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For gays and lesbians in Georgia, counteracting homophobic whispers and provocations may be harder than fighting outright discrimination.by Lizaveta Zhahanina 14 December 2010
TBILISI | “If one man kills another man, he’s a hero; if one man loves another man, why is that worse?” asked Paata Sabelashvili, president of the Inclusive Foundation, the only advocacy group in Georgia for gays and lesbians. He was paraphrasing a quote from Artush and Zaur, a 2009 Azeri novel about an Armenian and an Azeri man who are in love but separated by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The quote comes from a scene where the two meet in neutral Tbilisi.
Artush and Zaur was attacked in Azerbaijan, but the Inclusive Foundation has translated the book into Georgian and plans to publish it here. As the first country in the South Caucasus to decriminalize homosexuality 10 years ago, even before the avowedly West-facing Rose Revolutionaries took power, Georgia might hold claim to being a beacon of freedom in the post-Soviet region.
Yet, for all the liberal measures of recent years, lesbian and gay activists fear that a rise in religiously fuelled movements and government inaction may ensure that progress on rights for homosexuals is seriously hindered in the country.
In recent months Georgia has witnessed the appearance of a new and controversial extremist religious group, the Popular Orthodox Movement (POM). Founded in March, the group has already been involved in several anti-gay demonstrations and intimidating actions, including a raid on a local TV station in May and fomenting an anti-gay demonstration outside Ilia State University in Tbilisi the same month.
During the 7 May incident at the Kavkaziya television station, Orthodox youth activists assaulted journalists and guests on a talk show devoted to discussing a book by a young Georgian author that contained themes of incest and homosexuality. Police detained several of the activists, all of whom were part of the POM, a movement linking several formerly disparate radical religious groups under one leadership.
“This [homosexuality] is a sin and propagandizing a sin, especially among young people, is unacceptable,” said Avtandil Ungiadze, co-chairman of the Union of Orthodox Parents, now a POM member organization. “We have the right to bring up our sons in the Orthodox traditions that we have here.” The organization is determined to uphold that right through “everything we have in the power of the Orthodox faith,” he added.
Even if overt popular support for such views is only marginal, the Georgian Orthodox Church remains the most trusted institution in a country in which 84 percent of the population identify themselves as Orthodox Christians.
“Nowhere else does the church enjoy so much support and trust than in Georgia,” Sabelashvili said. He is convinced that religious rhetoric is largely responsible for feeding homophobic attitudes among the public.
Experts, however, say the situation is more complex and that making a direct link between religion and homophobia could misrepresent the Georgian reality. “There are homophobic discourses that cite religious considerations as their justifications, and there are some instances of church officials' rhetoric against sexual minorities. However, I do not think it would be sound to infer from this a cause and effect link between religious rhetoric and the general strength of homophobic sentiments in Georgia,” wrote Tamar Tskhadadze, head of the Center for Social Sciences’ Gender Studies Program at Tbilisi State University, in an e-mail interview.
BEING GAY IN GEORGIA
In a recent small-scale study conducted by the Inclusive Foundation, only 4 percent of gay and transgender respondents said that they felt local society accepted them. An overwhelming 83 percent said it did not. More than a third said they had been victims of at least verbal aggression. Streets and schools were named as the most likely places to experience discrimination.
“A friend of mine was attacked in his neighborhood,” Sabelashvili said of a gay man living in Tbilisi. “He went out to buy cigarettes and was attacked by two guys. They called him different [homophobic] names, which should have qualified the crime as a hate crime.”
“In Georgia sexual minorities are a silent and most vulnerable group. They don’t complain publicly about their problems,” said Giorgi Gotsiridze, a constitutional litigation lawyer with the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association.
A recent court decision, however, affirmed that the Georgian constitution leaves the list of the bases for nondiscrimination open-ended, thus in theory protecting the rights of sexual minorities. This overarching principle has yet to be translated into effective legislation.
Sabelashvili believes his experience a year ago was another instance of homophobic aggression. Police arrested him at the Inclusive Foundation office in December 2009, charging him with possession of a small amount of marijuana, a crime that is usually punishable with a fine. Ostensibly aimed at Sabelashvili, the operation occurred during a gathering at the foundation, which Sabelashvili believes was no coincidence. He said the police made degrading remarks to those present, calling them “perverts,” “sick people,” and “Satanists.”
