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LGBT rights: The film about gay love shaking up Georgia

Lasha and Beka hold hands
Image caption Lasha and Beka describe leading a double life to avoid homophobic attacks

"When I told my mother I was gay, she said I wish you were dead or had never existed at all. It's better not to have a son than to have someone like you."

Lasha, in his early twenties, has his arm around his partner Beka's waist. They are sitting together in a secluded park in Tbilisi.

These are not their real names because in Georgia gay couples often fear for their safety.

Discrimination against sexual orientation is illegal, but in reality homophobia is commonplace in Georgia's conservative society. And frequently, gay people are victims of violence.

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Media captionAnd Then We Danced: The film that sparked protests

"If you are dressed differently people will start shouting 'pederasts' - to avoid it we have to blend in," Lasha explains. The term "pederast" is widely used in former Soviet countries to insult homosexuals.

"We have to lead a double life. We hide our faces every day in order not to cause aggression among people in the streets," adds Beka.

How film was condemned as 'insult to Georgia'

Plenty of aggression was on display at the recent opening night of Georgia's first feature film about gay love.

A crowd of about 500 men tried to force their way into a cinema in Tbilisi's city centre to disrupt the screening of the Swedish-Georgian production, And Then We Danced.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Police in riot gear were brought in to prevent the violence escalating

Police, many of them in riot gear, formed a line between protesters and the cinema entrance.

Filmgoers were verbally, and in some instances physically, assaulted. Many of the protesters were wearing far-right insignia from the organisation Georgian March. Twenty-seven people were arrested.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some people were hurt during the protest outside the cinema

Levan Vasadze, a well-known campaigner against LGBTQ events who was at the rally, said the film about two Georgian male dancers in love was an insult to the nation: "Shame on Georgia and on the government for allowing this historic shame on our dignity and Georgian traditions."

But Giorgi Tabagari, a leading voice in Georgia's LGBTQ community, argues the film is already helping to change public attitudes: "After criminals and drug addicts, we are at the bottom of the list when it comes to social acceptance. The film is having a huge impact on the Georgian public."

Giorgi Tabagari
BBC
I have seen a lot of public figures from culture, cinema and politics debating the issue. This was not the case two to three years ago
Giorgi Tabagari
Gay rights campaigner

The Georgian Orthodox Church, the most trusted institution in the country and a leading voice against the LGBT community, distanced itself from the violence.

However, the Church said the film was an attempt to change "the consciousness" of the Georgian public and ultimately legalise "the sin" of homosexuality.

Church shaken by claims of homosexuality

Yet the Church has become embroiled in a homosexual scandal of its own. Just a few days before the film's release, the Georgian public was stunned when, on live television, a bishop accused senior clergy of engaging in homosexual acts.

Image caption A cross is held up outside the cinema showing the film And Then We Danced

Bishop Petre Tsaava had just been ejected from the Holy Synod, the Georgian Orthodox Church's Executive Council.

He told reporters that the reason for his expulsion was because he had exposed a culture of "pederasty and homosexuality" among the Church leadership.

Georgia's Orthodox Church has denied all the allegations. Archpriest Andria Jaghmaidze said that any such behaviour in the Church was "impossible" and told the BBC that anyone found guilty of misconduct would be suspended from the priesthood.

Image caption Father Andria Saria has no problem with homosexuality but believes there is no place for gay priests

But the BBC has spoken to a priest who says homosexuality is commonplace within the Church.

Father Andria Saria is among a small circle of priests who have chosen to speak out against what they say is hypocrisy within the clergy.

"We have many problems in the Church and one of them is homosexuality. It's the main problem that has become an open wound that needs to be treated," he told the BBC.

"We are not against individuals and their lifestyles, but when it comes to a person who wants to be part of the Church, the Church categorically forbids priests being homosexuals and we are fighting precisely against homosexuality becoming a norm in the Church."

'They're trying to destroy the Church'

In a statement, Georgian Orthodox Church spokesman Archpriest Andria Jaghmaidze said it was "impossible" for there to be any gay priests and that anyone found guilty of such misconduct "would be suspended from the priesthood".

Outside Tbilisi's Sameba Cathedral, many churchgoers believe the allegations are part of a power struggle between senior members of the clergy.

"Never in my 51 years of life could I ever have imagined [homosexuality] was possible in the Church," said Lamara Didebeli.

Image caption Aged 86, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II is the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church and the most revered public figure in Georgia

"They're trying everything to destroy the Georgian Orthodox Church but they won't succeed as long as our patriarch is alive."

Fellow churchgoer Giorgi Dundua admitted his surprise, but said that even if it was happening it should be resolved within the Church. "We don't have the right to judge," he said.

Tamar Gurchiani, a human rights advocate and law professor at Ilia State University, believes Georgian society is largely in denial about homosexuality in the Church.

"Hate and homophobia is so strong that people don't really care about the facts and they don't want to find out the truth. Maybe it's because there are so many people in the government and in the Church who are themselves closeted."

Image caption Sameba Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi

For Lasha and Beka, the gay couple in the park, the idea of homosexuality in the Church is not news at all, just as homosexuality in society is a reality that has to be accepted.

"Priests are ordinary people," says Lasha. "Gay people exist everywhere, and of course they are in the Church as well. But in a country like Georgia, where this topic is taboo, they're hiding inside their clerical clothing."

They believe that as times change their country will become more comfortable with homosexuality and more gay Georgians will come out.

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