Georgia’s Interior Ministry has announced that it is ‘impossible’ for Tbilisi Pride to go ahead in the planned locations in the city centre ‘due to safety risks’.
The organisers of Tbilisi Pride said they had been experiencing pressure for the past week from an ‘unidentified government official’ to cancel the march.
Georgia’s first ever queer pride is planned for 18–23 June; plans include cultural events, an international conference and the pride march. When it was announced in February, the organisers said the march would not be a festive event because ‘Georgian queer people have little to celebrate’, while far-right groups vowed to thwart it.
In their statement on Friday, the Interior Ministry said it was ‘impossible to hold the event at the location and in the format suggested by the organisers’.
‘The Tbilisi Pride group was offered other forms of expression and alternatives to holding a gathering, which would be safer for the participants’.
Giorgi Tabagari, one of the organisers of Tbilisi Pride, told OC Media that they had suggested two locations for the event in the centre of Tbilisi. He did not specify the locations but said they did not include Rustaveli Avenue or the square in front of the Government Chancellery, both frequent locations for large protests and gatherings.
Tabagari said that though officials did not directly suggest specific alternatives, they hinted at enclosed spaces, such as a stadium.
Londa Toloraia, the head of the Human Rights Department at the Interior Ministry, who attended the meeting with the organisers of Pride, could not be reached for comment. Neither could two spokespersons for the ministry.
Shortly after the ministry released their statement, the Tbilisi Pride organisers held a press conference in which they spoke of alleged warnings from an ‘unidentified government representative’. Tabagari said he met the official in the street under ‘suspicious circumstances’.
‘He tried to make us change or abolish our plans by intimidating us. It is not the first time that the government has resorted to intimidation and terror towards LGBT people’, the group said.
The organisers said that the government was trying to ‘hide queer people’ instead of tackling the hatred and aggression towards them.
‘They are giving in to the radical groups who carry out Russian interests and once again they’re telling us that not everybody is equal in this country’, their statement said.
The group insisted they would not cancel or change their plans. They called on Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtatdze and Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia to reveal the real reasons why Tbilisi Pride was ‘being restricted from exercising their rights guaranteed by the constitution’ and to ensure participants’ right to freedom of assembly.
On Friday evening, the Equality Movement, a queer rights group, and the Media Development Foundation, a free speech advocacy organisation, called the Interior Ministry’s actions ‘humiliating, anti-state, and anti-constitutional’.
‘In our opinion, their position is a clear illustration of the state’s discriminatory, oppressive, and indifferent attitude towards their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens’, said the statement.
Dissent within the queer community
Also on Friday, the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG), a queer women’s rights group, distanced themselves from the pride event, labelling it ‘politically counter-productive’
In a statement, the group said that the history of queer movements in Georgia demonstrated that religious, far-right, and ultra-nationalist groups often used queer issues to strengthen anti-western sentiments.
They said they were concerned that homophobic speculation by certain political groups would become stronger as the date of Tbilisi Pride approached.
‘Because of the particular concerns and the high political risks, community organisations made a decision this year, just like the year before, to abstain from publicly marking [International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia] on 17 May. When a public march contradicts the principle of “do no harm”, on which WISG’s policy is based, we distance ourselves from these activities, the benefits of which are unclear and the damage and the risks of which are high’.
They added that no Georgian government had ever been concerned with hatred towards queer people and that none had admitted that homophobia was ‘a systemic and national problem’ or made a long-term plan to tackle it.
Georgia’s first ever queer pride
On 17 May 2019, queer rights activists abstained from holding a demonstration in Tbilisi for this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia over safety concerns.
After warnings from far-right groups that anti-homophobic demonstrations would be met with violence, the Equality Movement, Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group, and other queer rights groups decided to limit themselves to online campaigns only.
On 17 May hundreds of people, including priests, churchgoers and far-right groups took to the streets to protest ‘sodomy’.
Some of them came out to celebrate Family Purity Day, a holiday created by the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2014, a year after thousands of people led by priests attacked several dozen queer rights demonstrators in the city.
[Read more about IDAHOT 2019 on OC Media: Tbilisi marks International Day Against Homophobia with a single rainbow flag]
The organisers announced on 19 February that Tbilisi Pride would take place in the capital from 18–23 June and would include ‘social, cultural, and political events’. June is a common month for pride events around the world to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York.
The event is being organised by a group of seven Georgian queer rights activists who said they were ‘changing history and making queerstory in Georgia’.
‘We are persecuted in our families, schools, streets and at workplaces. Our homes are being broken into and we are kicked out of our households. We are being murdered’, a post on Facebook announcing the event said.
‘Our sisters and brothers are forced by societal hatred and aggression to seek asylum elsewhere. We have no desire to flee; we want to have a shot at a worthy life in our country! […] We are not going to hide, for living a double life is unbearable; we have no choice but to fight for our dignity!’
[Read more about Tbilisi Pride on OC Media: Tbilisi’s first queer pride announced for June]
How officials have reacted to homophobia
In 2017, the Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee of Georgia’s Parliament pledged to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on every 17 May. The pledge was contained in the committee's 2017–2018 Action Plan, which was unveiled on 1 September by the head of the committee, Sopo Kiladze, alongside representatives from the EU Delegation to Georgia and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
However, in 2018, Liberali asked Kiladze several days prior to the date whether the committee intended to mark the day as they had pledged, to which she said they would not because they did not want to. Since then, several demonstrations were held in which queer activists and human rights organisations demanded her resignation.
The police regularly issues statements prior to 17 May pledging safety guarantees for protesters, and 2019 was no different.
On 16 May, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that ‘the ministry protects the freedom of expression of people regardless of their political and other views, gender, religious belonging, sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics’.
However, the ministry failed to protect the freedom of assembly of several dozen queer rights activists in 2013, when a homophobic mob led by priests attacked demonstrators on 17 May. Despite numerous videos depicting the acts of violence, none of the attackers were held responsible.
The creation of a human rights department in the Interior Ministry in 2018 has been praised by several rights groups. According to the statement published on 17 May 2019, in 2018, the number of people charged for the crimes committed based on discrimination tripled compared to the previous year.
‘In order to protect the interests of victims and witnesses, also to avoid re-victimisation, the Victim/Witness Coordination Service was established. The coordinator prioritises communication with victims of crimes committed based on discrimination’, said a statement by the ministry.