Georgia: Between Modernity and the Middle Ages

In the history of the fight for LBGT rights in the South Caucasus, 17 May 2012 is a milestone. On this internationally recognized day, a group of activists took to the streets in the center of the capital Tbilisi for the first time to demonstrate for the rights of sexual minorities. The campaign had been registered with the mayor’s office. Police were present to protect the demonstrators. It did not take long before their service was necessary.

As the activists wanted to begin their march from the state concert hall, radical orthodox Christians of the organization “Orthodox Parents” blocked their path  (see video). Fights broke out, and eyewitnesses reported that at first police only hesitantly interfered. In the end, activists on both sides were temporarily arrested. During a protest against the police on the next day, diplomats of a number of European embassies were present alongside LGBT activists.

Even if the demonstration on 17 May 2012 was broken up and the organizers were personally attacked afterward, this event showed that it has at least become possible in Tbilisi to protest on the streets for LGBT rights. This is also the result of activists’ commitment over the past several years. By now they are active in multiple organizations and receive support from the Böll Foundation, for example. In 2005 the Foundation organized the first public event on this issue. Moreover, the Böll Foundation, along with the organization Inclusive Foundation, supported the first LGBT magazine in the South Caucasus, “Me”. It was published in Georgian and is also printed in English as of 2007. A number of organizations have advocated for LGBT people in the past and several currently still do so. In addition to the Inclusive Foundation, these include the organization Identoba, the Women's Initiatives Supporting Group WISG, which advocates for women’s rights, along with the recently founded initiatives LGBT Georgia and Trans Georgia.

However, radical Orthodox Christians also launched attacks during the events about this issue at the Böll Foundation. Members of the “Orthodox Parents” disrupted a public discussion on this topic in 2009. Heated verbal exchanges and arguments took place. Books were thrown to the floor. The police first arrived hours after they were called.

Anti-discrimination laws

In comparison with neighboring countries Armenia and Azerbaijan, the legal situation for LGBT people is better in Georgia. This is not only because, as in the other two states, homosexuality has been decriminalized since 2000. In the meantime, laws also protect against discrimination. Unequal treatment in the labor market as a result of sexual orientation is not allowed. In 2012, the Parliament amended the criminal code to include harsher punishments for crimes with a proven motive of hate towards sexual and other minorities.

As President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration adopted a Western-oriented approach since it came to power in 2004, it has also promoted sexual minorities’ rights. Ombudsman Giorgi Tugushi, elected by the parliamentary majority that the formerly ruling party UNM held, publicly spoke out in support of tolerance. On 17 May 2012, he characterized homophobia in Georgia, as in the rest of the world, as one of society’s biggest problems. Homophobic statements and actions hurt LGBT people and strengthen society’s stereotypical perspectives, he said (see article on Activists also hail the fact that Tugushi took part in an event put on by the organization ILGA Europe, held in Turin in October 2011, and that he voiced his support there for LGBT rights.

The government’s two faces

However, activists criticize Saakashvili’s government, which was in power until October 2012. Irakli Vatsharadze, director of the organization Identoba, and Eka Tsereteli of the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group, accuse the administration of being two-faced. They have showed their liberal and tolerant side to foreign countries. Domestically, however, they have often been passive and tacitly tolerated homophobia.

Vatsharadze deplores, for example, that throughout the years since the 2003 Rose Revolution, the media has been allowed to freely spread homophobic statements and stereotypical views of sexual minorities. The government defined freedom of the press so widely that it is practically impossible to take legal action against homophobic reports. Every media outlet in Georgia designates its own code of ethics and an ethics commission, he explains. It is largely hopeless to file a complaint there. Only once were they able to obtain an apology for an offensive statement about the participants in the demonstration on 17 May 2012.

The daily newspaper Asaval-Dasavali is one of the most openly anti-LGBT media sources, and it is also considered very influential among the population. The newspaper repeatedly prints reports about scandals, to some extent also about politicians, in which lies are often presented as facts. It is largely unknown who stands behind this newspaper and finances it. In the fall of 2012, when activists protested Asaval-Dasavali’s reporting on the prison torture scandal, members of the “Orthodox Parents” organization quickly came to the editors’ aid.

