Tbilisi Pride Under Attack Again
Protesters storm the office of LGBT+ campaigners at a rally against the planned March for Dignity during Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 5, 2021. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
‘Pride’ parades have their origins in commemorations of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in which demonstrators reacted to yet another police raid on a semi-clandestine gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. Today – in many countries – the situation has changed beyond recognition. These days, in many a world city, ‘Pride’ marches are simply a popular feature of the summer events calendars, often having the air of a rainbow-coloured carnival. However, in the Caspian region, open expressions of non-traditional sexuality are often frowned upon. As the guidebook publisher Lonely Planet warns travellers, even relatively progressive Tbilisi “is far from LGBT friendly, and homophobia is still common.” In May 2013, attempts by a few dozen people to hold an anti-homophobia day in the Georgian capital resulted in some brutal attacks from counter-demonstrators under banners reading "Stop Homosexual Propaganda in Georgia." Since then, the country has passed an anti-discrimination bill. Despite this, in 2019, the first attempt to hold a Tbilisi Pride march lasted just 30 minutes before the handful of participants fled in fear of reported ‘extremist groups’ planning to break it up. So the announcement of a three-event ‘Pride Week’ to be held in Tbilisi (July 1-5, 2021) was bound to cause a commotion.
Tbilisi Pride Week 2021
European Parliament Members and a significant number of ambassadors from mainly western European countries stressed the importance of Pride Week as an exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. In June, however, the Georgian Orthodox Church (which considers LGBT lifestyles sinful) spoke out against holding events that “put pressure” on the country’s morals and neglect the “choice of the vast majority” of Georgians. Although 15 political groupings had agreed on a joint memorandum committed to protecting LGBT people, Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said that the idea of Pride Week was irresponsible.
The first event of Pride Week was a private July 1st screening of the film ‘March for Dignity,’ at which the 200 guests (including several ambassadors) were outnumbered by protestors throwing eggs and plastic bottles. There had been attempts to thwart such protesters from self-organizing online but de-platforming their anti-LGBT messages from Facebook proved ineffective, with the groups simply moving to encrypted messaging services instead. Zurab Makharadze, the Alt-Info TV presenter who helped organize the protesters, was later amongst 23 people arrested for trying to breach the police cordon protecting the film venue. However, nobody was seriously hurt in the scuffles.
On July 3rd, the week’s musical and workshop events passed off fairly light-heartedly despite a few disgruntled demonstrators burning rainbow flags.
This left July 5th as a looming standoff. The culmination of Pride Week, its March of Honor, was to be far more public, being held right in Tbilisi’s grand central thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue. However, the Orthodox Church patriarchate announced a counter-rally, and the city held its breath.
‘March of Honor?'
The end game was dramatic. Hours before the march was due to happen, a group of homophobic activists scaled the façade of the building that’s home to the Tbilisi Pride organization, breaking into and ransacking the office and ripping rainbow flags off the balconies.
Anti-LGBT protesters burn a rainbow banner as they take part in a rally ahead of the planned March for Dignity during Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 5, 2021. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
Elsewhere, as people gathered, they were attacked – including at least one bizarre case by a man running his moped at journalists filming an assembling group. Other acts of violence were often aimed towards citizen-journalists whose reports were decried as spreading anti-Georgian sentiments by their pro-LGBT coverage. As many as 50 journalists were attacked, with around a dozen reporting injuries, loss of cameras and/or intimidation. In the face of the spiralling violence, the organizers decided to cancel the march. Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili denounced the day’s developments, and Tbilisi’s mayor Kakha Kaladze called the violence ‘unacceptable.’ Far from expressing regret, the Georgian Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, suggested that the Pride organizers had only themselves to blame for creating the circumstances that were likely to lead to civil confrontation. Meanwhile, the Orthodox church’s patriarch, Shio Mujiri, called for the pre-emptive banning of any future Pride events to avoid renewed violence while anti-march demonstrators celebrated their ‘victory’ in stopping the march with traditional Georgian dancing in the city centre.