By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, June 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Georgia's first LGBTQ+ Pride event will kick off on Wednesday, with tensions running high after religious leaders asked authorities to ban it and ultra-nationalist groups issued threats.
Organisers said they were determined to press ahead with the planned week of activities, including a rally in the capital of the socially conservative nation, despite the government warning it could not guarantee participants' safety.
"Despite the existing risks, the first 'March of Dignity' in the history of Georgia is in force and we are not going to cancel it," Tbilisi Pride promoters said in a statement after protests and arrests cast doubts on whether it would go ahead.
Many fear a repeat of 2013, when a rally against homophobia was broken up by a crowd of priests and thousands of protesters, forcing participants to flee.
The day has since been marked by large demonstrations, backed by the influential Orthodox Church in support of "traditional family values" and LGBTQ+ groups have refrained from holding major public gatherings.
Plans to hold Pride have sparked a heated debate in the Caucasian country, which has witnessed a cultural clash between liberal forces and religious conservatives over the past decade, as it has modernised and introduced radical reforms.
Georgia has passed anti-discrimination laws in an effort to move closer to the European Union, but homophobia remains widespread, LGBTQ+ rights groups have said.
Last Friday, the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate said Pride was an unacceptable provocation aimed at promoting "the sin of Sodom" and urged the government to ban it.
Hours later, about a dozen Tbilisi Pride supporters were confronted by a larger group of counter-demonstrators as they staged an impromptu sit-in outside a government building in central Tbilisi decrying a lack of support from officials.
A six-hour standoff ensued, during which the interior ministry said it detained 28 anti-LGBTQ+ protesters who attempted to break a security cordon separating the two groups and threw eggs and insults at the Pride supporters.
Among the counter-demonstrators was Levan Vasadze, a Georgian millionaire with business ties to Russia known for his anti-Western views who has become the face of the anti-LGBTQ+ movement.
On Sunday, wearing a white national costume and brandishing a cross and a belt that he said would be used to tie LGBTQ+ people's hands, Vasadze urged supporters gathered at a Tbilisi park to form vigilante units to stop Pride.
The interior ministry said it had opened an investigation into the matter.
Weeks earlier it warned Pride organisers it would be "impossible" to hold a rally as this would put participants' safety at risk — a position it reaffirmed at a meeting on Monday, Pride organisers said.
The ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
On Monday Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze denied gay people faced discrimination in Georgia, telling a press conference that LGBTQ+ issues were being forced on Georgian society to stoke tensions.
Georgia's LGBTQ+ community has flourished underground in recent years, with music clubs providing safe space for to young people to express their sexuality, shifting social norms and public attitudes.
Pride organisers said it was time for LGBTQ+ people to come out in the open, adding they hoped they event would serve as a stepping stone to start a national conversation about LGBTQ+ issues and bring about change. "Clubbing is just one aspect of your life ... I cannot live in a club," said Miko Shakhdinarian, one of seven activists behind Tbilisi Pride, adding most LGBTQ+ people in Georgia hid their sexuality fearing rejection and discrimination.
"We want to exist in public spaces".
But the event, announced in February, has split the LGBTQ+ community, with some groups calling it counterproductive.
One transgender group boycotting the event said attacks on transgender sex workers had increased since the launch and complained they had not bee consulted.
The event is scheduled to start on Wednesday with a stage version of Franz Kafka's novel The Metamorphosis followed by a conference on LGBTQ+ issues. The closing street parade in Tbilisi is planned for the weekend, although the exact time and location have not been disclosed. "We are excited to demonstrate the challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people," organisers said, adding they expected Western diplomats to join the rally.
"We call on everyone, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, to join us!"
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)