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Protesters Burn Pride Flags After Georgian Soccer Star Comes Out in Support of LGBTQ Equality

Eight protesters have been arrested following a demonstration against a Georgian soccer player who wore a rainbow armband in support of the LGBTQ community.

The scene that erupted on Tuesday in the Eastern European nation was chaotic and volatile. Armed with smoke bombs and flares, opponents of LGBTQ rights burned a rainbow flag outside the Georgian Football Federation (GFF) headquarters in the capital of Tbilisi. The protesters, many of whom were members of the right-wing Georgian March, shouted anti-gay epithets.

No one was injured, according to the Associated Press.

Yesterday’s protests were ignited by Georgian soccer star Guram Kashia, who donned the rainbow Pride symbol earlier this month for Coming Out Day. The 30-year-old defender, who also serves on the country’s national team, sported the offending armband in an October game. The gesture made Kashia the first player on an Eastern European team to support LGBTQ equality.

“I always support human beings’ freedom, and I’m always against the violence,” he would claim in a subsequent interview with a Dutch news network.

Both the Georgian Football Federation, the governing body of the country’s soccer club, and President Giorgi Margvelashvili have supported Kashia’s advocacy. Margvelashvili, who nixed a national referendum to block same-sex marriage last year, claimed in a statement posted to Facebook that “everyone has the right [to] freedom of expression.”

“We should respect human rights and liberties,” he said on Monday. “I stand with the unanimous support that sporting society has expressed toward Guram Kashia.”

But the Georgian March has called for the resignation of the entire Georgian Football Federation for standing behind Kashia. The nationalist hate group caused controversy earlier this year after threatening to rape Tatia Dolidze, Georgia’s youth representative to the United Nations, over her criticism of the organization.

Although the Eastern European nation is often touted as a LGBTQ rights success story following its transition from Communism, Tuesday’s violence was a reminder of how fraught the situation remains.

Georgia is one of the only post-Soviet countries with anti-LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections at the federal level. Ranked as Europe’s 23rd most progressive country in a 2016 report from ILGA, it also has hate crime laws that are inclusive of sexual orientation. Out of the 49 countries surveyed, Georgia placed ahead of Italy and Switzerland.

But the country’s LGBTQ community has experienced violent opposition markedly similar to this week’s protests in Tbilisi.

But the Georgian March has called for the resignation of the entire Georgian Football Federation for standing behind Kashia. The nationalist hate group caused controversy earlier this year after threatening to rape Tatia Dolidze, Georgia’s youth representative to the United Nations, over her criticism of the organization.

Although the Eastern European nation is often touted as a LGBTQ rights success story following its transition from Communism, Tuesday’s violence was a reminder of how fraught the situation remains.

Georgia is one of the only post-Soviet countries with anti-LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections at the federal level. Ranked as Europe’s 23rd most progressive country in a 2016 report from ILGA, it also has hate crime laws that are inclusive of sexual orientation. Out of the 49 countries surveyed, Georgia placed ahead of Italy and Switzerland.

But the country’s LGBTQ community has experienced violent opposition markedly similar to this week’s protests in Tbilisi.

A 2013 rally to observe the International Day Against Homophobia was interrupted by an anti-LGBTQ mob led by clergy members in the Georgian Orthodox Church. The riotous crowd, who numbered more than a thousand people, chased away attendees of the event as they reportedly screamed: “Kill them! Tear them to pieces!” Twenty-eight people were injured in the attack, and 14 were hospitalized.

A poll from the World Value Survey found that 93 percent of Georgians would be uncomfortable living next to an LGBTQ person.