Is the West Providing a Hopeful Model for Ukraine’s LGBT?

Rallying on Maidan square during protests against the Viktor Yanukovych government, Ukraine’s LGBT community hoped that western integration might eventually help promote social equality and tolerance.  But now, five years later, some wonder whether the West offers such a hopeful and optimistic model for the future.  Take, for example, post-Brexit Britain where the House of Commons recently voted to reject the only treaty which obliges the UK to protect discrimination based on sexual orientation.  The U.S., meanwhile, witnessed a whopping 86 percent increase in hate violence homicide in 2017, making it the deadliest year yet for the LGBT community.

Such alarming trends hardly help the West’s public image, nor do they inspire confidence within Ukraine’s embattled LGBT community.  Almost twenty years ago, the U.K. LGBT community was ecstatic when Britain adopted the E.U. Charter.  It is now abundantly clear, however, that in the U.K. right wing politics and Brexit pose a direct threat to LGBT people, since withdrawal from the E.U. will mean that Article 21 of the E.U. Charter prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation will cease to have any effect.  Some now wonder whether the LGBT community will continue to be protected “without the carrot and stick of European institutions.”

Nativism and right wing nationalism seem to have taken a similar toll on America’s LGBT people.  Reportedly, homophobia has been on the upswing since the end of the last presidential cycle, and such trends show no evidence of abating.  During the election, Donald Trump told his base that it was time to “take back America,” which some regarded as a tactical move to go after marginalized communities.  There were 52 hate-based homicides against the LGBT community in 2017, that is to say an average of one each week.  However, experts say the total number of homicides may be even higher, since cases are frequently documented incorrectly as law enforcement is prone to mischaracterize lesbians as friends or roommates.

E.U.: The Only Game in Town?

            Such developments are not lost on LGBT advocates in Ukraine, since Brexit has demonstrated the perils of leaving the E.U. from a legal perspective.  In light of the British experience, some may pin their hopes on the E.U., given the bloc’s historic support for more robust legal guarantees.  And while Ukrainian political elites have hardly rushed to champion LGBT rights, EuroMaidan reformers are surely aware that failure to protect minorities could jeopardize their entire pro-western trajectory and aspirations.  That is because under regulations, Ukraine must ban anti-gay employment discrimination within three years if and when the Eastern European country is admitted to the E.U.

Needless to say, the battle over anti-discrimination legislation has been hard fought.  Insight, a leading LGBT advocacy group, has long pressed Ukrainian lawmakers to pass an anti-discrimination measure which includes provisions on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In the wake of the EuroMaidan revolution in early 2014, legislators approved an anti-discrimination measure, though the provisions made no mention of sexual orientation.  The following year, the government passed an amendment to the labor code, which made it illegal to fire employees based on one’s sexuality, gender identity or HIV status.  Once again, protection of the LGBT community was linked to Ukraine’s pro-European aspirations in a certain sense, since Brussels had expressly stipulated that amending the country’s labor code was a prerequisite for visa-free travel to the E.U.

While Kyiv may tout its successes, others view the situation more soberly.  Olena Shevchenko, Chairperson of Insight, told me recently that the LGBT community still feels unrecognized by the government.  Speaking with the advocate at her Kyiv offices, Shevchenko added that there’s only one anti-discrimination clause in the labor code, and furthermore this provision constitutes the sole mention of the LGBT community in all of Ukraine’s vast body of legislation.  In addition, LGBT people don’t enjoy the right to marry and can’t even rely upon more modest partnership laws.  Lastly, Ukraine has no hate crime legislation which might protect LGBT people.  “Basically,” Shevchenko concluded, “when politicians even bother to mention LGBT, they demonize us by talking about ‘perversions.’”

Olena Shevchenko.

Ukrainian Advocates Speak

To be sure, Ukrainian membership in the E.U. would represent progress for minorities.  On the other hand, Shevchenko remarked that such a development would hardly constitute a “magic solution” for the LGBT community.  Perhaps, if Ukraine ever joined the bloc, there would be a political backlash, similar to what has recently occurred in Poland where traditional and conservative forces have resisted social change on issues ranging from gender norms to abortion rights.  However, if minimal, basic legislation were put in place, Ukraine might gradually accept new rules on human rights.

“What other models do we have?” asks Ruslana Panukhnyk, Executive Director of Kyiv Pride. “Russia?”  Speaking to me at a local Kyiv café, she said the West is really the only game in town.  “Every country has its own issues and problems,” she conceded, “but the West has promoted greater tolerance and non-discrimination, at least at the legislative level.  We can adopt some of the same measures from the West and implement them here in Ukraine.”

