On Pride Parades in the Post-Communist Space

Pride parades have been criticized for being both too commercial and too easily co-opted by homophobic groups looking to project an extreme and inaccurate image of LGBT people as sexually deviant in order to satisfy their own (often political) interests. Are parades the best format for promoting acceptance of the LGBT population and celebrating its culture everywhere? A look at Serbia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.

On September 28th, Serbia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) community celebrated what many deemed a decisive victory. Every year since 2010, LGBT organizations had made a valiant effort to organize a pride parade, the annual event held in cities around the world to celebrate LGBT culture and pride. But each year their attempts were thwarted by last minute bans imposed by politicians either unable or unwilling to protect parade participants from threats of violence.

The country’s last pride parade, held in the Serbian capital of Belgrade in 2010, turned into a nightmare. Chaos ensued when hundreds of far-right demonstrators tried to break through police cordons and attack LGBT supporters. Thousands of riot police clashed with attackers chanting “death to homosexuals” as they hurled petrol bombs and set buildings on fire. Shops were looted, a bus was hijacked, and at least 50 policemen were injured.

This year, however, many commentators were baffled by the conspicuous absence of rioters during Serbia’s first successful pride parade in years. Instead, the event was attended by the mayor of Belgrade, four ministers, several opposition politicians, and the American, British, Dutch, and Norwegian ambassadors, leading many to suggest that the government’s newly acquired ability to protect the demonstrators had more to do with prospects of potential EU accession and policies of appeasement than with a genuine desire to safeguard the right of sexual minorities to convene in public.

Moreover, the almost complete lack of any opposition demonstrators on the day of the event caused scholars to speculate that perhaps this was proof that the hooligans of pride parades past were in cahoots with the government, and consequently, willing to slip from sight when their presence might have created some undesirable moments for their patrons.

Regardless of whether these allegations are true, the event was celebrated as a success in the West. Amnesty International declared it “a victory for human rights”. But as EU diplomats and Belgrade-based NGO activists congratulate themselves on their achievements in Serbia, some spectators in countries that span the post-Soviet space are asking “what’s the point?”

To parade or not to parade

In recent years, the pros and cons of holding a pride parade have been debated around the world. Most supporters believe that the annual parade offers a valuable opportunity for the LGBT community to increase its visibility and therefore, to promote tolerance and acceptance. Others say that the occasion can be used to raise awareness about specific issues of concern to the LGBT community, such as discrimination, higher rates of suicide, and STDS, or to promote causes like marriage equality and the right of LGBT persons to serve in the military.

The annual pride parade also offers a rare opportunity for members of the community to embrace their full identity in a public space while receiving support from other participants. For those who have found it difficult to come out to friends, family members, or employers, having a single day each year to congregate in a supportive group can have a positive effect on self-esteem. Still other LGBT activists and allies view the pride parade as hallmark of a so-called democratic society and a demonstration of a given government’s respect for freedom of speech.

But in recent years, the parades have come under harsh criticism for being both too commercial and too easily co-opted by homophobic groups looking to project an extreme and inaccurate image of LGBT people as sexually deviant in order to satisfy their own (often political) interests by generating sensationalist headlines and anti-gay propaganda.

Some have responded to such criticism by calling for the parades, which are frequently associated with stereotyped imagery (e.g. long lines of muscular men in skimpy attire) to be “toned down” and made more “family friendly”. But requests by event sponsors for participants to remain clothed and refrain from public displays of affection have been met with backlash.

Michael Diviesti, leader of the Texas branch of the Gay rights group GetEqual, rejected this idea in a statement given to the Associated Press. “This is my celebration of myself. Why should I have to tone that down because someone else might be looking?” he said.

“It’s like putting yourself back in the closet.”

To parade or not to parade (in the post-communist space):

Questions of how and when to hold pride parades have sparked discussions from Texas to Tbilisi, but some people living in the post-Soviet space believe that these debates belong back in the United States “where they began”. With Serbia in the spotlight recently, LGBT activists around the world are wondering whether or not a pride parade might be possible in their own country. But in places where so many other battles have yet to be won, is a pride parade really important? And for that matter, are they useful?

In Georgia, a small, post-Soviet country just south of Russia, these questions have proven especially relevant recently.

