Romania is the exception, being far behind its two neighbours.
In every country I have met with at least one gay, and had the chance to hear them talk about their life. I will describe my experience and feeling as a witness here in a nutshell.
Northern Italy was almost just as cool as southern France. This means Mediterranean patriarchal catholic Italy is a relatively tolerant society, but discretion is key. You might get the odd look if you hold your partner in the street in big cities.
Slovenia is a small country, and the capital is a small city. But the people seemed rather open-minded, and the religion is not as much leading the moral as it is in Italy. I had a flirt with a delicious local boy when I was there, and occasional displays of affection were no problem. Once we were lying on the grass in a central square of Ljubljana, my head resting against is thigh (!), and this was cool.
I didn’t stay long in Budapest, Hungary, and went to an awful gay bar because my couchsurfing host had organised everything (do not ever let a hetero organise gay entertainment, NEVER!). But other popular and friendly places are plenty, and gays seemed to be pretty relaxed out there.
Romania was very different. The country openly boasts that homosexuality doesn’t exists, which is a frightening enough introduction. And indeed, not a bar, not a place. Just a few people online. So not much to say about it really, just avoid it.
I had a more extensive chat with a gay in Golden Sands, the Balck sea resort north of Varna, Bulgaria. This is a very lively and touristy area, and an emerging summer destination for eastern and western Europeans. The national entertainment industry has some openly gay stars (see the Chalga post http://www.lebigjay.net/playlist/chalga). All this has helped developing minds and making things easier for gays. Varna used to have two gay bars, but only one remains open these days, and from what I was told Sofia had a ‘good’ scene with bars and clubs, which I imagine is comparable to the one in Budapest.
I met a gay in Istanbul, Turkey, but he wasn’t so much out of the closet because of Syrian origin. Has for most of the previous country, the gay ‘life‘ is mostly happening online, which is probably what has killed the struggling businesses of bars. I returned to the place where there was a gay bar near Taksim on my previous visit 6 years or so ago, but it was no more. Indeed, when you connect to Grindr, there is a significant number of fit and hairy torsos and bottoms (see inset), but people of the same gender in the streets have friendship displays of affections and misleading eyeballing attitude. Men have a habit to scrutinizing each other to compare fashion and fitness, which can be pretty disturbing but is no way a mark of homosexuality. Despite this, this is the starting point to a very subtle and exciting game to find out what is beyond that look… but be VERY careful!
Finally I made it to Georgia, and this even more complicated here. Even in the capital Tbilisi, there is no gay scene, very few people online (see insets) and absolutely no tolerance of any kind. I’ve also been in Batumi, the coastal city and a popular resort with mostly Russian, Turkish, Armenian and other Middle Eastern tourists. Although almost as developed as its sister resort Varna on the other side of the Black sea, mentalities remain stuck in the past. I had a flirt with a guy there. There was absolutely no way we could touch or kiss. He even rejected my hands on his new below the table. This is the worst living conditions for gays here, and even if a few militants are working hard to walk their way to parliament and have political and social representation they’re only welcomed by violent anti-gay protests (see insets).
I’m about to continue my trip into Azerbaijan, and on to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. I have arranged to meet with a gay in Uzbekistan, and shall post a follow up article on the topic.
The gay scene
Generally speaking, I don’t like to hang out in gay bars unless I’m in good company of friends. I don’t feel comfortable. So although I was always asking the locals about bars and clubs, I never went. Except for Romania, all eastern European countries had at least one or two places in their capital cities, and some of them had one in smaller cities. In Bulgaria, I was told that Sofia had a pretty developed scene, and one bar remained open in Varna, the coastal city. Budapest, and Istanbul are OK, with a few places to hang out, and cruising spots. In Georgia, no gay bar, hardly any friendly bar or cruising area. Gay rights organizations seem to be struggling to fight for our rights, and to keep a randomly up-to-date website. There was a march attempt in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, this year, but because of outnumbering anti-gay religious protesters, the police stopped the march and tool the gay militants to safety. You can read the BBC report here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18109022.
The Grindr indicator
It was interesting to connect to Grindr along the way, and see the thumbnail of torsos dwindling in number as I was progressing. In Georgia, only a few were in the vicinity. The fourth guy would be 160km away (Yerevan, Armenia), and the tenth would be in Istanbul (1200km away)… And even they would send you the introductory (and somewhat hilarious) ‘sexy’, our ‘hot’! Sorry, my dick ain’t so long… Well, don’t be mistaking, there are two factors to this. Not to my dick size, please focus. One is that the gays are in the closet or, worse, they are in denial and live a heterosexual life. So very little open gays, and second reason is that very few people have a smartphone. This is a Nokia museum here. So homophobia, or poor acceptance, gays in the closet and very low-tech equipment make it very hard to meet the gays, and certainly a nightmare for locals.