Sitting in an office at a Tbilisi hospital treating COVID-19 patients, transgender nursing assistant, Gabriela Romanova, cuts a remarkably positive figure for someone on the frontline of the worst pandemic in a century.
“Every day here is the best day for me,” the 29-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, during a break from her duties, which include washing and feeding bedridden coronavirus patients.
Since the pandemic began, life has been a roller-coaster ride for Romanova – who was working as a sex worker during the first lockdown, before an unusual turn of events led her to be offered training, and a job, as a nursing assistant.
The lockdown plight of Romanova, and other trans sex workers, captured nationwide attention, when she and another trans woman threatened to set themselves on fire, during a street protest last April.
While police stopped Romanova before she was able to set herself alight, her fellow protester suffered minor burns, after being tackled by officers as she ran down the street in flames.
Shunned by their families, trans people in Georgia often rely on sex work to make a living, as discrimination, and the lack of regulations on legal gender recognition, make it difficult to find regular jobs, according to LGBT+ groups.
Recalling the “awful” hardships she and fellow sex workers faced, as a lockdown curfew kept clients at home, Romanova said she had struggled to survive.
“If it weren’t for civil society groups that collected money for us we would have not been able to pay rent or even eat,” said Romanova, who was kicked out by her family after coming out as trans, shortly before turning 18.
Born in Georgia’s wine-producing region of Kakheti, she moved to the capital, Tbilisi, but her hopes for a new life quickly faded.
Despite having studied drama and accounting, she was unable to find stable work, and soon had to turn to prostitution to make a living.
After her high-profile protest, Romanova was offered a job by the head of a Tbilisi hospital, who was looking for extra staff to cope with a second wave of COVID-19 infections.
Starting in her nursing role in October has given her a new outlook on life, and a platform to challenge stereotypes, in the socially conservative Caucasian nation, she said.
“I thought it would be difficult for me to fit in, but everything turned out to be exactly the opposite,” she said.
“It’s hard to believe but I have an amazing relationship with both doctors and patients”.
With frontline medical staff being recognised around the world, being the country’s only trans nursing worker has brought Romanova more media attention, and sparked a debate on LGBT+ people’s role in Georgian society.
After being interviewed by local television, she was invited to train as a professional nurse at a Tbilisi institute, with a donor she declined to name footing the bill for her studies.
“She has faced many obstacles and now she is one of the remarkably courageous people who put their health and lives on the line fighting against COVID-19,” said Keti Bakhtadze of the LGBT+ organisation, Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG).
“This is very important for our society to see.”
Romanova said she hoped her story “might have changed people’s attitudes a bit”, though much needed to be done to help trans people find jobs, and acceptance, in Georgia.
“For other trans people nothing has changed, they still face a lot of challenges,” she said.
-Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi – Thomson Reuters Foundation