For several months during the recent revolution they have withstood gunfire, kidnappings, beatings and freezing cold. However, general homophobia proved itself more resilient than the violent regime of Victor Yanukovych in Ukraine and the local LGBT community has been forced to cancel a gay pride out of security concerns.
A day later, a group of skinhead men tried to break into a local gay bar in the downtown Kyiv. In the last 6 months the place suffered multiply attacks and was completely trashed at some point. No arrests have been made.
This recent outburst of violence against local gay people happened just a day after enthusiastic participants of the February revolution, Ukrainian LGBT activists have decided to withdraw a proposed civil rights march in Kyiv, scheduled for July 5th. They made this decision after the meeting with local police where organizers received a warning: there’s going to be no adequate protection for them should violent attacks by far-right groups occur.
Earlier, members of the parliament from the far-right ‘Svoboda’ party had written a letter to the Ukraine Security Service chief, the Interior Minister, and the Kyiv mayor asking them to ban Kyiv Pride out of fear of possible ‘terrorist attacks’ against participants. The march also offends ‘family values of Ukrainians’, the letter says. Later, Yuriy Noevyi, a member of the “Svoboda” party council and deputy of the Kyiv province parliament, in a public statement accused Ukrainian LGBT groups of playing into the hands of the Kremlin by organizing a civil rights march and therefore compromising the recent revolution:
‘Representatives of a fa**t lobby in Ukraine have decided to mock Maidan’s democracy and ideals’, he declared.
While Ukrainian far-right parties are experiencing a popularity slump (during the May presidential elections their candidates received less than 2% of the votes combined), homophobia is widely spread and generally accepted in the country. Many top officials in the new post-revolutionary government are open homophobes too, so there is no enthusiasm within state agencies to push back against rising public animosity towards gay people. Russia-backed homophobic groups are also successfully exploiting local fears and stereotypes about the LGBT community. In the middle of the recent revolution they even used fake gay pride provocations to stir up confrontations between LGBT activists and far-right groups on the barricaded Independence Square in Kyiv.
And now Ukrainian officials and gay pride opponents use the war with rebels in Eastern Ukraine as their primary arguing point. While the death toll in the East passed hundreds and the government launched a new ground offensive after the recent ceasefire collapse, the newly elected Kyiv mayor asked the pride organizers to cancel the march:
“In times of an ongoing war, with lots of people being killed, it is wrong organizing entertainment events. I urge people not to do that,” Vitaliy Klychko told journalists on July 4th in Kyiv.
Such a surprising statement from the politician well-known for his liberal views infuriated many LGBT Ukrainian activists. Especially considering that the Kyiv government gave a ’green light’ to other entertainment events scheduled for July 5th, including a huge folk-festival “Dream Land”. Responding to Klychko’s comments, Olena Shevchenko, one of the Kyiv Pride organizers and an active revolutionary fighter in the past, says homophobia is so widely spread in Ukraine that even liberal officials struggle to distinguish a ‘gay party’ and a ‘civil rights march’.
‘Our march has nothing in common with carnival. It is supposed to be a civil rights march. My answer to Klychko: you are just helping homophobia expand, by saying that this is not a right time for LGBT rights. You can’t have a hierarchy of human rights,’ – says frustrated Shevchenko.
Ukrainian affiliates of the Russian Orthodox Church, especially influential in the rebellious East and in Russian-speaking provinces, also came out as a vigorous opponent of the Kyiv pride march. In a fear mongering Facebook post, Georgiy Kovalenko, a spokesperson for the Moscow-loyal church asked Kyiv government to ban the event that could lead to ‘clashes and violence, also have a negative effect on public morale.’Security concerns around the scheduled Kyiv Pride was a hot topic among LGBT activists even before the cancelation. Many were sure that still struggling post-revolutionary government would fail to guarantee essential protection for the event. In some closed social media groups activists were seriously considering forming a self-guard battalion to fight back against possible attacks.
Ukraine’s cancellation of an LGBT civil rights march is a major setback for human rights in the country, think human rights activists. Especially following a successful Kyiv pride event last year, the first one in the country’s history.
‘The importance of the right to freedom of assembly was dramatically evidenced in the EuroMaidan protests. It’s hugely disappointing that only five months later, the peaceful enjoyment of this right is being selectively denied by the very authorities who profited from it,’ John Dalhuisen, Director of the Europe and Central Asia Program at Amnesty International said in a public statement.
Ukraine is confronted with many challenges – fighting a war in the east, organizing a new government, and responding to Russian aggression.
‘I understand that,’ says Brian Dooley from a Washington, DC watchdog Human Rights First, who is currently on a research trip in Kyiv: ‘but peaceful freedom of assembly cannot be denied, even in times of crisis,” he adds while pointing out that the he police were unable to protect the march, even though it had somehow managed to mount a huge security operation last month for 20 heads of state visiting Kyiv for the inauguration of the new Ukrainian president.
Ukrainian LGBT activists got support also from some foreign diplomats. Swedish ambassador to Ukraine Andreas von Beckerath went on Twitter to voice his disagreement with the cancelation of Kyiv pride:
‘Saddest part with today’s canceled #KyivPride march is that police protection is needed. Right to choose whom to love is basic human right’.
This was Ukraine’s third attempt to have an LGBT civil rights march. In 2012 it was also canceled out of security concerns and lack of support from local government, but last summer around 100 activists successfully staged Ukraine’s first gay pride march in the capital Kyiv, defying a court ban. At the time, police arrested 13 people for trying to break up the rally.
In a 2013 poll by the “Gay Alliance” NGO and the State Sociology Institute, 63 % of surveyed Ukrainians claimed homosexuality to be a perversion or mental disease.