‘I’m gay in Ukraine & my country despises me’
Ukraine’s crisis is not just military & political, it’s social & cultural
Kiev, Ukraine – 13 July 2016
Gay Ukrainian, Maxim Eristavi, writes:
Last October came my turning point. After years of reporting on Eastern European LGBTI issues, I felt I was fighting an uphill battle.
In the shadow of Russia’s assault on queer communities, identical stories were being told about gay people struggling with rising violence and state-led oppression, from Belarus and Ukraine, to Georgia, Armenia and Moldova. These stories usually provoked zero media and public interest. At the same time, I felt they deserved so much more attention, to defend the human rights frontline against the expansion of institutionalised hate.
I was among the lone voices. I decided to cross the journalism line and make a final plea with my own personal story as a struggling openly gay man in Ukraine. I thought: this is it. If this doesn’t help, I quit.
When Politico Europe published my op-ed article “I’m gay in Ukraine and my country despises me” (below) I wasn’t surprised by the hate messages and the usual death threats. What knocked me out was the torrent of support from all over Eastern Europe.
In the following months, my story was translated into Ukrainian and Russian and made waves across Eastern Europe. This helped me to rally additional support for the LGBTI cause from foreign diplomatic and political circles and inside the political elites.
Suddenly, I felt the discourse was changing and the issue of the Eastern European assault on LGBTI equality was not marginalised anymore.
Still, reporting and advocacy for LGBTI equality in the region lacks sufficient attention. With the rising power of homophobia in Eastern Europe, we cannot fight it off on our own anymore. We also need the solidarity of our brothers and sisters abroad.
‘I’m gay in Ukraine & my country despises me’
By Maxim Eristavi
KIEV, Ukraine — In my long struggle to both be true to myself and to my homeland I always lose. I still hope to see a ray of light. Sometimes I do.
Like during a groundbreaking — for Ukraine — queer art-show that opened in Kiev in October 2015.
This is the first time that an LGBTI-themed installation occupies the most popular modern art space in the country. Thousands of people visit every week, the entrance guarded by heavy security. Created by American artist Carlos Motta, the exhibition features eleven prominent queer Ukrainians, including myself. Two of us decided to cover our faces. In a European country of 45 million being openly gay can not only destroy your life, it can cost you your life.
I spent some time standing near a huge plasma screen. It played a filmed interview in which I shared personal stories about my daily life as a gay man in Ukraine. After watching the interview, most visitors avoided making eye contact with me — not surprising in a country where more than 70 percent still consider homosexuality a disease. But there were many who smiled and nodded in support instead. A few people even brought their kids to the installation. That was a ray of light for me. But unfortunately the clouds are getting darker every day.
* * *
A few weeks later, the Ukrainian Parliament passed an amendment granting LGBTI Ukrainians protection from discrimination in the workplace, after only nine voting attempts and heated debates. It is a crucial clause on the path to securing a visa-free travel regime with the EU. Despite rampant homophobia among local political elites, Yuriy Lutsenko, the Parliament’s majority leader and head of President Poroshenko’s parliamentary group, tried to convince the media that the reason there was no consensus on the anti-discrimination clause was just because — well, no LGBTI discrimination exists in Ukraine.
“It is better to have gay parades in Kiev, rather than Russian tanks” — Yuriy Lutsenko
“Some ‘creative’ Ukrainians come to Europe and say they are LGBTI and that in their homeland country their rights are not guaranteed, and, for example, in the Netherlands those guarantees exist,” Lutsenko said. “They would automatically receive an asylum based on the claim. And, of course, the Netherlands would say to us: Well, change the law, do not let those opportunistic scammers accuse Ukraine of endangering rights of particular minorities.”
In his opinion, “it is better to have gay parades in Kiev, rather than Russian tanks,” he added.
“Ukraine will never have same-sex marriages. God help us, so it’ll never happen,” Volodymyr Groisman, the Parliament’s speaker, said during the vote.
To be honest, I haven’t felt like celebrating: It’s like they’ve thrown that equality law in my face, spat on me too. The amendment they passed is temporary: It is an equality clause to a labor code effective since Soviet times. A new code is on its way to a second, final reading and doesn’t include any mention of LGBTI rights. The technicality creates a temporary alley for Ukraine to fulfill visa-free demands, without granting any equality in the long run.
The only thing I could think of at the time was whether or not the EU would blink. Because, we, the Ukrainian LGBTI community, have been backstabbed by the EU before.
Last year the European Commission silently backed down before the homophobic Ukrainian government and ditched a crucial LGBTI anti-discrimination provision for the local labor code from bilateral talks.
While the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was in Kiev trying to lure the Ukrainian government into adopting legislation needed for a visa-free agreement, I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened to me 10 years ago. I was 19 years old, and working as a reporter, when my boss outed me, in front of a room full of our newsroom’s top managers, and threatened to out me to my parents too — all because I dared ask for the money she owed me.
