There have been some interesting developments this year regarding today’s International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
For some background context, Georgian LGBT rights activists have been trying to hold demonstrations against homophobia in Georgia for several years now. On May 17th, 2012, there was some scattered violence against the demonstrators. On May 17th, 2013, there was much more organized violence against the demonstration, as the Georgian Orthodox Church led an angry mob numbering in the thousands to attack a group of about 25 young people, who had to be evacuated by the police. The famous-in-Georgia image of the priest holding a stool with which to bludgeon the gayness out of these people comes from this event. Last year – May 17th, 2014 – there were a few guerrilla demonstrations – including a staircase painted with rainbow colors, and a bunch of empty pairs of shoes placed in Tbilisi’s main square to symbolize the people who could not attend a demonstration because of the threat of violence from the peace-loving, Christ-like Georgian Orthodox Church. The Church, for its part, declared May 17th the Intranational Georgian Day of the Family, because if there’s anything in Georgia that does not get enough attention, it’s families.
This year, Identoba – Georgia’s LGBT rights organization – tried to get the government to agree to protect LGBT-rights advocates against the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Georgian police apparently said they would protect a demonstration only if it occurred somewhere that was of no particular importance to Georgian social or cultural life – such as the parking lot of a large hotel/casino in one of the city’s (relatively) newer districts. Identoba responded by calling Georgia a theocracy – which is not entirely fair, because a country in which the police cannot protect its citizens from a group of organized thugs (or, for that matter, secure its borders) is more properly called a failed state rather than a theocracy – but it is certainly true that the Church is a powerful and oppressive force in this country.
The result of all this is that Identoba is planning to hold a secret rally, somewhere in the city, the location of which will apparently be disclosed only to registered participants from recognized NGOs (correct me if I’m wrong). Demonstrators have been told to wear ordinary clothes and carry no signs, symbols, or other recognizable indications that they are affiliated with any LGBT rights groups, because in the past people have been targeted for random violence on the basis of suspected LGBT sympathies. In 2013 there were reports of violence against anyone who even looked gay, including a woman who was attacked in the street for having a short haircut, so these are actually quite sensible precautions.
The debate about LGBT rights in Georgia is at the stage where it is a battle over public visibility. Most Georgians do not want to actively hunt down and murder gay people and there is comparatively little anti-gay violence, aside from the annual eruptions described above. Generally Georgians take a live-and-let-live attitude, as long as the so-called “sexual minorities” stay in the closet. I think part of this is an issue of the honor of Georgia – when I came here many Georgians would often say that there are no gays in Georgia, and now that they cannot credibly make that claim, they are angry. Georgians find it embarrassing that there are, in fact, gays in Georgia.
The other part is that Georgians are concerned about their children. Russia has banned “gay propaganda” with the justification that the government needs to protect children from being recruited into a homosexual lifestyle, and the overall sentiment in Georgia is similar. To me this sounds ridiculous, but I don’t think we can dismiss it. Often when I talk to Georgians about gay rights, they ask me what I would do if my own son were gay. Since this question keeps coming up, I have come to suspect that it lies at the heart of Georgians’ concern about letting LGBT groups have public visibility. It’s why the Church wants to claim May 17th for families, as opposed to some more particularly religious agenda.
Georgian family values are still heavily influenced by economic and social concerns that probably seem alien to people from wealthier, more developed countries. Georgians of my generation have strong connections to their villages, even if they’ve never actually lived there, and you’d be surprised how many people still consume produce (and wine) that comes from the villages where their ancestors lived. The family is not just a source of organic foods – it’s a source of educational success, of career paths (yes, there is still a lot of nepotism in Georgia), of social status. The family is the social safety net. The obligations surrounding family are so much stronger and more pervasive in Georgia than in New York City that it is hard for me to predict where and how and how much they’ll influence other Georgian cultural practices.
For example, Georgians are really afraid of having gay relatives. They’re afraid of the loss of social status. They’re afraid people will think they’re gay if they have a gay relative. This is salient because loss of status can mean loss of educational and job opportunities, given the amount of nepotism in Georgia. They’re afraid of having a gay son and therefore not having grandsons – Georgians are very concerned about male heirs, who are the property-inheritors and name-carriers. Georgians want their children to be “normal”, because children are a status symbol, and status in Georgia is tied into the social and economic system such that a threat to status can be a threat to livelihood.
I would love to offer arguments as to why Georgians shouldn’t fear LGBT visibility – but I’m not convinced those arguments would work here. Georgia does not have strong, reliable social institutions outside of the family. Georgia’s economy is precarious, its employment levels low, its educational system primitive, its social safety net new and untested and incomplete. Pensioners do not make enough to live without their relatives’ support. Students do not graduate with the skills to compete in the world market. If the social institution of the family is weakened, Georgians do not have anything to fall back on. As a result, Georgians respond to any perceived threat to the family out of fear – and fear responses are notoriously irrational. You can’t reason with a cornered animal.
I think that the only way Georgians will become comfortable with LGBT visibility is if Georgian society develops to the point where Georgians can feel secure in their existence regardless of the status of their family. This requires economic development, institution-building in government, education reform, and other forms of modernization. If I had to put forth a theory, I would say that the reason for the correlation between wealth and gay rights in a society comes down to the dependance on public social institutions versus dependance on family (and this theory explains outliers like Saudi Arabia, which are fabulously wealthy and awful for gay rights, because they are idiosyncratically family-dependent). This would explain why social democracies are great for gay rights. But who knows, I could be wrong.
I should point out that I don’t think Georgia’s poor socio-economic status justifies anti-gay sentiment. Bullying others out of fear is perhaps the most pathetic form of cowardice, and there are plenty of Georgians who recognize that intimidating your fellow humans into a life of fear, silence, and shame is morally repugnant regardless of the social and economic conditions you were born into. I just think that most people do not have the courage to face their fears unless it is unavoidable, which means that most Georgians will continue to be homophobic until the battle for LGBT visibility is won and Georgians have no choice but to get used to it – which is why this is such an important battle in the overall struggle for LGBT rights.
I am against homophobia because homophobia has victims. Homophobia drives people to suicide. Homophobia drives families apart and forces young people out of their homes and onto the streets. Homophobia causes people to bully and beat and kill each other. Homophobia creates secrets and lies. Homophobia makes American men afraid to touch each other. Homophobia creates scapegoats and allows us to avoid confronting and solving the real problems we have. Homophobia is petty and cowardly and ugly. Homophobia defines us by our fear and hatred. I look forward to the day when it is eradicated.
And if I do someday have a son or daughter who is gay, I will love and support them and do everything I can to make sure they are happy and successful, because that is what family means to me, and because that is the kind of world I want to live in – a world of love, not of fear.