Guram Kashia is getting a prestigious award next week. He is proud for himself, his family, his Earthquakes club, and his country.
He also knows the award will make some of his countrymen quite angry.
“I feel like I have to talk about it,” he says, quietly.
The award is for “promoting UEFA’s social responsibility values of diversity, inclusion and accessibility.” More specifically, it’s for his courage in wearing a rainbow-colored captain’s armband for his previous team, Vitesse Arnhem, last October in a Dutch celebration of LGBTQ rights. It wasn’t a difficult decision for him.
“I believe in equality,” Kashia says by phone. “As long as people don’t harm each other, all people are accepted in my life. That’s my approach to human beings.”
Yet after wearing the armband, he realized very quickly that some of the people in his native Georgia did not share that approach.
Kashia was vilified. “‘LGBT Kashia’ must be cut off from the Georgian team!” wrote one columnist in a prominent newspaper. You can imagine what many of the social media posts said.
“I was really surprised,” Kashia says. “It’s like here, if CNN would start some show by talking about you. I felt it from the first week. A lot of people had opinions. I felt a lot of aggression.”
Georgia is locked between East and West not only geographically (at the crossroads between Asia and Europe) but in some ways philosophically. According to one 2011 survey, quoted by Reuters, 90 percent of respondents in Georgia said there was no justification for homosexuality. In 2016, there were dozens of anti-gay attacks in the nation.
Still, there is an evolution in the former Soviet republic, as some anti-discrimination laws have been passed. Just as Kashia wore his armband last year, Georgia’s first openly gay candidate was waging an historic pursuit of public office.
Kashia was caught between his belief system, his love for his country, and his concern about a cauldron of opinion that didn’t seem to settle down. Even the nation’s president chimed in on the controversy, writing an open letter backing up the defender.
“I’m really patriotic,” Kashia says. “I love my country. I love my culture. I’m a really religious person. There were some groups that didn’t accept it.”
He goes on and on about Georgia – about the stunning vistas, the defiant history, and the incredible pizza called Khachapuri that he can’t find anywhere else in the world. Kashia grew up in a difficult time for the small nation. His dad was a professional rugby player, yet he still needed other jobs to get by. Kashia said he had a “good childhood” but allows there was “quite a lot of crime” too. He was only four years old when Georgia seceded from the Soviet Union, so he is one of the earliest sports products of a new era. He was named Georgian footballer of the year in 2012 and 2013.
Yet he’s been a flashpoint and a target of demonstrators. There were eight arrests outside the Georgian soccer federation headquarters last November, with protesters sending up flares, releasing smoke bombs and burning a rainbow flag.
“Even if I had one supporter,” Kashia says, “I would play for my country.”
He was only acquired by the Quakes recently, in mid-June. He is now playing in a nation where a pro soccer player was recently reviled for not wearing rainbow pride colors for a national team. Kashia knows he has the support of his wife, his daughter, his MLS club, his president and a lot of fans he’ll never meet.
Whether hero or hated, he’s unmoved. There is no going back and no regret.
“I’m a man who is standing behind his words,” Kashia says. “Nothing will change it.”
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