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Forgotten Revolutionaries

Anti-government protests in Kiev. Licensed under creative commons. Photo © Sasha Maksymenko

Ukraine’s LGBT community depends on the West to defend their rights

Dispatch

Kiev, Ukraine

Last July, Zoryan Kis was sitting on a bench in the center of Kiev with his boyfriend on his lap when a group of right wing teenagers came up to them. They asked the couple if they were patriots, and then emptied a can of pepper spray in to Zoryan’s face. Friends chased away the attackers, and Zoryan rushed to a pharmacy. Having had tear gas fired at him during Ukraine’s Maidan protests, he knew exactly how to rinse out his eyes.

The public display of public affection by Zoryan and his boyfriend Timur was not entirely spontaneous. In Russia, two male actors had decided to see what would happen if they walked around Moscow holding hands, documenting the abuse they received and uploading it to YouTube. Zoryan decided to do the same thing in Kiev — he wanted to see how much Ukraine had changed since the Maidan revolution and how different it was from Russia. The experiment had gone well until the very end.

Zoryan was not the only person asking how much has actually changed for the LGBT community since Ukraine officially embraced Western values following the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Gone are the days when Kiev tried to court Putin’s favor and cash by copying Russia’s anti-gay laws, but the freedoms of speech and assembly called for by the Maidan protests are still unevenly applied in post-revolutionary Ukraine when it comes to the LGBT community.

Even in the Maidan itself the role of the LGBT community was difficult. The protests brought together people from different economic, regional, ethnic and religious groups. At any given time you could see flags belonging to the EU, Ukraine, the Crimean Tatars and even Israel. But the one banner you would not find was a rainbow flag.

The Maidan protests could have been an opportunity for Ukraine’s LGBT community to gain mainstream acceptance, as they proved to be for other groups. But because pro-Kremlin media were attempting to portray the pro-EU protests as a tantrum by LGBT people yearning to join ‘Gayropa’, activists like Zoryan decided not give them further ammunition by flying rainbow flags.

Today, he is still not sure if that was the right call. The Maidan protests have become a founding narrative for the new Ukrainian state. Images of the protestors killed, known as the “heavenly hundred,” are displayed in squares and schools across the country. The LGBT community are completely left out of the narrative.

“What we hear from our opponents is ‘you were not there at the Maidan first”,” says Zoryan. The LGBT community is also criticized for not doing more to mobilise support for the new government in rebel eastern Ukraine, in spite of the fact that being out and LGBT in Ukraine is dangerous at the best of times. Underlying these accusations is an implicit question about whether the LGBT community is really Ukrainian.

“We were on Maidan and we are in the ATO (Eastern Ukraine)” says 27-year old Maria. “But you don’t exactly go around asking people if they are LGBT in those places.” Maria is gay, though not an LGBT activist. She participated in every Maidan protest from the first to the very last. She brought petrol for Molotov cocktails and threw them at riot police during the iconic clashes on Kiev’s Hrushevsky Street. Her girlfriend was also there, working as a frontline medic. After the protests ended, Maria went to fight in the east, and says she was not the only person from the LGBT community who did.

The Maidan protests started when Yanukovych sought to cancel an Association Agreement with the EU. Maria and Zoryan were in the square for the same reasons as other Ukrainians — because they wanted the improvements in democracy and human rights that association with Europe would bring. But the agreement had particular importance for the LGBT community. “For me Ukraine not signing the Association Agreement also meant that it would become part of the so-called Russian world. One of the values of the so-called Russian world is state sponsored homophobia,” says Zoryan.

The new government went on to sign the agreement, and there has since been some progress in LGBT rights. Ukraine passed an amendment to the labor code making it illegal to fire someone based on their sexuality. Ukraine hosted its second ever LGBT march after the revolution, which was attacked by far right activists but successfully protected by the police.

But these decisions were driven by the EU and other Western countries. Western support has been essential for most reforms in post-revolutionary Ukraine, but the difference between anti-corruption measures and improvements in LGBT rights is that the former have strong local support. The labor code amendment was a prerequisite for visa free travel in the EU, and last summer’s march might not have taken taken place if the West had not put pressure on reluctant police forces to protect it.

Last week in the western city of Lviv the same excuses were used again. Local authorities said they could not protect an equality festival organized by the LGBT organisation Insight. The hotel where the event was to take place was surrounded by far-right activists in masks shouting “kill, kill, kill.” The organizers had to call off the event and leave the city.

“The situation can lean either way,” says Zoryan. When he asked the police to investigate the people who attacked him and his boyfriend in July, offering them a video recording of the incident, the complaint was dismissed for lack of evidence. It was only after going to court seven months later that he finally succeeded in having an investigation opened.

Zoryan is good at getting the authorities to take action. When they were reluctant to give protection to an LGBT march he was trying to organize last June he started bringing Western diplomats to liaison meetings with the police. Suddenly, they became much more helpful, but it isn’t a solution that always works - as events in Lviv have shown.

In spite of the disappointments of the past two years, Zoryan still has hope in Ukrainian society’s capacity for change. He cites one memory from the Maidan that fuels this hope.

At one point in the protests, after LGBT activists had decided not to demonstrate under their own banners, fake LGBT protestors infiltrated the square waving rainbow flags. Zoryan was in the Maidan watching as they approached.

A member of the Maidan self-defence forces yelled as the group came closer: “Everyone keep calm! I know the Ukrainian gays are not part of the protest and this is pro-Russian bullshit.”

“I think it was the first time he put “Ukrainian” and “gay” in one sentence,” Zoryan says. “It was a sign to me that Ukrainian identity can embrace also gay Ukrainians,” he says.