- May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia
- This day last year in Tbilisi, demonstrations turned into a mob rampage, when over 20,000 men (some estimates were as high as 40,000) attacked a small group of LGBT supporters
- This year, the Georgian Orthodox Church declared May 17 to be the Day of Family Strength, celebrating traditional values. They marched through the city and demonstrated against a recently passed anti-discrimination bill.
- LGBT groups could not rally or demonstrate, due to safety concerns. No protection was offered by the State.
- Instead of assembling in person, LGBT supporters have installed several forms of silent protest, such as painting rainbows around the city over night, and an installation of empty shoes to represent the “invisible” demonstrators present in spirit only this year.
- No major violence reported yet, except a few fights that broke out among the homophobes as they accused each other of being… gay. Seriously.
To fully understand what happened on May 17 this year, I’ll break down a series of events in the previous months. This post is lengthy, and probably not interesting to all of you. But I wanted to document this entire ordeal in one place for my own benefit as well as others’. Please let me know in the comments if I’ve gotten something wrong, and I’ll update the post.
The Anti-Discrimination Bill
On May 2, the Georgian parliament unanimously adopted an anti-discrimination bill (which would also fulfill a condition required by the E.U. in order to liberalize visa permissions for Georgians). The bill declares the “elimination of all forms of discrimination” on the grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, and, controversially, “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
This did not go over well with the Georgian Orthodox Church. They demanded the removal of those two scandalous terms, which allegedly threatened to unravel the moral fabric of Georgian society by legalizing immorality.
During an April 29th session of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, a dozen Orthodox priests marched into the room to convince the parliament not to “legalize sin” or commit an “insult to Georgian traditions.” Some lawmakers tried to calm the priests by explaining that the bill was not in support of “homosexual propaganda,” but rather a necessary step toward E.U. membership. Archpriest Davit Lasurashvili summed up the Church’s response well: “Who needs such Europe if this Europe depraves us?”
Heated debates ensued. Parliamentary speaker Davit Usupashvili described the importance of passing the bill as transcending the LGBT controversy:
“It is about the following issue: either we go towards Europe and we recognize that we should not chase people with sticks, we should not fire people from job if we do not share their opinions and their way of life, or else we stay in Russia, where it is possible to expel from a city those people, whom you dislike, to ban from entry to shops those people, whom you do not like, and simply to go and invade a territory of others if you like that territory.”
Human rights groups insisted that the bill was toothless without the addition of mechanisms to prevent or address discrimination. Unfortunately, instead of bolstering the bill, the Georgian Dream* lawmakers decided to placate the Church at a second parliamentary hearing on the subject, by adding a limitation on the law in cases when the “public morality” is threatened. “Insult of public morals” is actually included in Georgia’s code of administrative offenses.
But the Church was not satisfied. They vowed to continue fighting the bill, threatening political consequences for those lawmakers who chose not to obey the Patriarch’s wishes. They would later organize demonstrators to protest the bill on May 17, the
International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia Day of Family Strength.
The Church mobilizes
Patriarch Ilia II has been the religious leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church (and thus Georgia) since 1977. He boasts approval ratings of 90%, making him the most popular public figure in the country. When Ilia speaks, Georgians listen.
In a May 11 sermon, the Patriarch declared that May 17 would be the annual “day of family strength and respect for parents.” A march and demonstration were planned for the new holiday to celebrate traditional family values and to demand the removal of those two nasty words (“sexual orientation” and “gender identity”) from the anti-discrimination law. But why stop there? They would also ask for the adoption of a law banning direct or indirect propaganda of homosexuality, taking a cue from their northern neighbors.
On May 16, the Church reiterated its condemnation of “unnatural perverted relations”, and also reminded its followers to march peacefully the next day, since violence is unacceptable to Christians.
LGBT supporters prepare for the worst
Identoba is one of the largest LGBT rights organizations in Georgia. On May 15, they released a statement explaining why they were not planning to demonstrate for the 2014 International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia:
“Unfortunately, LGBT activists are unable to organize or plan any counter protest to this absurd situation due to security reasons and state’s inability to ensure the safety (considering the experiences in 2013 and 2012). Until now, neither we, nor other human rights actors have been able to meet with the representatives of Police to discuss security concerns for that day. It is expected that not only the streets of Tbilisi will be dangerous for LGBT individuals, but there are hints coming from various sources that some radical groups might try to attack people, suspected to belong to the LGBT community, in their homes as well.”