Eka Tsereteli highlights the fact that Saakashvili’s party and its political circle also expressed homophobic statements. She names Dimitri Lortkipanidze as an example. He belonged to the Christian Democratic faction in Parliament, among others. The Christian Democratic Party was widely seen among the population as an opposition party controlled by Saakashvili. For a short time after the parliamentary elections in October, Lortkipanidze was being considered for the position of ombudsman. During hearings, he openly spoke against support for LGBT rights. 

As a negative example, Tsereteli highlights a police raid in June 2009 on her organization’s office, as well as on that of the Inclusive Foundation. Police officers harassed employees, destroyed the offices and hid drugs there. The court failed to hear their complaint. As a result, Tsereteli’s organization, along with other activists, brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The case was accepted and will be tried shortly (see First Georgian Homophobic Case in Strasbourg Court).

In addition, shortly after the March against Homophobia on 17 May 2012, the Christian Democratic Party, with its leader Giorgi Targamadze, called for a constitutional amendment that would ban the use of propaganda for homosexuality and immoral behavior (see article on Targamadze, however, spoke out against any form of violence. He also explained that European states allowing same-sex partnerships and in which homosexual politicians hold top positions in the government could not serve as examples for Georgia. In the October parliamentary elections, the Christian Democratic Party was not able to achieve the five percent margin needed for seats in Parliament. At this time they no longer play a role in Georgian political life.

Who won the upper hand in the new government?

So far activists have been cautious and are observing Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s new government. During the election and in the first weeks after coming to power, Ivanishvili’s camp expressed very varied statements in regard to minorities. The billionaire spoke out for tolerance towards sexual minorities in his first press conference in November 2011. In addition, two parties, the Republicans and politician Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats, support liberal and Western values. The new Minister of Justice, Tea Tsulukiani, a member of the Free Democrats, also enjoys a very good reputation having formerly worked for the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

However, Ivanishvili has repeatedly felt compelled to counter anti-minority statements voiced by members of his coalition. In addition, many activists expressed regret at the fact that the alliance failed to nominate Tamar Gurchiani, a widely respected judge and human rights activist, to be the new ombudswoman. She is the only one who has spoken out for the advancement of LGBT rights in Georgia.

The good relationship between Ivanishvili and his coalition and the Christian Orthodox Church is also a cause for concern. Patriarch Ilia II, for example, met twice with Ivanishvili during the election campaign and publicly supported the restitution of his Georgian citizenship. The billionaire lost this after he declared himself as Saakashvili’s opponent.

The Orthodox Church spreads intolerance

In recent years, the Orthodox Church and especially Ilia II have achieved such a strong reputation among the population that it is practically impossible to oppose them in the political arena. The Church continually emphasizes that it does not get involved with politics, and Ilia II exhorts the use of discretion in controversial political situations, without clearly favoring one side. In regard to ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, however, the Church often openly presents a position that ranges from intolerance to hostility. The Church’s liberal wing also describes homosexuality as a force that goes against God’s will and is therefore damning. Through his sermons, Ilia II himself spreads staunchly conservative views about the roles of husbands and wives. He supports the position that wives should serve their husbands in every way.

Radical Christians such as the “Orthodox Parents” are not officially organizations affiliated with the Church. They are periodically warned not to use violence. However, the Church tolerates these organizations’ spreading radical views in the Church’s name. Priests within the Church also support positions that go against human rights and are undemocratic. Liberal priests recognize this as a problem, pointing towards the fact that no academic seminary training existed during the Soviet era. A new education system is now being built, and priests are expected to further educate themselves.

Aggressive actions against LGBT activists

LGBT activists such as Irakli Vatsharadze see the Orthodox Church as posing the greatest barrier to increased tolerance towards sexual minorities. He says that especially with regard to young Georgians, who are actually the most tolerant, the Orthodox Church is virtually brainwashing them. As a result, a significant number of young Georgians are now less tolerant than the older generation. In addition, they act very aggressively. This leads to violent confrontations with LGBT groups and their supporters, who in recent years have increasingly dared to publicly fight for their rights.

As a result, violence has not just occurred on the streets on 17 May 2012. A co-organizer of the parade, Magda Kalandadze, who herself just supports LGBT people and has a family with two children, received death threats on Facebook. The staff of the organization Identoba could not go to their own offices for weeks because they faced threats there.

