Georgia’s first LGBT Pride kicks off in the capital Tbilisi this week amid threats from religious and far-right groups seeking to stop the historic event. Organisers have come under pressure to cancel the activities while authorities said they cannot guarantee participants’ safety.
The backlash against Tbilisi Pride – set to run from Tuesday 18 through Sunday 23 June – has included far-right threats on Facebook to sabotage the event, opposition from the Georgian Orthodox Church, and plans to interrupt it with homophobic counter-protests.
On Sunday, far-right millionaire Levan Vasadze also pledged to set up vigilante patrols to prevent LGBT rights activists from holding their Pride march next weekend. “We will tie their hands with belts and take them away,” he told a crowd of supporters, calling on them to bring wooden clubs in order to confront the police, who he warned not to intervene.
Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs has now launched an investigation into Vasadze over this call to the form illegal militias, which carries a potential sentence of between six and 12 years in prison. Though rights activists say the country’s authorities have largely shirked their responsibility to protect citizens from homophobic attacks.
“The problem is that the Georgian government doesn’t consider homophobia a problem”, said Mariam Kvaratskhelia, an organiser of Tbilisi Pride. “They don’t try and solve it. The government and the Church are constantly trading over our rights, and this is very humiliating for us”.
“The first Pride event is always hazardous”, Kvaratskhelia continued, in an interview with openDemocracy, emphasising that this opposition will not stop the event which she called a “breakthrough” and “a matter of dignity… it’s time that LGBTI people enjoy their right to public assembly”.
"The first Pride event is always hazardous… [but] it’s time that LGBTI people enjoy their right to public assembly"
On Friday, the Georgian Orthodox Church called Tbilisi Pride “absolutely unacceptable” and a “sodomite sin”, asking the Georgian government to “not to allow such an event, which will result in a public brawl”.
“We are distancing ourselves from any kind of violence,” continued the Church’s statement, while claiming that “the lifestyle of LGBT people is a sodomite sin and thus contradicts both Christian faith and traditional religious teachings, as well as moral values in general”.
The Church’s statement also recommended that foreign embassies and international organisations “show a more cautious approach to the Georgian people” and refrain from encouraging LGBT rights activities.
Later that day, LGBT rights activists gathered outside the government chancellery building in downtown Tbilisi to call on city police to ensure security at Pride – but they were met by a nationalist counter-protest led by Vasadze, far-right organisations and Orthodox clergymen.
After a public standoff which lasted for more than six hours, police officers eventually evacuated activists from outside the chancellery building in the early hours of Saturday morning.
A tense but historic event
Despite this tension, Georgia’s first-ever pride week kicks off with a performance of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis staged by LGBT people. Other events will discuss challenges facing queer people across the region.
The week’s activities will end with a March of Dignity on Sunday, expected to be more of a protest than a celebration.
For its part, the Georgian government has urged Pride organisers to cancel the march. In late May, the Ministry of Internal Affairs said authorities could not guarantee participants’ safety, and suggested that the march be held at an alternative, indoor location such as a stadium or nightclub.
While Pride organisers have rejected this suggestion, they are yet to disclose the actual location of the march due to security concerns. Participants will receive this information after registering online.
The backlash has also prompted disagreements amongst members of Georgia’s LGBT community.
At a press conference on Friday, Gabriela Roskipova-Romanova, a transgender rights activist, said that increased violence against trans people in recent months meant that none would attend Tbilisi Pride.
She added that police officers have been among those threatening trans people, and they feel they will not be protected if they attend the march.
Roskipova-Romanova continued that “attacks against women sex workers have become systematic” since the Pride week was announced in February. “We believe that whether we join Pride or not will not provide relief for the troublesome and vulnerable conditions in which we live”.
"Whether we join Pride or not will not provide relief for the troublesome and vulnerable conditions in which we live"
Georgia’s LGBT community is increasingly publicly active – but so are the country’s far-right groups including ultra-nationalist movements, supported by members of the country’s Orthodox Church, who are well known for aggressive attitudes towards queer people.
Eto Buziashvili, a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, notes that far-right groups have been actively promoting hate speech against LGBT people, including on Facebook.
“On Georgian Facebook, far-right pages have been demonising the West and liberal democracy, as well as presenting the LGBT community as a threat to Georgia”, Buziashvili told openDemocracy. “Some pages have also threatened to sabotage the 2019 Tbilisi Pride”.
“These Facebook pages have shared xenophobic and racist posts as well”, she added. “By spreading anti-LGBT messages, these far-right pages aim to fuel and amplify negative reactions among the Georgian public… [and] contribute to increased polarisation and mass hysteria regarding LGBT issues”.
Last week, Georgian March, one of the most prominent ultra-nationalist groups, called on political parties, the government and citizens to unite against Tbilisi Pride, describing it as an “attempt to insult the Georgian nation, church and traditions”.
The organisation called the event “a celebration of vileness”, warning that the “dignified part of society are ready to stop the gay parade at any cost”.
The backlash against Tbilisi Pride follows previous attacks against LGBT rights in Georgia. In May 2013, thousands of protesters – led by Orthodox priests and far-right groups – attacked a group of LGBT rights activists holding a peaceful gathering in the capital city.
The following year, the Georgian Orthodox Church held a “Family Purity Day” in Tbilisi on 17 May, to counter the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB).
In the past two years, attempts to mark this day in Georgia have been canceled, while “Family Purity Day” celebrations have grown.
Ahead of the official start to Tbilisi Pride, Giorgi Tabagari, one of the organisers, called the event “the biggest test for Georgian democracy” in a column on the OC Media website.
“I see Tbilisi Pride as an opportunity", Tabagari said, "to unite people against hatred, to stand up against inequality, and to send a message to everyone that we need to start doing something about our future”.