My personality cannot be boiled down only to queerness, only to femininity, only to being an Armenian, or only to poverty. My personality accommodates all these identities and at the same time, all these identities open the door for me in specific communities”, says Alla Parunova, a 33-year-old activist from Tbilisi.
Very recently, Alla became the winner of the Kato Mikeladze Prize. The main purpose of establishing this award is to recognize and appreciate women human rights defenders, to raise public awareness of their important activities, to create a safe working environment for women’s rights defenders, and to present and encourage new faces in the field of women’s rights protection.
Alla Parunova tells us that she was born and raised in Varketili. As she says, her childhood experiences have more to do with her ethnicity and the social or economic situation the entire country was in, rather than with her femininity or sexuality.
She remembers that the spoken language in the family was Armenian, she used to speak Georgian at the kindergarten, but as soon as she was taken out, she forgot it. After that, she was taken to a Russian school, where mainly ethnic minorities studied, and the language of communication was Russian.
“Our conversational language was Russian, and this caused a feeling of split, of not having the feeling that you are a part of this country, this society.”
As she says, when she was a child, she did not feel like a part of this society, and even now she feels like she has gone through assimilation more than integration.
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“When I played with other kids, I went by the fact that they at least knew or understood Russian and we would communicate to each other on some level. Then a different kid moved in our neighborhood (now my friend), who didn’t understand a single word in another language, so I had to learn Georgian. Georgian was not my first language and I have put a lot of work into learning it.”
“My personality cannot be boiled down only to queerness, only to femininity, only to being an Armenian, or only to poverty. My personality accommodates all these identities and at the same time, all these identities open the door for me in specific communities”, — Alla Parunova.
Today she already speaks 4 languages. She says that she loves Georgian and it is her work language, the language of communication with her friends, but on the other hand, she thinks that she is privileged because she was born and raised in Tbilisi, and had the opportunity to learn the language, which others do not have the luxury of.
“For me, figuring out identity is a process and it’s very fluid, it’s not a solid state where I can say that self-examination started and ended here. My sexuality is more inclusive, diverse and, like my other identities, is in the process of constant analysis, constant deepening and constant change,” says Alla.
As she says, it is no longer important for her who will accept her or not, and what matters is how much she accepts herself, how much she respects and strengthens, how much she takes care of herself. She is waiting for this moment to happen for queers collectively, and jokes that then there will be a real revolution.
“Of course, the existing heteronormative environment is oppressive, I just want us to be more focused on strengthening ourselves, which will then give us the opportunity to make a change outside as well. Oppression exists in all spaces, be it in the family, public space, politics, etc., all these spaces are full of norms that separate us. For me, the solution is to strengthen and unite as a way of resistance”.
She tells us that at some point the relationship between her and her family was transformed, and if earlier it was a closed and control-oriented space from her mother, then she herself got an education, found her own spaces, gained independence, including financial, and now she has to be in the role of a supporter.
“I understand what she’s been through, I understand where she’s coming from, and I understand that she doesn’t know about some things. Yes, I can shout, protest, get angry, but how effective will it be?”
“If before I was a person who had to be given advice, at some point I gained this respect, that my opinion and position are important, and when something happens, my mother calls me and says: “Explain to me what’s going on.” Of course, there were conflicts along the way, but I tried to do things in such a way that I would not hurt my mother and consider her position on the level of empathy. I understand what she’s been through, I understand where she’s coming from, and I understand that she doesn’t know about some things. Yes, I can shout, protest, get angry, but how effective will it be? That was also the case, but at some point this relationship was transformed, in which I put a lot of work, but there was openness from my mother’s side as well”, says Alla, adding that this is why she believes it is important to talk, exchange positions, and not slam the door.
“Empathy, talking, sharing, criticizing, analyzing, thinking transforms. At some point, us, queers, get tired of having to explain everywhere, but there is no other way.”
“They Tell Us What Real, True Activism Is Like”
“I’m queer and a feminist activist, although I’ve been having some issues with the identity of an activist lately,” is how she introduces herself.
She remembers that a few years ago, she saw a protest of an independent group of feminists on TV, the main message of which was “we don’t want flowers, we want rights”. It was then that she realized that she is not alone and there is a group of people working on it.
Vakho Kareli/Aprili Media
“I realized that I was not alone when I thought about myself, my life, the existing stereotypes and the control mechanism that existed in relation to my body labeled as a woman, as well as the social, political, economic issues that surrounded me.”
My sexuality is more inclusive, diverse and, like my other identities, is in the process of constant analysis, constant deepening and constant change,” — Alla Parunova.
Despite this, she did not immediately go into activism. As she says, for her it was more of a process and based on a certain type of analysis. For example, at that time, she worked in a library, read a lot of books and does not forget the book, Women as Lovers, by Elfriede Jelinek, in which she saw herself, the existing cultural, social and economic norms that limit women from living a full life.
“It makes our life limited, puts us in some kind of frameworks, norms, as a result of which we can no longer show our full potential,” says Alla.
After that, she decided to enroll in a gender studies faculty to learn more about what she was dealing with, why she has problems with existing norms, why she is in conflict with her family, society, etc.