Georgia’s record of violent incidents that began as protests against public gatherings of LGBT groups has been arguably worse than Serbia’s. In May 2013, a small demonstration to mark the International Day Against Homophobia was attacked by an angry mob of citizens led by Orthodox priests. Twenty-eight people, including three policemen and two journalists, were injured and participants were forced to flee the scene for their own safety. In May 2014, organizers chose to avoid any public demonstration for fear that the violence of the previous year would be repeated.

To the surprise of many, Irakli Vacharadze, executive director of the Tbilisi-based equal rights organization Identoba, has been vocal in his opposition to organizing a pride parade in Georgia.

Instead, Vacharadze believes it is imperative to take the historical and cultural context of a country into account when agitating for social change. He views pride as a product that developed out of a very particular set of historical circumstances, specifically those belonging to the United States of the 1970s, and thus completely inapplicable to contemporary Georgia.

“When you disregard local contexts, you are met with hatred,” Irakli explains. “You cannot just copy someone else’s model without asking critical questions about whether this will work in your own community. Nothing will change in Georgia due to one day of visibility. When we organized a public demonstration in 2013, it set our work back by months.”

Vacharadze believes longer-term, sustained engagement is needed to draw attention to LGBT issues in Georgia. As part of this strategy, Identoba produces public awareness campaigns on video.

In Georgia, the prospect of EU membership is still too far off to exert any real pressure on the government to support the rights of sexual minorities. Although Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the EU in June 2014, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili quickly assuaged fears that the country might become gay friendly by proposing a legal ban on same sex marriages.

And even if the concept of gay pride was more acceptable in Georgia, many believe that the common perception of public parades in post-communist countries makes them inappropriate in the post-Soviet space. During Soviet times, people were forced to march for hours to commemorate public holidays. Consequently, parades are both highly politicized and viewed as less than celebratory spectacles by those hostile to memories of the Soviet period.

The mania of Anti-Gay propaganda

In Kyrgyzstan, a post-Soviet country even further away from the European Union, many members of the LGBT population express similarly sceptical ideas about the suitability of pride parades for their community. “In a country where there were two revolutions in five years, people associate parades with opposition movements and antagonism, not with pride or celebration,” explains Masha, a young woman who has volunteered with the Bishkek-based LGBT rights organization Labrys.

Instead, Labrys staff would like to see celebrities and respected medical professionals address the public about the importance of protecting LGBT rights. “They should use their privileged positions to participate in public discussions against violence and in favour of human rights,” says another Labrys member, who asked to remain anonymous,

This year is especially critical for the LGBT community in Kyrgyzstan because of an ominous new draft law being debated in parliament.

As Kyrgyzstan prepares to join the Eurasian Economic Union, a political and economic union that keeps several of Russia’s less powerful, post-Soviet neighbours in its sphere of influence, members of the Kyrgyz parliament are pushing for the country to draw closer to Russia in other ways. MPs have suggested that the country emulate the infamous ban on “gay propaganda” that has alarmed human rights advocates since it was passed in Russia in 2013.

If approved, Kyrgyzstan’s anti-gay propaganda law would send any individual, including a journalist, to jail for up to one year if they were found guilty of spreading propaganda about “non-traditional sexual relations”. The law could have a range of chilling effects, not only on the wellbeing of Kyrgyzstan’s vulnerable LGBT population, but also on freedom of speech. Moreover, many of the support services currently available to at-risk members of the LGBT community would be impossible to provide without breaking the new law.

In Georgia and Serbia, Orthodox priests have been some of the main proponents of anti-gay sentiment. Kyrgyzstan’s Mullah has likewise played a role in whipping up public support for the law. A Fatwa issued earlier this year that stated it is the responsibility of all good Muslims to kill gay people wherever they find them. In a country where 86 percent of the population is Muslim, such statements only fuel hatred and make the country less hospitable for LGBT people.

Despite the bleak landscape, dedicated activists remain firm in their commitment to safeguarding the rights of the country’s LGBT community. Maria, an outreach worker with Labrys, says that she would like to see a pride parade in Kyrgyzstan one day.

But for now, protecting the safety and anonymity of those seeking support is the organization’s most important task.

Cover photo credit: Den norske Helsingforskomité

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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.