Support for Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community is popular in the international community, but is it what Georgia needs?
This year, the international community watched as the Republic of Georgia held its first Pride event. Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community, located in one of Europe’s most conservative countries, has received significant international support through funding from various civil society organizations and through political pressure placed on the Georgian government. But while this support has brought more visibility to LGBTQ+ issues in Georgia, it has also had unintended consequences — including strengthening homophobic narratives and attitudes within the country.
Across the Caucasus, the LGBTQ+ community remains marginalized
The Caucasus region — consisting of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as several republics in the Russian Federation — is not known for having a high level of tolerance towards LGBTQ+ people or communities.
In the North Caucasus, the unlawful detention and torture of LGBTQ+ people, particularly in Chechnya, has continuously made international headlines. Supervised by the Chechen state authorities, the police arrested those suspected of being homosexual and subjected them to physical and psychological torture. After their release, Chechen authorities prohibited the victims from leaving Chechnya and pressured relatives to commit honor killings, to regain the family honor.
In the South Caucasus, the situation is more positive, though the majority of the population still holds negative views of LGBTQ+ communities.
In Armenia, according to recent studies, nine out of ten Armenians view LGBTQ+ people negatively. Nationalists often criticize the LGBTQ+ community for allegedly destroying the family and thus the nation, with comparisons linking “gender perversion” to “genocide.” Since the anti-government protests of 2018 — often referred to as Velvet Revolution — the country has witnessed an unprecedented level of hate speech and hate crimes related to sexual orientation and gender identity, most notably when a mob assaulted a group of young people, including LGBTQ+ activists, in a small village.
Neighboring Azerbaijan is the worst country in Europe in regard to the full equality and respect of human rights of LGBTQ+ people, according to the most recent rankings by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Europe (ILGA-Europe). In Azerbaijan there is no legislation even recognizing LGBTQ+ people — from the perspective of the country’s laws, LGBTQ+ people do not exist.
A tenuous move toward LGBTQ+ rights in Georgia
Georgia, which was ranked 25th out of 49 by ILGA-Europe, has had a more mixed record. As a member of the Council of Europe, and with high hopes of joining the European Union in the future, Georgia is expected to comply with certain human rights standards. However, according to a June 2018 poll by the National Democratic Institute, only 23 percent of the Georgian population believes that the protection of the rights of sexual minorities is important.
In 2000, the Soviet-era “anti-sodomy law” — which punished same-sex acts between men by up to five years in prison with hard labor — was annulled in Georgia in order to meet the standards set by the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights. To continue bringing the country closer to EU standards, Georgia changed its Labor Code in 2006 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and in 2014 the government passed an anti-discrimination law banning all forms of discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, while the Georgian legal system may be more liberal than in much of the Caucasus, critics have pointed out that much of the legislation, in particular the anti-discrimination law, is just for show. This was underscored by the ruling government coalition's 2016 effort to introduce a constitutional amendment; passed in 2017, the new amendment defines marriage as the “union of a woman and a man for the purpose of founding a family.”
Legislation is also not the whole story. One of the biggest days for the LGBTQ+ community in Georgia is May 17th, also known as International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT). On May 17th, 2013, thousands of demonstrators led by Georgian Orthodox priests confronted a small group of around 50 LGBTQ+ rights activists. After the crowds broke through police lines to attack the activists, authorities were forced to evacuate the LGBTQ+ protesters from the city center. The following year, the Georgian Orthodox Church designated May 17th as “Family Purity Day.” In 2019, this holiday was marked by hundreds of people flooding the main avenue of Tbilisi to protest “sodomy” and call for the protection of “family purity and morality.”
According to Tinatin Gogoladze, Media Monitoring Group Director at the Media Development Foundation, homophobic statements increase in the media annually around May 17th, mirroring a general increase in homophobic attitudes within Georgian society. A fear for activists’ safety has caused controversy in the LGBTQ+ community over whether to publicly celebrate the event.
In addition to the safety concerns, activists came to realize that different actors, including governmental parties, far-right groups, oppositional parties, and police, frequently co-opted LGBTQ+ demonstrations for their own political purposes.
