Then They Build Monuments To You

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”
– Nicholas Klein, American trade unionist

Yesterday was the International Day Against Homophobia, and as you probably know the demonstration in Tbilisi was preempted by a counter-demonstration, led by the Georgian Orthodox Church, the goal of which was to beat and/or kill as many demonstrators as possible.

Two weeks ago was Easter. The Georgian Patriarch said that abortion must be banned in Georgia because there are not enough Georgians, and that if Georgian mothers have babies that they cannot care for, they should give the babies to the Church.

I’ve been too busy to do either of these topics justice. I feel anger and rage and disappointment. I want to use these events as a bludgeon with which to attack the Church. I feel a sense of grim satisfaction that the Orthodox Church is finally showing its really ugly side to the world. Now, we can no longer ignore the violence inherent within the system.

Will my anger help anyone? My New Years Resolution was to avoid outrage for its own sake. What will outrage – my outrage – do in this case? Another foreigner coming to tell Georgians how to live. If anyone paid attention at all, it would be to point me out as an example of what the priests are fighting against – foreign influence ruining Georgia’s morality.

Two years ago, I wrote a post about the state of LGBT rights in Georgia. The gist was that the general direction of LGBT discussions in Georgia, in public, was that there were no gay Georgians. First they ignore you.

A lot has happened in that time. There was last year’s rally, which was attacked during its march down Rustaveli Avenue. Then there was the follow-up rally, protesting the violence, which was kept safe by the police. Then there was the broom scandal, where it came out that there was systemic rape – rape against men, in particular – going on in Georgian prisons. These are both viewed as assaults on Georgian manhood and Georgian morality. There was the election and its aftermath, during which many Georgians got the impression that the foreign media and foreign governments were biased towards Misha and were trying to enact their own agenda in Georgia – an agenda which might not necessarily have the best interests of Georgians themselves as its top priority. This, I would argue, is deeply interrelated with the rise in nationalist sentiment in Georgia, which is in turn reflected by things like the argument that abortion should be banned so that there will be more Georgians. And, of course, the homosexual lifestyle, which is seen as nonreproductive, is also at odds with this vision of Georgia’s future.

There are a lot of reasons why violence erupted yesterday, and many of them reflect real problems that Georgia has to deal with. But make no mistake: yesterday was a huge victory for LGBT rights in Georgia.

Now, the issue of LGBT rights in Georgia has international attention. Georgia made more of a spectacle of itself than most other countries around the world. Journalists and tourists were caught up in the violence and chaos. Georgia’s reputation took a hit, and many Georgians feel shame that their countrymen embarrassed themselves so thoroughly by resorting to this kind of behavior.

But more importantly for Georgians, now the issue of LGBT rights in Georgia has Georgians’ attention. Now there can be no more “there are no gays in Georgia” claims to close down arguments. In only two years, LGBT issues in Georgia have gone from total invisibility to total recognition.

Now, all of the people who were on the fence, who were quietly ambivalent, or who supported LGBT rights but did not talk about it because of social taboo or fear of offending someone or fear of being ridiculed, all of the people who we never knew were allies – now all of these people are standing up against violence and for the right of LGBT supporters to express their opinions in public. People who never cared before care now. People who didn’t think LGBT rights were their issue are making it their issue now. Thousands of Georgians, on the internet, in the news, and in person, are denouncing the violence perpetrated by their church and their countrymen against innocent human beings.

I have to wonder – could I have imagined, in May, 2011, thousands and thousands of Georgians, all over the country and all over the world, denouncing anti-LGBT violence? Could any of us have imagined that? This is what progress looks like. It’s painful, it’s discouraging, and we’re winning.

There is a widespread, non-partisan political consensus that the right of Georgians to demonstrate against homophobia must be protected. While a few commentators have tried to somehow blame Misha or Ivanishvili for what happened yesterday, I am encouraged by the fact that virtually every politician who spoke on the matter, including Ivanishvili himself, expressed support for the Constitutional rights of Georgians to demonstrate and to have their demonstrations protected. It seems like there is currently no party that is siding with the Patriarch on this issue in order to score political points. I suspect that next year’s rally will have better police protection (and I would note that the lack of adequate police protection at demonstrations has been a recurring issue since the last elections, not limited to this particular rally).

So do I feel anger? Do I feel pain? Do I feel fear that my son will grow up in an environment of hate? Absolutely. A part of me wants to retaliate, to curse the priests and the people who follow them, to fight fire with fire. But I will not allow that part of me to win. It’s counterproductive. I will focus on the positive.

Today, I am proud to live in a country where politicians will defy the Church and stand up for the right to freedom of expression. I am proud to live in a country where every act of violence is met with a public outcry against violence. I am proud to live in a country where a growing number of demonstrators every year will risk life and limb for the right of their fellow humans to live without discrimination or oppression. I am proud that my wife is disgusted by bigotry and that her family is disgusted by the violence. I am proud that this country has come so far in such a short time.

