Hate Crime Acquittal Highlights Institutionalized Homophobia in Georgia

On October 23, 2015, a Tbilisi court acquitted four individuals for their involvement in a violent anti-LGBT rally that took place in Georgia in 2013.

The group on trial was accused of inciting violence at a peaceful demonstration held on the International Day Against Homophobia on May 17, 2013. The pro-LGBT rally, which consisted of less than a hundred demonstrators, turned violent when a counter-demonstration organized by members of the Georgian Orthodox church and consisting of thousands of people, broke through a police cordon and attacked demonstrators who attempted to flee the area.

Several demonstrators suffered severe injuries after attempting to leave on a bus, which was attacked with stones and bricks by anti-gay protestors. The attackers swarmed the area, demanding an end to ‘homosexual propaganda’ in Georgia. News reports from the event place the number of counter-demonstrators at over 20,000, while the original event itself reportedly was attended by only a few dozen individuals, most of whom had come out in support of local LGBT charity, Identoba.

Four of the main individuals accused of inciting the violence, as well as a fifth priest whose case was dropped earlier for lack of evidence, were active members of the Georgian Orthodox Church. One, Irakli Basilaia, is a prominent Church abbot.

If the incident and accompanying violence has prompted any remorse or soul-searching from the Georgian Orthodox Church, it is not yet evident. Far from shying away from the issue, the Church has openly accepted its role in the violence. The priests who organized the counter-demonstration were acting on calls from the Church’s Patriarch that the event be banned by authorities. Footage taken on the day also shows Church members proudly leading the anti-gay protestors.

The attack, together with the government’s response, were widely criticized by the international community. At the same time, the event also highlighted a significant disconnect between the Georgian government’s aims for progressive change and a desire among average citizens to uphold traditional values dictated by the Church. These issues raise real questions about whether Georgia is prepared, as a nation, for real social change.

The Power of the Georgian Orthodox Church
The Georgian Orthodox Church, whose followers represent more than 80% of the population, has long been a significant player in the country’s political landscape. It is also one of the largest opponents of LGBT rights in the country. Throughout history, the Church has often portrayed LGBT individuals as immoral or unnatural. In recent years, this stance has evolved to include depicting LGBT rights as a Western construct that threatens Georgian traditions.

Although Georgia has maintained close ties with the West, ever since communism’s fall, the country’s record on LGBT rights is still very much a reflection of the Church’s influence. The current head of the Georgian Church, Patriarch Ilia II, has been one of the most outspoken opponent of LGBT rights, despite his reputation as a change maker and general support for stronger relations with the West. In the 1970s, the patriarch famously campaigned for religious freedom despite the Soviet Union’s staunch secularism. As a big supporter of Georgian integration into Europe, he has helped turn Georgia into a country that welcomes Western ties. Where LGBT rights are concerned, however, he has been a bulwark against progressive for the movement.

Progress Goes Underground
Homosexuality was not officially decriminalized in Georgia until 2000. Even then, the move was seen by some as more of a practical measure to appease Western groups and bring Georgia’s legislation in line with standards set by the Council of Europe, than an indication of an ideological evolution in the country. This slow shift towards alignment with the West has polarized many Georgians. As a country with a deep distrust and fear of Russia, the majority of Georgians have often sided with Europe and NATO, which they see as the best line of defense against Russian aggression. However, as the process of Westernization has continued, clashes over women’s rights, democracy, and increasing visibility and acceptance for LGBT individuals have taken place between liberal and conservative Georgians.

From an outsider’s perspective, the months leading up to the 2013 attack seemed to signal a slow but steady national shift in favor of progressive values. NGOs throughout Georgia, such as Identoba and their allies, had worked to establish greater tolerance towards the LGBT community, and their efforts seemed to be been paying off. There was little indication that a wide scale homophobic attack might be on the horizon.

But just beneath the surface, the ever-present conservative elements of Georgian society were growing increasingly reactionary. Priests and influential members of the church were speaking out against solidarity demonstrations in support of the LGBT community. Many members of the Church were angered by what they viewed as the normalization and promotion of a ‘lifestyle’ that seemed to be in opposition to their values.

It is that anger that led to the May 17 attack.
In the days following the incident, a number of smaller-scale acts of violence occurred, many of which were linked to the initial event. Individuals in Tbilisi claimed, for instance, that vigilantes inspired by the May 17 attack had started to target LGBT individuals and groups.

When I visited Identoba’s office in 2014, I found myself in a building with no sign, hidden away from the outside world. Much of the initial confidence that inspired the solidarity rally in 2013 had faded away. In its place was an understandable weariness. Despite this sad state of affairs, the May 17 attack was and is still viewed by the Church as a clash of cultures, a justified defense of Georgian tradition in the face of encroaching Western influence.

While it has largely remained under the radar, Identoba continues to support marginalized groups in Georgia. A year after the attack, members of the group organized a guerrilla protest , in which they left empty shoes around Tbilisi to highlight the invisible nature of sexual and gender minorities in the country.

Similar acts of defiance have continued since the 2013 attack. In 2015, Indetoba organized a secret protest that was attended by a few supporters, as well as some members of the press, exactly two years after the group first came under attack. The protest, which lasted less than an hour, highlighted the difficult situation pro-LGBT Georgians have had to endure, as fears of violence have persisted.

An Uncertain Future
The Georgian government is far from a strong proponent of minority rights, but in the face of international pressure and mounting desire to adopt Western values, it has shown a willingness to make progress on LGBT issues. The Church, however, looms large and poses a stumbling block to real change.

The population itself has been caught in the crosshairs. Young people and liberal-minded Georgians appear to be welcoming of social progress while conservative Georgians, who strongly back the Church and make up the majority, are unwilling to embrace wholesale change.

For those who believe Georgia is becoming a more inclusive country, the May 17 attacks came as a shock. As clearly shown by the acquittal of the suspects in that incident, however, Georgia has a long way to go before LGBT citizens (and progressives across the country) can truly be at ease.

by Tom Ana
Source – Muftah