Rockford, Illinois is 5,959 miles (9,590 kilometers) and a total mindset away from the Georgian capital of 1.2 million, Tbilisi. So, perhaps it came as no surprise that some of the attendees at the May 15-17 World Congress of Families, a Rockford, Illinois-based Christian cooperative which promotes heterosexual marriage, were taken aback by the anti-Western stance vehemently espoused by their host, the outspoken nationalist businessman Levan Vasadze, in his crusade against gay marriage.
In a fiery speech to conference goers on May 16, the 45-year-old Vasadze stressed that there are no LGBT groups in Georgia; only provocateurs sponsored by Western non-governmental organizations that will soon be kicked out of the country. He did not elaborate about the basis for his prediction, but identified whom to blame.
The West, he said, owes Georgia an apology for attacking Georgian traditions; a reference to heterosexual marriage and families, both actively encouraged in this emphatically Orthodox Christian country. Vasadze, who holds an MBA from an American university (Emory), demanded that the US apologize “for supporting homosexuality globally” and predicted that Georgia will ally itself with Russia, with which Georgia shares a religious faith and, as he put it, traditional values.
The day when Moscow “realizes its mistake” and ends its support for separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be the day “the West will finally lose Georgia,” he concluded.
Vasadze’s rage, however, did not easily resonate with all Western conference-goers, who saw their gathering as designed to promote an evangelical message of Christian love and the need to fight “Satan’s lies” to preserve the sanctity of a traditional family.
Nor, conceivably, would it have jived with former US President George W. Bush, who sent greetings to the conference.
In comments to journalists, some of the American participants admitted that they were slightly taken aback by Vasadze’s words. “I will be frank. It was not quite what I anticipated,” said Alan Carlson, founder of the World Congress of Families. “But it did get attention. This congress meeting might’ve been on the back page of a paper alongside the article on ‘Aunt Millie had a sewing party at her apartment’ . . . you know, the little stories. Sometimes it is good to be on the front page instead.”
At least for a few days, the Congress was on or near the front page in Georgia. The chances for a clash between gay-rights activists and their detractors had many on the alert.
On May 17, 2013, scores of angry protesters, led by Orthodox priests, violently attacked a small rally in Tbilisi staged to commemorate the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Dozens were injured. A few priests were put on trial, but ultimately cleared of all wrongdoing.
Since the clashes, Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II, arguably the country’s most influential public figure, has declared May 17 a day to honor families and parents.
The commemorations of the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia continue, but less overtly. Facing threats of violence, the LGBT community this year chose to mark the day with a few, invitation-only parties and exhibitions at carefully selected underground venues and with hit-and-run protest actions like street graffiti – an artistic move that led to the arrest of ten people.
Only a few ventured to make a stand downtown, and to place a tall, rainbow-colored stool in front of the Radisson Blu hotel, where the World Congress of Families was meeting. The stool, used by one Orthodox priest in 2013 as a potential weapon against gay-rights activists, has become a symbol for the community’s fight for self-expression.
But inside the hotel, some of the international participants in the conference seemed either unaware or reluctant to believe the story of the 2013 violence or any link between the protesters and their hosts. “I’ve heard about the episode from two years ago and I certainly would condemn any violence that took place and … I hope that the authorities tried to find out who did [the criminal acts] and sought appropriate punishment,” said Carlson.
Despite the conflict of outlooks, Carlson said that all sides have an interest in “healthy, happy children.” However, he added that “those only come from heterosexual couples, until hatcheries are created like in the ‘Brave, New World’ [the 1932 futuristic novel by Aldous Huxley about a global, dictatorial government’s quest to eradicate individuality] . . . and I hope that both sides can see that.”
Some other participants said that they were in town to warn Georgia of the dangers that come with diverging from traditional, heterosexual families.
“Western Europe is doomed,” predicted Christine de Marcellus de Vollmer of the Latin American Alliance for the Family. “I don’t think Western Europe will survive. It is very sad because it is very beautiful, but they just don’t have enough children.”
“I know a lot of people on the other side, and I love them, but I just disagree with them,” she went on to say. Ultimately, she added, love will prevail.
Members of the LGBT community, however, say they have been feeling just the opposite.
Gathering outside the Radisson, a handful of activists called on conference participants to stop instilling hatred and promoting violence against the LGBT community in Georgia. One of the women, Mariam Kvaratskhelia, said that her organization, LGBT Georgia, requested a permit from the city to commemorate the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, but police said they could not guarantee their safety.
Permits for gatherings at many of Tbilisi’s most public locations already had been issued to those taking the opposing view on gay rights in Georgia.
Kvaratskhelia asserted that the LGBT community has, thus, been denied the right to freedom of expression. “The state has proved completely powerless in guaranteeing our security . . . “
For this reason, she said, activists opted for “guerilla tactics” and spraying gay-rights graffiti on buildings – an action for which ten are now awaiting trial.