Amid Conflict, Worsening Discrimination Makes It Harder to Organize for LGBT Rights in Ukraine
On March 23 the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice released the final draft of Ukraine's National Human Rights Strategy. This draft law, which will guide Ukrainian human rights policy until 2020, offers no protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.
The failure of the draft law even to mention LGBT people comes as a significant blow to LGBT organizations. LGBT people currently receive no legal protection against discrimination under Ukrainian law. In an open letter published March 3, the Council of LGBT Organizations of Ukraine called on the government to include an article specifically safeguarding the rights of LGBT people, including the prohibition of discrimination or incitement of hatred against people on the grounds of sexual or gender identity, and the legal definition of homophobic or transphobic crimes as hate crimes, to be thoroughly investigated and punished. It appears that that call has once again been ignored, and LGBT people are at risk of being left without legal protection from discrimination for the foreseeable future.
Discrimination and homophobia is a serious problem for the LGBT community in Ukraine. In 2013, polls found that 63 percent of Ukrainians thought homosexuality was a mental illness, and 79.4 percent were opposed to homosexual relationships. Gay clubs and businesses in Kiev have been repeatedly attacked, and activists have been stalked, threatened and beaten. The media and political leaders alike frequently denounce homosexuality. In February 2007, for example, politician Leonid Grach - who was at the time chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights - publicly stated that "the state must protect society against evil, violence and particularly against homosexuality and lesbianism."
Since the Maidan protests and the outbreak of conflict in the country's east, however, LGBT groups have been alarmed by the way the situation appears to be worsening. In Ukraine's ever more militarized public sphere, gender and sexuality are politicized and, at least according to some activists, machismo and misogyny are increasingly the orders of the day. "Where there is misogyny, there is bound to be homophobia," said Larissa Bohachyk-Volynets, the vice president of NGO Dialogue of Cultures XXI.
The link between politics and homophobia in the Maidan were made clear by an incident in which demonstrators were allegedly paid to stage a fake gay rights rally, just meters from far-right groups barricading the square. Well established LGBT organizations immediately denounced the rally as a false flag operation intended to discredit the Maidan movement and incite a homophobic backlash among the protesters.
The bitter irony is that LGBT Ukrainians were among those protesting in the Maidan. At least three of those killed in sniper attacks during the protests were gay, but their identities are kept secret to protect their families. With a few exceptions, LGBT groups and individuals active in the Maidan followed a pattern of "strategic invisibility." In the minds of many Ukrainians, LGBT rights are closely connected with Europe and the West. In the Maidan protests, which were essentially about whether Ukraine's future should lie with Europe or Russia, it was feared that LGBT groups keeping too high a profile might turn deep-seated homophobia in the community into opposition to the Maidan itself - indeed, this was probably the goal of whoever orchestrated the fake rally. As high profile activist Svyatoslav Sheremet told Dr. Tamara Martsenyuk, it was "not the time to hang rainbow flags from the barricades." Instead activists pinned their hopes on a brighter post-Maidan future.
Those hopes have been cruelly disappointed. Subsequent months have seen the persecution and suspicious deaths of LGBT people in Crimea; the announcement of Vitaly Milonov, the Russian lawmaker behind Russia's "gay propaganda" law, as a representative of the separatist government; armed attacks on gay clubs, and the re-criminalization of homosexuality in the self-declared "Donetsk People's Republic." There are suggestions that at least one person may already have been executed for homosexuality by the rebels.
Even in government-controlled Ukraine, verbal and physical violence against LGBT people is increasing. Between October 2013 and December 2014, the Nash Mir Center, or Our World Center, documented 54 cases of abuse against LGBT persons across the country, ranging from threats and verbal harassment to brutal physical attacks which left victims hospitalized.
On the night of October 29, 2014, two men set fire to the Zhovten cinema in Kiev. The cinema was screening an LGBT film, and over 100 people were inside at the time. There could be no doubt it was arson: When firefighters eventually managed to extinguish the blaze, they found that it had been lit in three separate places. In response to the attack, Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that while he thought human rights were a good thing, he would not stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians.
Zhovten is not the only cinema to have been targeted for screening LGBT films. The KievPride 2014 event had to be canceled after police refused to guarantee the safety of participants (in Kiev's first ever Pride parade in 2013, around 50 participants marched a few hundred meters, guarded by 300 police in riot gear).
Disturbingly, a number of recent homophobic attacks have involved gay men being lured to meeting places using social media and dating sites before being beaten or robbed. Similar circumstances in January ended in the murders of two gay men in separate incidents.
In the short term the LGBT community has responded to the crisis by establishing a hotline for LGBT people, with funding from the Canadian Embassy. The hotline provides emergency support, practical information, details for available health services, and psychological counseling. The organization Insight also runs a small shelter specifically for displaced LGBT people, who face particular challenges when they are forced to flee their homes.
While the exclusion of any mention of LGBT people from the draft National Human Rights Strategy is clearly a significant set-back, Gay Alliance Ukraine, or GAU, and other organizations will continue to fight for the rights of LGBT Ukrainians. However, activists are well aware that the ongoing conflict in the Donbas region is contributing to a "de-prioritization" of LGBT issues in the minds of both the Ukrainian public and the kind of Western backers who usually fund LGBT projects. For as long as the war continues, visibility for the LGBT community is likely to be low. With this in mind, activists are working on laying the groundwork for the kind of future they hope to see after the war is over.
Achieving legal protection from discrimination is only one part of this long-term strategy. Organizations are conducting training and workshops for new activists, particularly in regional areas, and strengthening ties between the Ukrainian and European LGBT communities. They are also working to raise public awareness of LGBT issues. Many Ukrainians have never known an openly LGBT person, and it is hoped that demystifying the LGBT community will help to create greater tolerance and support for LGBT people from the general public. The GAU has launched a visibility campaign entitled "We Exist," and an accompanying website. In addition to generating awareness among the public, the GAU also plans to target specific groups through seminar sessions for university students and workshops for counselors and psychologists.
A key part of their advocacy work is highlighting the link between a liberal democratic state and rights for LGBT people. In order for Ukraine to become more deeply integrated with Europe, the government must demonstrate its commitment to the protection of minorities, including the LGBT community.
In light of this, the possibility that the EU may be softening its stance on anti-discrimination requirements is worrying. For the strongly conservative factions in the government to be persuaded, civil society organizations need the help of the international community in raising the profile of the LGBT community, supporting advocacy efforts and funding projects like the LGBT hotline. Against the backdrop of conflict, the rising tide of anti-LGBT aggression makes it both more difficult and more important than ever to hold the Ukrainian state to account for the safety of its LGBT citizens.