Currently, the LGBT community is looking especially to Poland, with its LGBT-free zones. Just across the border, however, conditions for the LGBT community are similarly precarious. The geographic location of Ukraine, sandwiched between Poland and Russia, is almost indicative of the current situation of the LGBTQ+ Community and how it is to be gay in the East European country. Couple of Men reporter Sarah learned about the situation of the LGBTQ+ community in the Eastern European country through an online event organized specifically for activists and journalists. While there, she was able to speak with local journalists and activists and get a sense of LGBTQ+ and gay-friendliness in Ukraine. After traveling as a single woman traveler to Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, the republic of Georgia, Lebanon, and Russia, she is now analyzing how it is to be LGBTQ+ and gay in Ukraine and other LGBTQ+ topics for our blog Couple of Men.
written by Sarah Tekath
Few rights for LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine
Even a glance at the legal situation shows how little attention is paid to the needs of the LGBTQ+ community in Ukraine. While anti-discrimination laws exist in the workplace, same-sex sex is legal and LGBT people are allowed to serve in the army. In 2019, several Ukrainian soldiers presented themselves as openly gay in the “We Are Here” photo project. However, any form of same-sex relationship is not recognized before the law, and adoption of children is also possible only as an individual, but not as a gay or lesbian couple. Blood donation is also currently not possible for LGBT people, and there is currently no action against hate speech.
“The religious lobby influences politics a lot and many politicians use LGBT issues to their advantage,” says Sviatoslav Sheremet, LGBTQ+ and transgender activist from the National MSM Consortium. However, there are also positive developments in politics. A draft law on hate crimes motivated by homophobia and transphobia is currently being discussed, as is the possibility of having same-sex relationships recognized as partnerships.
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Kyiv Pride is growing steadily
Nevertheless, the visibility of the LGBT community in Ukraine is increasing year by year. Pride events have been organized since 2012, and even officially by a Pride committee since 2016. Ruslana Panukhnyk is one of the organizers of Kyiv Pride and says: “Every Pride event is a big challenge for the organizers. In 2013, for example, there were only 80 participants; in 2019, there were already 8,000.” In addition, more regional events outside Kyiv are added every year. Meanwhile, trusting relationships have also developed with local authorities, such as the police or the city government, she says. Increasingly, she says, representatives of large and small local companies can also be seen at the March for Equality – for example, the country’s largest bank and the largest Ukrainian cab company. “In Kyiv, employees of the Ministry of Health were also there,” the activist explains.
Annually, the committee would also try to attract Ukrainian celebrities. Their participation in campaigns would generate even more attention. However, even without VIPs, a Kyiv Pride campaign caused a big stir in the summer of 2020, when the organizers flew a rainbow flag by drone to the “Motherland Monument” and illuminated one of the city’s largest shopping malls with rainbow colors at night. Panukhnyk is very positive about the developments surrounding Pride: “We are thrilled about the growing support, we will continue to work on our visibility and be even louder for the LGBT community in Ukraine in the future.”
Gay in Ukraine: Russian invasion worsens the situation
However, the number of hate crimes against LGBT people has also increased sharply in recent years, knows Svetlana Valko, an expert on hate crimes against activists, LGBT people, and journalists. “Previously, the attacks came more from individuals, but now we see a clear systematization and organization of violence by radical groups,” she explains. The activist sees the reason for this in the ongoing war with Russia since 2014, following the invasion of the east of the country. “Any armed conflict leads to the rise of nationalism and radicalization,” Valko says. He said that soldiers returning from the front often join ‘patriotic’ groups afterward that move in the radical right-wing milieu.
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Especially typical are physical attacks on LGBT events and so-called safaris, where radicals hunt LGBT people. In the meantime, he said, radical groups are even breaking into secret meetings of LGBT organizations to intimidate activists. Alternatively, counter-events are organized in public. “Before 2015, we never had such a high number of attacks on LGBT people,” explains the activist.