“In the process of studying gender studies, the oppression I faced all my life was somehow given a name. I realized that this oppression is not isolated, and I am not oppressed only as a woman, but I am oppressed as a queer woman, and as an ethnic Armenian, and as a member of a not very high social class, and so on. It broadened my vision and made me more focused on seeing the centers of power, rather than the specific identities I carried,” recalls Alla.
Then she spent 6-7 years in the Young Greens, where her activism expanded. She became a member of both green and social and economic movements, women’s movement, feminist movement, queer movement.
“We’re often told what it’s like to be a real, good, true activist, that you have to stand up to everyone and everything, that all the problems around us are your problems and that you’re responsible for solving them all.”
We asked Alla what she meant when she told us that recently she has a problem with her identity as an activist. She explains to us that activism over the years was always accompanied by the feeling of defeat, that it could not change something, it could not succeed, but the real influence of activists is much smaller.
“We’re often told what it’s like to be a real, good, true activist, that you have to stand up to everyone and everything, that all the problems around us are your problems and that you’re responsible for solving them all. This type of analysis, on the one hand, creates a narcissistic idea about ourselves that we are the ones who will save the community, the country, the world, and on the other hand, it imposes a great responsibility on us. In addition, it no longer allows you to analyze where you can actually make changes.
Several times I had emotional burnouts, when I lived with the feeling of defeat, that I couldn’t change things, I couldn’t do it. Then, when I thought about it, I realized that this savior identity that we have as activists is very damaging, not only to us, but to all the people we do things for. Recognizing that there is only a small space in which we can do things does not mean that our actions lose meaning. It’s been a few years since I realized this and I no longer feel defeated — on the contrary, I appreciate all the activities, the space I can create and all the activists around us,” says Alla.
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She points out that it is not correct to reduce all responsibility to the individual and to imagine resistance as the only form of activism. In her opinion, activism along with resistance should also include making connections, solidarity, creating spaces and caring. Otherwise, our resistance will only lead to division between different groups of society, and also to the reduction of possible supporters.
“Us, Queers Are a Part of This Community”
She talks in depth about the fact that political groups often instrumentalize queers. As she says, in 2018, she realized for the first time that people with different powers are trying to score points and divide society with the LGBTQIA+ subject. In her opinion, various political groups with power, literally interfere in the decision-making process on the part of queers, which in turn reduces the field of struggle for their rights, autonomy and power for the LGBTQIA+ community.
She also highlights the increased political homophobia and notes that for these and other reasons, queers are today at the forefront of civil struggle, although the goal is to suppress any type of critical, analytical opinion or opposition by demonizing and marginalizing the LGBTQ+ community.
“Political elite puts us on the first line and we must remember that standing on the first line is playing by their rules. We are not alone in this process. We are talking about all those people who are at least slightly critical of this government, we are talking about the civil society as a whole, therefore, we should not be alone and oppose it only by uniting. We should not play the game of powerful political forces and together with our allies and supporters, we should formulate a unified policy in order to change the situation. Otherwise, we will all fail miserably”, says Alla.
“This savior identity that we have as activists is very damaging, not only to us, but to all the people we do things for.” — Alla Parunova.
According to her, when we talk about the fact that we live in a homophobic, transphobic, patriarchal, capitalist system and that this system is fighting queers, we should also think about what strategies we use to resist and not to strengthen the existing system.
“Yes, it is a problem that the state does not protect us, that the ruling party is mobilizing far-right groups, but we have known that this is happening for 5 years, and then what do you, as a group, do to oppose all this? It’s a fact that the existing strategies do not work, and it’s a fact that people have been saying for at least 5 years that this will happen, and you can’t repeat the same thing without this analysis.”
Vakho Kareli/Aprili Meida
According to her, there is a need for alternative visibility policies and a language that will be understandable to the public.
“We have to look not only at our sexuality, but also at other parts of us, look at who is around us and talk to them.”
Alla believes that despite our differences of opinion on some issues, we all have common challenges and can support each other. She also criticizes the approaches of some activists – she says that she does not like dividing the society into “progressive” and “dark”. According to her, different groups of the society, despite the many differences, are intersected by experiences of oppression, and it is wrong to divide the society into only two poles.
“Us, queers are not a group torn out of the society, we are a part of it” — Alla Parunova.
“Different groups of society may disagree with each other on many things, but this does not change the fact that we have common challenges and that there must be some type of notions of solidarity, love and care among us. We may be in completely different political positions, but if any group gets in trouble tomorrow, we must support each other… That’s why it’s important to me whether we focus on finding common ground or differences. You may disagree or admit that you hate the other group, but that doesn’t mean you have to make politics based on that hate.”
We asked Alla how the solution affects her herself, especially considering that it is difficult in a hostile environment, in the face of danger to be constantly positive. Alla says that the group that the LGBTQIA+ community hates and is ready to physically destroy is small and there’s really nothing to talk about because these people won’t change their position. However, she emphasizes that the whole society is not like that.
“I am not saying that there is no homophobia or transphobia in this country. But that particular group does not represent the whole society. There are so many groups in society, and if we go to the regions and talk to people, we may find more similarities than differences. This does not mean that these people will love us in a day, but it means that queers are not a group torn out of the society, we are a part of this society and whether we like it or not, we have in common with different groups of this society with our different identities”.