The two sides of Georgia
07 November, 2017
On my first few days in Tbilisi, I stumbled across these two contrasting slogans. One is a testimony of open-mindedness and tolerance, one a testimony of discrimination and of a country deeply influenced by certain religious beliefs.

For about two weeks now, there have been protests going on in Georgia against so-called «LGBT propaganda». The cause for these is Guram Kashia, a star player in Georgia’s national football team and captain of the Dutch soccer club Vitesse Arnheim. In the
context of a campaign of the Dutch Football Union «to promote the awareness of diversity», he wore a rainbow armband – a symbol of the LGBT community - during a match on October 15th. The Captains of soccer clubs all over the Netherlands were part of this initiative.
Georgian football player Guram Kashia wearing the LGBT armband

Now, that simple strip of fabric Guram Kashia wore has caused him a lot of trouble in his home country: Comments of hatred in Social Media and a Georgian journalist stating in his column: «LGBT Kashia must be cut off from the Georgian team!» Critical and angry comments were not only expressed in the net, but also in the streets. In Tbilisi, local journalists have told me about protest riots including fireworks and smoke bombs. About members of the right-wing group Georgian March spreading threats towards LGBT rights supporters. About protesters throwing live chicken against the building of a Georgian TV broadcaster that reported on these issues. About protesters burning pride flags. Yesterday, a whole delegation of Orthodox priests and the Georgian Orthodox Parents Union protested against Guram Kashia’s action, giving statements to the media about homosexuality being pathological and sinful, claiming, the support of LGBT issues alone was already a sin.
Protest action in front of the Georgian Football Federation

To me, these kinds of reactions to one solely wearing an armband to demonstrate tolerance seem incomprehensible. But obviously, they are a reality in Georgia where, according to a survey (Pew Research Center, 2015/2016) 93 percent of the population think homosexuality should not be accepted by society and where according to media reports more than 30 violent attacks on LGBT people were reported last year.

While the violence of these protests and the open display of homophobia here in Georgia are disturbing, there are also other voices: In his Facebook account president Giorgi Margvelashvili expressed his support for Guram Kashia and in the thread beneath there are hundreds of comments applauding his message, expressing their respect for Guram Kashia. And there are the Georgians that I have been lucky enough to get to know so far: kind and generous, modern and open-minded. People who criticize the protests clearly and sometimes sharply. And there is Guram Kashia himself who, in his only interview on the subject, said what needed to be said: «I always support the freedom of human beings and I am always against violence. I don’t mind who you are, what you are doing with your life. As long as you don’t harm people and are a good human being you can be anyone you want. That’s my vision.»

Two sides of the Georgian population that don’t quite seem to match but appear to show the cultural crossroads Georgia is at: integration with the West on one side and conservative beliefs of parts of the Georgian Orthodox Church on the other side.

Author: Simone Herrmann, Swiss journalist