LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

Demonstration and demonisation – life for Georgia’s queer communities

community organising

This guest blog post comes from Levan Berianidze, Executive Director of Equality Movement, Georgia. LGBTQI clubs and bars have played the crucial role in mobilising LGBTQI people in Georgia, and Levan explains why the recent raids on these clubs were seen as an attack on the community's home.

We dance together

We fight together

We win together

These words represent the underlying idea of the rave-protests that took place in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the aftermath of the shocking police raid in two Georgian clubs a few weeks ago – BASSIANI and Café Gallery. These words were not just catchy phrases; they represented the nature and the essence of the demonstrations.

To cut a long story short, BASSIANI and Café Gallery, two of the most important clubs in Tbilisi's developing electronic music scene (and two of the few safe spaces for the queer community in Georgia) were raided by extensive police forces during the parties on the morning of 12 May 2018.

It was the Georgian government’s response to the existing drug crisis - five drug-related deaths over the past two weeks. The authorities claimed that these deaths were linked to the clubs and instead of working on a humane and effective drug policy that would reduce the harm caused by drugs, and instead of investigating the scheme of drug smuggling at Georgian borders (which is, of course, impossible without the involvement of high officials) they decided to act in a populist way and further stigmatise drug users and the drug policy reform itself.

The demonstrations were organised collaboratively with White Noise Movement, which is the leading movement working on the drug policy reform.  Equality Movement, a local feminist queer human rights organisation, was one of the co-organisers.

Our strong involvement and presence during these processes were due to solidarity with the drug user community, our sensitivity towards police brutality and extensive use of power, and due to the fact that these spaces have played a crucial role in mobilising the queer community through creating safe spaces.

In order to understand the queer community’s solidarity in these processes, we need to understand the social context in Georgia. The 20th century was a period of the rise of social movements. Mostly in the West, various social movements – black, women/feminist, LGBT– became active and engaged in political acts to demand equal treatment and rights. By the end of 20th century, the whole globe witnessed an ‘NGOisation’ of social movements. However, non-formal social movements still remain quite active.

In the case of Georgia, civil society organisations emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union without any pre-existing social movements. This meant that there were very little initiatives pursued in regards to human rights outside of NGOs. And since NGOs have significant limitations due to their formality and they have been unsuccessful in mobilising the community, clubs and bars took initiative in creating necessary friendly spaces for community building.

Generally, many clubs have historically offered a safe socialising space for oppressed groups that were not feeling welcomed by the society. It is important to note that LGBTQI persons, unlike other groups, do not usually have supportive environments from childhood. While if you are a black person, have an ethnic minority background, a woman, or a religious minority, you mostly have at least your parents who have the same background as you do. Thus even though the world might be hostile, you at least have some people around as role models, supporting you and sharing their experiences with you. In most cases, LGBTQI people are born and raised in straight and homophobic households. They usually do not have anyone to share their experiences with, to talk to, to feel supported by, to be guided by… Thus, finding support groups is extremely important for LGBTQI persons.

LGBTQI clubs and bars have played the crucial role in mobilising LGBTQI people, creating a sense of community and belonging both globally and in Georgia. BASSIANI, for example, together with queer activists, has created HOROOM NIGHTS – queer night series aiming at mobilising the queer community. The club has also played a huge role in creating spaces where straight people and LGBTQI people meet each other and can establish safe communication and overcome the distance created by homophobia.

Therefore, the attacks on these clubs were seen as the attacks on our homes, on the spaces where we can enjoy our freedom and share our love.

The rave protest was not only friendly to queer people, but it had queer elements in itself due to high presence and participation of queer people, queer speakers, and queer ideas uttered. Among many social injustice issues that were vocalised during the demonstrations, many speakers were talking about queer injustices during the demonstration. The protest was not only focused on club raids and inhumane drug policy injustices, but became a fight for social justice, freedom, and equality, against police state and mass incarnation and against abuse of power by state authorities.

Unfortunately, queer presence and queer messages were used against the demonstrations, to stigmatise and demonise the protesters. It was clear that there was an informational war against us during those days. In various media and social network groups, we were blamed for immoral acts and that we were demanding free drugs and wanted to corrupt Georgian traditions. Thousands of (mostly anonymous) Facebook users were writing these types of comments in various groups. Neo-Nazi groups started mobilising and organised counter-protests that aimed to attack us physically. The heightened risks of attack and public unrest played a role in ceasing the protests on the night of 13 May.

The heightened tensions in society following these events and unprecedented mobilisation by the Orthodox Church and the neo-Nazi groups led queer activists to cancel the 17 May IDAHOT public demonstration too. While cancelling demonstrations that could have led to escalating violence was a responsible decision from the organizers, it demonstrated the reality where we, as activists, have to operate in. It means partly giving up one of the main tools for creating change: our freedom of assembly.

Unfortunately, there are quite legitimate concerns among activists that this informational war was supported by the government and that the neo-Nazi groups are actually controlled by the government in order to silence certain movements. In any case, the government has been doing nothing or very little to analyse the causes of emerging violent neo-Nazi groups and address the issue.

In both cases, the government acted smartly and avoided international criticism by portraying itself to be protecting our freedom of assembly and made us cancel the protests. This has created an additional task for activists to show to international society that façade declared protection from the government should not be perceived as human rights politics and needs to be critically analysed. Especially, when the government does not have the right vision and policy to address the issues of increasing social inequalities and radicalisation of certain groups, this declaration of protection is merely an instrument to avoid (international) criticism.

Levan Berianidze is the Executive Director of Equality Movement. You can follow them on Twitter @EqualityGeorgia