Especially in the occupied territories, the situation for LGBT people is worsening due to Russia’s prevailing conservative attitude toward LGBTQ+ people, she said. In the past three years, attacks on journalists have also increased significantly. Likewise, feminists are currently increasingly often the target of violence because their demands are contrary to the ‘traditional’ values of radical groups and are understood as homosexual propaganda.
Violent attacks on LGBT people, activists, and journalists are hardly punished by the Ukrainian authorities, as hate crimes are not included in the legislation. Homophobia is also a major problem within the police force. Often, assaults are not even reported to the police because of this.
Being LGBTQ+ and gay is no topic in families
The lack of LGBT visibility in the private sphere, outside of Pride events, is evident in family life and Ukrainian schooling, where LGBT is not an issue. One who wants to change the situation is Olena Globa, who founded the parenting organization TERGO in 2013 with several other women. Their drive at the time: to get parents on the LGBT side as allies. In the beginning, she says, it was primarily desperate parents who turned to the NGO for help. “Often, they would say, ‘Help, our son is gay. We don’t know what to do. Please, help us!” she recalls. Unfortunately, many parents are still unwilling to come to TERGO in person, she said, which is why counseling sessions such as phone or Skype are also offered. Often, LGBT teens also refrain from coming out within their families for fear of negative reactions.
TERGO relies on a presence in the media and at Pride events to achieve more tolerance and understanding. Especially in times of Corona, the NGO is working with YouTube campaigns, posters, etc. However, getting parents to attend Pride events is still not easy, Globa says. “Our parents are timid and refuse to become activists. But after Pride, when they have seen how proudly their children have walked, they feel encouraged. They then not only want to support their children but want to participate in their fight for equal rights actively.”
Too little education about diversity in schools
Since 2016, TERGO has also been offering tolerance training for companies and teachers. However, one such training has already been attacked by a radical group. Teachers, in particular, face a balancing act in everyday school life: “They recognize that the children are LGBT, but the parents don’t know about it,” Globa explains.
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In general, LGBT is not an issue in sex education in school, the activist says. “Terms like transgender or homosexuality are not even mentioned. In the few hours of sex education that is mandatory, only the biological basics are explained. I don’t think the children can understand anything in this brevity. There is no question of balanced teaching here because only one perspective is presented.”
Many teachers would even support, or at least not stop, bullying of LGBT students, knows Maryna Shevtsova, program coordinator at TERGO, who has been researching the issue of a safe and healthy school environment for LGBT students in Ukraine for years.
“In 2017 and 2020, two national surveys were conducted with more than 700 Ukrainian students aged 13 to 16 from across the country who identify as LGBT. We received most of the responses from the online surveys at night when students felt safe not to be discovered by their parents,” she explains. She says the 2017 numbers were startling, with 48.7 percent of students reporting they did not feel safe in their school environment. 88.5 percent had already experienced verbal violence, she says, and about 60 percent of them regarding their sexuality. 89.6 percent confirmed hearing the word ‘gay’ solely in a negative context. 55.3 percent of respondents said they had been ignored when asking school administrators for help against bullying. More than 60 percent admitted to not having an adult confidant in their environment. The 2020 results were not available at press time, but Shevtsova does not expect noticeable improvements.
Gay in Ukraine: Higher likelihood of suicide among LGBTQ+ teens in Ukraine
These findings, according to activist research, make LGBT teens four times more likely to commit suicide than normal. Likewise, they say, there are more cases of depression and anxiety. To counter this, TERGO has conducted more than 40 two-day training with experts and psychologists for teachers* and school principals to date. Recently, an online course has also been offered, entitled School for all: A safe school environment.
However, radical groups have now also discovered the concept of courses and training for themselves and propagate ‘traditional’ family values, the activist knows. In many regions, further education on LGBT issues is not possible through the offerings of TERGO, because the local governments would prevent this. Also, (financial) support from the Ukrainian state is completely absent. Nevertheless, TERGO continues to focus on creating visibility. This is the only way to achieve LGBT normality in Ukrainian society.
Sarah & Karl & Daan.
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