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Forgotten Revolutionaries

A Eurasianet partner post from Coda

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

Ian Bateson is a freelance journalist based in Ukraine.

A Eurasianet partner post from Coda

Forgotten Revolutionaries

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