The statement went on to describe several disturbing events in the previous days. On May 14, police officers “visited LGBT friendly cafes Gallery and Success on May 14th and demanded personal addresses and contact details of all LGBT staff members. After being refused to give out such info, the representatives of Tbilisi Police Unit 7 threatened to break the computer of the Gallery Manager Violetta Kolbaia if she dared to post info about this visit.” Officials later dismissed Violetta’s reports as “nonsense” and accused her of making up stories.
With no offers of support or protection from the State, LGBT organizations urged their communities to stay off the streets on Saturday. I also received a message from the United States Embassy describing the times and locations of the demonstrations for “Defense of Traditional Values,” urging U.S. citizens to avoid these areas due to risk of violence.
May 17, 2014
A march of conservative churchgoers began at 10:00 at the Philharmonic and continued to Sameba Church. At 13:00, a demonstration was held in front of the Old Parliament building. I was surprised by the large number of women and children in the photos of the demonstration.
The marchers’ largest banner read: “17th May is a Family Unity Day”. The parish members’ other posters proclaimed things like: “No believer will accept this [Anti-Discrimination] Law”, “Spiritual Death Is Worse Than Physical One”, “Homosexuality Is A Sin, A Perverseness and A Pathology”, “Listen to Clergy And To Nation.” (interpressnews.ge)
Luckily, there have not been any major acts of violence reported yet. Admittedly, I chuckled when I read that some fights were breaking out at the demonstration as the anti-gay demonstrators began accusing one another of being– surprise, surprise– gay. One poor fellow was nearly beaten by a fellow homophobe for wearing a purple polo shirt, despite his assurances that the other guy’s shirt was way gayer than his.
The Invisible Protesters
Under pressure to disappear from public space altogether, and with no guarantee of protection from the State, LGBT supporters in Tbilisi had to be creative this weekend.
On Sunday May 18, a sea of empty shoes appeared in Pushkin Square. It was a “silent flash mob” installation titled “Protest on Behalf of the Invisible & Against Invisibility.”
“This is an installation for the invisible, those who are unseen, those who are not heard, whose existence is not recognized. This is installation is for us, those who view but don’t see and listen to each other…
“Today, these empty shoes stand instead of those humans, who dared, 1 year ago, to stand up against the invisibility of one social group, LGBTQ community, those who tried to unmask how merciless we are, those to attempted to discuss our common challenges. Those who wish to be here to express their woes and joys, but neither the state, nor the society respect their voice and their existence.”
Other silent and stealthy forms of protest and self-expression are appearing in the city, such as the rainbow painted on the steps of Freedom Square Metro Station.
What’s Russia got to do with it?
In Identoba’s May 15 statement, they shed light on the East-West tug of war going on in Georgia (and the Caucasus in general).
“The events happening for May 17, should be discussed in the context of upcoming association agreement with Europe to be signed on June 27, 2014. It seems that Georgian pro-Russian actors, including the Georgian Orthodox Church, find homophobia as a good bases to mobilize people against ‘Europe’ or as they call it the – ‘European values’- which they equate with the ‘promotion of homosexuality and pedophilia’. They depict the struggle for LGBT rights in the country as an imposed value of the ‘pervert West’. Therefore anti-LGBT rhetoric is heavily framed with anti-European and pro-Russian sentiments. In our assessment, for them, May 17th turned into a day when they can flex their muscles in front of Georgian government and threaten Georgian State with civil disobedience in case it continues its pro-European political course, will not repeal Anti-Discrimination law (which actually is very weak and didn’t introduce one single new right for anyone), will not recriminalize homosexuality, etc.”
In a very strange turn of events, there were also rumors swirling before May 17 that a group of transgendered men, not connected to Identoba or any other major LGBT organizations, were planning to march on IDAHOT despite the safety threats. According to Identoba, it has been confirmed that the leader of this group of rogue protesters has strong links (presumably monetary) to the Eurasian Institute, a pro-Russian organization in Georgia. The alleged plan was to hold a fake gay pride parade on May 17, which would inflame the Orthodox demonstrators and start a another violent clash, thus driving an even deeper wedge between perverted Europe and Orthodox Georgia (and bringing them closer to Russia).
I have no idea. I assume the silent/invisible protests will continue, and more paintings of rainbows will pop up around Tbilisi. But for the time being, the undoing of many LGBT freedoms over the past few years feels irreversible. I defer to those who are more knowledgeable about Georgian politics and the reach of the Church to answer this question.
* Georgian Dream (GD) is the political party associated with billionaire former Prime Minister of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili. GD replaced the ruling United National Movement (UNM) in 2012 parliamentary elections. UNM was the party of Mikheil Saakashvili, who served as President from 2004 till October, 2013, until he was replaced by the Georgian Dream candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili.