In July, hundreds of anti-LGBTQ thugs took to the streets of Georgia’s capital to protest a Pride march due to take place on the same day. Members of the far-right with links to the Eastern Orthodox Church took violently attacked journalists and eventually stormed the offices of Tbilisi Pride. Protesters ransacked the offices, pulling down and destroying the rainbow Pride flag that hung from the balcony.
As violent mobs rampaged, Tamaz Sozashvili, the 25-year-old co-founder of Tbilisi Pride, was hiding in a building streets away fearing for his safety. The break-in, captured and shared across social media, was an intensely personal violation. He, like many other LGBTQ people in Georgia, had used that office as a safe space, including storing private images and documents. Despite it being illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexuality since 2012 in Georgia, conservative social values still permeate the country.
At the time, Tbilisi Pride organisers condemned the attack and criticised the government for failing to protect their right to march. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili had seemed to suggest that it was the Pride celebrations that were to blame, as according to him the “majority” of people were opposed to the event. Days later, a journalist who had been attacked at the scene, died. The incident comes as part of a wave of anti-LGBTQ attacks in Europe – Zagreb’s Pride march was attacked for the first time in a decade, while Hungary has passed a new law banning the “promotion” of homosexuality.
Despite the challenging environment faced by activists and journalists, Sozashvili and many others continue to fight for the rights of LGBTQ people. A month after the attacks in Tbilisi, VICE World News spoke to him about mobilising amid the violence.
VICE World News: Hi Tamaz. What is the attitude to LGBTQ rights in Georgia?
Tamaz Sozashvili: If we look at the legislation of Georgia, in terms of LGBTI rights, we're pretty good. But the most challenging part is the execution of those laws into practice. We are the only group in the country that cannot practice the right of peaceful assembly and expression. We can not show up in public spaces, as we've seen this year.
[After Pride was stormed] They did not detain the organisers of these violent attacks. They did not detain all the perpetrators. [The government] even encouraged this violence in its public statement. As a result, there is a high rate of hate crimes reported in Tbilisi these days. Most of the people in the street know that they are not going to be punished if they attempt to attack minorities. They know that it's okay to attack LGBTI people.
Tamaz Sozashvili. Photo: Supplied
Does the political situation in Georgia aggravate the freedom of LGBTQ people in the country?
I had a meeting [recently] with some of the ambassadors of the European countries working in Georgia, and we discussed the existing situation and that it really needs to stop, and that we need to find some additional mechanisms and resources because nothing really can stop it.
Now we are getting ready for the elections at the beginning of October, and the ruling [Georgian Dream] party uses LGBTI rights to mobilise their supporters. They are instrumentalising homophobia so that they can mobilise most of their supporters around them.
How did you become involved in LGBTQ activism in Georgia?
I got actively involved in LGBTI activism back in 2016. I grew up in a rural area of Georgia where it was hard to be gay. And I came out quite late when I was studying at the university. It was my second year at the university when I came out and before that, I really believed that I was alone and that I did not deserve love. That I did not deserve the respect. And that I did not deserve to have the same rights as other citizens of this country.
By that time, I decided that I really wanted to fight for LGBTI rights. First of all, for myself. And second of all, I really did not want any person to have to experience the same feelings or to go through the same thing I went through.
What was it like to witness what happened in Tbilisi during pride?
That’s a really emotional and tough question. I watched the storming of the Tbilisi office live. I was running to the United Nations house for my safety. We were thinking, where will be our next shelter, and at the same time, we witnessed those perpetrators climbing up our office and storming it. Of course, that was tragic and one of the most traumatic events of my life.
I put so much energy – for more than two years – into the development of Tbilisi Pride because I did not have any other job and I sacrificed a lot personally along with other activists. The important thing is that we created a safe space for so many LGBTI people in Tbilisi and other parts of Georgia, which is why it was so painful to see it being destroyed.
Also, we were keeping the personal information of beneficiaries [in there]. Personally, I had some very private pictures, like pictures with my boyfriend. The fact that [the violent protesters] had unlimited access to that place, and the sense that like they entered our office, they destroyed whatever they wanted to destroy – it was completely their space. Not a single policeman or anyone tried to stop them. I was feeling very alone and feeling very unsafe.
How do you feel about the future of LGBTQ rights in Georgia?
The only thing is that the government of Georgia needs to change. The Georgian ruling Dream Party is not capable of governing the country. That’s the only way [LGBTQ rights will improve], otherwise, most of the LGBTI people will immigrate. I'm moving to Sweden in three weeks [to study]. I'll be living there for the next two years. And then I have a choice to either come back or not. If there is the same government then I'm not sure, because it affects not just my physical health but my mental health as well, and I really need to take care of myself.