By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON, Oct 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When she knocked at her neighbours' door to borrow a bottle opener, Nino Bolkvadze was nervous - not knowing whether she would still be welcome.
Hours earlier, she had appeared on one of Georgia's most popular news programmes as the first openly gay candidate to run for public office in the former Soviet republic, where homosexuality is largely taboo.
If the elderly couple had seen the show, she figured there was a good chance they would slam the door in her face.
"Instead they were very kind and happy to see me. They told me 'congratulations, we just saw you on TV!'," Bolkvadze said in a telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
That came as a relief to the 40-year-old lawyer, proving that her outsider campaign for a council seat in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, was bearing fruit.
CLASH OF CULTURES
Nestled in the Caucasus, at the crossroads between East and West, Georgia has witnessed a cultural clash between liberal forces and religious conservatives over the past decade, as it embarked on radical reforms and rapid modernisation.
Its leaders have worked hard to westernise the country's image but homophobia remains widespread, rights groups say.
Contradictions are rife in Georgian society.
Anti-discrimination laws have been passed as part of Georgia's efforts to move closer to the European Union, while parliament is discussing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party.
Bolkvadze, who is running for the Republican Party, a small opposition force, said she hoped her campaign would put the spotlight on gay rights and change outdated public perceptions of LGBT people.
She faces an uphill climb.
According to a 2011 survey, almost nine in 10 Georgians who responded said homosexuality could never be justified.
More than 30 violent attacks on LGBT people, including the deadly stabbing of a trans woman, were recorded in 2016, according to advocacy groups.
Bolkvadze feared a backlash to her openly gay candidacy.
"I thought I would have no longer been able to take the bus," she said by phone, citing security as one of the reasons she decided not to campaign in the streets but to reach out to voters via the media instead.
As part of her campaign, she wants to create a dedicated police unit to investigate hate crime, boost recycling and set up shelters for the many young LGBT people who are rejected by their families and end up homeless.
Bolkvadze says she knows how rejection feels.
A quick-talking anti-discrimination lawyer, she has grown more accustomed to insult than praise.
Her parents did not approve of Bolkvadze's teenage choice of tomboy outfits and forced her into dresses.
At 14, she was bullied at school after her first romance with another girl was exposed.
About two years later, under pressure from her family and the local community, she married a man 10 years her senior.
"My goal was to survive. He was the first man to pay attention to me. At the time, I thought my sexual orientation was an illness that I could heal by getting married," she said.
The couple had two daughters, now in their teens, and separated after more than a decade.
"Obviously it wasn't easy for me but I stayed in the relationship for the children," she said.
Bolkvadze first came out as a lesbian in an email to her legal colleagues in 2012, after her parents died.
She went public during a television appearance three years later, appearing on a talk show about homosexuality.
Her brother has not spoken to her since.
In recent years, she has become a figurehead in the LGBT community, fighting against discrimination in court and campaigning for gay rights with a local NGO.
She helped organise a now-infamous rally in 2013 against homophobia, which was broken up by a crowd of priests and thousands of protesters, forcing participants to flee. The day has since been marked by large so-called Family Day demonstrations, backed by the influential Orthodox Church in support of "traditional family values".
Some members of the Republican Party were wary of having a gay candidate on the city council ticket - but the gamble seem to have paid off, even if her chances of winning are small.
The Republican Party is polling at less than 3 percent in the run-up to the Oct. 21 vote, with Georgian Dream and its mayoral candidate - former footballer Kakhaber Kaladze - expected to win the ballot.
But winning isn't everything.
"I'm very happy. I have received a huge wave of support and finally feel like a person in my own right," Bolkvadze said.
"I think we have done something very important."
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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