On May 17, international society witnessed the celebration of the so-called “Family Day” in Tbilisi. Representatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church, with many members of local society, marched from the city center to the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi (“Sameba”), where they expressed devotion to traditional family values. This totally overshadowed another important event, International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia that was publicly commemorated by only a few. Representatives of human rights groups and the LGBTQI+ community, afraid to organize a public event on this date, only dared to rise the “rainbow” flag, but had it quickly removed. Instead, they spoke of holding the first Tbilisi Gay Pride march with some other activities, such as concerts, in late June, but these aspirations were shattered when the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia officially informed them last week that due to the high possibility of violence, they could not guarantee the safety of pride participants should a public march take place. Instead, they suggested a closed venue, such as the stadium.
Various local and international analysts expressed their dissatisfaction to see the direction of rights and freedom of sexual minorities in Georgia so significantly derailed; derailed so much that in comparison with previous years, representatives of these groups are again being forced into a corner. And while, undoubtedly, the Georgian Orthodox Church has played its role in shaping this state of affairs, it is obvious that supporters of the so-called “liberal values” made a few unforgivable lapses that crucially contributed to the victory of “Family Day”.
A Clash of Narratives
To be fair, both events appear pretty artificial to the state. International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia wasn’t presented to local society until 2012 when the LGBTQI+ movement tried to celebrate it for the first time, while Family Purity Day (full name: “Family Strength and Respect for Parents”) was established by the Georgian Orthodox Church and, in particular, by the spiritual leader Ilia II, to counter attempts by some INGOs and NGOs to re-think traditional concepts of “love”, “marriage” and “family”. We may argue that there was factually no firm demand from general Georgian society to introduce either of these. As it stands, as Georgian historian Nukri Shoshiashvili argues, these are initiatives by two totally different institutions that aim to pursue the right to control, develop existing and create or shape new political, cultural and social narratives. Consequently, by offering these holidays, supporters of “modernity” (liberals) and “traditionality” (conservatives) have clashed for this privilege and initiated a fierce rivalry for the hearts and minds of Georgian society.
Due to its historic achievements and contribution to building-up the Georgian state and nation, the Georgian Orthodox Church was, by default, in a superior position; it held and still holds an important position in the daily lives of regular Georgian citizens. Hence, representatives of the so-called liberal groups should have carefully planned and structured their policy and tactics to outmaneuver these rivals and persuade local society that International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia was never about abandoning and/or disrespecting traditions bur rather about giving an opportunity to members of the LGBTQI+ community to speak up and defend their rights and freedoms.
Unfortunately, defenders of “modernity” opted for an irrational and blunt policy that has suffered dramatic defeats again and again to date.
The Blitzkrieg Tactic
There is only one term that can define the policy pushed by LGBTQI+ movements and its supporters – a blitzkrieg. These groups hoped that an absolute political back-up from American and European institutions/agencies, in combination with an extremely high financial in-flow, would provide them the necessary tools to announce a new political, social and cultural reality; a reality that no one would dare to challenge. They hoped for a fast victory but were deceived by their own false perceptions and assumptions.
Undoubtedly, political and financial guarantees from the country’s strategic partners are significant but are not conclusive. Georgian society has developed its own agenda over the years, transforming into a crucial political actor whose trust and devotion must be gained; it cannot be achieved solely by referring to the West as a trademark as was done in the past. Recent surveys make it obvious that these groups significantly lack internal legitimacy and are mistrusted by the majority of Georgian society. Thus, their attempts to pursue a harsh and blunt policy that disregards existing political, social and cultural realities, including the Georgian Orthodox Church, led to a dramatic opposite chain reaction. Instead of building a safer and freer environment for the LGBTQI+ community, society became even more dangerous and intolerant. Georgian society aspires to become part of the European family but there are some “red lines” that it is not ready to cross.
We should also speak about the highly destructive and thoughtless behavior of some representatives of the liberal movement too, who, it seems have become so arrogant, selfish and self-confident due to external political and financial backing, that they don’t even bother to try and foresee or care about the consequences of their statements and steps. For example, Irakli Vacharadze, who chaired the leading LGBTQI+ organization ‘Identoba’ was keen to officially and publicly verbally insult the Georgian Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader, Ilia II; further, to label and threaten everyone who opposed his (Irakli’s) ideas and approaches. Other associated speakers had and still have a tendency to unmindfully pursue harsh rhetoric, including by labeling those against them as pro-Russians, “enablers” of Kremlin propaganda and ideology- all things that only serve to worsen the situation.
