Tbilisi’s ruling Georgian Dream party has taken a curious position to justify its proposal for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in the former Soviet republic.
In most countries, opponents of same-sex marriage base their arguments on religious doctrine, tradition, parenting concerns, or moral arguments.
But Irakli Kobakhidze, Georgia’s parliamentary speaker and head of the state constitutional commission, says Georgian Dream mainly wants to amend the constitution’s definition of marriage to prevent “certain groups” from stirring up homophobic and anti-Western sentiment.
Kobakhidze made the remarks in testimony to Georgia’s parliamentary committee for human rights and civil integration.
“We do respect the rights and interests of every group, including minorities,” Kobakhidze told the committee on June 8. “Accordingly, this amendment won’t become grounds for discrimination.”
But Beka Gabadadze, a gay rights activist with the Tbilisi-based LGBTQI Association Temida, says Georgian Dream lawmakers are responsible for stirring up homophobia by campaigning for the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
“It’s political homophobia itself,” Gabadadze told RFE/RL. “Georgian Dream includes conservative politicians who are homophobic themselves. The chairman of the parliament is afraid to admit that they are homophobic and are trying to pass homophobic laws.”
“What I can say myself, as a gay man, is that their campaign is reinforcing negative stereotypes and raising homophobic feedback,” Gabadadze said. “When they are going village-to-village and describing this kind of constitutional amendment, it is increasing the level of homophobia.”
The measure is among dozens of constitutional amendments proposed by Georgian Dream's supermajority on a highly polarized political landscape, with others aimed at shifting to a parliamentary system, adopting proportional voting, and and altering the definition of Georgia as a "social state."*
Gabadadze predicts the number of hate crimes against homosexuals will increase if the marriage amendment is approved, as expected, by the 115 Georgian Dream lawmakers in the 150-seat parliament.
And he blames Georgian Dream politicians for pushing the issue of same-sex marriage onto the national agenda by making it a campaign promise in the October 2016 general election.
“The LBGT movement in Georgia has never campaigned to legalize same-sex marriage or same-sex civil union before,” Gabadadze said, adding that same-sex marriage already is expressly forbidden under Georgia’s Civil Code.
“It’s true that homophobia in Georgian society is very strong, so they are using this kind of political homophobia to increase their political strength in the country," Gabadadze said. "We know that these kinds of statements about gay marriage or these kinds of issues appear in Georgian politics when it is an election period or there is a political crisis.”
Indeed, studies during the past 15 years suggest that of all the minority groups in Georgia, homosexuals are under the greatest pressure -- with more than 80 percent of survey respondents expressing strong negative attitudes toward homosexuality.
Social research on homophobia in Georgia shows that attitudes toward gays are strongly influenced by traditional stigmas, taboos, and values promoted by the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Those studies also show that psychological and physical violence often accompany widespread homophobia that is backed by traditional ideologies and a Soviet legacy of condemnation.
Gays in Georgia also often face domestic violence within their own families when they reveal their homosexuality.
As a result, many homosexuals in Georgia avoid coming out publicly at all -- impeding their ability to defend their own rights.
Georgia’s constitution currently states that “marriage shall be based on equality of rights and free will of spouses.” It does not expressly state that marriage can be agreed only between opposite sexes.
However, the draft amendment proposed by Georgian Dream defines marriage as “a union between a woman and a man...based on equality of rights and the free will of spouses."
In April, after the government drafted the constitutional amendment, 11 prominent NGOs in Georgia issued a joint call for language to be included that would allow “other forms of co-living” to be regulated by law. That would leave open the possibility that same-sex civil partnerships could be legalized in the future.
But Gabadadze says it is highly unlikely that Georgian Dream will open the door to same-sex civil partnerships in Georgia.
The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission endorsed the idea in a June 16-17 session, saying that “the provisions of the equality of marriage should not be interpreted to exclude the recognition of the union of persons with the same sex.”
The Venice Commission also noted that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) requires member states to “provide legal recognition for same-sex couples,” and that “nonrecognition of the legal status of relationships between same-sex partners appears to amount to a violation” of the European human rights charter.
“Georgia, like any other Council of Europe member state, is obliged to comply with ECHR standards and, thererfore, must provide legal recognition (such as civil unions or registered partnerships for same-sex couples)," the commission said.
David Zedelashvili, an expert on human rights and constitutional law at the Free University of Tbilisi, said a constitutional ban on gay marriage without the introduction of legally recognized civil partnerships would damage Georgia’s human rights record.
That would cause problems for Georgian Dream ’s pro-Europeanism goal of closer integration and eventual membership in the European Union.
A study published in 2016 by the Heinrich Boll Foundation praised Georgia for making “significant progress” on the “legislative level” against a “background of exacerbating homophobic attitudes” toward the gay community.
It said legislative progress included an amendment to the Criminal Code so that hate-motivated attacks against homosexuals can be classified as hate crimes.
But it concluded the new laws protecting the rights of gays in Georgia were a result of “the country’s declared pro-Western course” rather than an “informed choice of the political elite” or a sign of a changing society.
*CORRECTION: This article has been changed from its original version to describe among the proposed amendments a change to the definition of Georgia as a "social state," not as a "welfare state."