In response, in 2018, activists held intense discussions and ultimately decided not to host any demonstrations for the annual May 17th protests, according to Alla Parunova, a project manager at the LGBTQ+ rights organization Equality Movement.
Likewise in 2019 activists again stayed off the street. IDAHOT was marked by a single rainbow flag hung off Baratashvili Bridge in central Tbilisi.
Georgia organizes its first official Pride
Yet for Giorgi Tabagari, one of the organizers of Tbilisi Pride, by 2019 he and other activists felt that it was finally time to elevate the LGBTQ+ community’s fight and let go of the fraught history surrounding May 17th.
On February 19th, 2019, organizers announced that the first Tbilisi Pride week would take place from June 18th to the 23rd, and would involve different social, cultural, and political activities. It would conclude with a “March of Dignity,” which activists decided should not be festive, as the LGBTQ+ community had “little to celebrate in Georgia.”
The international community played an active role in the negotiation process with the Georgian government, particularly the Ministry of Internal Affairs, to ensure that Tbilisi Pride could take place. According to Tabagari, three to four foreign embassies in Tbilisi were involved, including representatives from the US Embassy, who assisted in reviewing the security of the planned Pride March route.
In addition to easing the negotiation process, many foreign governments, politicians, and NGOs made statements in support of Tbilisi Pride. Both the Council of Europe and the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup made statements calling for the government of Georgia to protect Tbilisi Pride participants. Individual politicians within Europe spoke out in support of Tbilisi Pride on Twitter, including Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office; Stewart McDonald, a member of Scottish National Party within the UK Parliament; and Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights. Martin Docherty-Hughes, another member of the Scottish National Party within Parliament, even brought up the issue of Tbilisi Pride in the British House of Commons.
All of these statements focused international attention on Tbilisi Pride and Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community as a whole.
“The challenge with LGBTQ rights is that a lot of the bad stuff happens in the dark. So if there’s not international attention, if there’s not an international focus, it’s much easier for the government to wash its hands of it,” Daniel Balson, the Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia for Amnesty International USA, said.
One of the biggest events planned during Tbilisi Pride was an international LGBTQ+ conference, funded by the Council of Europe, the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom South Caucasus, the Eurasian Coalition for Male Health, and Human Rights House Tbilisi. Around 100 activists, CSO representatives, and diplomats from across Europe came to Tbilisi on 21 June for the event, which included discussions on the “Challenges faced by trans people in the region” and the “Importance of visibility and impact of Pride marches over [sic] the rights of LGBTQI people.”
That same day, however, unrelated protests against the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke out in Tbilisi, causing all further events, most notably the March of Dignity, to be postponed.
Russia has occupied the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since 2008, and the ongoing Russian military presence in the region is seen by many Georgians as an attack on Georgia’s sovereignty. On 20 June 2019, just before Tbilisi Pride, Sergei Gavrilov, Member of the Russian Parliament who has publicly supported the Kremlin’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, addressed Georgian lawmakers from the speaker’s chair, one of the highest honors the parliamentary body can bestow. The incident triggered weeks of protest in Tbilisi, with many Georgians viewing Gavrilov’s presence in Parliament as an insult. The government’s violent response, involving the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, led demonstrators to demand the resignation of Georgia’s then-Interior Minister, Giorgi Gakharia (he has since become the Prime Minister).
That series of events threw an unexpected wrench into plans for Tbilisi Pride. To support the anti-government demonstrations and allow LGBTQ+ activists to participate, the organizers postponed Pride indefinitely.
The UN, the Delegation of the European Union to Georgia, Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK, and the US supported the decision to postpone Pride. They released a joint statement that “called upon all responsible actors to undertake concerted efforts to end the discrimination and violence experienced by LGBTI+ persons in Georgia.”
In the end, the Tbilisi Pride march finally took place on July 8th. But in the face of renewed threats from far-right groups, only around 40 activists came out to stand in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
LGBTQ+ activists split on Tbilisi Pride
While Tbilisi Pride received strong support from the international community, organizers received a more mixed reception within the Georgian LGBTQ+ community.
One of the biggest concerns for LGBTQ+ activists in Georgia is the often dangerous visibility that Tbilisi Pride brings to the LGBTQ+ community.