The incident was never fully investigated, although the Interior Ministry issued severe warnings to three officers who took part. Sabelashvili believes that he was released from prison after 12 days only as a result of pressure from the international community.
It remains impossible, however, to draw a clear line from such events to the actions of the Georgian authorities.
“You cannot blame any Georgian official for homophobic rhetoric. If you look over the statements made by government officials, you won’t see any homophobic statements,” Gotsiridze said.
Which, ironically, complicates matters for gay and lesbian activists here: if the government were explicitly homophobic, they would at least have an adversary in the open. Instead, they are fighting a shadow, always confronted with populist rhetoric accompanied by, at best, practical inaction or, at worst, open hostility.
“The position of our party completely corresponds to Georgian legislation,” said Magdalina Anikashvili, a member of parliament from the minority Christian Democratic party. “The constitution and the entire body of legislation fully protects all the rights of sexual minorities as well as other ethnic or religious minorities and forbids any form of discrimination against sexual minorities.”
Gotsiridze, however, said that the law against discrimination lists such attributes as ethnic identity and skin color, for example, without mentioning sexual orientation.
Earlier this year, the Christian Democrats’ then-spokesman, Zaza Gabunia, (now a member of the Tbilisi City Council) joined the Georgian Orthodox Church in condemning Council of Europe plans to debate a resolution on the prohibition of sexual discrimination. He urged the Georgian delegation to vote against the resolution in the council’s Parliamentary Assembly.
Although as yet outside parliament, other socially conservative parties openly endorse homophobia. The recent controversy over a gay pride parade in Batumi, a Black Sea resort town, serves as the most recent illustration. The mere hint of such an event, which was not even formally planned, drew the attention of the church and the opposition, both of which scored political points by condemning it.
Opposition leaders, including those from a movement named Freedom, rallied in Batumi as supporters of traditional values and religious attitudes. The government, possibly fearing international pressure, chose to stay out of the issue.
A similar but less politicized instance happened in 2007 when the Alia newspaper reported that a planned youth event within a Council of Europe-promoted diversity campaign was actually a cover for the Inclusive Foundation to hold a gay parade in Tbilisi. The major television stations jumped on the story; the Georgian Orthodox Church immediately condemned any such plans, saying that such an event would insult the religious feelings of the population and would have serious consequences.
Georgian gay activists, however, are taking some hope from the mere fact that the topic of homosexuality is now starting to be talked about more.
“We [activists] were interviewed by Ekho Kavkaza, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s project,” Sabelashvili said. “I have also been interviewed by the BBC Russian service about [the controversy over the Batumi gay parade] … and we have even been on the Russia Today TV channel. This is all really good for increasing the problem’s visibility.”
Sabelashvili also appeared in a talk show on a Georgian TV channel, when his presence provoked a number of hostile phone calls from the public.
But he is not deterred.
“It’s better to have a negative discourse than no discourse at all,” Sabelashvili said. “When you have negative discourse you have the chance to enter the debate and the public hears it. This is what [opponents of gay rights] are going crazy about. They want to push us back into the closet.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
With the information age offering young Georgians a range of forums for engaging in public discussion, awareness about sexual and gender issues has increased. A nation of only about 4.5 million people, Georgia has more than 400,000 Facebook users. This virtual platform has become a forum both for verbal abuse of the gay and transgender community as well as for constructive dialogue on the issue of gay rights.
“What we see there [on the Internet] is that people are opening up more and much faster than one would expect otherwise,” Sabelashvili said.
Some gay people, however, are less optimistic. Dato G. has been in a relationship with a man for five years. Unable to live together or show their feelings to anyone besides their close friends, the couple seriously considered moving abroad.
“The thing is that I don’t want to move anywhere, I want to live here,” Dato said. An accomplished writer, he fears having to give up his career to move to Europe. Besides, Georgia is his home, he said.
With no better solution at hand, however, Dato tries to escape thoughts about the future of his relationship. “I don’t know what will be, what will happen in a couple of years,” he said. “And to tell the truth I know that this is a problem. I’m trying to forget about it, to ignore thoughts about the future.”