Queer rights activists mark 17 May in Tbilisi under heavy police presence; Church takes to streets

17 May 2017
IDAHOT marked in Tbilisi (Luka Pertaia/ OC Media)

Queer rights activists successfully marked International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on 17 May in Tbilisi, under heavy police presence. Meanwhile, priests and supporters of Georgia’s Orthodox Church took to the city’s central streets to mark ‘Family Purity Day’. The day passed largely without violence.

Safety concerns

Around 200 queer rights activists gathered in front of the government Chancellery building at 10:00, after police escorted them from two separate locations. Activists were informed of the meeting places only a few hours prior to the event. Police accompanied them back after only an hour, because of safety concerns, after around 30 counter protestors appeared nearby.

A 25-year-old man told Georgian magazine Liberali that he was attacked in Avlabari, near an Orthodox church, ‘on the grounds of homophobia’. ‘At first, a few men swore at “pederasts” [a derogatory term for queer men], but I ignored them. Soon, one the men came to me asking for a cigarette. After I declined, he asked me about my tattoo. After I told him to leave me alone, he took me to the corner of the street and hit me in the face’, Giorgi (not his real name) told Liberali. ‘Everything is a haze after that. I ran, caught a taxi, and went to my friend’s place’, he said.

Avlabari Metro station was one of the locations from where activists were taken to the rally. Giorgi said he had not informed police about the incident.

‘For equal rights’

(Mari Nikuradze/ OC Media)

‘I’ve come across two battles in my life’, queer rights activist and journalist Emzar Kvaratskhelia said during the demonstration. ‘The first one was because of my social and economic conditions, and when I was called a “refugee” in my childhood’, he continued. ‘I grew up as an internally displaced person, which meant unwanted attention and stigma at school’, he explained. ‘The second war began when I came out’, he continued.

‘Coming out can be really hard for us, but it is the only way we can survive. I urge all the parents who watch queers on TV — before you shame them, before you wish them death — think about the feelings of your children, your friends. I hope that no barriers will divide us in future years’, he added.

Transgender women and men also attended the rally and mourned for the victims of several hate crimes in which transgender women were murdered. Activists claim that these cases have not been properly investigated, despite recommendations from Georgia’s Public Defender.

‘The idea of this event is not aggressive or provocative. On the contrary — we are only urging the state to recognise us as citizens with equal rights like others, and grant us rights to freely gather and demonstrate’, one activists said.

The rally was supported by several local movements and groups. Left wing student group Auditorium #115 said that Georgia’s queer community was struggling in a fight against social injustice, making them allies. ‘We will live in a country where people will not be divided by police cordons. We, the underprivileged, do not have the luxury of being alienated from each other’, their statement read. The White Noise Movement, an independent group fighting for a softer drug policy, stood in solidarity with the rally, along with several local media outlets, bars, and rights groups.

‘Family Purity Day’

Clergy attending a concert held for a 'Family Purity Day' (Luka Pertaia/OC Media)

Georgia’s Orthodox Church has been commemorating ‘Family Purity Day’ on May 17 since 2014. The Church held a counter-rally from Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue to Sameba Cathedral in support of ‘family values’. The rally was attended by several thousand people.

Roughly 30 people, including priests, tried to disrupt the anti-homophobia rally, but were prevented by police. One priest, Davit Kvlividze, preached at police, demanding that they let him through. ‘Volcanic eruptions and disasters in the world were results of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah’, he later said.

Participants of the ‘Family Purity’ event marched to Sameba Cathedral to receive blessings from the head of the Church, Patriarch Ilia II, and to hear him speak. Instead copies of his speech were distributed in a special journal titled ‘Happy Family’, and clerics read it aloud.

Patriarch Illia II escorted outside (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

‘Whatever happens, you should remember that you shouldn’t get too close with each other’, he addressed spouses, ‘This should reflect in the way you speak, dress, and behave’, the speech said.

The Patriarch’s speech consisted of a range of advice on what a perfect family should be like. This included urging spouses to respect and love each other more than themselves, not to fight in the presence of children, and not to spoil children by fulfilling all of their desires.

The patriarch then blessed 100 families who had at least six children and awarded them with ‘dedicated parents’ certificates and a ‘Happy Family’ journal.

Previous years

'Family Purity Day' in 2015 (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

International Day Against Homophobia has had a troubled history in Tbilisi.

In 2012, a group of roughly 50 people, who identified themselves as ‘congregations of the Christian Orthodox Church’, demonstrated in opposition to queer rights activists in Tbilisi.

A year later, a small group of around 50 queer rights activists were confronted in Tbilisi by thousands of counter demonstrators led by Orthodox priests. Demonstrators carried posters with homophobic messages such as: ‘We don’t need Sodom and Gomorrah in Georgia’.

The crowds, some carrying nettles to beat queer rights activists with, broke through police lines to attack the activists. Police were forced to evacuate the small number of activists from the city centre to avoid further violence.

May 17 in 2013 (Mari Nikuradze/ DFWatch)

Because of safety issues, only a handful of activist gathered secretly at various locations in 2015, with a heavy police presence, and almost no activities were held in 2016. A few people with a stool painted in rainbow colours gathered outside the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tbilisi where the World Congress of Families, an American ultra-conservative Christian group, was holding a conference on ‘family values’.

Activists protested against homophobia, decrying police for not offering adequate guarantees for their safety in Tbilisi’s central streets, which was the main reason for not holding a larger rally. At the same time, thousands of people, including Orthodox priests, marched through Tbilisi in traditional clothes with icons to mark ‘Family Purity Day’.

International Day Against Homophobia is observed annually in more than 120 countries on 17 May. The date was chosen to commemorate the World Health Organisation’s decision in 1990 to remove homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases.

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