Tuesday

28th Feb 2017

Opinion

LGBT rights at stake in Georgia election

  • Orthodox wedding. LGBT campaigners aren't even calling for same sex marriages in Georgia (Photo: Tony Bowden)

Imagine a small eastern European country that has suffered several conflicts and political crises in the past 25 years and that still faces an existential threat from its neighbour. 

Imagine that people who live there say their daily problems are unemployment, poverty, inflation, and low pensions.

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  • Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarch behind Georgian Dream, championed gay rights back in 2013 (Photo: EUobserver)

What do you think the top political party’s election campaign would focus on? Security? The economy? Or a crackdown on LGBT rights? 

That country is Georgia and that party is the Georgian Dream, which is vying to amend Georgia’s constitution in order to define marriage as an act between a man and a woman only. 

It’s even more bizarre if you consider that, under current Georgian law, same sex couples cannot marry anyway. This issue is regulated by the civil code and amending the constitution would not make a big difference. 

Indeed, every LGBT human rights group in Georgia has made it clear that marriage equality is not something that they are fighting for today. 

With LGBT people in Georgia fearing first and foremost for their day-to-day personal safety, marriage equality is a rather distant goal. 

But despite that, government proxies, who lobby on the marriage issue, are becoming increasingly hysterical, saying that LGBT communities threaten to destroy traditional Georgian values. 

Georgia’s parliamentary elections are on 8 October, but the government has been fighting for the constitutional change for some time. 

The Georgian Orthodox Church is its main ally. Its delegates have attended all the meetings of the relevant parliamentary committees and it’s no secret that the Church is the strongest protagonist of anti-LGBT feeling in the country. 

Referendum on human rights

Georgian Dream proxies at one point collected 200,000 signatures to put the marriage issue to a referendum. 

The president rejected this, on grounds that any referendum without the participation of the Russia-occupied Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be unlawful. 

LGBT activists like me thought that would be the end of it. But the PM, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, has promised that if Georgian Dream won the election, it would put the constitutional amendment back on the table.

The EU has in the past commended Georgia on its reforms. 

But the fact is that Georgian Dream has failed to lift out of poverty the 70 percent of Georgians who live below that line, and it appears that they are now playing the anti-LGBT card to appeal to conservative voters.

When your party goes bankrupt, politically speaking, it’s helpful to distract people from your own failures by designating an enemy.

In this case, that enemy is one of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in Georgian society. 

Georgian Dream, which claims to be pro-European, appears not to have seen the danger of putting minority rights to a referendum. 

Orthodox Georgian society is one of the most homophobic in Europe and giving people a new pretext to attack the LGBT community is reckless. 

Silent liberals

The sad thing is, that due to the strong influence of the church and the level of hatred toward queer people in Georgia, smaller political parties, which are otherwise quite liberal, are afraid to speak out against Georgian Dream’s homophobic project. 

A year ago, when Greece legalised civil unions for same-sex couples, prime minister Alexis Tsipras apologised to Greek LGBT citizens for having denied them their rights in the past.

Tsipras won’t be the last leader in that position, as queer people come to enjoy more freedom and better protection around the world.

Until now, most Georgian politicians have failed to understand that, one day, they will wake up on the wrong side of the history.

Giorgi Tabagari is a Georgian LGBT activist and former journalist, currently based in Warsaw

Defending human rights in Georgia

Earlier this month, a small gathering by LGBTI activists was met with a 20,000-strong protest march in Tbilisi. The clashes highlighted the resistance to change in some parts of Georgian society, but they also demonstrated that change is afoot.

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