I am writing this letter in response to the letter published in Kviris Palitra and Georgian Journal under the title “Respecting Georgian Traditions”.

I am a Georgian citizen, an attorney, and the producer of the show “Georgian Legend,” which introduced traditional Georgian singing and dance to millions of people around the world. As all who know me will attest, I love my adopted country.

“Tradition,” as defined in the authoritative English Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time.” By this definition Georgia has a tradition (“a way of behaving … for a long time”), during both Soviet and modern times, of torturing prisoners. Georgia had a tradition of kidnapping women for marriage. Traditions are not sacrosanct per se, merely because they are traditions. They deserve respect only if their intrinsic merits deserve respect. Some traditions disappear, hopefully like those mentioned above, good riddance! Some traditions evolve over time. Some traditions persevere because they deserve respect.

Using “respecting our country’s traditions” as a cover for anti-homosexual bigotry is nothing new. In his recent speech in Tbilisi, Netherlands politician and writer Boris Dittrich noted that “our traditions” and religion were the two most common rationalizations for denying equal rights to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens. These rationalizations mislead people through rhetorical manipulation and should be recognized as homophobic.

My native country, the United States of America, has had a “tradition” of anti-gay thinking, anti-gay behavior, and anti-gay violence. In the 1990’s Congress passed a law called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” denying openly gay people the right to serve in the military services. Congress also passed the cynically misnamed “Defense of Marriage Act,” denying LGBT people equal rights under all federal laws affecting heterosexual married couples, although “traditional” marriage was in no way threatened by the struggle of LGBT people for equality under the law. Thankfully, both of these unjust laws have been repealed by Congress or declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. According to public opinion polls, a substantial majority of Americans support these changes. Good riddance to these “traditions”!

When religion is used as the cover for homophobia, the picture is even darker. Prior to the events of 17 May, 2013, the public meeting for the International Day against Homophobia, the Patriarch Ilia II publicly called the participants “sinners” and advocated that this meeting be prohibited. He thus positioned the Orthodox Church squarely in opposition to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and equal rights for all people under law. His remarks were a thinly-veiled call to action, which his acolytes heard and heeded. Fomenting a riot, violence against people with different views, is unacceptable in a democracy. All of those responsible, regardless of their position, should be held accountable under Georgian law. The last thing Georgia needs is a totalitarian theocracy like Iran’s. Every day should be a day against homophobia.

Georgia aspires to association with the European Union and alliance with the United States. Neither the EU nor the US would tolerate what happened in Tbilisi on 17 May, a day that disgraced Georgia in the eyes of the world. Whoever in Georgia thinks that Georgia can achieve the benefits of association with these entities without shouldering the human rights responsibilities that these entities require for partnership is delusional. It is up to Georgian citizens who believe that justice trumps so-called “tradition,” to NGOs operating in Georgia, and to Georgia’s friends and partners abroad, to assist Georgia in re-defining which traditions deserve respect. Fighting for equal human rights for everyone – that’s a tradition worth establishing, nurturing and preserving in Georgia.