IDAHO in Tbilisi – resilience rewarded in moderation

Weblogbericht | 01-06-2015

Geschreven door Nino Bolkvadze.

Over the last three years, marking IDAHO became a subject of public disputes in Georgia.

Picture source: 17mai.si

The topic has brought to the surface existing divisions between liberal-thinking civil society representatives and deeply conservative majority of population backed by the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC), with government lingering in between, attempting to meet democratic standards without angering the GOC.

After violent clashes and controversies of the previous years, this year, tensions were heightened with the approach of 17th of May. Whether IDAHO would be marked or not remained a mystery until the very last moment. Plans were announced for publicly celebrating ‘Family Purity’ day on 17 May – a holiday installed by GOC last year to contradict IDAHO - thus implying on possible clashes (like previous years) between church supporters and LGBT rights activists if the latter would organize a march.

Picture source: netgazeti.ge

The eventual GOC decision to cancel all planned ‘Family Purity’ day events came as a surprise. Three rallies, the largest one in Tbilisi downtown square, were organized by NGOs in secrecy with participants registering beforehand. Heavily guarded by police cordons, the demonstration was silent, without speeches, slogan shouting or even Rainbow flags. Organizers just held up banners with messages from the recent ECHR ruling on the 2012 IDAHO in Tbilisi, underlining right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

The IDAHO rally of a few dozen human rights activists came into stark contrast with the counter-demonstrators gathered in front of EU delegation’s office in Tbilisi. Young, colorful and smiley participants of IDAHO stood for democratic values, constitutional rights, tolerance and acceptance, peaceful and harmonious society; Some small group of elderly people with small children and priests led by pro-Russian far-right NGO activists protested against LGBT rights with homophobic banners.

ECHR on IDAHO in Georgia

Highlight of this year’s IDAHO was the European Court’s verdict which was announced just days ahead of IDAHO. ECHR ruled that in 2012, when LGBT activists tried to mark IDAHO in Tbilisi, Georgian law enforcement failed to protect peaceful demonstrators and fell short to ensure meaningful investigation, thus undermining public confidence in Georgia’s anti-discrimination policy. ECHR also attributed compensatory payments for the plaintiffs totaling up to 33,000 EUR.

ECHR is currently reviewing another application on the 2013 IDAHO in Tbilisi – the event that ended in brutal violence by thousands of counter-demonstrators, including Georgian Orthodox clerics, assaulting less than a hundred peaceful LGBT rights supporters. Expectations are high that the upcoming ruling would be another victory for LGBT rights activists.

Discord between culture and legislation

Despite its progress towards European integration, with the Association Agreement signed and the anti-discrimination legislation in place, Georgia remains to be a deeply conservative society where sentiments about ‘traditional culture being threatened by western values’ remains predominant. Problems of intolerance, especially against sexual minorities, are persistent and legal provisions to tackle them are often not used effectively.

In 2014, following the violent events of 2013, the GOC declared 17 May as a day for ‘Family Purity’, which was celebrated by Orthodox believers marching in downtown Tbilisi, holding homophobic banners. Worried to be left unprotected again, LGBT activists chose not to come out for a rally in 2014 and instead organized a flash mob ‘Invisible’ with an installation of 100 shoes laying on central square, revolting against suppressed rights of those regarded as invisible.

A step forward in breaking down barriers?

Despite heavy protection, secrecy and extraordinary security measures for the recent IDAHO gatherings, many civil society activists consider it to be a step forward for Georgia to manage and mark the day peacefully. Others say the fact that activists were not able to freely choose a place and had to organize events in such “conspiracy”, indicate that supporters of LGBT rights still have no guaranteed right to freedom of assembly.

Explaining the logic behind the unusually silent IDAHO rally on local private TV ‘Tabula’, Irakli Vacharadze from LGTB right organization Identoba said organizers just wanted to deliver main messages from ECHR recent ruling to the wider public in order to raise their awareness on LGBT rights without ‘freak show’ elements, thus destroying negative stereotypes and irrational fears widespread in majority of population about IDAHO.

Deputy Head of Mission Mrs. Floor Nuiten-Elzinga at Tbilisi IDAHO

Identoba and Tabula TV, with the support of Dutch Embassy, addressed deeply rooted prejudices against LGBT people through using TV and online media as well. Over the years, Dutch Embassy in Tbilisi has been supporting strengthening of sexual minority rights in Georgia. This year, through its Human Rights Fund, the Embassy funded a video series of anonymous coming-out stories read by famous Georgian civil rights activists and public figures. This daring new initiative helped bringing dramatic real life stories of suppression and discrimination of LGBT representatives in Georgia to the wider public.

Although a major breakthrough in LGBT rights protection has not yet taken place in Georgia, a certain degree of progress is still noticeable: LGBT rights became a topic of wider public discussion over time; unlike previous years, 2015 IDAHO was not confronted by violence and ECHR ruling put a strong pressure on government to ensure peaceful assembly of LGBT rights supporters. The fact that the GOC decided to call off all ‘Family Purity’ day celebratory events also indicates that direct confrontation between conservative church followers and LGBT rights activists is likely (and hopefully) to be avoided in the future.   

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