In May of last year, Tamaz Sozashvili and several friends forced their way into a sitting of the Human Rights Committee of the Georgian Parliament. In a country where LGBTQ people are regularly beaten on the street and hate crimes go largely unreported and unprosecuted, Sozashvili rushed to a podium, grabbed a microphone and made an impassioned plea to politicians on a committee deciding whether to mark the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (which they decided not to do).
“I was bullied at school for 12 years. I still hate to visit the place, because every day it was terrifying, each day meant facing death. Today I cannot visit my parents in Kakheti [in eastern Georgia], because it is dangerous,” said Sozashvili. “This is the difference between me and you. You will never, never understand this, you will never understand what it costs me to stand here and say this,” he told the politicians, jabbing his finger for emphasis.
Since the 2000s and especially in recent years, Georgia has sought to distance itself from its Soviet history and to market itself as a wine-soaked country firmly in the European camp. Tourism is booming in Georgia, and Forbes has proclaimed its capital one of Europe’s hippest destinations, declaring in 2018 that Berlin was “out” and Tbilisi was “in.”
While many in Georgia’s government have embraced the mantle of a rapidly developing nation that celebrates Western culture and values, LGBTQ activists like Tamaz have faced a less tolerant side to the nation: violence and political indifference in their fight for civil rights and justice. For a month after his speech at parliament, the 23-year-old was afraid to ride public transportation for fear of reprisals after he had outed himself in public.
This week, a small group of Georgian activists are swallowing their fear and holding Tbilisi’s first-ever Pride Week, a five-day long affair that includes a theater performance of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a conference and a march.
But the groundbreaking events have hit a wall of resistance within the LGBTQ community as well as the nation at large, underscoring the challenges Georgia faces at a time when the legitimacy of liberal European values are being called into question and Russia, its aggressive neighbor to the north, is interfering in the debate.
A few days before Pride Week commenced, the Georgian Orthodox Church released a statement calling Pride “absolutely unacceptable” and a “sodomite sin,” calling on the government to shut it down.
In response, queer activists held a rally in downtown Tbilisi, where they clashed with nationalist groups. At least eight people were detained.
A few days later, the Ministry of Internal Affairs — which had said previously it could not guarantee protestors’ safety and that the Pride march should not take place outdoors– announced it will “protect both freedom and freedom of expression, regardless of their political views, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and other marks,” so long as such expression does not exceed “permissible limits.”
But just this week, Levan Vasadze, a Georgian businessman who uses his millions to strip LGBTQ people of civil rights, announced his intention to organize vigilante patrols on the streets of Tbilisi during the Pride march. “We will tie their hands with belts and take them away,” he told his supporters at a rally on Sunday evening.
Civil society groups moved quickly to defend the rallying activists and condemn actors like Vasadze, and while they welcomed the Ministry’s response, they also noted that “the strengthening of such [extremist] groups over the years is the result of the government’s inappropriate policies, inaction and often tolerant attitudes.”
Soon after the Pride Week commenced, on Wednesday, Tamaz wrote on Twitter that members of far-right groups had announced their intentions to storm the offices of Tbilisi Pride and tried to attack several organizers as they left the building. Tamaz also reported that he received a death threat the same day.
Six years ago, a large LGBTQ celebration of the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia was held in Georgia. Thousands of counter-demonstrators led by Georgian Orthodox Christian priests broke police lines and attacked a group of about 50 activists.
The aftershocks of that violence still grip the LGBTQ community and many struggle over how best to achieve equality. Some question whether having a high-profile Pride event is helpful for the country or whether it elevates Western values of visibility and “coming out” over the safety of its activists.
When the modern queer liberation movement started with the Stonewall Riots in America 50 years ago, the enemies of equality were clear: discriminatory legislation, prejudiced societal beliefs, religious conservatism.
But now, in an age of information manipulation, it’s getting much harder to define who exactly the enemies of the LGBTQ are. In 2019, Georgian activists find themselves facing similar prejudices to those faced by Stonewall protestors, but in a world complicated by fake news, disinformation campaigns and cyber threats.
Vasadze, the ultra-conservative businessman, says modern wars are no longer fought between countries. Instead, the fight between the “life culture” and the “death culture,” by which he means families versus LGBTQ people, is played out “in every living room and in every bedroom where your wife and my wife [and] our children sleep.”
