Gleb Garanich / Landov / Reuters

Despite a move toward Europe, LGBT Ukrainians face new hurdles

Recent increase in homophobia casts cloud on gay pride march in Kiev

KIEV, Ukraine — Organizing Ukraine’s second annual gay pride march should have come more easily for this post-Soviet nation, which just took a historic step toward the European Union by signing an association agreement in Brussels last month.

But planning this year’s event, which is taking place on Saturday, was anything but easy, thanks to what many activists describe as a recent increase in homophobia in the country. Instead of an open parade downtown, the march is being held out in the suburbs in conditions of virtual secrecy.

“A real pride parade is something for modernized, democratic countries with a high level of education and tolerance for individuals,” said Nazariy Boiarsky, an LGBT activist involved in this year’s Kiev Pride events. “A real gay pride parade in Ukraine will not be possible for many years to come.”

In many ways, the situation for Ukraine’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people has gotten harder since the heady days of the Euromaidan protests, which ousted a Kremlin-friendly president and radically pivoted the country toward Europe. 

The massive protests brought with them a wave of ultranationalist groups, promoting a vision of the Ukrainian nation defined by what they see as traditional, conservative values, which often are homophobic. Two of the best-known groups, the Right Sector and the Freedom political party, though small in number, played prominent roles in the protests, and their rhetoric has often been openly anti-gay.

Most damaging, however, was the Ukrainian parliament’s decision last month to remove a statement from the EU visa liberalization documents requiring Ukraine to adopt anti-discrimination legislation on the basis of sexual orientation. The measure would have given Ukrainian courts precedent to prosecute employers, landlords and police for discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation or gender status — a key issue for the LGBT community.

But when the politically sensitive issue of homosexuality threatened to derail the EU association agreement, parliament leaders said they were forced to remove it in order for the document to get enough votes to go to Brussels. With that clause now off the table, the LGBT community is back to square one, said Olena Shevchenko, chairwoman of Insight, which conducts LGBT advocacy and education programs.

Meanwhile, two other former Soviet countries, Georgia and Moldova, signed the same EU agreements as Ukraine and adopted the required anti-discrimination measures.

“The EU seems to have given Ukraine a pass on this issue because of the country’s unique situation,” Shevchenko said, referring to the Ukrainian government’s military campaign against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.

It’s surprising to me that the country that was the first of the former Soviet countries to decriminalize homosexuality after the Soviet Union was destroyed is now heading in a backward direction.

Elena Globa

Head of the board of Tochka Opori, an LGBT group

People take part in a procession organised by gay rights activists in central Kiev January 11, 2014.
Gleb Garanich / Landov / Reuters

Without the EU agreement as the platform, it will now be more difficult to get the parliament to adopt anti-discrimination legislation addressing sexual orientation because it will be seen as an LGBT issue in a country rife with homophobia, she said.

“Signing the EU agreement was a step forward for the LGBT community but not as a big of a step as we had hoped for,” Shevchenko said. “In five or six years, things could be better for LGBT people, but not now in this current situation, when the issue of being gay has become so politicized.”

The impact of that on open expressions of gay pride in Ukraine is clear. Whereas in much of the world, especially in Europe and North America, gay pride events are large marches and festivals, in Kiev the event is almost a secret affair. Instead of a parade, LGBT organizations will hold a small, closed march several kilometers outside the capital in a suburban neighborhood park surrounded by tall concrete apartment buildings. They will hold signs that read, “Ukraine is united, and we are part of it!”

For security reasons, the registered participants will be informed about where to meet only hours before they are scheduled to gather. After several meetings and negotiations, police have agreed to protect the event.

The organizers had hoped it would have been more significant event this year, particularly after last year’s event — the first gay pride march in the country’s history — was overshadowed by the media attention given to the anti-gay protesters who turned up and surrounded the march.

“It’s surprising to me that the country that was the first of the former Soviet countries to decriminalize homosexuality after the Soviet Union was destroyed is now heading in a backward direction,” said Elena Globa, head of the board for Tochka Opori, or Fulcrum, a Kiev group focused on advocacy, education and support projects for LGBT- and HIV/AIDS-related issues.

In addition to Ukrainian nationalists, Globa said, much of the blame for an increase in homophobia should also be placed on neighboring Russia, which recently passed a controversial law against gay “propaganda.” The legislation is vaguely worded and prohibits the distribution of material about “nontraditional sexual relations” to children. Critics of the law have said it has opened the door to violent attacks against LGBT people in Russia.

Such anti-gay sentiments have an impact in Ukraine through Russian media, said Anna Kirey, a researcher with Human Rights Watch’s LGBT project. Among many Ukrainians, especially in areas dominated by Russian speakers, Russian newspapers and television channels are powerful forces. “Russian media promoted a line that said, ‘We’ll protect you from these perverted Europeans trying to take away our traditional values.’ When they realized they could use this issue to mobilize people, it spilled over to Ukraine,” she said.

Pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine’s east have also played up anti-gay rhetoric as part of their rejection of Kiev’s Western tilt. While the area was never considered LGBT friendly, recent refugees from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic report an increase in violent discrimination against them as the region spirals into lawlessness.

Oksana and her partner, Angelia, are both males transitioning to females from the city of Donetsk. For years they faced harassment for their feminine appearance, but in recent months, the harassment has turned into attacks and late-night threatening visits from armed separatists who told them their kind was not welcome in the “people’s republic.”

“Because of constant risks and life-threatening situations, plus the pressure from our parents, who support the Donetsk People’s Republic, we decided to go to Kiev, as the city is more tolerant of LGBT people,” said Oksana, who did not want to use her last name because of the social ramifications of being identified as transgender in Ukraine. “But now we have no job and no place of our own to live, and of course, it’s difficult. But we are relieved to see Ukrainian soldiers once we escaped Donetsk.”

Like the thousands of others who have fled the military operation and the intimidation of separatists in the east, Oksana had a difficult time finding a place to live in Kiev. Their search was made harder by the fact that many volunteers taking in eastern refugees have refused to host LGBT people, even in the more gay-friendly capital.

Insight searched for two weeks for a landlord that would agree to rent an apartment to be used as a shelter for LGBT refugees. It found a four-room apartment in the city’s outskirts that is now housing six people, with several more waiting to get in as soon as space opens up. “Without a willingness from the Ukrainian government to adopt these anti-discrimination laws and change the system so that LGBT people have the mechanism to protect their rights, I don’t see much changing,” Kirey said.

Despite the setbacks, Oksana said she still had hope, especially now that she’s out of the east. She said she believes Ukrainian society will gradually change, especially if political stability and an end to the violence allow for economic growth and greater prosperity. That would “change the situation step by step and make the country more comfortable for life of LGBT people,” Oksana said.

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