Organizers of Georgia’s first LGBT+ Pride event vowed on Monday to press ahead with a rally in the capital despite a government warning that such a gathering would be “impossible” following threats from far-right groups.
A six-day Pride celebration including a play and a conference is due to be held in the socially conservative former Soviet republic later this month, but plans to end it with a street parade have drawn threats from ultra-nationalists.
On Friday, the government said it would be unable to guarantee participants’ safety on the streets and suggested alternative venues for the march - drawing protests from organizers.
“We are not going to give it up,” Giorgi Tabagari told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, referring to the march. “We are not going to drop our plans just because the state feels weak.”
Nestled in the Caucasus, at the crossroads between East and West, Georgia has witnessed a cultural clash between liberal forces and religious conservatives over the past decade as it has embarked on radical reforms and rapid modernization.
The country has passed anti-discrimination laws in an effort to move closer to the European Union, but homophobia remains widespread, LGBT+ rights groups have said.
In 2013, a rally against homophobia was broken up by a crowd of priests and thousands of protesters, forcing participants to flee.
The day has since been marked by large demonstrations, backed by the influential Orthodox Church in support of “traditional family values” and LGBT+ groups have refrained from holding major public gatherings.
In recent months, anti-LGBT+ messages portraying the community as a threat to Georgia have proliferated on social media, according to an analysis by the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a think tank.
Meanwhile the LGBT+ community has flourished underground, with music clubs providing safe space for Georgians to express their sexuality, shifting social norms and public attitudes.
Tbilisi only gay bar, Success, opened in 2017.
Bassiani, a renowned techno club underneath a football stadium in the capital, has been holding monthly LGBT+ friendly nights, while this year Tbilisi Open Air, an annual music festival, launched an equality campaign on social media.
“People understood that on the dance floor we are (all) equal” Tabagari, 33, said in an interview, adding it was time for the LGBT+ community to come out in the open.
“We need to become visible and get out from underground to the streets,” he said.
Last year, Tabagari teamed up with six other LGBT+ activists to organize the first Tbilisi Pride, which will start on June 18 and include an international conference on LGBT+ issues.
But a planned “Dignity March” in the city center to raise public awareness about LGBT+ issues is at risk after the interior ministry said it would be impossible to go ahead “taking into consideration the risks”.
Tabagari said suggestions by ministry officials that the rally be held in a private space would defy its purpose.
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“The whole point is to be visible,” he said.
The interior ministry did not immediately reply to a request for further comment.
In a joint statement, 10 human rights groups said the decision was “humiliating”, accusing the government of discriminating against LGBT+ people and enabling homophobia.
Yet, the controversy also created a split in the LGBT+ community, with the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG) saying it did not support the Tbilisi Pride march.
The demonstration was politically counterproductive as it provided ultra-nationalists with fodder to promote their anti-gay, anti-Western views, the women’s rights group said in a statement.
Pride organizers acknowledged the criticism but said they would not cancel the march and were reassessing security measures.
Pride had already been a success, as intensive coverage by local media was bringing LGBT+ issues to the attention of the wider public, they said.
“We want our sisters and brothers to see that we are neither monsters nor demons, that the similarities between us are way more than the differences,” Nino Bolkvadze wrote in a social media post.