As Tamaz was speaking to the human rights committee last year, a demonstration was raging outside Parliament. The same committee that decided that the annual May commemorations for International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia should be canceled had put together an action plan that included a stipulation for an awareness-raising campaign about LGBTQ issues, according to activists.
The bureaucrats’ decision was supported by around four dozen LGBTQ activists. They feared nationalist groups capable of mobilizing great numbers were planning counter-demonstrations, and the risk of violence was too high. A larger group of activists decided to demonstrate anyway, gathering outside government buildings in the city center.
Giorgi Tabagari, who took part in last year’s demonstration, gained confidence with its success. He then spent months drumming up support for what to some must have seemed like a radical proposition: a Pride Week in Tbilisi. He felt that staging bold events would institutionalize queer activism, increase visibility and accelerate social change. “Visibility comes first, and the changes follow,” he said.
In the wake of the announcement of the planned Pride week, LGBTQ community members have been fiercely debating the decision, including at a seminar held outside Tbilisi.
A Georgian woman who works at an international nonprofit network and attended the event told me that some queer Georgians, especially those from regional towns, said they felt Tbilisi-based organizations were out of touch with the community’s interests. She said the critics felt that the urban activists “sit around discussing sex and sexuality, watch [queer] movies and eat cookies.”
Those against the Pride celebrations fear the visibility that the events bring, terrified of coming out themselves for fear of being shunned from their families or fired from jobs. More attention, they said, needs to be paid to poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and access to healthcare and education, issues that affect LGBTQ people in their daily lives. Pride may increase awareness, but many fear it does nothing to address problems head-on.
And with memories of the violence six years ago still fresh, some community members are afraid Pride will incite another backlash.
The nationalist group Georgian March announced its plans to form a political party and run in the next parliamentary elections in 2020, and although the group does not yet attract much support, events like Pride may give it a galvanizing issue to attract votes. Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group, a local LGBTQ nonprofit, said it fears that “the likelihood of the mobilization of politically motivated and managed homophobic groups remains high” as Pride nears.
Tabagari, the Pride organizer, concedes that violence could occur, but says this is “unavoidable” in a country where LGBTQ people are, according to some measures, still the most-hated group. “Either you have to say no to visibility and publicity and go down underground and never come out, or if [you do the opposite] there will always be people who are against you,” he explained.
Not all of Georgia’s liberals agree.
Giorgi Ptskialadze is a charmingly boyish young man who has read Judith Butler in English and clenches his fists in excitement when he talks about Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. There isn’t much about the 19-year-old’s politics that differs dramatically from his millennial and Gen Z peers in the West who have increasingly voiced the opinion that the leftist ideals of their parents’ generation are just not left enough.
Ptskialadze, an art history student, attended the queer seminar this spring that was rocked by debate over Pride. He described the conversations there as focused on how to bring about “authentic queer activism” in Georgia separate from the current strand of identity politics that he says further divide society. He doesn’t want to follow the United States, for example, where the queer liberation movement led by white gay men is perceived to have ignored many trans people and people of color.
Ptskialadze worries, though, that Georgia is headed down the same path, towards a future where LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people, atheists, and Orthodox Christians are more segregated than they are now, and what he sees as the more pressing political struggle — battling big government, big business and capitalism — is neglected. He says the very idea of Pride Week disgusts him. He dismisses it as a hyper-commercialized spectacle that does nothing for the community, while companies like Coca Cola rake in money from advertising. “They stick a rainbow on water bottles and charge you more for it,” he said. “This is not activism for me.”
As Pride kicks off this week, many in Georgia’s queer community, like Ptskialadze, will stay on the sidelines, which is itself another kind of protest.
Others, like a young, closeted psychology student I spoke to, barely know where they stand on the issue.
In hushed, nervous tones, she told me of her first queer experience, a drunken night with a female friend, after which she felt only shame. When I spoke about Pride, she looked confused — she hadn’t heard of it. Nor, it turned out, did she know that LGBTQ rights nonprofits even existed. After explaining the possibility of violence at Pride, she cocked her head to the side and asked why it would be violent. Despite the risk, she plans to attend anyway.