From Vienna to Tbilisi: a message of hope in a week of fear

Something very significant happened at EuroPride in Vienna on Saturday. Alexander van der Bellen, the President of Austria, addressed the hundreds of thousands of people who’d joined the Rainbow Parade, and in doing so became the first Head of State ever to speak at EuroPride.

The fact that in the last two weeks he’s had to deal with the biggest political crisis in Austria in decades made his appearance even more important. He spoke about how respect for human rights and LGBTI equality were not only Austrian values, but European values. He reaffirmed his commitment to full equality, in the year that equal marriage became legal in Austria, and acknowledged there was further to go.

It was clear from the enormous cheers and applause he won that these weren’t empty platitudes. This wasn’t just another speech from a political leader keen to garner support from the LGBTI electorate, such as we see at many Prides. It was authentic and appreciated.

One person in that crowd had more reason than most to feel a sense of hope in what van der Bellen was saying. Tamaz Sozashvili (pictured below in the Rainbow Parade at EuroPride) is one of the organisers of Tbilisi Pride, which began yesterday and culminates in a march in the Georgian capital this weekend. The difference for Tamaz is that his government and Prime Minister, far from supporting Pride, have asked them to cancel.

Tamaz Sozashvili (Pic: Twitter)

Nationalist and religious fundamentalists, led by multi-millionaire businessman Levan Vasadze — whose obsession with LGBTI people is just a bit too suspicious for my own liking — have threatened to create militia groups to take to the streets this weekend, hunt down those taking part in Pride, ‘tie their hands with a belt’, and take them away. If that hasn’t given you goose bumps, remember that this is a country that borders the Chechen region of Russia and Azerbaijan, where LGBTI people have been targeted in well documented and horrific pogroms in recent months.

Despite these clear, unambiguous and explicit threats to attack citizens and even police, leaders of this European country are mute, and refusing to take action. Their membership to the Council of Europe — a body created to uphold human rights — clearly stands for nothing.

International organisations including the European Pride Organisers Association, AllOut and Amnesty International have called on the government to protect the Pride. Calls were made in the House of Commons in London, and many thousands of people have signed petitions.

There is background. On 17 May 2013, a few LGBTI activists attempted a small commemoration in Tbilisi to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT). The description of what happened next from the United Nations’ Independent Expert is chilling:

“[The activists were] attacked by a crowd of thousands. For hours, the police failed to control the situation and the small group that had sought refuge in a building surrounded by the crowd was subjected to terror and assault, suffering physical and psychological harm. There is consensus on the fact that clerics from the Orthodox Church and members of extremist groups were involved in inciting the violence, and that groups from the population executed the attack under the influence of crowd dynamics.”

The following year, the Orthodox Church of Georgia declared 17 May ‘Family Purity Day’, thereby denying LGBTI activists the chance to mark IDAHOBIT in any significant way. There remains an ‘open wound in society’ as a result of these clashes, according to the same Independent Expert, Dr Victor Madrigal-Borloz, and more than four-fifths of people in Georgia think LGBTI rallies should be banned in law. Further clashes took place last weekend, resulting in 28 arrests.

Public opinion being against us can never mean that we should not march; our movement would never have begun to exist were that the case. At my first Pride, in London in 1997, there were many Christian protestors ‘praying’ for us; this year there are likely to be fewer than ten. Similarly at EuroPride in Riga in 2015, around 300 protestors screamed at us as we left the Pride park; three years later their numbers were down to the teens. Progress will come, and it will come in the shape of protestor numbers falling each year. A large part of the problem in Tbilisi, though, is the level of extreme violence being threatened by the fundamentalists. These aren’t people coming armed with placards, they’re coming with weapons.

Organisers of Tbilisi Pride (Pic: AllOut)

Another organiser of the Pride, Giorgi Tabagari has described what happens this weekend as ‘a test for Georgia’s democracy’. But in many ways, it’s clear that what happens will be a real demonstration of the way in which LGBTI equality and human rights across the whole of Europe are at risk, and in many countries already sliding back. If a Pride event in Europe, in 2019, can be attacked while police and government stand back, then the fundamental core of the 70 year-old European human rights project must be being questioned.

I am deeply worried about what will happen in Tbilisi this weekend and I sincerely hope that the necessary protections are put in place in the next few days. But whatever happens, one thing is clear: as activists and campaigners for LGBTI equality and human rights, we will not be silenced and our Pride will continue. Until every single one of us is free and equal, every single one of our footsteps is a Pride march.

LGBTI+ activist. Board Member of European Pride Organisers Association. Communications Director of Copenhagen 2021 and Global Pride. Own views.

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