Two years ago I was disappointed by the wall of silence and apathy surrounding LGBT issues. Now I am proud that Georgians are standing up to confront hatred and ignorance head-on. What happened yesterday filled me with hope. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

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10 Responses to Then They Build Monuments To You

  1. Anonymous says:

    Neal, I love how proud you feel to live in Georgia. I feel this way in my heart, always have and don’t even know why! It feels great to have those feelings validated by another person. Hopefully someday I will get there and never leave! Thank you for being my friend!!! -Tenisha

  2. tcjogden69 says:

    Someone told me yesterday that they had hoped that because last year’s rally ended in violence, LGBT activists wouldn’t dare do it again; they were very disappointed, and rightly so. I think it’s great that the gay community isn’t being intimidated by violent threats, and who knows, maybe this will signal a reduction in the Church’s political influence. It’s about bloody time. Georgia will never get membership into any international political or military body while these lunatic old men have so much power…which is something I think Georgians need to understand, and damn soon.

    • ფურცხვი says:

      Well tim, Georgia won’t be able to join NATO or EU anyway. And it’s not about gay/women rights, you know that.
      Imagine tomorrow Georgia turned into most tolerant society ever, imagine there’s no woman/gay right violation anymore.
      And you think in this case Georgia will join either of international organizations?
      I don’t think so.
      I think west will never ever dear to upset russia.
      We have to cope with this, both u and me, it’s all about politics.
      I don’t see political situation in world will change anytime soon. So it’s a sad fact, Georgia will die alone one day 😀

  3. Window says:

    In an attempt to defend the Church as an institution, I’ll try this line of argument, though if it is a weak defence, I welcome the justified rebuttals to come. (As it is, i’m not even sure the Church merits defending here, but anyhow…). If you’re going to portray all of this as pathology (i.e., faith is a nothing more than a socially acceptable form of natural psychopathic behaviour; to be juxtaposed with homosexuality as a natural variant of human sexuality), then aren’t you guilty of a kind of double standard in your post? It seems as though your ire is particularly focused on the religious person as being guilty of their choice in life, without admitting to the possibility that truly religiously motivated people might actually have no say in what they feel or how they perceive the world. Afterall, don’t they readily testify to things like having a soul, perceptions of spiritual grace motivating their actions on earth, etc, etc, ad nauseum? The question of whether these things exist is quite beside the point here. I would suggest that these beliefs must be weighted with more balance, rather than simply holding an unreasonably high expectation that they “simply get over it” and conform to the rational norms of public secular life. Quite obviously, hatred should never be condoned, but in your particular case, your rage against your pet peeve seems quite unreasonable, and in fact, a little indefensible on its own terms. Am I wrong?

    • panoptical says:

      There are a lot of layers to that question.

      At a very superficial level, I could just say that religious people are entitled to their beliefs as long as they don’t resort to violence. Certainly, from a legal point of view, that’s true – practicing Christianity is not illegal, but beating up demonstrators is illegal. One could thus say that the constitution of Georgia, which expresses the democratic will of the Georgian people, enshrines this division between beliefs and actions.

      But you are right in suggesting that my anger at religious people is not because they broke the law. My anger at religious people is because they are bullies. A priest can call on his flock to attack an LGBT rights rally, but there is no one in society – not even the police – who can be called on to defend that rally. No one will stand up for a minority group of people who are different, and this reminds me of the times in my life when I was bullied because I was different (I was a nerdy kid). All the pain and anger I felt as a child gets focused towards any bully – whether it’s a racist bully, or a homophobic bully, or a sexist bully, or a nationalist bully.

      Religions perpetuate themselves by enforcing conformity – usually through bullying – and religious conservatives are right in suggesting that anything that threatens that conformity threatens the religion itself. There is no way for religion to coexist with an open and tolerant society that values reason, empathy, and knowledge. In that situation, either religion loses power in the society or the society becomes less open, less tolerant, less reasonable, less empathetic, and less knowledgeable. Yesterday, I believe, religion lost some power in Georgian society, and the society became more empathetic – and the mechanism was individuals putting themselves in the position of the demonstrators who were victims of violence, rather than taking the side of the Church, and declaring that the violence was unacceptable and shameful.

      So here’s a question: when put in those terms, is hatred of bullies equivalent to hatred of tolerance? If we have to pick one or the other – if it’s really a zero-sum game – then what if one side actually is morally superior? What if reason and empathy really are just better than ignorance and violence? Is hatred of what is bad equivalent to hatred of what is good?

      I am optimistic, and I believe that religious people are human, and are capable of reason, and are capable of empathy. Religious conservatives believe this too. It is as obvious to them as it is to me that if you give people a genuine choice between reason and ignorance, between empathy and blind hatred, they will choose reason and empathy in ever-increasing numbers. This is the source of the progress of humanity. This is also why religious conservatives hate and fear an open society and why they lash out, violently, against anyone or anything that threatens to give their followers a genuine alternative to living in darkness.