Activists like Giorgia Tabagari acknowledge that such visibility creates problems and safety issues for many community members, but he argues that in the long-run, it will bring tangible change. In contrast, Alla Parunova, who opposed Tbilisi Pride, says she saw the negative consequences of this visibility firsthand.
According to her, Equality Movement was in constant contact with police throughout May and June due to threats revolving around Pride. At one point, the NGO received a call that a crowd of demonstrators protesting Tbilisi Pride were heading to their office, causing them to evacuate to ensure the security of staff members.
“The number of attacks on LGBTQ+ people and people with non-conforming appearances increased,” Parunova said. “The whole situation resulted in the new leader of the far-right groups — Levan Vasadze — becoming a popular politician who will probably take part in the elections in 2020.”
Parunova also has concerns over the skewed coverage Tbilisi Pride received internationally.
“A group of people had a really small demonstration near the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and it was called Pride. And then it was internationally presented that in Georgia we had Pride, but we did not have Pride — we do not have the freedom of expression [to hold such an event] in Georgia.”
Strong international engagement with Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community
While Tbilisi Pride provided a focal point to show support for the LGBTQ+ community in Georgia, there is a long history of international engagement with the local community. This is especially true of the European Union, which Georgia hopes to join in the future.
Georgia has been a part of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) since 2004, and has pursued a steady strategy of rapprochement with the EU. In 2006 the EU-Georgia ENP Action Plan was adopted. In 2009, EU-Georgia Human Rights Dialogue within the EU-Georgia political dialogue was launched, with meetings held on an annual basis. In 2012, a visa liberalisation dialogue began between the EU and Georgia, and in 2017, Georgian citizens were allowed to travel visa-free to the EU. In 2014, the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) was signed in Brussels; it was ratified in 2016. These agreements, specifically the prospect of visa-free travel, gave the EU some leverage over domestic politics in Georgia.
According to Parunova, “After the signing of the EU Association Agreement, Georgia had a responsibility to bring the [legislation] of Georgia in accordance with EU anti-discriminiation standards, which was quite a huge step forward in the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Yvonne Gogoll, the Human Rights Defenders Focal Point at the Delegation of the European Union to Georgia, also sees the benefits of having requirements within the legislative framework: “The 2014 anti-discrimination law probably never would have been adopted [...] had this not been a requirement under visa deregulation.”
The EU also promotes a more values-based approach to LGBTQ+ rights, enshrined in the “EU Guidelines to Promote and Protect the Enjoyment of All Human Rights by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons.”
According to Juliette Sanchez-Lambert, the Secretary-General of the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup, these guidelines have been used to remind the European Commission and the EU Special Representative for Human Rights that “it’s their duty in their relation with Georgia to actually talk about LGBTI rights and react when something is happening.”
Within the EU, individual countries have also played a role in promoting LGBTQ+ rights in Georgia. For example, Sweden’s development cooperation with Georgia is part of the Swedish government’s 2014-2020 strategy of reform cooperation with Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans, and Turkey. One focus of this strategy is the human rights of minorities, including LGBTQ+ people, which the embassy has noted is lacking in Georgia.
While the US does not have the same leverage to force changes in Georgia’s legislation, it has still lobbied the government and advocated for LGBTQ+ issues. In recent years, the US embassy has remained supportive behind the scenes. Nevertheless, it was heavily criticized by activists when it failed to fly the Rainbow flag for Pride, in line with the Trump administration’s new policy.
“It sends a powerful signal when the Trump administration says that embassies can’t fly the rainbow flag during Pride month,” Daniel Balson said. “If you are a young gay person living in a place like Baku, a place like Tbilisi, and you walk by the US Embassy building and you see that flag, that matters to you. It’s such a small thing, but it matters.”
According to Giorgi Tabagari, without international pressure, the Government of Georgia would not do anything for the LGBTQ+ community.
“In Georgia, the current government, and the previous government as well, cares about what the US State Department or the delegates in Brussels and Washington have to say, and this gives us additional leverage to pressure the government to actually uphold our rights and to do their job, which is to provide protection when we go out in the streets.”
