Pride Amsterdam Ambassador Hans Verhoeven traveled to Tbilisi (Georgia) to join the first ever Pride March. Earlier, he reported on the first part of his journey. Here's part two.
From my web diary, day 3:
“It’s going to be a long report, so hang in there! On our way to the conference, we drove past the remains of the failed revolution of last night. Huge mountains of beer cans and bottles are lying about scattered, and it looks like the situation after a Pride party. However, there are also burned-out cars on the side of the road.”
More and more counter-demonstrations are being announced. Especially those on Saturday, for which people will be brought in by buses, are worrying, as it will coincide with Pride. If police support were to be arranged for Pride, it will certainly be reduced now. Bassiani, a large progressive GLBT-friendly dance club, announced it will remain closed this weekend for security reasons. The pressure on the Pride organizers is enormous. A deal with the government was negotiated (so before the ‘revolution’); to cancel Pride in exchange for the introduction of a number of changes that are important to the community.
I have consulted with a number of international GLBTI organizations and international activists. Understandably, the organizers are hardly approachable, so I come to the decision to inform directly the ambassadors who are negotiating with the government with and for the Pride organization (the USA, EU and the Netherlands, among others) about our (foreign activists) opinions. We have a delicate position in this, advising without applying pressure.
Our main point; the confidentiality clause that the government wants must be removed. Pride is about visibility in order to achieve social change. What good is the introduction of legislation for transgender people if you cannot manifest yourself as a GLBT or transgender person? Therefore, the deal must be presented in public, so that it is visible to the population that the government supports the GLBTI community.
The situation does not improve. The demonstrations increasingly take on an anti-governmental character instead of anti-Russia. In the afternoon, there is a call for the resignation of the Minister of the Interior, the man with whom the Pride organizers negotiated. Closing a deal with a Minister who is possibly on the out is not a good idea now. Here, newly appointed Ministers generally clean house to discard the laws and decisions made by their predecessors. In that case, the Pride organizers would be left empty-handed, with no Pride and no deal. The boiling point has been reached, the pressure enormous.
Around 7 p.m. the Pride organizers decide to postpone the Pride march and to include the elements of the deal as a requirement in a statement.
The tension is lifted, the balloon is deflating. Emotional scenes with the organizers, they were so close and yet far away. But there is also joy: Pride dominated the media for weeks, the international community has embraced Pride Tbilisi, and a strong organization has emerged. After the statement has been drawn up and announced to the world, the large rainbow flag is rolled out and there is dancing and laughter.
The organizers want to go to the anti-government demonstration in front of the parliament building in their Pride shirt! It would be their own mini Pride. They know that many of their friends are there too. We, the international activists, decide to come along.
There is safety in numbers, and we do not want to abandon them now.
We compromise - the Pride shirts only come on when we are there and are surrounded by allies, and we keep a close eye on what is happening around us. The tension is palpable, and the streets are full of people. In transit, we are filmed and monitored. Giorgi is of course recognized.
A large group of friends of the activists are standing in front of the parliament building. It is relatively safe there. I am quite relieved when we reach them. The first Tbilisi Pride shirts come on. The reactions are varied, and especially young people want to be photographed with Giorgi. However, that would attract too much attention, so he refuses.
After an almost atmospheric moment with the national anthem and some lights, the police make a huge mistake. They bring the Military Police into position. The mood immediately turns, people push to the front, and fists are raised in the air.
‘We should go,’ Giorgi says. As if it is a school trip, we decide to eat something and end up at a restaurant with a local menu. The tension is diffused, and the food is delicious. The activists are relaxed, and for the first time I see Giorgi smiling.
The Pride has been postponed, and I am traveling back to Amsterdam with the promise to return when a new date is set. On a Sunday afternoon two weeks later, I receive a message: We will be having our Pride March tomorrow at 10 a.m."
That leaves me very little time, but I manage to arrange a ticket and I travel to Tbilisi a few hours later via Istanbul.
From my web diary:
“A lot can happen in a matter of hours. While I’m on the plane, the secret location where the Pride March was to be held, leaked. Vasadse, the businessman who made it his ‘mission in life’ to make the Pride impossible, called on his supporters to occupy the location from 6 a.m. onwards. Because the Ministry did not promise any specific police security this time either, the activists decided to postpone the demonstration again.”
I find a dejected group of activists who feel beaten a second time over. I ask what it is we can do. There is a dynamic again, “guerrilla pride” is the new word, small pin pricks, demanding attention at times it is aimed at Vasadse and his cronies.
A journalist friend has a drone.
If we were to attach a rainbow flag to it and fly over the counter-protesters with it? The very first “Drone Pride” is born. The first test flights are made, and it is now a question of where to start the drone. The drone must also go back to home-base, in which case it could be followed, so the drone staff also must have a safe place.
We find one.
The journalists and I go to the parliament building, where hundreds of protesters have gathered. In the meantime, anti-GLBTI protesters are occupying possible locations for the Pride in various places in the city. The Orthodox Church is well represented and Mr. Vasadse makes a tour of all locations and inspects his troops like a field marshal.
This success gives us a taste for more, and the activists want to take to the streets. Someone is sent to the Ministry of the Interior to see what the situation is there. And it is good: not a Vasadse supporter in sight. A number of confidants are quickly called, and it’s arranged to meet there. Some friendly media is also informed.
An hour later, we meet each other in front of the Ministry. The guards do not know what to do, and the police quickly arrive to assess the situation. The activists get nervous, but they leave us be. A statement is given with banners and signs in the air, after which we start walking.
YES! The first Tbilisi Pride march is a fact. Euphoria!
After less than fifty meters, however, the first Vasadse supporters arrive. They scream and honk, driving their cars with great speed in our immediate vicinity. There are too many of them, Giorgi is still giving an interview, but must abort it.
As we drive away, our car is cut off, and the activists hit the accelerator pedal, chased by supporters of Vasadse. We are chased for a few kilometres, and cut off a few times in transit.
A safe house has been arranged, but we can only go there after we have shaken off our pursuers. We succeed after a crazy ride. We meet again at the safe house. There is joy. The Pride March is now a fact, probably the shortest but most important ever!
A few hours later, I board the plane back home to Amsterdam. It is an emotional goodbye. It doesn’t feel right, leaving them behind.
It is a terrible country for the likes of us.
Pride is about visibility, not about the number of participants or the length of the march. That visibility was certainly achieved by these brave activists in Tbilisi, giving a positive turn to the discussion about homosexuality in Georgia. There are still many places like Tbilisi in the world. Tomorrow I will leave for Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) where the first ever Pride March will be held. Things will be calmer there because, despite of not fully endorsing the purpose of the demonstration, the government has promised to respect the freedom of demonstration and to guarantee the safety of the demonstrators. As much as possible...