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Gay Rights in the Caucasus: Beatings, Arson and Eurovision

It was rainbow flags versus black cassocks in Tbilisi yesterday, the May 17 International Day against Homophobia, when a gay rights march came to blows with an extremist group led by several Georgian Orthodox priests.

“Do you realize what a great crime you are committing by urging small kids… to engage in a wrong sexual lifestyle?” exhorted one priest, who dismissed the marchers’ assurances that the rally was about fighting homophobia. The altercations degenerated into a fistfight after several followers of the Orthodox Parents Union, an ultraconservative group, physically assaulted LGBT rights activists.

Police made arrests on both sides, but reportedly the detainees were released quickly.

The police seem to have stayed neutral during the confrontation, but the bigger human rights test for Georgia is whether the prosecutor’s office will act on LGBT activists’ complaints against their attackers. This would mean taking on priests in a country where the Georgian Orthodox Church is the most trusted institution.

There are fewer questions about where the authorities stand on gay rights in neighboring Armenia, where rights activists are alarmed by signs of state-sponsored homophobia. “All those who are trying to protect homosexuals are perverting our society, are defaming the Armenian national identity,” declared parliamentarian Eduard Sharmazanov, spokesperson for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, reported the blog Unzipped.

The comments came shortly after two youngsters firebombed a gay-friendly bar in Yerevan. Sharmazanov called the attack "completely right and justified." Several Armenian parliamentarians paid the youngsters' bail. 

Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijani officials cannot afford to appear homophobic right now. The Eurovision Song Contest, one of the most gay-friendly music events in the world, will erupt in Baku on May 22, and Azerbaijani officials keep saying they are ready to embrace all visitors. So much so that Iran, angered by Baku's show of tolerance, has charged that the government plans to stage a gay-rights parade. The result? Protests in Baku.

But what happens to local sexual minorities when the show leaves town? Probably, they will be back to the life of cultural ostracism at best, and aspersions and violence at worst. According to ILGA Europe, a gay-rights advocacy group, Azerbaijan and Armenia are among Europe’s leading homophobes. Georgia is considered more tolerant, but, as yesterday’s incident has shown, that tolerance only goes so far.

Gay Rights in the Caucasus: Beatings, Arson and Eurovision

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