‘You can be whoever you want to be’ says Georgia vice-captain as protests erupt over rainbow armband

Several people were arrested in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Tuesday (31 October) during an anti-LGBT rally that demanded that national team vice-captain Guram Kashia be sacked over his support for gay rights.

The action took place outside the Georgian Football Federation headquarters as participants protested against the Federation's support for Kashia, shouting anti-gay slogans while letting off flares and smoke bombs.

A rainbow flag was burnt during the demonstration.

One of the protesters, Giya Korkotashvili, said: "We grew up in a different state, we think in a different way, we have different state of mind. LGBT will never have a place in Georgia!"

Several protesters were detained, including Lado Sadgobelashvili, one of the organisers. It is reported that the action was led by the nationalist group 'Georgian March', who had previously called for the Football Federation's entire leadership to resign because of their support for the player.

In July the group gathered hundreds calling for an end to Muslim immigration.

"I do not care about who you are, what you are doing in your life; if you do not harm other people, you can be whoever you want to be" Guram Kashia

The player also experienced criticism from conservative football fans on social media, some of whom hijacked a post praising Kashia’s move on Facebook by rights group Equality Movement.

The group called attention to the ongoing problem of homophobia in Georgia, which it said made Kashia’s participation in the campaign all the more poignant.

Response to the backlash
In an interview on 23 October Kashia responded to the backlash and stood firm about his decision to wear the rainbow flag armband.

“I always support freedom of people and oppose violence. As long as people do not harm others, I will support it. It's hard to explain, but some people in our country cannot get it,” said the player.

“There were very few people who expressed dissatisfaction [about the rainbow armband] on my Facebook page and obviously I did not pay much attention to it. They were disappointed with my behavior, but I did not regret what I did, it was my responsibility. I do not care about who you are, what you are doing in your life; if you do not harm other people, you can be whoever you want to be, that's my vision. Some people were disappointed with this, but this is not a big challenge,” he concluded.

President of Georgia Giorgi Margvelashvili posted a photo on his Facebook of the Kashia on 30 October, stating his support for the player.

“The campaign that was brought against Guram Kashia is unacceptable. Every single person has the freedom of expression, we should respect people’s rights and freedoms. I condemn expression of violence in any form. I salute the unified support from the sports community towards Guram Kashia. Hatred and violence is unfamiliar for our society. The Vice-captain of the Georgian national football team and defender for Dutch football club ‘Vitesse,’ Guram Kashia, has my support!” read the post.

Members of the Georgian national football and the Football Federation were prompt to express support for Kashia.

"We were afraid that after all the fuss and negativity, he would deny or avoid commenting on that matter. At the end it’s not common and easy to support LGBT prople in Georgia. But instead, he made a supportive statement.

"For those, who understand how heteronormative football is, would also know how unusual it is from football players. Even in major western leagues, it’s a new thing to support LGBT people. I can’t express how happy and grateful I am for this unexpectedly huge (sic) campaign. Impact of those statements are invaluable and I believe that some day (won’t take long) it will become uncool to be a homophobe!

"Thank you guys for your tremendous contribution to making this country a better place!" read a Facebook post of Georgi Tabagari, LGBT rights activist and worker at Equality Movement.

Homophobia in Georgia
Georgia has witnessed a cultural clash between liberal forces and religious conservatives over the past decade, as its leaders work to westernise the country’s image but homophobia remains widespread.

According to a 2011 survey, almost nine in 10 Georgians who responded said homosexuality could never be justified.

More than 30 violent attacks on LGBT people, including the deadly stabbing of a trans woman, were recorded in 2016, according to advocacy groups.

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