      And that is why, even though I feel anger, and rage, and hatred, and pain, I do not act on those emotions or advocate that others should do so. I do not advocate lashing out against religious people, first, because it is wrong, and second, because we do not need to silence religious voices in order to win – we only need for our own voices to be heard.

      • Window says:

        Entirely praiseworthy and reasonable. But there are many targets in the world that one may choose to aim. And some are even worthy in themselves. The hope is always that parallel or rival crusades don’t end up destroying each other. I will try to offer a small argument for why religion might still have a role to play in the public sphere.

        Firstly, the same time as we as a society have vowed to eliminate injustice in the world for everyone, we encourage free-market rapacity in economics and society. The effects of this are far-ranging and subtly devastating as all can see, but there are no rationally fortified defences against it, because rationalism itself will always favour self-interest over the laying down one’s own autonomy to choose. The way out of this conundrum, as many a great theologian and saint pointed out (i.e., those that were not merely bigots or fools), is that the answer lies precisely in irrational allegiance to values. You can never fight self-interest with purely rational arguments – you will eventually end up either serving self-interested reasoning anyway, or end up paralysed with indecision.

        The presence of religion in all this is as a wound upon pure rationalism. It’s allied to irrational forgiveness, patience, conservation, grace and other virtues, almost haphazardly. And this is key. This plays itself out in sometimes highly effective ways, and sometimes not so meaningful ways, within the larger society as a whole.

        All the major organized religions of the world essentially fulfil this space in public life. To take but one example familiar to the West, Christians live with the respect for the Word of God because they believe that pride and self-interest will destroy the world, according to any good ‘ol basic Sunday school theologian. And one must live in humility and self-negation for that purpose alone. Pure rationalists seek to deaden that Word. They would flatten all language until there is only one superscript allowed for every deed, thought and action. This is reductionism at its worst, to me, if only because it misses the point of the whole thing in the first place.

        Your comments above on tolerance were justified, and eminently well put. I must point out though that in every equation, there is some aspect of society that one consciously or unconsciously marginalizes in order to promote an idealized good. This, as they say, is the way it goes. You have chosen the role of defender of the weak (something the Church did for thousands of years — there is no basis for liberal democracy without the groundwork of Western metaphysics in the medieval ages). All very admirable, but even you admit that someone must bear the brunt of your anger, whether justified or not. We all try to be understanding and kind, perhaps going out of our way to save a beaten dog in a street out of a conviction that pain is wrong, even as we will crush an insect or ten under foot without a second’s thought on our way there to do the helping.

        To conclude, there are untold incredible grave injustices going on in the world at this very second – were you only to give up your time for the present few minutes to think upon it. The sheer scale of it might overwhelm you, if you were to let it. So you have to make decisions, rational ones. You decide only some things are worth fighting for now, only those that perhaps don’t force you out of your way too much, ones that kinda gel with your place in life, your views on life, your instincts and so on. The rest of it you don’t have time for. The rest remain the great unanswerables of life. But far far be it for me to contest some of the things the Church has also done, before you.

  4. l says:

    I think we’re reaching the turning point when secularization will slowly but surely begin to be actualized to it fullest. There’s been some hidden, or on and off, criticism towards church institution and its power, but it is becoming more and more voiced and explicit which I believe will progress further and further. Gladly, idealisation of Patriarch is diminishing as well from what I’ve observed. Even from within the church institution itself, though by very few, the fundamentalist nature of “practicing Christianity” in a modern Georgian way is addressed negatively – thus it’s a complex objective, but I strongly believe we’re getting there sooner or later : )
    Fword to everything though. All this bs terribly fueled my hocd 😀 Damn it! 😀

    All will be fine 🙂

  5. Anonymous says:

    Let’s face it and accept it Georgian Church and church leaders are biggest supporter of LGBT people in Georgia. Without their effort and act shown by them LGBT rally would not be so much popular and gain international attention. Therefore, LGBT people should send thank you notes and flowers to Church and their leader. Next year there will be more LGBT in same rally and this is good sign of developing society.

  6. pasumonok says:

    let’s tell the kids that are prosecuted in the streets that it’s all positive,let’s tell the girl that people bit, bit!!!! on Monday that sometime her monument will grace the place where she was attacked. let’s tell that woman that was forced to get off the bus because people recognized her as an lgbt activist (fuckin TV), that she has to take this shit so that some people on the fence decide that our church sucks.
    let’s tell my friends that are stalked by their office everyday since last friday that they have to be victims, in order to expose violent priests.
    Bidzina made comments before the rally, but nothing drastic after the rally.
    Misha said that it was wrong of us to stand on a holy place of 9th April (exact citation) the dayafter soldiers died.
    Ilia first petitioned the government to call off the rally, then allowed a thank-you service in Sameba, so that people that almost tore my friend’s bus apart, could go praise the lord for such a glorious day.
    No official person has condemned what happened. All we hear are half-phrases and things like, well, the violence is bad, but…
    There’s no but!!!!
    4 people identified by the police were fined 100 lari each for breaking police orders!!! that’s it!!
    It could be a good thing if officials did something about it.
    Damn them.

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