Figures such as Panukhnyk don’t take anything for granted, however, and must literally start at square one.  Unlike the situation in western countries, many Ukrainians simply don’t know what LGBT means.   “The main issue is visibility,” Panukhnyk remarked, adding that “if society was more aware, people wouldn’t be so negative towards LGBT issues.”  To the extent that Ukrainians are even aware of the LGBT community at all, they tend to hold stereotypes of scantily clad men dressed in leather.  According to recent polling, just 4.3% of Ukrainians hold “a positive view” of homosexuals.

Ruslana Panukhnyk

Staying Under the Radar

Due to such ignorance and even outright hostility, Ukraine’s LGBT community has opted to stay out of the limelight at key strategic points.  Nearly five years ago, Panukhnyk took part in protests on Maidan square where she observed rightist groups acting aggressively toward leftists, feminists and LGBT people.  Indeed, the whole atmosphere on Maidan quickly took on a somewhat “patriarchal and hierarchical” atmosphere in which marginalized groups weren’t welcomed.  As a result, the LGBT community decided to avoid taking out rainbow flags and thus go “under the radar” so as to be less conspicuous.

On a certain level, the decision may have made sense: at the time, Kremlin-backed Russian media sought to depict the EuroMaidan as a mere LGBT “tantrum” which sought to link up with western-style “Gay-ropa.”  In this sense, the Kremlin has sought to mark a contrast between supposedly traditional values and “perverted” European values.  Unfortunately for Moscow, protests in Kyiv failed to yield or produce much-needed rhetorical and propagandistic ammunition. Perhaps it wasn’t for lack of trying, however: at one point during EuroMaidan protests, far right demonstrators infiltrated the square waving rainbow flags.  Suspecting that something might have been amiss, one member of the Maidan self-defense forces cried out “Everyone keep calm! I know Ukrainian gays are not part of [this] and this is pro-Russian bullshit.”

In the long-term, however, LGBT strategic political thinking may have downsides as Ukrainian nationalists have dismissed the LGBT community’s contribution at Maidan altogether.  Such rightwing elements declared that LGBT people simply weren’t present on the Maidan, thereby implicitly questioning whether the community as a whole could even claim to be truly Ukrainian.  Ironically, in light of the earlier flag controversy, the ultra-right has criticized the LGBT community on these very same grounds.  According to Shevchenko, these forces now claim that “We never saw you during EuroMaidan, why didn’t you bring your flags?”

Climate of Intimidation

More recently, rightists and neo-Nazi groups have assaulted or disrupted LGBT events, and reportedly perpetrators enjoy widespread impunity.  Panukhnyk is particularly concerned about the Svoboda party’s Neo-Nazi youth wing, called C-14 or Sich.  While older folk may present themselves as neutral in an effort to preserve their reputation, youth do whatever they please and aren’t afraid of getting caught or detained.  Nevertheless, if it’s not C-14 then it may just as well be other outfits which go on the offensive, such as Azov or Praviy Sektor, groups which recently disrupted an LGBT film event in the city of Chernivitsi.

As it happens, such incidents are unfortunately all too common.  In the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, which is known for its own nationalist brand of politics, right wing thugs violently disrupted an LGBT initiative called the Equality Festival and drove activists out of the city.  In a depressing development, the police failed to detain the youths, who had earlier harassed the activists, surrounded their hotel and brazenly attacked a coach.  The festival had aimed to promote ideas on equality in separate literary, film and other events organized around the city, though the gathering was opposed by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as well as public officials, who sought to hold the festival behind closed doors.  Such attitudes, observers say, are in line with the far right which is prone to argue that LGBT people should simply refrain from public or street activities and keep to themselves in the privacy of their own homes.

For advocates, the rise of the Ukrainian Council of Churches, a body which is politically influential and active at the grassroots level, is a mounting source of concern.  In the post-Communist era, many have lost faith in the state and government, and as a result religion has filled an important psychological void in people’s lives.  In fact, Shevchenko told me, Ukraine isn’t so very different from Russia in its turn toward the church and conservative values.  The activist added that recently, the Council signed an agreement stating that “it was opposed to any forms of ‘LGBT propaganda,’ whatever that means.”  On the eve of Kyiv’s 2016 Gay Pride march, the Council publicly issued a statement calling on people to abstain from violence since such behavior went against Christian principles.  The following year, however, the Council modified its tone somewhat, remarking that it wasn’t the most opportune time for Ukraine to celebrate Gay Pride.

