Levan Berianidze, GATE’s Gender Movement Program Officer, provides an in-depth opinion on how to counter anti-western strategies used in the fight against LGBTQI rights.
My engagement in human rights and social justice activism began in 2010, and by 2018, I found myself at a crossroads. The police raids on queer-friendly clubs and the cancellation of the May 17 demonstration due to suspected manipulation by the State Security Service led to internal conflicts and divisions within the activist community. Faced with this disheartening situation, I made the difficult decision to step away from LGBTQI rights activism and my home country. It wasn’t a retreat, but a conscious choice to preserve my well-being and seek new avenues to contribute to the cause.
In 2022, after over a decade of activism in LGBTQI, feminist, humane drug policy, leftist, and green movements, I made the difficult decision to leave my home country, Georgia. The departure signified not only leaving behind loved ones and cherished places but also a sense of loss and hopelessness. Despite our efforts to create a better country for all, progress was hindered by far-right and anti-gender movements supported by a government flirting with Russia.1 2 3 At the heart of this struggle lay the co-opted narrative propagated by Russia and amplified by many local leftist activists.
Georgia’s history under Soviet Union occupation for 70 years, with 20% of its territory still under Russian control, has fueled deep-rooted anti-Russian and anti-imperialist sentiments. In the aftermath of conflicts and territorial losses, Georgia’s desire for independence and democracy grew stronger. However, Russia’s political tools aimed at maintaining influence and control over Georgia have evolved. Among these, anti-gender movements and narratives have emerged as an effective tactic to divert attention from Russia’s actions and place the blame on Western influence and feminism, and LGBTQI rights.
This narrative claims that gender and LGBTQI rights are a Western imposition, perpetuating the idea that the West is colonizing Georgia economically and ideologically. By portraying LGBTQI identities as tools used to weaken Georgian society and erase its culture and traditions, Russia cleverly shifts the blame away from itself as the real colonizer4 5. This ploy seeks to discourage Georgia’s aspirations to join the EU, painting Russia as the more familiar and supportive option due to its Christian Orthodox values, which reject homosexuality.
Similar tactics are employed by these same forces elsewhere. Throughout numerous Eastern European and Central Asian states, the narrative remains consistent. Moreover, in various African nations, anti-gender movements depict queer sexualities and gender identities as Western imports, extensions of colonialism. It is crucial to underline, as numerous scholars6 7 have elucidated, that it is not queer identities but rather homophobia that has been imported from the West. This holds true for Georgia as well – Russia is exporting homophobia to Georgia. This argument is wielded by entities disinclined to liberate their societies, transforming them into more democratic, equitable, free, and just entities. Paradoxically, these groups collaborate extensively with neocolonial powers both in the West and other regions, importing homophobia and authoritarianism while simultaneously criticizing these very actions and attributing them to others.
What is profoundly disconcerting and insidiously manipulative is that this narrative is, at times, echoed by ostensibly progressive groups from whom solidarity and alliance might be anticipated. For example, numerous leftist factions in Georgia have inadvertently amplified this narrative. Within this narrative, which does not overtly espouse homophobia akin to anti-LGBT/anti-gender groups, homosexuality is relegated as a concern confined to a minuscule minority within the nation. It posits that amidst weightier issues like unemployment, equitable resource distribution, accessible education, and healthcare, queer activists are frivolously expending efforts on ‘contentious’ matters such as same-sex relations, thus hindering social mobilization in fighting for these causes.
This perspective perpetuates the exploitation of anti-colonial narratives for an anti-gender agenda, aligning with the premise that queer rights are an inconsequential concern used by foreign influences to manipulatively obscure more pressing issues. Moreover, this perspective extends its trajectory by concurring that the West is indeed colonizing Georgia through economic and ideological avenues, camouflaging this agenda under the veneer of rainbow capitalism. While it is undeniable that the West engages with Georgia (and other non-Western countries) on unequal terms, imposing a capitalist economic structure that carries inherent problems, including cultural erosion, disparities, and resource depletion, the narrative endeavors to draw a false equivalence between these issues and Russian-style authoritarianism and colonization. The latter is an egregiously disproportionate and oppressive force that exploits cheap labor, thwarts democracy and equality, and perpetuates corruption, violence, and subjugation, all while stripping local traditions, culture, and resources to enrich a select group of corrupt elites. Between the two, Russia and the political and economic structures that it promotes pose a much greater threat to Georgian society than does Western globalization. In this environment, it is important to show that it is possible to be critical of Western capitalist globalization without subscribing to anti-gender and other fascist narratives.
