A pro-LGBTQ armband has earned Georgian soccer star Guram Kashia an award in Europe, but also harassment and ostracism at home.
Kashia, the captain of Georgia’s national team, was the first-ever recipient of the #EqualGames award from Europe’s football association, UEFA. He was given the honor on August 22, after wearing a rainbow armband last year at a game for his pro team in Holland as part of a league-wide anti-homophobia campaign.
The move was viewed as an act of heroism by Georgia’s embattled LGBTQ community, but subjected him to the full rage of Georgian right-wing groups, who heckled him online and called for his ouster from Georgian football.
The UEFA award has only exacerbated the threats against Kashia, further demonstrating the award was well deserved and that it took courage to take such a stand in the largely homophobic edge of Europe.
A deluge of social media vitriol labeled Kashia a “disgrace” and “a shame to our country.” The Georgian March, an alliance of ultra-conservative groups, condemned the captain for “peddling LGBT propaganda” and launched a “No to Kashia” online campaign.
While much of the harassment took place on Facebook — the main arena for the nation’s political and culture debate — right-wing activists also staged rallies and burned rainbow flags in front of the Georgian Football Federation offices in Tbilisi.
But Kashia also has enjoyed an outpouring of support from the other side of Georgia’s gaping cultural divide. An online campaign #WeStandByKashia has been launched, and many Georgians used their Facebook profile photos to demonstrate their solidarity with him.
“I’m proud that after all these years a Georgian received an award from UEFA,” wrote Zurab Tatanashvili, a professor of social work and a liberal commentator, on Facebook. He and many in his social circle emblazoned their profile pictures with the #WeStandbyKashia hashtag. “I am glad that in this country there are a lot of people for whom being human is a central value,” he said.
Other diversity-embracing Georgians praised Kashia for bringing the fight for LGBTQ rights — usually a niche interest of the country’s human rights groups — into the centerfield of national discourse.
“Anyone who has experienced at least once a mass attack on Facebook and was the target of unbridled hate, knows how Kashia must be feeling now,” said Salome Asatiani, an RFE/RL journalist and a respected social commentator, on Facebook.
“But I believe that all our experiences pale in comparison,” she continued. “It is a one thing when you are an activist, a journalist or a professional human rights defender - then you are relatively inured to this. […] But this man pulled off an act of civic heroism in field marked with machismo and homophobia. A footballer fighting homophobia [in Georgia] was unimaginable until him, as it was NGOs’ job until now.”
Kashia’s act indeed forced Georgian soccer world to voice their opinion on LGBT rights. And fellow football players and Georgia’s football administration stood up for the embattled captain.
“Guram Kashia has our full support,” Nika Jgharkava, vice president of Georgian Football Federation, told Tabula magazine. “Moreover, the Football Federation is against any kind of discrimination, supports the idea of equality and will say this whenever and wherever we can.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi.