As thousands rally in support of freedom of expression and the LGBT+ community in Tbilisi, the future is bright says Giorgi Tabagari
By Umberto Bacchi
July 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Although he was "nearly killed" by a violent mob this week, the organiser of Tbilisi Pride said he felt upbeat after Georgians responded with an outpouring of support for LGBT+ rights.
While a "March for Dignity" was disrupted by protesters before it began and Tbilisi Pride's offices were ransacked on Monday, Giorgi Tabagari described a pro-LGBT+ rally on Tuesday as "truly historic" for the former Soviet republic.
Thousands of people gathered outside parliament in an unprecedented show of solidarity, denouncing the previous day's violence as LGBT+ campaigners unfurled a rainbow flag and set off coloured smoke bombs to chants of "Georgia, Georgia".
"We are winning the information war," Tabagari said, adding that Monday's violence - in which 55 people, mostly journalists, were injured - forced many Georgians to pick sides, shoring up support for the LGBT+ community.
"It was an important eye-opening for a lot of people who were not previously so supportive of LGBT+ rights but now see it's a common challenge. I think this is a positive outcome of the whole week," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Georgia has witnessed a cultural clash between liberal forces and religious conservatives over the past decade as it has modernised and introduced progressive reforms, though it remains mostly conservative on social issues.
Georgia's second-ever Pride event drew condemnation from the outset from the Orthodox Church and conservatives who said the event had no place in the country, which has pursued democratic and economic reforms in a bid to join the European Union.
Opposition parties and rights groups this week accused the government of failing to prevent or even stoking the violence as Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said in the run-up that the march was "not reasonable" and risked causing confrontation.
"We saw the state system failing to provide an adequate response," said Tabagari, who on Monday narrowly escaped a mob that surrounded his car while he was leaving the United Nations building in central Tbilisi after a meeting.
The interior ministry said it had warned LGBT+ activists of the dangers and that the police were mobilised, with about 3,200 officers on standby to safeguard Monday's march.
Police said 15 people were arrested over Monday's violence and a further 100 were detained for attempting to attack the pro-LGBT+ rally on Tuesday.
"Intensive investigative and search activities are in progress," the interior ministry said in a statement.
Georgia has passed laws against discrimination and hate crimes, but LGBT+ rights groups say there is a lack of adequate protection by law enforcement officials and homophobia remains widespread.
Tabagari began his career as co-founder of the Georgian branch of the European Youth Parliament - whose mission is to bring young people together as open-minded, active citizens - before working to promote fair elections and LGBT+ rights.
"Our Pride is more of a resistance and we still have to fight for survival and to have our place in society," he said, adding that the dramatic events of the week had left a "bittersweet taste".
"I am really exhausted. I want to escape somewhere, hide for some time and not think about anything, just rest," he said.
Tabagari then plans to try organise another Tbilisi Pride for 2022.
"Lots of people from the queer community went out on the streets, despite facing serious life-threatening challenges," he said.
"The community is getting empowered. More and more people are speaking out for their rights and for their liberties - and this is exactly what is going to bring changes in the end."
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi in Milan, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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