The population opposes tolerance of minorities

The Orthodox Church is also so highly respected because it serves to uphold numerous resentments among the population that became ingrained both during the Soviet era and as a result of the years of war and state collapse after independence. In Caucasus Research Resource Center surveys, for years more than 90 percent of respondents opposed the recognition of homosexuality. This did not change as the respondents developed more tolerance, for example, towards unmarried women.

Activists described Georgian society as being strongly male dominated. Men may only show their feelings in a few situations. This rule can be broken at festivals when enough alcohol is involved. Hugs and kisses between men in these instances, however, may not be understood as tolerance for same-sex affection, explains Irakli Vatsharadze. When young men walk arm in arm on the street, this can also only be seen as a sign of close male friendship.

While men in public and in their families may confront violence as soon as they out themselves as a member of a sexual minority, female sexuality is widely negated and a woman’s demand to live according to her own will in this regard is often not understood at all.

An example is the tradition of bride kidnapping, begun during the Middle Ages and continuing to this day. Although a number of couples use this custom in order to legitimate their previously secret relationships, a few cases still exist in which girls are kidnapped against their will. They may also not even know their abductor. After a kidnapping, families are not allowed to take their daughter back in, because she is no longer seen as a virgin, is thereby dishonored and would bring shame to her family.

Young men still have sayings such as, “I should kidnap her before someone else does”. On the other hand, some girls see it as an honor to be kidnapped.

Rainbow parties held in private spaces

Despite this ingrained conservative understanding of gender roles and sexuality, an active LGBT community has at least developed in the capital Tbilisi. For example, the organization Identoba organized roundtable discussions and movie nights. There are now bars in the city center that can be described as gay friendly. Even in Tbilisi, however, LGBT people can only feel completely protected from violence in their own private space.

These interactions with like-minded people are very important for many. Achiko, for example, references this. He comes from a village near Gori and identifies as transgender. As a man, he prefers to wear women’s clothing without wanting to undergo a formal sex change. Within his family, only his sister supports him. His mother is afraid that his sexual orientation will become known and that he could bring shame to his family. His father and brother know nothing of this. In Tbilisi, Achiko pursues different jobs. Some of his colleagues know that he is transgender and support him. His friends are very understanding, he says. However, he would never dare to appear in public not clearly dressed as a man. His dream is to go to Switzerland, says Achiko. Life there is much freer.

As a positive element, Irakli Vatsharadze highlights that young people who have taken the chance and come out consistently come to his organization Identoba in Tbilisi. As they often experience support and recognition from their families, these young people usually do not regret this step. It has a positive effect on their identities. They then often enact self-destructive behavior like excessive drinking, for example.

In Georgia, more positive developments have occurred in the years since the 2003 Rose Revolution than in the neighboring countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. These include legal reforms protecting minorities against discrimination. In a comparably free political environment, it has increasingly been possible for LGBT activists to fight for the rights of sexual minorities. However, Mikhail Saakshvili’s government generally missed the opportunity to include this group in their liberal reforms to the extent that they were able to identify with these measures. Instead, in recent years the divide increased between these partially hastily executed reforms and the actual wishes and needs of the population, especially in rural areas. A lack of education regarding rights, not only for sexual but also ethnic and religious minorities, also prevents the breakdown of resentment.

As the government and especially President Saakashvili steadily lost the population’s support and approval, the Orthodox Church and Patriarch Ilia II, who fulfilled the population’s desire for an exemplary charismatic leader, became more important. The Church adopted widespread prejudices and further strengthened them. This aided its effort to expand its hegemony in religious, social and political spheres.

The new government under Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is more conservatively oriented than Saakashvili’s party. Ivanishvili is thereby closer to the population. This gives him the opportunity to find more support for liberal and democratic reforms among the people if the government is in fact willing to continue on the path towards Western Europe that they have embarked on, as Ivanishvili promised during his campaign. Not only Saakashvili’s party in the parliamentary opposition stands as a check. During the campaign, a young generation of activists, especially among young students, advocated for social, political and societal equality. The fact that a democratically minded generation could now be coming of age is also a credit to President Saakashvili’s losing party and his fellow campaigners.