June is celebrated as Pride month for the LGBTQ+ community in many Western countries, but representation in the Eastern world is severely lacking. This year, Tbilisi Pride is bringing the celebration to the Caucasus, making Georgia the easternmost country in Europe to host Euro Pride. Tbilisi Pride will take place from June 18-23 in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia.
When Tbilisi Pride was announced, it was internationally recognized as one of the most political and important Prides of the year. It was notable that Georgia, a country which is considered the regional champion of human rights, decided to host its own LGBT+ Pride. The country of Georgia is located near the banks of the Black Sea on the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It borders Azerbaijan as well as Turkish and Russian regions - places where LGBTQ+ people’s rights are regularly violated and queer lives are senselessly taken.
According to the Tbilisi Pride Facebook Page, “The pride week will be concluded by a March of Dignity, which will not take a festive shape since unfortunately we queers have little to celebrate in Georgia today.”
It has been six years since a peaceful rally marking the International Day Against Homophobia,Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT) was met with violence in Tbilisi. The anti-gay demonstrators, led by priests and clergymen, broke through the police defense and fiercely chased a group of nearly 50 LGBTQ+ activists. Law enforcement moved the LBGTQ+ activists into marshrutkas (public yellow minibuses) to safely escort them from the scene.
Not much has changed in Georgia since that day. The Orthodox Church, the most influential force in Georgia, declared May 17 “Family Purity Day” and compared LGBTQ+ people to drug addicts while demanding that the government not allow another LGBTQ+ rights rally. Since then, LGBTQ+ activists have resorted to guerrilla movements and small unannounced demonstrations. In 2018, they were pressured into calling off a Pride rally amid increasing threats from Neo-Nazi groups.
Nino Bolkvadze, a 41-year-old lawyer, openly lesbian activist, and the organizer of Tbilisi Pride explains “Homophobia is an output of the repressive Sovite Politics where homosexuality was criminalized”. She adds “Georgia is no different from the countries on the same level of development, and in Georgia too, politicians use this topic to build their career.”
The Georgian Human Rights Committee pledged in their 2017-2020 action plan to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT) annually on May 17. Amid criticism in late 2018, Sophio Kiladze, the head of the committee, refused to do so. Bolkvadze criticizes her action and claims Kiladze is worsening the situation for LGBTQ+ Georgians.
According to Bolkvadze, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a branch of government concentrated on securing people in Georgia, told them that conducting a LGBT demonstration on the 17th of May was not possible because this date is also Family Purity Day. LGBT activists decided to compromise, for they too have families and hope to join this celebration in the future. Bolkvadze also highlighted the rise of Neo-nazi groups in 2017 after the government's bid to define marriage as the relationship between man and woman. Bolkvadze also criticized the media, saying "If we follow the media that government uses, we will see that they promulgate hate speech and relate groups, such as LGBT people, drug consumers, and sex workers, to each other. This new group is described as immoral, diseased, and threat to the society.”
On May 31, the Ministry of Internal Affairs made a statement that it would not be able to support the March of Dignity. This outraged NonGovernmental Organizations and International Non Governmental Organizations in Georgia and abroad. Ms. Bolkvadze explains the main reason for the Government’s lack of cooperation- “They don't want the March to be conducted because they have not worked to make society more tolerant, they are afraid to be politically hurt, and as a consequence to lose their votes for parliamentary elections.” However, Bolkvadze still hopes that after the June 9 elections, the Georgian government will change its mind and support the march. Government officials received an outpour of criticism from the West, who pleaded with them to cooperate with organizers to find a securable safe space for Tbilisi Pride to conduct the March of Dignity.
Despite the hopes of Bolkvadze, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has yet to make any statement. Meanwhile, the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate made an accusatory statement towards LGBT activists - “Unfortunately, LGBT groups and their supporters portray their situation to foreign countries as if they [are being] persecuted in Georgia, and receive significant funding based on this”. Furthermore, the group called on the government once more not to allow “so called gay-pride”.
In response, LGBTQ+ activists and their supporters gathered in front of the Chancellery on March 14 to urge the Government of Georgia to provide security during the March for Dignity. On the same day, Neo-Nazi groups surrounded the LGBTQ+ activists and demanded that the Police not let them have a gathering. The LGBTQ+ activists were allowed to exercise their right to free speech, and the police detained at least 8 counter-protesters for attacking journalists.
After the demonstration the Ministry of Internal Affairs made a statement- “The Ministry protects and will further protect the right of assembly, as well as freedom of expression of every person, despite their political views, religious believes, sexual orientation and other features, if their freedom of expression does not exceed the limits granted by law,”.
After Neo-Nazi demonstration on March 14, their leader, Levan Vasadze, announced the creation of “Vigilante Patrols”. He declared that they would be policing the city throughout the week and would detain the LGBT activists using belts. According to him, this patrol would use force with police if they stood in their way. Following those statements, Tbilisi Pride activists and lawyers demanded his detainment (on the basis of creating a police force and threatening people, including police officers) and further investigation of Neo-Nazi groups.
As the March of Dignity approaches, the fluidity of the situation is worsening. However, Bolkvadze is standing still and is not afraid to march alone if she has to. She is optimistic, saying “I hope that after this demonstration, people will understand that we LGBT people are just as normal as any other person and we are no threat to society.”
For more information and to attend the Pride, visit Tbilisi Pride on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. In order to support the March for Dignity and put more pressure on government of Georgia, you can sign this petition by ALL OUT.
By: Soso Chikhladze
Soso Chikhladze is an 18-year-old, Georgia born graduate of Fremont High School in Michigan. Soso worked with Pro-Gun-Control activism in the US, and hopes to become a diplomat in the future.
Edited by Jessica Hutt