Nino, a 25-year-old lesbian from Georgia, no longer feels at ease when she leaves the house. Since violence forced a Pride march to be cancelled earlier this month, she is afraid of being verbally abused or chased in the street.
Reports of hate crimes have risen in the wake of the violence of July 5, when anti-Pride protesters assaulted journalists and stormed activists’ offices, and some LGBT+ Georgians say they are now living in fear.
“Things have changed. Life is no longer as simple as it once was,” Nino, 25, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said from the home she shares with her partner in the capital, Tbilisi.
“You’re more afraid that someone on the street will chase you and hurl abuse at you. You can no longer be so cheerful. You have an inner fear. It’s as if some tragedy is coming to you,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The homophobic violence that halted a planned “March for Dignity” has also raised political tensions in the former Soviet country, as it prepares for an October local election – sparking protest rallies and scuffles in parliament.
The Caucasus nation has witnessed a cultural clash between liberal forces and religious conservatives over the past decades, as it has modernised and introduced progressive reforms in an effort to move closer to the European Union.
Much of the anger directed at the government this month has focused on the death of a cameraman, who was attacked while covering the anti-LGBT+ demonstrations.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has rejected calls to resign from rights activists and opposition parties, who have accused his government of emboldening hate groups, and failing to protect journalists and LGBT+ supporters.
In the run-up to the Pride events, Garibashvili said holding the LGBT+ march was “not reasonable” because most Georgians opposed it, and has since described the cancelled event as a “provocation” organised by the opposition.
Over the weekend, posters depicting opposition figures and the head of Tbilisi Pride under a rainbow splattered with blood sprang up across the capital.
It was not clear who was behind the posters, which carried the slogan “No to Nazis, No to evil”.
‘NO ONE CARES’
LGBT+ groups have reported a rise in homophobic attacks and hate crimes, motivated by people’s appearance in recent weeks.
Police arrested two people in connection with the killing of a 27-year-old man who was stabbed to death, in the eastern city of Rustavi earlier this month. Local media said the victim and a friend were attacked for having long hair.
Transgender activists told online outlet OC Media last week a trans woman had been hit by a car in an apparently deliberate attack. A man told the newspaper he was beaten by assailants, who shouted homophobic abuse, because he was wearing a pink t-shirt.
Irakli, not his real name, an 18-year-old gay man, said he and his boyfriend were beaten up as they stopped to buy cigarettes in Tbilisi.
“We heard a man call out to us. He started swearing, calling us faggots and threatening to kill us. When we left the store … (he) attacked us,” he said.
The assailant kicked him and tried to choke his partner before nearby police officers intervened, he added.
“What happened to journalists on July 5, is happening to queer people every day, 365 days a year. They’re killing, beating and humiliating us in this country. We’re afraid to walk in the streets, and no one cares.”
Cameraman Alexander Lashkarava was one of more than 50 journalists that were targeted in the violence. He was found dead at home days after being released from hospital.
The cause of his death has not been disclosed yet, and the Interior Ministry said investigations were ongoing. It initially said a drug overdose was suspected.
Nearly 30 people have been arrested in connection with the events of July 5, charged with offences including unlawful interference with journalists’ activities and group violence.
The ministry cited comments last week by the interior minister, in which he condemned violence against journalists, saying:
“What happened is completely unacceptable and perpetrators should be punished for their actions.”
‘WE WILL SURVIVE’
Giorgi, a 21-year-old gay man who asked not to use his full name, said LGBT+ people’s sense of insecurity had been exacerbated by the authorities’ perceived soft response in the weeks following the violence.
“Safety is not just (about) physical safety in the streets, it’s about the fundamentals of democracy that when you do something, you commit a crime, you will be punished for that and you will get arrested if you beat someone,” he said.
Nia Gvatua, who runs Tbilisi’s first gay bar, Success, said she had postponed reopening the venue until the situation stabilises, adding that she planned to hire additional security guards.
“I need to prepare staff because it’s dangerous to work right now,” she said via Facebook.
There have been some glimmers of hope for LGBT+ Georgians, however.
On July 6, thousands of people rallied outside parliament in Tbilisi, in an unprecedented show of solidarity with the LGBT+ community, denouncing the previous day’s violence.
“I felt I wasn’t alone” said Nino, who attended the rally with her girlfriend.
“(We) held hands and told each other … this fight makes sense and we will survive.”
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi – Thomson Reuters Foundation