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Tbilisi Pride march 2019 Georgia LGBTQ+ community
Tbilisi Pride march 2019@tbilisipride

Tbilisi’s defiant LGBTQ+ youth staged a guerrilla Pride event

While the city’s first official march might have been cancelled due to safety issues, a number of activists and supporters pushed on with their own guerrilla event

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, a pivotal moment in the LGBTQ+ community’s fight for equal rights. Half a century on, the fight is far from over. In metropolitan Western cities, Pride has become increasingly commercialised, but still not all the voices in the community are equally represented, with alternative anti-capitalist and black Pride events taking place in London alone. What’s important to remember is that in countries around the world those attempting to organise their own Pride events are still faced with a violent battle for public space. Just take the queer community of Georgia, who last week – despite homophobic threats and the very real possibility of attack – staged their own Pride march in Tbilisi, as part of a move which hopefully signifies a step forward when it comes to LGBTQ+ acceptance in the country. 

“Despite having no security from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and death threats from radical pro-Russian homophobic and neo-Nazi groups, we have decided to march anyway. We are equal citizens of this country and the public space belongs to us too, and we are not going to give up,” asserted Tamaz Sozashvili, one of the organisers of Tbilisi Pride, prior to the event. On July 8, though, it was announced that the march had been cancelled after its location was leaked online. Several streets close to where it was set to happen were immediately occupied by homophobic protestors – but while Sozashvili sent home the thousand or so people that had confirmed their attendance for fear of their safety, he and considerable a number of supporters and activists defiantly carried on. 

“We were around 50 people: close friends, very motivated supporters and activists. Originally we had around a thousand participants registered for Pride, which happened only in two days and solely through word of mouth. It was empowering, but with the government failing to provide security, we could not take responsibility for these people’s health and life”, Sozashvili explains. “Pride is incredibly important because there are hundreds and thousands of LGBTQ+ young people living in the Georgian countryside who feel like they are alone, they don’t deserve to be loved and treated as other citizens of this country. With this Pride march, we showed them that there is someone fighting for their rights.”

“Pride is incredibly important because there are hundreds and thousands of LGBTQ+ young people living in the Georgian countryside who feel like they are alone, they don’t deserve to be loved and treated as other citizens of this country. With this Pride march, we showed them that there is someone fighting for their rights” – Tamaz Sozashvili 

Today, Georgia remains a largely conservative country partly due to its history. Located in the mountainous region of Caucasus, its inhabitants lived under Soviet rule for most of the 20th century, with many upholding strong Orthodox Christian traditions. In recent years, though, a new generation of Georgian youth has manifested its power and willingness to fight for change. In May last year, a huge number organised a massive unsanctioned rave to protest a series of illegal police raids at queer-friendly clubs Bassiani and Cafe Gallery, while in June this year a huge number took to the streets of Tbilisi to protest Russian occupation and its broader influence on the country, as triggered by a speech by Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov in Georgian parliament. 

In this complex political climate, Pride was a risky but wholly worthwhile step towards a better future according to those that took part. “For me, the march and the demonstration we had in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was not what I had imagined, but I believe we had to do it so we can have a much better version of it next year,” Sozashvili continues. “We needed to start with something. In the end, we managed to fly a rainbow flag over a homophobic pro-Russian demonstration which was organised against Tbilisi Pride, and to occupy the public space – no matter what.” 

In fact, whatever obstacles they face, the LGBTQ+ community of Georgia has come a long way in terms of visibility in the recent years. The recent rise of Tbilisi’s techno scene had a big positive impact on Georgian LGBTQ+ youth, especially the celebrated Horoom night at Bassiani club. Nia Gvatua is also one of the people who contributed to the change by opening Success bar. In the early 2000s, Success was the first ever gay bar in Georgia, before Gvatua re-established it as a LGBTQ+ space in 2017. 

“I think Pride is very important, and to go out with no protection and no guarantees that you will come back home safe is very brave,” she says. “I know we have to wait for a while for things to get better, but I feel big changes are coming. More safe environments are created for queer people, although there are still a lot of them in the closet because of society and religious parents, and this needs to change!”

Among new spaces opening up is Ballroom, a queer vegetarian cafe bar which combines entertainment, education, and social activism, which threw open its doors in February 2019. So far, the venue has played host to lectures, exhibitions, queer nights, drag performances, film screenings, with some profits going to a local LGBTQ+ shelter. 

Mikheil Meparishvili, communications manager of Equality Movement organisation and spokesperson for Ballroom, is in two minds about Pride, however. He points out that visibility and freedom of expression are important, but that Pride also increases the outrage against LGBTQ+ people, raising a number of attacks on gender-non conforming people, and especially trans people, who are the most vulnerable members of the community. “We can talk about some positive changes: the media is more interested in LGBTQ+ issues, which become the subject of public discussions, but political homophobia intertwined with the hostile policy of the church still remains an obstacle for us. Bankrupted political parties or politicians, especially weakened ruling parties, use political homophobia to win over voters,” he points out. 

One of the brightest rising stars of Georgian fashion, Situationist founder Irakli Rusadze, agrees that political issues the community faces are very difficult to deal with, but explains pushing for Pride now is more imperative than ever. “When the world is facing such a rise in ultranationalism, events like Pride become twice as important – especially in Georgia, where ultranationalist groups are openly supported by millionaires and government representatives who misuse the name of religion to justify violence,” he says. “Since the violent rallies in Tbilisi in 2013, the LGBTQ+ community of Georgia has not been able to organise a proper Pride march. Unlike western activism, which is based on the demonstration of unity and actual pride, Georgian Pride mostly just asks ‘please don’t beat and kill us’.” 

“Since the violent rallies in Tbilisi in 2013, the LGBTQ+ community of Georgia has not been able to organise a proper Pride march. Unlike western activism, which is based on the demonstration of unity and actual pride, Georgian Pride mostly just asks ‘please don’t beat and kill us’” – Irakli Rusadze

Rusadze has been incredibly vocal about the LGBTQ+ community in Georgia, and especially its presence in the cultural landscape. He is one of the creatives who is leading the way in using their voices and creativity to change the situation, and, like many others, feels confident change is in the air. “The LGBTQ+ community will sooner or later achieve its goals if we all do our bit. I feel like it's my responsibility to speak up about these issues.  For example, our SS19 collection was a response to the far-right radical groups in Georgia. In the show, we celebrated the sexual, racial, and ethnic diversity of Georgia”, he says. “Unlike ultranationalist groups, I am not planning to chase those against us down with broken bottles and knuckle-dusters on the main street of Tbilisi, but I can use creativity as a weapon of choice.” 

With the first small but defiant Pride event having now taken place in the Georgian capital, and LGBTQ+ visibility increasing more and more, things in Tbilisi and beyond seem to be changing for the better, however slowly it might be happening. It’s clear that political homophobia and religious conservatism remain huge obstacles in the path to freedom – but most would agree that every step forward is hugely significant. “A lot of things have improved,” reflects Sozashvili. “More queer-friendly spaces are springing up in Tbilisi, and there are more discussions aroudn LGBTQ+ issues. And of course, we also now have the anti-discrimination law, which is very important.” Though there’s still a long way to go, the LGBTQ+ community of Georgia have made their intentions clear: “Pride 2019 was our way of showing we’re not going to give up.”