Georgia is a Terrible Place to be Gay

Georgians tend to support EU integration but remain suspicious of so-called “European” values like LGBT rights. In Tbilisi, cops still enter gay-friendly clubs and demand to see IDs. With the powerful Orthodox Church reasserting traditional values, will Georgia stray from its supposedly devoutly pro-Western path?

Few who are familiar with the recent history of Georgia, the small, Caucasian country nestled at the crossroads between Western Asia and Eastern Europe, will forget the warm May day exactly one year ago this week when an angry mob of counter protesters, led by a gaggle of black-clad Orthodox priests, attacked a small group of LGBT activists holding a rally to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia. Dodging the stones hurled at them by rabid clergymen, the small group of activists was forced to flee the scene. Twenty eight people, however, including three policemen and two journalists, were injured.

There was a strong reaction from those who opposed the violence. Representatives of the Georgian non-governmental (NGO) sector demanded the punishment of those who incited or perpetrated violence; an appeal requesting an adequate reaction to the violence was signed by 12,000 citizens and submitted to the speaker of parliament; and even top government officials, including former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, publicly condemned the attacks.

But one year later, little has changed. Not only have most of the perpetrators gone unpunished, but conservative priests have also been permitted to shape the national dialogue around a newly approved anti-discrimination law, ensuring that the bill is devoid of all measures for enforcement.

The discussion surrounding Georgia’s new anti-discrimination bill has included contentious debates about some of the most existential questions Europeans face today: the role of religion in society, the West vs. Russia (embodied in cultural events like Eurovision), and the European aspirations of countries like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. For most Georgians, Orthodoxy is intimately linked with Georgian culture and with their national identity. And the Georgian Orthodox Church has made it clear that it vehemently opposes any reference to sexual orientation and gender identity in the anti-discrimination bill. In its first official statement released on April 28, Church officials stated that they consider the bill to be “propaganda” and the “legalization of deadly sin”. In a country where the head of the Church, Patriarch Ilia II, has a public approval rating of over 97 percent, these statements aren’t likely to go unheeded.

Adoption of the anti-discrimination bill, however, is a requirement for Georgia if the country is to sign a Visa Liberalization Action Plan that will grant Georgians short-term, visa-free travel to the European Union — a highly coveted prize for citizens of European countries yearning to enter the EU. Fearing a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario, the government has been unequivocal in its determination to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in June, two months earlier than originally planned. This is why the parliament unanimously voted to pass the anti-discrimination bill on May 1, references to sexual orientation and gender identity included, during its second reading. The bill’s adoption prompted Church officials to sling accusations that increased integration with Europe will constitute an assault on Georgia’s traditional values.

“The document does not only address sexual minorities, but conservative groups made sure to create a sense that, in the wake of such legal initiatives, Georgian men will switch their chokha – a traditional wool coat — for a wedding dress”, quipped Giorgi Lomsadze, a journalist with Eurasianet.org.

Pro-family marchers, May 17, 2014 (Photo credit: Pravmir)
Pro-family marchers, May 17, 2014 (Photo credit: Pravmir)

Some of Georgia’s politicians believe that the Church’s opposition to the bill is a Russian ploy to derail the signing of the EU Association Agreement next month. The Georgian Orthodox Church enjoys a close relationship with its Russian counterpart, and the Kremlin is fully aware that many Georgians will support the Patriarch’s opposition to the anti-discrimination bill, and possibly  the EU Association Agreement as well.

But the situation is not so clear-cut.  Following the violence on Kiev’s Maidan square in December and January, Georgians frequently poured into the streets of Tbilisi in support of Ukraine’s pro-EU movement, draped in yellow and blue flags and chanting slogans in solidarity with their Ukrainian comrades. Many Georgians still harbor deep resentment towards Russia for the 2008 invasion, and what they consider the current occupation of two separatist provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They identify with the plight of Ukrainians, who are currently staring the prospect of their own full-scale Russian invasion squarely in the face.

But Georgian society is divided. A large majority of the population favors integration with Europe, and many even view the notion of “tolerance” espoused by European leaders as a fundamental value. A September 2013 report written by Thomas Hammarberg, the European Union’s Special Advisor for Legal and Constitutional Reform and Human Rights in Georgia, stated, “It should be understood that the issue [of LGBT rights] is not about so-called propaganda for a certain lifestyle but about ensuring basic rights to all human beings.”

