Ukraine’s revolution of 2014 saw its people coming together to fight for their future as a democratic society, calling on its leaders to implement the western values that would allow the country to deepen its ties with Europe and give rights to its citizens that had otherwise been denied up until that point.
But there was one group for whom fundamental rights have been withheld that seem to have been forgotten during this fight. Amongst the Ukrainian flags and other national symbols proudly displayed by the revolutionaries, there was a distinct lack of the rainbow flag that represents Ukraine’s LGBTI community.
Yuri Yoursky, Program Director at Gay Alliance Ukraine, joined the pro-Ukrainian fight at Euromaidan but he and his fellow activists were asked not to visibly advocate for their own cause and to keep any symbolic items out of sight. There were no rainbow flags flying, not because the LGBTI community wasn’t campaigning for Ukraine’s democratic future, but because they were asked not to make their presence known.
It was argued that advocating for equal rights for the LGBTI community would be detrimental to the revolution’s end goal, that the fight for gay rights would overshadow the fight for the other democratic freedoms demanded by protestors.
“So we’ve agreed with this because we were assured that after the revolution, we would have our rights granted but unfortunately we’ve been tricked as probably many other people have,” Yuri said.
“We wanted to have our symbols, the rainbow flags and we wanted to have the flags of the transgender community but we were asked not to use them.”
Tucked away off a street in Kiev, Yuri’s office is in a nondescript building that provides no indication that it houses the alliance’s headquarters. It’s a fitting illustration of the way Ukraine’s LGBTI people have long existed within its society: hidden, ignored.
“After the revolution finished, nothing was granted for LGBTI people and we’ve decided it’s a time to finally start speaking more and more about LGBTI related issues,”
“We’ve been told again and again that in times of war in Ukraine, it’s not a time to speak about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and we had to say when it will be time. We’ve been hearing it for 25 years of independent Ukraine, I think it’s time.”
Asked whether or not the LGBTI community feels like it is a part of Ukraine in a society where they are so often ignored or shunned, Yuri points to the large national flag pinned to the wall behind him and answers immediately that yes, of course they do.
“We all feel Ukrainain, this flag can prove it. That’s what we were standing for on the Maidan, that’s what we wanted. It was also to get the human rights for LGBTI people but it’s for the development of Ukraine, to have a good stable, strong country as Ukraine. I am a patriot, I am Ukrainian.”
Kateryna Semchuk rearranged her shifts at work so that she was able to spend her nights joining the fight at Euromaidan, sometimes working all day and sleeping only a few hours before she spent her evenings providing first aid assistance during the protests.
She says that while she was not asked to leave her rainbow flags at home, she just knew not to bring them because of the unpredictability of the protests with both its left and right-wing participants. While she was there, she noticed that it was often the strong nationalist voices heard shouting through the megaphones and this only reinforced her conviction not to do so.
“The image of Euromaidan had to be pro-European and show that we were not violent and just not to provide any possibility for Russia to discount anything that was going on,” she said.
“People decided they’d just rather be citizens of Ukraine rather than coming as part of the LGBTI community.”
Post-revolution progress and setbacks
Post-revolution Ukraine has seen some significant changes, both positive and negative, happening quite quickly for the LGBTI community despite them being denied a platform during the Euromaidan.
Up until that point, the community had largely been ignored by Ukrainian society. They weren’t often openly persecuted but they were also rarely acknowledged. This changed after the revolution. All of a sudden, stories were appearing in the media that for once were not portrayed only negatively but in a neutral and sometimes even positive light.
Although gay rights issues are not outright ignored as they once were, there is still a large part of Ukrainian society that does not acknowledge their existence. The increased attention has also brought more scrutiny and persecution from those who believe there is no place in society for anyone deviating from their preconceived norms.
However, there is also the allure of further European integration that is helping push LGBTI issues into the spotlight as Ukraine begins to work towards adopting the values necessary to have a closer relationship with the West.
“We’ve got the pressure from the European parliament because when people say that you want to have a democracy in Ukraine, then you should be including all the issues related to democracy development,” Yuri said.
An action plan was recently signed that will see Ukraine adopt a number of fundamental human rights by 2020, some of which will give rights to transgender people to be included in the legislation regarding same sex partnerships as well as the criminalization of hate crimes.
