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'Pride' At Last? Organizers Say Georgian LGBT Show Must Go On Amid Threats

Georgian police detained at least eight people after conservative activists faced off against gay and lesbian protesters in Tbilisi on June 14.
Georgian police detained at least eight people after conservative activists faced off against gay and lesbian protesters in Tbilisi on June 14.

Organizers in the Georgian capital balked at kicking off six days of Tbilisi Pride events on June 18 after a triple wallop from the Georgian Orthodox Church, antigay agitators determined to block any public show of LGBT pride, and government officials seemingly unable to guarantee LGBT activists' security.

With the postponement still in effect the next morning and tactical disagreements emerging within the LGBT community, the program was still not on track despite assurances that "Tbilisi Pride will go on," possibly culminating in a March Of Dignity through downtown on June 22.

The setbacks threaten one of the boldest challenges to sexual and gender-based discrimination and persecution since thousands of antigay activists attacked a similar event six years ago.

The Tbilisi Pride's March Of Dignity has especially drawn critics' ire.

And even as organizers insisted on June 19 that the week's delayed program would go forward, they were vague about when a march might take place or how many people they'd expect to come.

"We are telling all individuals who plan to participate in the march that there are still risks involved and they have to decide for themselves if they are prepared to participate," Nino Bolkvadze, a Tbilisi Pride organizer, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

WATCH: A Tbilisi Pride promotional video

The battle over Tbilisi Pride marks a continuation of friction between conservative cultural forces purporting to safeguard public values and LGBT members and rights activists in the mostly Orthodox post-Soviet republic.

But the latest tensions have also highlighted differences within the LGBT community over strategies to win broader acceptance for a largely underground -- but by many accounts burgeoning -- LGBT scene that has been targeted with occasional violence, some of it deadly.

Giorgi Ptskialadze authored a criticism of this week's events in an opinion piece on June 18 titled I'm Queer And I'm Against Tbilisi Pride. Ptskialadze warned against the use of "queer tools in bigger political games" against a backdrop of "fast eroding" social solidarity.

"For me, it is nothing less than dividing society to serve the current liberal, extremely individualistic system," Ptskialadze wrote. "It's a degradation of other identities for the sake of others."

While avoiding either encouraging or discouraging participation, the Women's Initiatives Support Group of Georgia suggested that the firestorm around Tbilisi Pride would provide ammunition for some elements to spread "homophobic speculation and [practice] political manipulation."

Scheduled to comprise a theatrical performance, an international LGBTQ conference, and the more controversial march, it enjoys the support of more than a dozen LGBT and other civil society groups.

But obstacles have tested the makeshift movement's dedication, and creative planning, since it was announced in February, and calls for official intervention sharply increased in the days leading up to the event.

Last week, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church repeated a request that authorities block any Tbilisi Pride event, sparking a June 14 confrontation between LGBT supporters and conservative opponents.

Then, Interior Ministry representatives told Tbilisi Pride organizers that authorities could not guarantee security for the centerpiece March Of Dignity, although the ministry green-lighted more limited events.

The threat of violence intensified after Levan Vasadze, a businessman and vocal anti-LGBT firebrand who has tied Western influence and permissiveness with respect to sexual minorities to a "demographic time bomb" that threatens Georgian society, announced the creation of a "people's legion." His all-volunteer group, he vowed, would block Tbilisi Pride gatherings and thus "protect and restore order in Georgia."

Flanked by at least one Orthodox priest at Vera Park, in downtown Tbilisi, Vasadze had led dozens of supporters in public prayer and urged them to join his group.

"We fought the hated Marxist cage and longed for freedom," he said, comparing his campaign against LGBT culture to Georgian resistance to Soviet rule. "But it's clear that we have to continue the fight for freedom, because what we thought was freedom turned out to be probably more hazardous than what we fought before."

He vowed that his supporters would prevent LGBT activists from holding any public action anywhere, adding: "In theaters, in parks, in the streets, in the mountains or on the lakes -- we'll find you anywhere you are, we'll break through any cordon, and we'll overwhelm you."

Vasadze appeared to withdraw his threat of street patrols a day later, after complaints from Tbilisi Pride organizers that the "militia" was usurping state powers and the Interior Ministry confirmed it had launched a criminal investigation.

Article 223 of the Georgian Criminal Code prohibits forming, leading, joining, or participating in an illegal organization, with penalties ranging from three to 12 years in prison.

But the next day, a gaggle of men turned up at Vera Park to sign up for the "legion."

Then, in a video message on June 18, hours before Tbilisi Pride was scheduled to start, Vasadze reiterated that patrols had been called off but told his followers to be "at the ready."

"Our struggles continue," he said.

He said he expected authorities to prevent public expressions of LGBT pride.

Georgian Ombudswoman Nino Lomjaria said on June 17 after a meeting between Tbilisi Pride organizers and Interior Ministry officials that authorities were denying permission for a public march due to "serious security risks."

"The meeting was focused on security issues, taking recent developments into account," Lomjaria said.

The combination of "serious security risks" and the "open space" nature of a march meant such an event "should not be held," she said. "As for the rest of the events, cultural or other types of events planned, the Interior Ministry has expressed its readiness to ensure maximum security for their safety."

"If even one person is harmed, it will be a great shame," one of the Tbilisi Pride's organizers, Giorgi Tabagari, warned on Rustavi 2 TV with the event's fate seemingly in the balance on June 18.

Tabagari faulted officials' lack of commitment to ensuring order and warned against "waking up in The Handmaid's Tale," a reference to the American TV series based on Margaret Atwood's vision of a dystopian society that imposes servitude on fertile women.

Past attempts to hold gay-pride rallies or call for LGBT rights have foundered amid threats and occasional violence against LGBT members in Georgia.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled four years ago that Georgian authorities had "failed to provide adequate protection" for an LGBT event in 2012 that was blocked and led to physical and verbal abuse by Orthodox activists.

Attacks on a gay-rights demonstration in Tbilisi in 2013 by anti-LGBT activists, including Orthodox priests, left dozens of people injured.

And last month, organizers mostly nixed rallies planned for Georgia to coincide with International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, reportedly after threats from radical groups like Georgian March.

Terry Reintke, a German Green in the European Parliament and member of the European Parliament Intergroup on LGBT Rights, last week expressed "wholehearted" support for the Tbilisi organizers and called it "a great success that finally also in Georgia there will be a Pride" event.

But she also said she was "concerned about the threats and the attempts to intimidate the organizers of the LGBT events. All I can say here from the European Parliament [is] that we will be at your side, standing in solidarity with your great effort to forward LGBTI rights in Georgia and everywhere else."

The U.S. State Department said ahead of Tbilisi Pride that it was "deeply concerned about reported threats targeting" the LGBT community and urged "Georgian authorities to protect all citizens regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."

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    RFE/RL's Georgian Service

    RFE/RL's Georgian Service is a trusted source of politically and financially independent journalism in a country where much of the media is aligned with the government or the opposition.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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