On May 17, Georgia’s gay rights activists did not mark International Day Against Homophobia with a rally, for fear of being attacked. Instead, the Georgian Orthodox Christian community celebrated IDAHO with demonstrations of its own. As disheartening as it is, having homophobes out of the closet is a victory for LGBT rights activists as sexual orientation and minority rights are now a subject no longer ignored in Georgia.
Gia and I jumped aboard the little outboard motorboat and handed a shirtless, wiry, red-skinned young man of about 25 the equivalent of 5 bucks each. He lit a cigarette, nodded his head and sped off to a flotilla in the middle of the reservoir known as “The Tbilisi Sea.” A .38 revolver was packed in the waistband of his swim shorts. The year was 2001.
We grabbed a couple of beers at the bar and I followed Gia to where girls were splayed out on plastic sun furniture. That’s where I met Mark, who was tanning with two women Gia had introduced me to. Mark was from San Francisco and had come to Georgia a year earlier with his boyfriend, who was the head of an international NGO. When they broke up, Mark suddenly found himself in one of the toughest places in the world to be a single, gay, western man.
Gia summed up the Georgian attitude towards homosexuality one afternoon driving through Tbilisi, listening to Queen in his tape deck, tapping his hand on the steering wheel to the beat.
“Look, Tbilisi. See? No homosexuals. No. In Georgia, there are no gays,” he said like a tour guide pointing out the sights of his city. “I hate gays. They’re sick,” he added.
“But Gia, you like Freddie Mercury, right? Don’t you know he was gay?”
In Georgia, men greet each other with a kiss on the cheek and often walk with their arms linked together or over their buddy’s shoulders, unaware of the signals they are sending to the uninitiated. And when people looked at Mark in his short jean cut-offs, they just saw an American who didn’t know you don’t wear shorts in public. Few would have ventured to suspect he was gay and this was his camp style. The absence of open homosexuality in society meant you wouldn’t recognize a gay man unless he had his hand down your pants. I never asked Gia if he knew Mark was gay and certainly wasn’t going to tell him.
Mark spent the better part of six months with a bitter case of blue balls until he met Beso in a pedestrian underpass. If Tbilisi was a sexual purgatory for Mark, it was a refuge for Beso, who came from a tiny village high in the Khevsureti region of the Caucasus. Khevsureti is the kind of place where families still keep the severed hands of their blood feud enemies as souvenirs. They may have been chopped off only a generation ago. Mark helped Beso get sexual refugee status and the pair moved to San Francisco. While Beso must have felt like a hypoglycemic in a candy store there in the Castro, Georgia’s gays remained concealed in the shadows of a society that denied their existence.
It was only a matter of time before cracks began to appear in the country’s heterosexual comfort zone.
Increased access to the world wide web has enlightened a generation of youths who had been culturally confined to a narrow post-communist view of the world. Kids have started embracing the realization that they can be European and Georgian too. The government of Mikheil Saakashvili adopted the same message in 2004 as it steered the country towards European integration. Although Georgians had no problem accepting a European style of law and order, many rejected many of the western liberal attitudes that come with the package.
In July 2007, the European Council sponsored a youth demonstration called “All Are Different – All Are Equal” in an effort to create inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Political maligners and yellow journalists saw an opportunity to exploit the public’s base fears of homosexuality and westernization and they quickly spread the rumor that the event was in fact going to be a gay pride parade. Thus, the country’s anti-homosexual movement was born.
Naturally, no such parade occurred but a few homophobes organized in front of the chancellery and declared with straight faces that Georgia’s declining birthrate was threatened by an increase of homosexuality amongst men. They also accused one of Georgia’s most respected human rights NGO’s, Georgia Young Lawyer’s Association, of being a “pro-homosexual organization” while George Soros’s Open Society, the whipping post for anti-western extremists and nationalistic crackpots, was alleged to have opened a gay bar in a village near the South Ossetian administrative border.
Grassroots opposition to western values soon emerged under the guise of Christian organizations. Some, like The People’s Orthodox Christian Movement are little more than neo-fascist organizations dressed in arm and headbands who brand deluded concepts of tradition, nationalism and religion. In May 2010, this group staged a rally at Ilia Chavchavadze University against perceived academic threats to Georgian Christianity and the ancient cult of virginity. The demonstration turned violent as the Christians attacked students, calling them “faggots.” The Organization of Orthodox Christian Parents is another such group that raided a Georgian Halloween party, believing it to be a satanic western celebration.
The Georgian Patriarchy’s failure to condemn the violence these groups perpetrated was accepted as a silent sign of approval. As the rivalry between the medieval-like Church and the western leaning State increased, these fringe groups began to function more like the Patriarchy’ sword of the Lord foot soldiers for righteousness.
On May 17th, 2012, a little over a dozen gay rights activists attempted a march from Tbilisi’s Philharmonic to Parliament in the center of the city to mark International Day Against Homophobia. They were stopped halfway by a dozen monks and about 100 representatives of these radical groups. A small scuffle ensued and the event ended with police arresting a few activists for obstructing traffic. But it was a victory for Georgia’s gay community and its liberal supporters as it marked the first time in the country’s history that homosexuals came out to challenge the country’s intolerance to sexual minorities.
Emboldened by the previous year’s attempt, activists planned another demonstration on IDAHO in 2013. This time Patriarch Ilia II came out and demanded that authorities prevent the rally, calling it a violation of “majority’s rights” and likening homosexuality to an anomaly and disease. Activists were undeterred by the Church’s opposition and confident in the government’s commitment to protect them. Several dozen held their demonstration while 200 meters away, priests held a counter rally with tens of thousands of viscous homophobes they mustered from Tbilisi’s neighborhoods. Shouting, “kill them!” and “fuck their mothers!” priests broke through police lines and lead the mob on a rampage, chasing activists across the center of the city. Around 30 people were injured, half of them hospitalized. Some lawmakers blamed the activists for bringing it upon themselves. 5 people, including two priests, were charged with the misdemeanor “impeding the right to assembly,” otherwise, nobody was held accountable for the violence.
Abhorred by most of society, homosexuality can no longer be ignored in Georgia. In a survey following the May 17th 2013 travesty, 79% of respondents said they disapproved of sexual minorities protesting against discrimination while 52% believe it’s not important to protect their rights. The priest-lead attack had a 30% approval rating.
This year, gay-rights activists chose not to rally on May 17th because they feel the police cannot guarantee their safety from hostile homophobes. Instead, the Georgian Orthodox Church observed IDAHO for them by creating its own Family Strength Day with a march to the grand Sameba Cathedral for a sermon by the Patriarch about family values. Meanwhile, homophobic religious fanatics held a rally in front of the old parliament building to protest the anti-discrimination legislation passed earlier in May. Gay rights activists responded with flash installation protests to remind people that “you might not see us, but we’re here.”
If Mark were to return to Georgia today he would no longer see men packing pistols in their waistbands like a fashion accessory. While he might not be able to get away with wearing short shorts in public, he would find it easier to meet empathic souls no longer constrained by fear and repressive traditional values, despite the dangers. With homophobia out of the bag, sexual orientation has become a part of social discourse. This is a different Georgia, enduring the harsh growing pains of being a modern country.