By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, July 1 (Openly) - LGBT+ Georgians geared up for the start of the second-ever Pride event on Thursday in the capital, Tbilisi, after preparations dominated by safety concerns due to threats of violence from far-right supporters.
Plans for a movie screening, concert and street rally over the coming days have drawn condemnation from the influential Orthodox Church, stirring a debate about LGBT+ rights in the socially conservative former Soviet republic.
"This is the opportunity for us to talk directly to the people of this country and raise awareness about LGBT+ issues," Tbilisi Pride director Giorgi Tabagari told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"The idea of Pride is to change the mindset of the public."
Georgia has witnessed a cultural clash between liberal forces and religious conservatives over the past decade as it has modernised and introduced progressive reforms, though it remains mostly conservative on social issues.
It has passed anti-discrimination laws in an effort to move closer to the European Union, but LGBT+ rights groups say there is a lack of adequate protection by law enforcement officials in cases involving homophobic abuse.
LGBT+ events are rare, often attracting threats and violence from far-right groups.
A 2013 rally against homophobia was broken up by a crowd of priests and thousands of protesters, and in 2019 ultra-nationalist protesters attempted to storm a movie theatre showing an award-winning film about gay love.
Safety issues have dominated preparations for this year's Pride.
A far-right political group led by a Georgian millionaire who has become the face of the local anti-LGBT+ movement has vowed to disrupt the street rally scheduled for Monday, urging police not to intervene to stop them.
Local authorities have made few public comments about calls from the United Nations, the EU, local civil society groups and Georgia's ombudsman for them to ensure safety at the Pride events.
Tabagari said organisers were holding talks with the government, which has pledged to protect the movie screening and the concert - which are to be held at private venues - but voiced concerns over the street parade.
In June, the deputy minister of internal affairs told a parliamentary committee police would act in accordance with the law, saying they were obliged to protect freedom of expression and assembly if exercised legally.
Senior ruling party officials, including chairman Irakli Kobakhidze and Tbilisi Mayor Kakhaber Kaladze, have told local media they think the demonstration should not take place.
The Interior Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The build-up has recalled events surrounding Georgia's first pride in 2019, when authorities said participants' safety could not be guaranteed, and the event was initially postponed following a wave of political unrest.
Organisers eventually staged a scaled-down rally with a few dozen people showing up for a half-hour gathering in front of the Interior Ministry, on the outskirts of the capital, as counter-protesters patrolled the city centre.
Social attitudes have shifted in the intervening years - no pride was held in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, raising hopes for a better outcome on Monday, said Tabagari.
In May, all major political parties in Georgia except the ruling Georgia Dream party signed a commitment to tackle homophobia and protect LGBT+ rights.
And Tbilisi Pride has received public backing from dozens of rights groups, celebrities and businesses, including music clubs and cafes.
"We have so much support at the moment," Tabagari said. "This seems like a great momentum that we would like to use to make changes in the country."
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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