Tbilisi Pride (Georgia) – “That situation for LGBTQI* people in Georgia makes you feel like a secondary citizen and a person deprived of basic rights”

“LGBTQI* people in Georgia feel like secondary citizens” – An Interview with Tbilisi Pride co-founder Giorgi Tabagari

Georgia has been part of the Soviet Union until its decay in 1991, when it became formally a democratic country. According to law, discrimination against LGBTQI* is prohibited and crimes on the basis of sexual orientation are prosecuted. Nevertheless, the LGBTQI* community is facing oppression in Georgia. Hate speech and violence occur regularly. Protests supporting the community in Tbilisi often get disrupted by ultra-conservatives, many of those members of the Georgian Orthodox Church who even created a Day of the Holy Family to counter the movement. Resistance countering homophobia in Georgian society exists, such as the organizers of Tbilisi Pride show. It was supposed to take place in summer 2019, however, due to tensions and a new wave of protests against the Russian influence on the country, it was postponed. We spoke with Giorgi Tabagari, the co-founder of the Tbilisi Pride movement. He analyses that the Georigan Orthodox Church, in collaboration with the Georgian government encourages hate crimes against LGBTQI* and that these marginalized groups need additional laws and precise legislation to be protected.

Interview with Giorgi Tabagari was conducted by Salome Margvelashvili & Marieke Eilers on June 2019.

Salome/Marieke: Why do you think it is important to participate in the Georgian LGBTQI* movement?

Giorgi: Georgia is a small conservative country, there are only a few people who are “out” and few people who are involved in activism. I personally think that if you have the resources and skills, you should contribute to something that you care about. That is exactly what triggered me, and I think that more people should act in that way too. We need to be outspoken about our problems in order to make significant changes.

Salome/Marieke: What are the main problems faced by LGBTQI* people in Georgia?

Giorgi: The problems and challenges people face are different depending on the social status of the person. It is not only about sexual orientation or gender identity, because in the society in which we live, we have different challenges and issues to deal with.

“A general problem we are dealing with is hate crimes against LGBTQI* people as a result of homophobia and transphobia.”

The state institutions are not only taking no responsibility for addressing the problems but are also very inefficient in dealing with those hate crimes and implementing legislation. I wish they would try to do a little more to raise awareness about this issue within the police for example. First of all, the education system should be reformed, it should provide some basic knowledge about sex. Social campaigns can also help to change the situation.

Salome/Marieke: It can be said that the starting point for a series of violent events in Tbilisi was May 17 – the international day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia. I would like to ask you what this day means to you.

Giorgi: I hate May 17, I wish it did not exist in the calendar at all! We have had a very negative experience of this date.  It is very troublesome to go out every year and face the fact that the state simply doesn’t care about you and your problems.

“That situation makes you feel like a secondary citizen and a person who is deprived of basic rights.”

There are also other things that make May 17 a very difficult day for me. In 2013, it was especially heartbreaking, because it was very violent. Although I did not live in Georgia back then, I was following it on the news and it was so emotional. Everytime I watch the footage [1], I almost cry. What happened then still creates very strong emotions in everyone who is connected to the LGBTQI* movement in Georgia.

Salome/Marieke: What are the main reasons for the growing tension and hatred in society towards the LGBTQI* community?

Giorgi: Radical right wing groups and the Georgian Orthodox Church have been in the front line of spreading hatred and violence, and in recent years they have been particularly successful. It is a complex problem. There are several different dimensions such as the education system, media coverage, religion, the Soviet past and so on.

Radicals use every opportunity to mobilize the prejudiced and misinformed part of the population. They are very successful in doing this.

At the same time, politicians are actively exploiting the topic of LGBTQI* people, mainly those with low electoral support. They try instrumentally to increase their ratings and become important on the political scene. As you can see, multiple issues have led to increased tension.

Salome/Marieke: Do you have any kind of support from the government?

Giorgi: We do get some support from different branches of the government, but only on a small scale. In terms of legislation, it is not so bad in Georgia now. We are ranked 25th on the ILGA-Europe Rainbow map 2019, and we are ahead of some of the new Member States of the EU like Central and Eastern European countries.

“Nevertheless, in terms of where the society stands and in terms of public opinion and attitudes towards LGBTQI* people, Georgia is not doing that great.”

It is in this matter that the government is not being very effective. They are not looking at it as a long-term project to make important changes or work on social attitudes. They simply don’t care enough to make an effort to change the situation. We are trying- to push the government towards making reforms and to do more about minority rights, and this is actually the main idea of the Tbilisi Pride.

Salome/Marieke: What are the main achievements of the LGBTQI* movement in Georgia?

Giorgi: A lot has changed since 2010. Now, there are many public safe places that we didn’t have before. In particular, plenty of cafes, bars and clubs are booming in Tbilisi. These are places where queer people can feel safe and protected. At the legislative level, we are also taking significant steps forward as well. We have anti-discrimination laws in place. The number of our supporters has also increased. Therefore, I can say that over the past few years there have been some positive changes.

Salome/Marieke: This year’s pride: how did you organize it, when did you start and did it all go according to plan? 

Giorgi: Because of the events last year I realized that the time had come to do something else, something new. Our team got together in September 2018, we started to do [more or less?] active work at the end of October. We had internal tasks, we were preparing some documents, and we went public in February 2019. I think we wanted to elevate our struggle and our fight, to compare our activities with what we had been doing previously. We wanted more visibility, more advocacy work, more media presence and more campaigns. That was our primary goal and we achieved it. Even more, I would say, because we probably got better results than we expected at the beginning.

Salome/Marieke: Could you give me some background information about the protests?

Giorgi: It all started after some organization invited politicians or deputies from the orthodox countries. Well, there were delegations from 23 different countries having their meetings during the Pride. It was mainly about the Russian-Georgian conflict. So, one of the Russian deputies who once voted for recognition of the independence of the Georgian Occupied territories was sitting on the chair of the representative Chairman of the Georgian parliament. The Georgian people went crazy about this, they protested, and then in the evening of 20 June, 2019, when they tried to break into parliament, the police used force against them. And basically, a lot of people got injured and about 200 arrested. And the follow up was that we could not simply go out again when we knew that people had been injured. 

Salome/Marieke: How do you plan to continue with your movement? What are your future goals? 

Giorgi: We have achieved a lot, Pride is not our only achievement. We raised our profile. We have a lot more supporters than we had before. We also made the right political decisions, for example, when we postponed the march. We gained additional media support and further support from the people.

“All we need now is to march peacefully to conclude the week – finally with a march.”

And after that we will rest because we are emotionally drained. It has been a huge roller coaster. Some people in the team are depressed, some people including myself have burnout, and we need to address this. After the summer we will come back and start organizing for Pride 2020.

[1] May 17, 2013 footage

Radical groups were mostly throwing stones, sticks and wooden chairs at protesters. May 17, 2018 got cancelled by the organizations due to threats and intimidation.

Law on elimination of all forms of discrimination

The Interview was conducted on the June 25th, 2019 in English via Skype. 

The full version of this interview is available in English.

Tbilisi Pride: https://tbilisipride.ge

Photo © Tbilisi Pride