In response, the newspaper Kviris Palitra published an open letter from several members of the Georgian intelligentsia entitled “Respect our Traditions!” Georgia was described as a “traditional society”, and the letter’s authors complained that the West was attempting to impose an artificial ideology on the country by equating the rights of sexual minorities with the right to express national or religious identity.

Man at pro-family rally in Tbilisi, May 17, 2014 (Screenshot: Caucasian Knot)
Man at pro-family rally in Tbilisi, May 17, 2014 (Screenshot: Caucasian Knot)

Data from the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) clearly demonstrates that Georgian attitudes towards sexual minorities differ greatly from attitudes towards other minorities: Of the Tbilisi residents interviewed after the May 17 attack, 64 percent agreed that a good citizen should always respect the rights of ethnic minorities and 63 percent said the same about the rights of religious minorities. But just 16 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative when it came to the inviolability of the rights of sexual minorities.

Despite opposition to Western notions of tolerance and equal rights for members of the LGBT community, 65 percent of Georgians surveyed by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) said they supported integration with Europe. Like many in Ukraine, Georgians tend to equate European integration with increased economic opportunities and prosperity.

Since most citizens reject “European” ideas about so-called equal rights, but support enhanced EU integration, lawmakers have ended up passing bills that satisfy no one. Church officials continue to rail against the anti-discrimination bill for its references to sexual minorities, while representatives of the NGO sector accuse the government of having watered down the bill to appease the Church.

The second draft of the bill was altered substantially from the original version, which was drafted with the support of both international and local human rights organizations. Important safeguards are now missing from the new version. Furthermore, responsibility for enforcing the bill has been given to the Public Defender’s office, but no new funds have been allocated for this purpose. There are no legal mechanisms in place, such as fines, to punish those who violate the law.  In other words, the new bill allows for little more than moral condemnation of discrimination, with little possibility for preventative or protective measures — thus maintaining the status quo. The Public Defender of Georgia, Ucha Nanuashvili, said that the Georgian parliament did not accept his comments and recommendations, which, according to him, are crucial for the effective implementation of the law.

“Although the current version of the bill gives victims of discrimination the right to claim compensation, it can be very hard for them to prove the extent of harm caused by discrimination,” explained Lika Jalagania, a human rights practitioner with the NGO Article 42 of the Constitution.

Gay Pride Tbilisi (Photo credit: Delfi.lv)
Gay Pride Tbilisi (Photo credit: Delfi.lv)

A line about the “protection of public order and morals” has also been added to the bill.  And although the precise definition of “public order and morals” is unclear, actions seen as promoting them cannot be considered discriminatory according to the new bill.

Despite these numerous concessions, the Church is still displeased. And Justice Minister Thea Tsulukiani was quick to remark that she’d held consultations with Church officials during the preparation of the second draft, and that she would be happy to meet with the disgruntled clerics again. To further appease critics of the anti-discrimination bill, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili is  pushing for the passage of an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. All of these developments point towards the conclusion that the bill’s passing isn’t much of a victory for LGBT rights at all. With the current anti-discrimination bill approved, most of Georgia’s LGBT population will live much the same, if not worse.

Gay Pride Tbilisi (Photo credit: Delfi)
Gay Pride Tbilisi (Photo credit: Delfi)

And if differing attitudes toward sexual minorities weren’t already part of the discourse in relation to the conflict in Ukraine, this year’s Eurovision winner certainly managed to thrust the topic into the spotlight. The kitschy contest’s openly transsexual winner, Conchita Wurst of Austria, arrived on the scene at precisely the right moment. In fact, many would argue that Conchita’s persona was used by voters angered by Russia’s aggressive policies in Ukraine to insult the enemy. In times of political uncertainty, state-sponsored rhetoric is often framed in terms of a civilizational clash, and Russia’s leadership has perfected the art of manipulating sexual politics for the sake of its own nationalist agenda.  Eurovision voters’ choice of Conchita can likewise be seen as a slap in the face to the Russian leadership and its criticism of Western tolerance. The fact that votes from Ukraine were decisive in determining Conchita’s victory made the event all the more poignant.

Following the announcement of the contest’s winner, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin joked that supporters of European integration had been shown what their future holds: “a bearded girl”. The pro-Conchita Internet, however, quickly retorted with a picture of bearded Orthodox priests garbed in their own regal robes.  The caption of the meme, which was retweeted hundreds of times, read, “Bearded men in dresses oppose bearded man in dress.”