The history of the celebrating International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in Georgia is probably one of the best examples of an incorrect tactic that led to dramatic consequences and an absolutely opposite chain reaction. Political and financial support from abroad made Georgian activists both arrogant and unable to critically assess their capabilities. They opted for a straightforward and blunt policy that they were unable to factually implement. As a result, the Georgian Orthodox Church easily outmaneuvered them and took the majority of hearts and minds of Georgian society. Unfortunately, this further complicated the lives of the LGBTQI+ community in the country; and it will not change unless liberal forces re-think their approaches and push for a more sophisticated policy.
This column is in react response to the article ‘Violence at Gay Demonstration Exposes Darker Side of Georgian Culture’ published in Georgia Today’s May 25 issue. In the piece, the author, Teona Betlemidze, discusses the clashes that happened on May 17 in Tbilisi, as the NGOs Identoba and LGBT Georgia organized a peaceful march to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. The march was interrupted by the ‘radical religious groups’ such as the Union of Orthodox Parents and the Union of St. King Vakhtang Gorgasali. As a result, there was a confrontation.
This day was first celebrated globally in 2004. The date of May 17 was chosen to commemorate the World Health Organization’s decision in 1990 to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. According to the official site of the event: “An International Day Against Homophobia belongs to no one individual. It’s about all people hoping for a prejudice-free world that can provide a place at the table for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation.”
The article also cites Ekaterine Agdomelashvili, Director of the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group, a local human rights organization, who associates the case with a cultural problem: “Providing her explanation about these latest developments, Agdomelashvili said she sees the problem [intolerance toward gays] lying on the darker side of Georgian culture, the part which prioritizes religion and tradition over human rights.” At the same time, the author cites a comment by the French Ambassador to Georgia, Renaud Salins where he states that “It’s a struggle which is supported by the European Union, by many international bodies and it’s about more than tolerance, it’s about acceptance.”
All in all, the reader would conclude that tolerance toward homophobia and transphobia seems to be an inherent part of the democratization process; which is supported by international bodies. Meaning: that confrontation over the rights of gays is an aspect of the ‘darker side of Georgian culture.’
Is that credible? Is intolerance toward gay rights and other minorities a sign of a non-democratic, backward society? The examples show a different picture.
Democracy means that when the majority governs the state, as a consequence, the minority is governed by the majority. The rights of the minority are based on the goodwill of the majority. Everyone must have civil liberties without taking into account race, skin color and sexual orientation.
Nevertheless, human rights and- in particular- the rights of minorities as we know them, are the brainchild of Western culture. These are really unique principles, but they are not universal. Therefore, an attempt to push them forcefully against the wishes of the majority of society sows the seeds of confrontation.
Samuel Huntington, the famous American political scientist, became prominent for his book The Clash of Civilizations, where he developed a thesis of a post-Cold War new world order. According to Huntington, during the Cold War era, conflict occurred between the capitalist West and the communist East. Thus [conflict] is most likely to occur between the world’s major civilizations. He identified seven, and a possible eighth major civilization: (i) Western, (ii) Latin American, (iii) Islamic, (iv) Sinic (Chinese), (v) Hindu, (vi) Orthodox, (vii) Japanese, and (viii) African. The main point of his work was that the West, particularly the US, must abandon its imposition of its ideal of democratic universalism and its associated military interventionism. An attempt by the West to universalize its values and spread it along the world pushes other civilizations into confrontation. Huntington put forth the idea that Western civilization and its culture is unique, but not universal; therefore, other nations should have an opportunity to choose whether to accept them or not.
In his book, The Middle East, Space, Society, and Politics, Professor Revaz Gachechiladze, former Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Georgia to the State of Israel wrote: “Judaism is actually a national religion. In Hebrew, individualism uses one word – Yuhudi, to emphasize his ethnicity [Jew] and religious affiliation [Judaist]. And even the secular Jew is closely tied with Judaism by hidden, but strong threads.” Consequently, for the hundreds of thousands of Arabs living in Israel it is impossible to become a full member of Israeli society. No matter how unbearable for them, becoming a citizen of Israel means becoming a Jew.
Moreover, Jews do does not consider Arabs as equals. According to a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in November 2010, “more than half of Israeli Jews believe that the state has the right to encourage Arab citizens to emigrate… The study found that 53 percent of Jewish citizens would prefer to see Arabs leave Israel. While 55 percent said Jewish cities should receive more government resources than Arab communities.” And still no one doubts that Israel is one of the most democratic states in the world with a developed society and culture.
Hence, an attempt to consider intolerance toward gays or other minorities in a multi-cultural, multi-civilized world as a sign of an undemocratic, retrograde, retarded society with ‘dark’ stains in its culture, without taking into account such factors as politics, religion or moral issues, seems to be a shortsighted approach and a hasty conclusion.
You may also read a counter-responce by King William here.