Decolonial emancipatory theories8 initially emerged as potent tools to expose oppressive powers and their exploitative practices in colonized regions. By illuminating how these powers infiltrate various facets of social and political life, these theories empowered nations to challenge the prevailing order. However, akin to previous emancipatory ideas, these theories have been commandeered by regressive and conservative movements to advance their own agendas.One of the ideological bedrocks that underpin this peculiar alliance hinges on the premise that once socio-economic rights, perceived as foundational bedrocks upon which political and civil rights are constructed, are realized for the majority, issues of inequality, including homophobia, will naturally dissipate. This ideological stance primes the perspective that economic and social rights take precedence over political and civil rights.
History attests that such an outlook on societal development (Orthodox Leftism) has not ushered in equality and justice for oppressed populations. Quite the contrary, this ideological standpoint, by downplaying the significance of political freedoms and rights, has intertwined leftist history with political oppression, authoritarianism, and gulags. This is no mere coincidence. While I, too, uphold that social and economic rights constitute the bedrock for all other rights (as the right to freedom of expression or the right to vote loses relevance when one lacks sustenance and succumbs to deprivation), it’s imperative to acknowledge that altering the political order necessitates the realization of political and civil rights, including the rights to vote, assemble, and protest. These rights play an instrumental role in reshaping the system; their absence renders the removal of oppressive regimes an impossibility. Hence, separating these two categories of rights proves not only untenable but politically self-defeating.
The struggle for LGBTQI rights and the deconstruction of oppressive systems must persist unabated despite the co-opted narratives propagated by Russia and local leftist activists. Discerning the true motives behind these manipulative tactics is paramount in charting a course toward a more comprehensive, democratic, and emancipated society.
It’s imperative to acknowledge that:
- Homophobia is wielded as a political tool to advance broader conservative and oppressive agendas, benefiting only a select corrupt few. Eradicating this weapon from their grasp demands not diminishing the significance of homophobia or diverting focus from it in favor of ostensibly weightier matters. Rather, it involves concerted efforts to extinguish homophobia, rendering it inaccessible to those who would exploit it.
- The justice argument posits that as trans and LGBTQI individuals stand among the most oppressed, battling from the fringes toward the center can precipitate tangible transformation. Justice doesn’t trickle down; it can only ascend. Addressing the struggles of the most marginalized inherently improves conditions for all oppressed individuals. The assertion that LGBTQI rights detract from more pressing concerns masks the intricate ways in which these struggles intertwine. The fight for LGBTQI rights is not isolated; rather, it intersects with unemployment, wealth distribution, accessible education, and healthcare. Recognizing these intersections dismantles the false dichotomy between these issues9.
Activists must persist in countering these narratives through creative and strategic means, coalescing global endeavors against forces that seek to stifle equality and human rights. As one who has borne witness to the agony of their efforts being subverted, I remain optimistic that together, we can dismantle the fallacious narratives and create a world where LGBTQI rights are extolled and safeguarded. In this future, authentic decolonial politics shall propel us toward a realm unshackled from oppression and prejudice.
- 1MDF Report on Anti-Gender and Anti-LGBTQI Mobilization in Georgia
- 2Rise of Georgian alt-right group sparks fear of unrest | Eurasianet
- 3MDF Report on Anti-Gender and Anti-LGBTQI Mobilization in Georgia
- 4Government supporters rally against Western ‘interference’ and ‘LGBT propaganda’ in Tbilisi
- 5Anti-EU protests in Georgia: Are they staged or real? | Euronews
- 6Brockman, N. (2000). [Review of the book Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities]. Africa Today47(1), 153-155. doi:10.1353/at.2000.0005
- 7Morgan R. Z. & Wieringa S. (2005). Tommy boys lesbian men and ancestral wive: female same-sex practices in africa. Jacana Media.
- 8Postcolonial Theory | Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature
- 9For further discussions on the topic, see Fraser, N. (2020). From redistribution to recognition?: Dilemmas of justice in a’postsocialist’age. In The new social theory reader (pp. 188-196). Routledge. and a response to it Butler, J. (1997). Merely cultural. Social text, (52/53), 265-277.