Let’s get this, well, straight. The Georgian parliament's deputy speaker, Manana Kobakhidze, is a heterosexual woman and, in her words, nothing, not even all the bureaucratic institutions of Europe, can change that.
You might wonder why 41-year-old Kobakhidze, a longtime civil-rights activist, feels obliged to share this information. But, in today's Georgia, consumed by feuding between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition and President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, politicians' attitudes toward homosexuality are a topic that has come out of the closet and can be used as ammunition by either side.
In Kobakhidze's case, it all began last weekend, when the center-right French daily Le Figaro published a story portraying the ongoing arrests and investigations of some of Saakashvili's political nearest and dearest as a vindictive witch hunt by a government with questionable democratic credentials.
The paper quoted Kobakhidze*, a Georgian Dream member, as noting that the Saakashvili administration had believed that the defense of all minorities, sexual included, was inherent to a democracy, but that the European concept that all citizens are equal is hard for Orthodox Georgia to accept.
Le Figaro claimed that the comment made French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen, an outspoken opponent of gay marriages, look like "a leftist."
Responding to Le Figaro's article, LGBT groups, rights activists and prominent Saakashvili supporters quickly attacked Kobakhidze as a homophobe; particularly on Facebook, where much of Georgia's debates now take place.
In an interview with the online journal Netgazeti.ge, Kobakhidze responded that the homophobia accusations are not true, and that she stands for equality for all.
(In a separate interview, she alleged that the opposition United National Movement is
busy cherry-picking facts and officials’ bloopers and handing them over
to Western diplomats and media, allegedly resulting in international-media attention that smears the Ivanishvili government.)
She asserted that she had not spoken with Le Figaro and alleged that the paper actually had lifted the quote from an interview she gave two years ago on a different topic to a different outlet.
“Homosexuality is not unacceptable for us [the government -- ed], but for the [Georgian] Orthodox Church,” she went on saying in a disclaimer that did little to assuage critics. “I admit that I am Orthodox and I may have different views about certain things and may not personally like something. This is my right, and nobody can forbid me to do so; neither the European Council nor the European Union… I am not a lesbian and nobody can force me to become one.”
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili repeatedly has said that sexual minorities are equal to any other citizen of Georgia, but not everyone in his crowd (most notably, Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Murman Dumbadze) seems to share this view. Members of a group of extremist Orthodox activists, who were jailed for an attack on a private TV station and known for their homophobic escapades, have just been included in a list of political prisoners compiled by a Georgian Dream-led parliamentary commission.
The extent to which Georgian voters are willing to go along with these stances is a toss-up. Georgia may still be a quite traditional, conservative society, but the trend in many urban circles is toward tolerance. If several years back, politicians traded accusations of homosexuality, now they exchange accusations of homophobia.
Manana Kobakhidze is a former executive director of Article 42 of the Constitution, a civil-rights watchdog that receives funding from the Open Society Georgia Foundation and the Open Society Institute-Budapest. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute-New York City, a separate part of the Open-Society-Foundations network.