Evolution of Kyiv Pride

The most visible and controversial event linked to Ukraine’s LGBT community is Kyiv Pride, which is comprised of both educational discussions and the march itself.  Just a few scant years ago, the Kyiv police didn’t even want to speak with LGBT groups about Kyiv Pride, let alone shake their hands.  Needless to say, politicians at the national level haven’t helped much, either, as they tend to be neutral or to issue lackluster, unsupportive statements.  On one occasion, seven MP’s showed up to participate in Kyiv Pride out of a grand total of 450 legislators, but that was the uppermost record.  Meanwhile, Panukhnyk told me, “the only thing I remember Poroshenko saying about Kyiv Pride was in 2015: on the eve of the march, a journalist asked the president about the event and he said he had nothing against it and that every citizen should have the right to peaceful assembly.”

Despite such fits and starts, Kyiv Pride has met with more success and acceptability over time.  To be sure, some organized right wing groups still represent a threat.  However, both the police and local authorities have coordinated with LGBT groups to a much greater degree than previously.  Indeed, some city council members as well as Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko have recently been supportive of the LGBT community.  For local authorities, Pride has become a way of proving how far Kyiv has come and to demonstrate that the city is “open for business.”  In 2016, when the authorities put in a bid to host the Eurovision Song Contest, they pointedly touted Pride as a means of gaining respectability.  According to Panukhnyk, the authorities basically argued, “Look, we have successfully hosted peaceful Kyiv Pride, and therefore gay people should come to Kyiv for the Eurovision contest.”

Media Portrayals

The media, meanwhile, has been a little all over the map: back in 2010-12, reporting constantly juxtaposed any discussion of the LGBT community with risqué images from abroad featuring scantily clad men in leather or flamboyant drag queens parading in Rio de Janeiro.  Not surprisingly, such reports scared the Ukrainian population, which feared that organizers would stage similar types of events in Kyiv.   Not that there’s anything wrong with Rio de Janeiro, however, “and maybe someday we’ll have a celebration like that,” Panukhnyk declared, adding that “right now, with twice as many police officers on the street during Kyiv Pride as actual participants, it’s just not the most appropriate time to do that nor would it even be possible.”

Despite its initial, backward leanings, there are signs that the media has started to improve.  Whereas before the media tended to provide a stereotypical or even negative portrayal of the LGBT community, now the coverage tends to be more objective or alternatively viewed through the overall prism of human rights.  Even so, however, the media still bends over backward to placate retrograde elements, for example by interviewing members of groups like Right Sektor who provide their own perspective on LGBT people.  Panukhnyk related how her colleague, another organizer of Kyiv Pride, was once invited to share her perspective at a local radio station.  After she arrived, however, she found that station administrators had also seen fit to invite some psychiatrists, who promptly sought to heal the woman of her questionable homosexuality.

Message to the West

In the midst of social flux generated by the EuroMaidan revolution, what is daily life like for LGBT people in Kyiv?  Experts don’t “sugar coat” conditions, remarking that there have been cases of rape, harassment and beatings.  Furthermore, LGBT people must be mindful about the way they conduct themselves in public.  In Russia and Ukraine, it is common to see women holding hands, but this is only accepted if outsiders believe the women are sisters or friends.  However, if the women look lesbian, Shevchenko told me, “this could be a problem,” and one certainly shouldn’t kiss in public.  Meanwhile, LGBT people must be careful to observe strict guidelines concerning male and female modes of dress.

All things being equal, however, Ukraine’s LGBT community has found that life in Kyiv has taken on a semblance of normality and there are currently three gay clubs in the city.  In general, most people in Kyiv are too busy with their own problems and as a result residents tend to simply ignore others.  Whatever the protections that a large, anonymous city may offer, however, such advantages quickly vanish once one ventures into Kyiv’s suburbs or the countryside.  There, neighbors are much more intrusive and such inquisitiveness may force people to hide who they truly are.

Faced with such innate challenges, Panukhnyk hoped that people from the West would in future come to Kyiv Pride as a show of support.  On the other hand, Shevchenko has begun to doubt whether the West, which has been mired in problems ranging from Brexit to backlashes against immigrants, represents such a hopeful or tolerant model.  The best thing for westerners to do, the advocate added, would be to stand up for human rights, LGBT and gender equality in their own countries, and thereby provide inspiration for Ukraine.  “Don’t set a bad example for our own ultra-right,” Shevchenko added, “which is looking to promote its own alternative agenda in contrast to more liberal values.”

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