26 Sep 2023
As America sets a new standard on LGBT rights, Georgia is following
Tbilisi’s July LGBT pride rally was called off before it finished due to violent counterprotests. Following the rally, media and governments abroad criticized anti-LGBT sentiment in Georgia and the government’s failure to protect its vulnerable LGBT groups (Kennedy, 8/7/23). After years of struggling to liberalize and integrate with the West, it was not the progress many had hoped for (Kennedy, 8/7/23).
The United States, a country with massive economic and security influence over Georgia and much of the world, has long used its influence to promote liberal values, including protections for vulnerable LGBT groups (U.S. Embassy, 8/7/23). But in recent years the United States has experienced its own democratic backsliding, including the rise of discriminatory rhetoric and policies against LGBT individuals. The United States was once a bastion for human rights. Now, the hypocrisy of its messages are apparent, and subsequently these messages carry less weight. The trend is contributing to an increasingly damaged and divided Georgian society.
EU integration has been a consistent goal of the vast majority of Georgians, who also favor a democractic Georgian government (NDI, 3/23) (IRI, 323). Following an EU-issued statement stipulating that Georgia would have to make progress on protecting vulnerable groups (among other requirements relating to democratic reforms) before joining, the United States continued to assert it would help Georgia reach its goal (EU, 9/22) (Georgia Today, 8/22).
Vulnerable LGBT groups have continued to face consistent discrimination following the EU statement. Even before the Tbilisi pride rally LGBT rights were misrepresented in Georgia, with much of the opposition being centered around a single argument: LGBT promoters are spreading propaganda to young children. This argument is a fabrication of reality.
A McDonald’s booklet featuring the story of Elton John, a gay singer, and a book distributed in Georgia featuring stories of successful women have both been targeted (Agenda.ge, 21/6/23). But the implication that these materials are propagandistic or are attempting to change the sexuality of children is far-fetched.
Suspiciously similar arguments have been gaining traction in the United States for several years. LGBT issues have recently re-emerged as contentious issues, particularly driven by debate over the rights of transgender individuals. Some analysis shows that approval and support for transgender individuals specifically began to decline around 2020. The following years saw a rise in campaigns denouncing both their rights and visibility, centered on the argument that they were propagandizing young children (Beauchamp, 11/6/23).
Far-right figures in the United States, gaining prominence, consistently misrepresent what LGBT rights supporters typically want, particularly transgender rights (Beauchamp, 11/6/23). Presidential candidate Ron Desantis, for example, has also vilified alleged LGBT programs in schools and those that support them, a message central to his campaign (Hays, 20/4/23).
Shortly after LGBT rights re-emerged as an issue in the United States, some in Georgia followed suit. But before the recent trends in the United States, anti-LGBT Georgians used different tactics. Prime Minister Garibashvili opposed a 2021 pride rally, but focused on traditional values in his criticism, stating, “When 95% of our population is against holding a propagandistic parade in a demonstrative manner, we shall all obey that, [my] friends.” and “The only parade I know that will be held in our country is that of our army” (Civil.Ge, 12/7/21).
Ordinary citizens and politicians in Georgia look to the United States for support, as the nation contributes both tremendous economic aid and encouragement for Euro-Atlantic integration. But American messages in opposition to the official ones have begun to take hold, too.
By May of 2023, American politicians began coordinating with foreign politicians, including Prime Minister Garibashvili, to promote illiberal messages and misinformation on LGBT issues. A notable instance of Georgian collaboration with American politicians directly opposed to official American policies and messaging towards Georgia took place at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Hungary.
During the conference, right-wing political figures from the United States criticized liberalization efforts and LGBT tolerance measures. Members of the United States Congress praised Hungary for opposing LGBT rights promotion, (CPAC, 24/3/23). In Prime Minister Garibshvili’s keynote address, he criticized efforts of minority groups to oppress those of the majority on social issues, a clear reference to the LGBT individuals he and his political allies had recently derided (Calvete, 9/5/23).
The conference was not just a deviation from American messaging on LGBT matters abroad, but also on democratization as a whole. As some speakers denied the legitimacy of American elections and praised Hungary’s Orban, a politician who has personally damaged Hungarian democracy, the message could not have been clearer. By encouraging policies and misinformation about vulnerable LGBT groups, American politicians were indirectly damaging progress on Georgian-EU integration, a goal Georgians have supported for years.
The ideas of the American politicians at the conference are gaining support from powerful actors in Georgia. Not only are pride rallies and LGBT rights threatened as a result, but figures in the United States proved that their specific misinformation tactics on LGBT matters can gain popular support. Other misinformation tactics could follow, creating divisions within Georgia on other national issues.
As a new American presidential administration could come in 2024, and anti-LGBT misinformation shows no signs of slowing, some will naturally take sides. As the United States can shape Georgia’s future, the trend it is setting creates a harmful standard that is taking hold in Georgia.
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———. 2023. “U.S. Embassy Statement on the Forced Cancellation of Tbilisi Pride Event.” U.S. Embassy in Georgia. July 8, 2023. https://ge.usembassy.gov/u-s-embassy-statement-on-the-forced-cancellation-of-tbilisi-pride-event/.
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