I removed this post for a few days while things cooled down in Tbilisi and varying news reports surfaced debating the facts of May 17.
I’ve been wanting to write about my trips to Istanbul and Prague, I assure you. I have plenty of stories and photos from both of these beautiful cities that I’d love to share. But since I returned to Tbilisi, I’ve been unable to sit down and draw out the words.
When I left the airport with suitcases and souvenirs in tow last Sunday, I was still glowing with post-vacation bliss. I hopped in a taxi and gave the driver my address in Russian. And, for perhaps the hundredth time, he began the standard series of questions, crossing himself four times every time we passed a church:
“Do you have children? Why not? Are you married? Why not? You live alone?? How old are you? Where are your parents? Do you have a boyfriend? Why not? [Points to his watch.] You’re getting old now, you should find a man and settle down.”
And I cried. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I broke down and cried in the taxi. My glow was snuffed out within my first half hour in Tbilisi. I laughed off these questions in my first weeks here. But after nearly four months of quiet, constant pressure from all angles, I’m exhausted.
Friends ask me, “Didn’t you expect this? Didn’t you read about Georgia before moving there?” Yes, I read plenty. I bolstered myself for it, priding myself on my cultural awareness and self-reliance. Hell, I did fine in Peru, Colombia, and Russia, didn’t I? But Georgia has proven to be another challenge entirely.
Yesterday was the International Day Against Homophobia. In response to a peaceful demonstration by gay rights supporters (including many of my friends), a mob of 20,000 angry protesters led by Orthodox Christian priests attacked them, screaming “Kill them! Tear them apart!” and throwing rocks, chairs, and garbage cans.
The day prior, Georgian Patriarch Ilia II warned government officials to ban the anti-homophobic demonstrations, saying they would be an “insult” to Georgian tradition. In the past, he has described homosexuality as an “anomaly” and a “disease.”
Expecting a violent response (like last year’s demonstration), the Georgian police were present, but the mobs broke through their cordons and flooded the public garden, beating and stoning those thought to be connected with the demonstrations.
28 people were injured, and 14 of them hospitalized. The numbers seem shockingly low to me, given how rabid these crowds appear in the videos.
It feels comically obvious to say this, but this reaction is not representative of all Georgians. There are many who denounce what happened. But there are more who defend the Church.
I want to maintain my neutrality for the sake of my professional relationships, for my ability to be effective and respected here. I’m sure some people here will be upset with me for writing this and for clearly taking the side of the gay rights supporters. But I can’t stomach a cultural and religious environment that punishes those who differ with violence and humiliation.
What happened yesterday was categorically wrong. The people who organized this violent response must be held responsible for their actions, whether they are teenagers or priests.
After the past week, my memories of Prague are thin. I’m trying to focus on my work and do whatever good I can. But part of me is crushed. The hopeful part.
Read and watch more about the clashes in Tbilisi on the International Day Against Homophobia here:
Eurasianet.org: Georgia: Angry mob scuttles anti-homophobia rally
Tabula.ge: Photos of the clashes