Kiev is getting back to normal. Downtown streets that just one month ago looked like battlefields are now full of busy crowds and tourists. In one of the newly revitalized city squares, I met Olena Shevchenko, an LGBT-activist-turned-revolutionary. I had heard a lot of about her—an openly gay woman who managed to form a female-only military unit. Some call them the “Maidan Amazons.”
Olena joined the revolution in its very first days, but the idea to form a women-only “sotnya” (a Cossack term for a group of one hundred fighters) came a bit later, as a response to rising sexism within Maidan (Independence) Square. The women in Maidan Square were being asked to make sandwiches; meanwhile, they had been building the barricades.
At the start, Olena had only eight women in her military unit (mostly human rights activists from feminist or LGBT groups). But thanks to social media, the number rose to 500 people in Independence Square and more than 1,500 at other locations. (For comparison, the right-wing Right Sector, had around 2,500 fighters in downtown Kiev on a regular basis.) “It was amazing, because ‘feminism’ is still a dirty word in Ukraine,” she says, “the same as ‘gay.’”
It’s more surprising, in the end, that the Maidan protesters—particularly the far-right groups that became a driving force against President Yanukovych—were able to accept a gay fighter rather than a feminist one. Homophobia has been on the rise in Ukraine. A 2013 GFK Ukraine study showed that 80 percent of those polled had negative attitudes towards gay people. That's at least 8 percent more than the previous year. In another 2013 poll by the Ukrainian Gay Alliance NGO and the Ukrainian State Sociology Institute, 63 percent of surveyed Ukrainians said homosexuality is a perversion or mental disease; only 9 percent supported same-sex marriages. And post-revolution Ukraine does not seem to be much better for LGBT Ukrainians.
First, many open homophobes are still among the country’s top-officials. Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov (also a Baptist preacher) famously said, back in 2007, “If a man has normal views, then you label him a conservative, but those who use drugs or promote sodomy—you label them a progressive person. All of these are perversions.” Several leaders from the far-right Ukrainian nationalist party, Svoboda, have been given ministerial posts in the post-revolution government, including the vice-prime minister position. In fairness, Svoboda has toned down its anti-gay rhetoric in recent months. One of the party’s MPs, Yuriy Syrotyuk, called the first gay pride parade in Kiev “an act of aggression” against Ukraine in 2012, but now presents a more moderate, if still limited, position. “We respect rights of all minorities, but LGBT legalization will blow up this country,” he stated in an interview. “If we take this discussion to the parliament, not only Crimea will secede, but Ukrainian provinces will also start to leave the country.”
The new government is also actively trying to block an anti-discrimination law that would protect LGBT people in workplaces. This piece of legislation, pushed as part of integration talks with EU is, frankly, the only progressive thing to happen for the local gay community since 1991, when Ukraine became the first post-Soviet country to decriminalize homosexuality. (Some opponents of the law argue that support for it would give Russia a cart-blanche; in the past, the Kremlin has showed amazing capabilities to organize quickly and effectively against any kind of gay movement inside Ukraine.) Now, a law similar to the Russian’s "gay propaganda" law—which criminalizes even discussion of gay rights—is pending in the Ukrainian parliament.
A wave of recent violence against gay people in Ukraine has underlined how precarious the situation is for LGBT activists. During January and February, far-right revolutionary fighters attacked a famous gay club in Kiev five times. The owners didn’t want to go public with the story, afraid of more attacks and allegations of being “unpatriotic” or “Kremlin provocateurs,” so they just closed the place down. Nearby luxury boutiques were left untouched. Here is footage from the vandalized club, which the owners posted on YouTube following my request:
But despite these aggressions, LGBT activists are in a tricky position when it comes to the revolution. When I approached revolutionary campaigner Bohdana Babich, who posted about the attacks on the gay club on her Facebook page, she refused to speak with me, saying that I shouldn’t create “informational noise” at a time of a crisis in Ukraine. When a group of LGBT activists decided to support the revolution last year, they did so with the understanding that they would have to do so quietly. “A majority of LGBT activists decided to fully support and participate in the revolution, because European values are close to our values and goals,” said Bogdan Globa, a well-known local LGBT activist, in an interview with Hromadske TV in January. “But, at the same time, we decided not to use our rainbow flags in joining the protest, not to demand a special attention to us and to publicly demonstrate our concerns.”
Svoboda MP Yuriy Syrotyuk is right when he says that “the majority of local members of the parliament would not [vote for gay marriage legislation]. Absolutely all attempts to put this legislation up for a vote have resulted in public fury and mass protests.” The consensus here—among conservative and liberal politicians—is that Ukrainian gays should wait another 15 or 30 years for the expansion of civil rights. This is the message I’ve heard from almost every local politician I spoke to in the last three months.
There are even reports that the European Union has considered tabling LGBT civil rights in Ukraine. Pavel Petrenko, the country's Justice Minister, said Monday that the European Commission had dropped a demand to include "sexual minorities" in an anti-discrimination law, a requirement for EU integration. Later, the EU embassy in Kiev responded: “There is no change of the EU position; we prefer a solution whereby the law covers sexual orientation,” stated David Stulík, press and information officer for the EU delegation to Ukraine. According to a source involved in these talks, the EU hinted at the possibility of dropping the LGBT-rights provision in integration talks, and the Ukrainian government rushed to announce the shift as a done deal. According to Globa, who attended talks on Wednesday between European Commission representatives and Ukrainian civil rights groups, the European Commission has dropped gay rights provisions from its negotiation requirements.
So what of those LGBT activists who were on the front lines? “Personally, I feel betrayed. It’s like a sellout, from both sides,” says Ukrainian gay activist Zoryan Kis. “The new Ukrainian government uses the chaotic, post-revolution situation as a pretext for not letting any kind of gay rights legislation to pass through the parliament.” Zoryan is not naïve; he understands that gay marriage and full equality are years away. But equality at the workplace was a crucial first step in the right direction, and now the measure to ensure workplace equality is in trouble.
I asked Shevchenko of the “Maidan Amazons” the same question: Does she feel “betrayed” by the new, post-revolution government? For Shevchenko, the alternative—some kind of union with Russia—seems much worse. “What gay rights would we be talking about in that case?” she says. “Despite all ongoing controversies, we made a couple of clear steps towards the EU. And it means hope for all of us.”
Maxim Eristavi is a freelance writer based in Kiev. He previously worked as executive producer for the Voice of Russia and journalist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.