In addition to political support, both the US and the EU provide financial support for Georgian civil society. According to Elene Janelidze, a program officer at Human Rights House Tbilisi, both the US and the EU support projects that bring awareness of LGBTQ+ issues to the broader society because they believe that much of the hostility arises from a lack of knowledge.
Increased dissemination of anti-LGBTQ+ narratives
While international support and funding have advanced legislative changes and put pressure on the government to protect its citizens, it also has had some unintended negative consequences.
“Locally, it creates this negative situation towards the LGBTQ+ community because the anti-gender movement and far-right movements often use international support against the LGBTQ+ community,” Alla Parunova said. “There’s this discourse created that all these rights are coming from Europe, and that Europe and the West would like to change the traditional conservative family life of Georgian citizens.”
According to Eto Buziashvili, an open source analyst at the Atlantic Council's DFRLab, following the announcement of Tbilisi Pride in late February, a number of Georgian Facebook pages began to disseminate anti-LGBTQ+ content featuring such narratives. Starting in the first weeks of March, these pages posted fake articles translated into Georgian about the effects of liberal LGBTQ+ policies in Western countries, such as claiming that the UK passed a law that would privilege LGBTQ+ people. Cartoons and images with anti-Western and anti-LGBTQ+ messages soon followed, with claims that Europe is turning into “Gayurope,” a Russian term that has become a Georgian colloquialism. Examples of stories posted by these pages include the claim that a woman in Germany provoked “mass hysteria” from liberals after she said there were only two genders, and that a school in the US expelled a girl after she brought a Bible to school in response to a display of LGBTQ+ flags at the school. Other false narratives targeted Pride organizers directly.
“I personally experienced a huge wave of fake news,” Tabagari said. “One of the major things about myself was a picture with the claim that once I came to power, I would make Stalinist-style repressions to anyone who does not support LGBT rights and this is kind of a message that for some people looked real and a lot of them believed this, even some of the embassy staff asked me whether I said this kind of stuff or not.”
The fact that the majority of the NGOs working on LGBTQ+ issues in Georgia are funded by Western donors strengthens the false narratives placing LGBTQ+ rights as a Western import.
Many of the false narratives related to Tbilisi Pride were later recycled to discredit the anti-occupation protesters. Following the outbreak of demonstrations against the government, a number of Georgian Facebook pages published narratives tying the demonstrations not only to the opposition, but also to LGBTQ+ activist groups and to Tbilisi Pride, intentionally conflating the two events.
According to Tinatin Gogoladze, the use of homophobic narratives has been a common way to discredit any civil society movements the ruling party does not find acceptable. A similar case happened in June 2018 after raids on several Georgian nightclubs provoked protests calling for a more liberal drug policy. In response, far right groups chanting “Georgia without pederasts” appeared, allowing Interior Minister Gakharia to play the two sides off each other and save face.
Contextualizing Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community
It is clear that the international community has been of great help to Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community. However, there has been criticism on the part of local activists that the international community is not active enough at the grassroots level, and fails to understand the context in which the LGBTQ+ community is situated in.
“It happens quite often that some support is coming with the pressure of dictating an agenda for what to do and then the agenda is creating topics that are not in the agenda of the LGBTQ+ community of Georgia,” Parunova said. In addition, once this agenda has been created, it is quite difficult to adjust it to the local level, “which creates this situation where the LGBTQ+ community is getting more and more alienated from the whole society.”
Some organizations, such as the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, have recognized this issue and take care that any work they do is in cooperation with civil society on the ground.
“If we are to do anything as an EU institution talking about LGBTI rights, we want to make sure that everything we do helps the people on the ground,” Sanchez-Lambert said. “The LGBTI community is at the forefront of many struggles and we want to make sure their situation improves and not deteriorates because of our actions.”
As it stands, local LGBTQ+ activists have not announced plans for Tbilisi Pride in 2020; and the Georgian government has no plans to increase support for the community. International support remains one of the few bright spots in an increasingly shrinking space for LGBTQ+ activists. Yet how such support will be received in the coming years likely depends on exactly the kind of political sensitivity Sanchez-Lambert advocates — listening to local advocates, understanding the risks of international support, and working hand in hand with the local LGBTQ+ community to foster greater understanding and a safer environment for one of Georgia’s most marginalized communities.