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Georgia’s first queer pride march, Tbilisi Pride, was cancelled on Monday after the location of the event was leaked online.
Organisers announced on Sunday evening that the march would take place in an undisclosed location the following morning.
However, they took the decision to cancel the event after screenshots from a secret Facebook group organising the event revealing the location, in front of the Interior Ministry, were posted online by homophobic groups.
Several homophobic ultraconservative groups roamed Tbilisi’s streets on Monday morning to prevent Pride from happening. The groups included extremist Orthodox Christian priests and their parishioners as well as a mob organised by businessman Levan Vasadze.
On Sunday, Vasadze called on supporters to gather the following day and have white handkerchiefs with them to recognise each other, as well as belts to use against march participants. He also urged supporters to break through police lines and take out the ‘propagandists of perversion’.
Vasadze addressed supporters in the central Vera Park on Monday morning vowing to protest in front of parliament.
He said their focus would now be on abolishing Georgia’s anti-discrimination law and passing a law against ‘LGBT propaganda’. He said a similar law enacted in Russia in 2013 was ‘too mild’.
The Interior Ministry launched an investigation into Vasadze for the ‘creation of an illegal formation’, which is punishable by up to 12 years in prison, after he announced on 16 June plans to set up a ‘people’s legion’ to detain pride marchers.
The Georgian Orthodox Church released a statement on Sunday saying they did not support violence but that ‘full responsibility for developments should be placed on the organisers and supporters of the so-called pride’.
They added that the majority of Georgians acknowledged that Pride was part of a long-term goal which included same-sex marriage and adoption rights.
The political chairman of ruling Georgian Dream Party, former Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, said on Sunday that queer pride was a ‘provocative march’ and ‘a part of a treacherous conspiracy aimed at our country and its citizens’. He claimed pride was being organised by the opposition United National Movement Party.
On 17 June, Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze said that the extent of homophobia in Georgia was being ‘exaggerated’, while the real problems Georgia faced were ‘occupation’ and ‘poverty’. ‘We’d rather focus on resolving these issues’, he said.
Tbilisi Pride was initially planned to take place on 22 June. June is internationally recognised as queer pride month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969 in New York.
The march in Tbilisi was postponed after anti-Russia protests broke out in Tbilisi.
[Read more about the protests: Protesters in Tbilisi march to Ivanishvili’s residence to ‘interrupt his sleep’]
‘This painful decision [to postpone pride] was made because of the sudden tense political situation in the country. We, as the citizens of this country, announced our solidarity to those who fairly protested Russian occupation at the Parliament and the shameful visit of a Russian MP in Georgia’, said the statement of Tbilisi Pride on 7 July.
They said that the Interior Ministry had all the necessary resources to ensure the safety of pride.
‘We hope that the Georgian Government fully understands its responsibility and steps up to the challenge to protect the safety of each and every participant of the march’, said the statement.
On 31 May, the Interior Ministry announced that it was ‘impossible’ for Pride to go ahead in the planned locations in the city centre ‘due to safety risks’. Later it was revealed the Interior Ministry opposed to holding pride in general.
Organisers had vowed to continue with their plans regardless.
Georgia’s first ever pride
Georgia’s first ever queer pride was planned to take place on 18–23 June and include cultural events, an international conference and the ‘march of dignity’. 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.
The cultural events and conference all went ahead without incident to small closed audiences.
On 19 June, the organisers were forced to evacuate their offices after receiving death threats.
Giorgi Tabagari and Tamaz Sozashvili, both organisers of Georgia’s first queer pride, posted screenshots online of messages they said they received.
‘You are still holding the pride right? I know where your office is and where your home is. I’ll cut your head off and become a hero!’, said a message Tabagari posted.
Another threatening message posted by Sozashvili said that he would be killed and queer people ‘will calm down’. ‘Tamaz you will die, they’ll find you dead in the night’, said the message.
The Interior Ministry told OC Media that they had launched an investigation into the threats.
Calls for protection
An impromptu gathering was held on 14 June after the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, said that Tbilisi Pride was ‘completely unacceptable’ and aimed to provoke ‘unrest and conflict' in Georgia.
The Patriarch urged the government not to allow it to take place and said queer people were pretending to be persecuted in order to get foreign donor money.
The demonstrators were calling on the Interior Ministry to guarantee the safety of the march.
After queer rights activists announced the gathering in front of the chancellery of the Georgian Government, several ultraconservative and far-right groups mobilised supporters on the same area half an hour before it was due to begin, chanting homophobic slurs.
Queer rights protesters were prevented from holding a demonstration in front of the Chancellery and were instead pushed to stand on the nearby stairs, sandwiched between layers of police and counter-protesters who were trying to reach them.
Despite their demands, activists did not receive safety guarantees and neither the Prime Minister nor the Interior Minister made statements. Eventually, activists said they would disperse and go back to the negotiation table with the ministry, and were escorted to safety by police.
International Day Against Homophobia not marked
On 17 May 2019, queer rights activists abstained from holding a demonstration in Tbilisi to mark 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 a first-hand account of the 2013 events: 16–18 May 2013: the days of human tragedies]
Homophobic violence in Georgia
In 2017, the Prosecutor’s Office examined 86 alleged hate crimes, 12 of which were based on sexual orientation and 37 on gender identity.
The Public Defender’s 2018 report said violence against queer people, whether in the family or in public spaces, was a serious problem in Georgia, and that the government has been unable to respond to this challenge.
The report said the Public Defender received numerous complaints regarding homophobic attitudes from law enforcement officials.
[Read OC Media’s editorial: Georgia’s government must stop legitimising homophobic violence]
‘In some cases, complainants withdrew cases and refused to cooperate with the general inspection or the Prosecutor’s Office because they didn’t believe an investigation into their cases would be timely’, the report read.
The report said transgender women in particular often appeal to the Public Defender’s Office about the violence they face.
‘Unfortunately, law enforcement officials don’t have an efficient strategy against hate-motivated violence. They react to individual cases and don’t take action against the systematic problem’, the report reads.