Yuri smiles and says that he knows “it’s just a paper and there’s no guarantee it will be adopted,” but he says that it gives him hope and that he feels positive about the direction that Ukraine is heading.
Kateryna was initially concerned that being open about her sexuality in Kiev after the revolution would attract aggression from others but that she was surprised to find that this was not the case.
“A lot of people were just nice about it and it seemed to me that Kiev was just more tolerant in this way, even if a lot of people were just saying ‘you can be who you are unless you show it to me directly’ or ‘you can do as you want, that’s your deal’,”
“Ukrainian society became much more tolerant and during the Euromaidan there were such different people and everybody was fighting for a better Ukraine. Everybody just learned to respect another human being.”
On the other hand, however, this increased exposure did not come without its repercussions. While the media coverage did bring much needed attention to the struggles that the LGBTI community faced, it also brought ridicule from several far-right groups who had mostly ignored them before.
Many of these radical groups want a different Ukraine. They want to create their own values, it cannot be like Russia but it also cannot be like Europe and LGBTI issues are largely considered to be a European phenomenon that has been brought to Ukraine.
“There was a huge group of people who didn’t consider the LGBTI community at all,” Yuri said, “they didn’t care, they wouldn’t support us but there wasn’t such a big group of people who were against us.”
“But after Euromaidan, these far right groups have gotten support because of the fight in the east. They are patriots, they are fighting with Russia, they are protecting Ukrainians’ freedom and they feel that they can speak and influence society on how future Ukraine should look.”
“And in their mind, there should be traditional values which is definitely a family of a man and a woman. There is no place for LGBTI couples at all.”
Yuri says that although he would not want to say that Ukrainian society is simply picking and choosing the western democratic values that suits them, this is the general feeling he gets from the wider community.
Obviously exasperated by this, he suggests that Ukrainians “like the social protection in Europe and how they fight corruption. It’s good that we talk about HIV positive people and how to protect people with disabilities but not LGBTI issues, that’s something that is brought from Europe.”
Education is key
But despite his frustration, Yuri believes there is a reason behind the prejudices ingrained within Ukrainian society and that is a lack of information. The lack of education in schools means that young people grow up thinking there are only two genders and only one sexual orientation.
“If they had this information earlier, they would have no prejudices when they grow up. They would not have any stigma, they would not discriminate people later.”
“So it’s really hard for people to accept LGBTI people because they have a mind full of stereotypes and we just need to break it. We need to bring the information to them.”
Kateryna agrees that a lack of information is largely to blame for the stereotypes that still exist, and she also thinks that a lack of any sort of exposure to LGBTI people as well as the church’s influence on nationalist attitudes also contributes to misunderstandings and prejudice.
“The church has a big influence on nationalism in Ukraine so the normality is only a man and woman and there is nothing else. Ukrainian nature is very patriarchal and if something does not fit within that, it’s disgusting. People are disgusted. They have no idea what gay or homosexuality is,”
“There is no gay district or place in Kiev, I think that’s why people are thinking that it’s something that is not normal because they think there is no such thing. In Ukraine, a lot of people are ignored unless you step in the way of somebody. A lot of people prefer not to think that those people exist, it’s why no one speaks about LGBTI rights.”
She believes that the gay community also needs to speak up more instead of continuing to hide in order to make itself known and educate people, and that this would not be met with as much negativity from the wider community as many would expect.
“I think the problem is with LGBT itself, because they are not stepping out and not speaking about themselves. If LGBTI people are stepping out and talking about their issues, I think the majority of them would be heard,”
“There is a lot of empathy, when you speak about your problems and I think you could then be understood and there wouldn’t be as much anger towards it.”
Yuri’s work sees him actively trying to mobilize the LGBTI community, running campaigns and events to not only spread awareness to others but also to teach those within the community to be strong and open about who they are, that they cannot hide their whole lives.
“Before, it would be 20-30 activists all around Ukraine, LGBTI activists speaking about this, and general society will think there are 30 gays and lesbians in Ukraine and that’s it.”
“And right now, we have this strong mobilization campaign and we are doing really well on increasing the visibility of the LGBTI community after the Pride rallies and national events. Finally, more and more LGBTI representatives started to understand why it is important to speak about yourself.”