It is still the most humiliating thing that has ever happened to me. But these things — and worse — will keep happening in Ukraine because gay workers are granted no protection from discrimination. Equality is still a dirty word in Ukraine.
The rising violence against the queer community in Ukraine is largely ignored by both local and foreign media. While traveling abroad and telling the stories of LGBTI Ukrainians, I’m often asked if I could provide specific statistics of LGBTI-related murders and assaults. Well, it’s next to impossible. How to compile numbers about a hate crime not recognized as such by Ukrainian law? In most cases local law-enforcement bodies classify the incidents as drunk violence or robbery. If you are naïve enough to file a police report after you are attacked, you won’t be treated seriously.
A hate crime at an LGBTI-movie screening in Kiev that resulted in a movie theater burning to the ground last year was classified as “hooliganism.” Similar attacks occurred in LGBTI community centers around the country last year. We don’t have conclusive information about what happened to more than two dozen attackers of the Kiev Pride who were detained this year. But I can give an educated guess, given that no local LGBTI people I have met and who have been attacked have seen justice.
I can understand how hard it is to reinstate the rule of law after a dramatic revolution and in the middle of a foreign-backed insurgency. I get it. But what’s unacceptable is the government’s complete silence, and the absence of any official condemnation of the rise in LGBTI violence in the country.
* * *
This summer the southern city of Odessa, the fourth largest in the country, banned its local gay pride celebration. The ban on the city’s first, and Ukraine’s third, LGBTI pride event was a major setback for the fight for equal civil rights in Eastern Europe. It’s a slap in the face for local LGBTI people who dared to hope for change after this year’s semi-success, when Kiev Pride resumed.
So here we are. It is 2015 and Ukraine still does not have a single law that protects gay people from hate speech or hate crimes. But on the same day the ban on Odessa’s pride parade was introduced, Pavlo Unguryan, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, can go on live TV in Odessa and call homosexuality “a treatable disease” and accuse gay people of pedophilia. And return to his job as an MP with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s party as if nothing happened. None of his 450 colleagues publicly shamed him. This same guy is a member of a parliamentary contact group with the United States. I can only imagine how hard it is for him to travel to the U.S. where gay people are mostly being treated, well, as people.
That said, the start of a change can be felt in Parliament: Two deputies showed up for this year’s Kiev Pride. Sergii Leshchenko and Svitlana Zalishchuk. That’s two out of 450. But they were the first ever MPs to march shoulder to shoulder with the city’s gay population. Other so-called reformist politicians, like Kiev’s major Vitali Klitschko, openly called for the march to be canceled.
I also salute those hundreds of policemen who showed up to protect the Ukrainian capital’s pride parade. Some were injured in the ensuing violence. One policemen was hit with a homemade grenade packed with metal that the Neo-Nazis brought with them — with the intention to kill. The LGBTI community raised a sizeable sum of money for the officer’s hospital treatment. This happened exactly a year after the same police force refused to protect the first post-revolutionary Kiev Pride and it was cancelled.
Broad homophobia in Ukraine is mostly a result of lack of education. As an experiment in Central Ukraine shows, most people don’t know anyone who is openly gay, or even what LGBTI stands for. In Kryvyi Rih, local activists interviewed people on the streets and asked a simple question: “What do you think about heterosexuals?” Most people answered with disgust that they condemn heterosexuals as something unnatural. If they had understood what they were saying, Kryvyi Rih would have to be Ukraine’s most gay-friendly city.
When you grow up in Ukraine, you don’t meet queer people. I was apparently the only gay kid in school, and a constant target for bullies. And it doesn’t get better. Nobody is out, except for a handful of LGBTI activists. Being a proud gay person in Eastern Europe is very lonely.
Recently I met a personal hero of mine, one of the most powerful openly gay people in the region — Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs. While I was filming an interview with him for the Hromadske International news network (of which I am a co-founder), he stressed the importance of “gradual changes” when it comes to civil rights equality in the region.
“I don’t want to wait 30 years to have my equality,” I snapped at his comment, reflexively. In 2015 making “gradual changes” in developing societies doesn’t work the way it used to. As I approach 30, I watch my friends in the States or in Europe getting married, having kids, creating families. And I feel like my life is passing me by. As though I’m being cruelly punished for being born in the wrong country, a country where you don’t dare dream of having a normal family, but find yourself carefully weighing your security options before you kiss your long-time partner in public, no matter how happy you are to see him. You patiently wait to be in the privacy of your own home.
Many would say this toxic, self-destructive option is “something, at least.” But I refuse to play at Stockholm syndrome in relationships with my own country, the country where I grew up, and that I support with my taxes and hard-earned money. I refuse to give up. I’ll fight back. Because by fighting back you not only give your country a second chance; by fighting back you give yourself that same chance. It’s just that there’s a limited number of second chances on offer.
• Maxim Eristavi is a co-founder of Hromadske International news network, based in Kiev. This article was first published in Politico Europe: http://www.politico.eu/article/gay-ukraine-my-country-despises-me