"May 17 is the day of family strength" (Eana Korbezashvili/Civil.ge)
“May 17 is the day of family strength” (Eana Korbezashvili/Civil.ge)

Due to technical issues with the jury voting, Georgia’s vote was based on a 100 percent  popular vote, meaning that members of the public could call up to place their vote anonymously. Shocking the world, Georgian tele-voters gave 10 points to Conchita, leaving onlookers questioning just how homophobic the Georgian people really are. Still, what percentage of the Georgian population voted in the contest and who these voters were remains a mystery.

But if results like these spark hope that Georgians are becoming more “tolerant” (albeit anonymously and from the comfort of their own homes), many of those who suffered violence for exercising their right to public assembly still wait for justice.  Ample camera footage exists, but only four people have been fined (100 GEL each- 42 Euros or $57) for their role in last May’s violence.  Two clergymen have been accused of violating criminal code 161—encroachment upon the right to assemble—but one of them has been deemed not guilty while the second trial is still dragging on. Only 31 percent of Tbilisi residents surveyed by the CRRC believe that the clergymen who participated in the violent confrontation last May 17 should face trial.

The clergymen’s vitriol instilled a fear that still lingers; last year’s violence succeeded in sending prominent LGBT rights organizations into hiding. NGOs like IDENTOBA refrained from holding a public demonstration on May 17 of this year.  Meanwhile, the Church called for the date to be publicly celebrated as “Family Day”, and held a march that blocked traffic in the center of Tbilisi. Government officials didn’t respond to their request, demonstrating their indifference towards whether the International Day Against Homophobia was celebrated in Georgia at all.

In a statement on their website, IDENTOBA claimed that “LGBT activists are unable to organize or plan any counter protest due to security reasons and the state’s inability to ensure the participants’ safety”.

Priest blesses the pro-family rally, May 17, 2014 (Photo credit: Eana Korbezashvili/Civil.ge)
Priest blesses the pro-family rally, May 17, 2014 (Photo credit: Eana Korbezashvili/Civil.ge)

Though activists chose to stay off the streets on May 17, Georgia’s LGBT population remained vulnerable to harm and harassment in the days preceding the would-be event.  On the evening of May 14, the Georgian publication Tabula reported that police visited Café Gallery, which moonlights as a nightclub and is one of Tbilisi’s only LGBT-friendly venues. The police demanded the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the cafe’s employees from the LGBT community.  They left after the staff on duty refused to provide them with the information — but not without threatening to smash the restaurant’s computers if the employees reported the visit first.

Throughout the former Soviet Union, life for queer people remains difficult. In 1933, Article 121 was added to the criminal code for the entire USSR, which made male homosexuality punishable by up to five years of hard labor in a prison camp. Homosexuality remained a crime through the first half of the 20th century and beyond in most European countries as well, and many people were imprisoned or locked in psychiatric wards. But of course, Stalin’s Siberian work camps were especially brutal in their  treatment of any minority or supposed dissident banished to them.

Some historians believe that Stalin‘s creation of the anti-gay law was, like the prohibition of abortion, an attempt to increase the Soviet birthrate.  However, Soviet authorities frequently used the article to persecute dissidents, and ruthlessly. While the situation has undoubtedly improved since the fall of the Soviet Union, it appears that many Georgians are loath to let go of this part of Stalin’s legacy.

Cristina Maza

Cristina Maza is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She frequently writes about media, politics, social issues, technology, and international relations. She's also a project manager at JumpStart Georgia, where she coordinates a variety of data journalism and visualization projects.

1 Comment
  1. Oh, the irony of it all.

    Cafe Gallery has scary, trouble making bouncers at night.
    They call it “Face Control” , however, its absolute humiliation.
    If you’re gay or gay friendly, and this is your best option – you’re screwed.
    Came here alone, as a tourist, 9 bouncers who are paid by this “Gay friendly” place
    Tried to pick a fight with me just for trying to get in.
    Then when I turned around and walked away the laughed at me???? For what?

    I don’t speak Georgian and I used to be a male model so it was purely frustrated behavior.
    Shame on this place for its pretentiousness, if queers support this place they can’t complain
    for being beaten up.
    These bullies in the doorstep SHOULD NOT BE PAID nor SUPPORTED in any way.

    If Georgian ministry of tourism has ANY power they should completely ban the bouncers and the behavior of this place at night. (Day time is ok)

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