It wasn’t supposed to begin like this. But exactly 14 months to the day after the Euromaidan protests, the Ukraine, unburdened by the heavy-handed influence of Russia, has seen a rise in homophobia and a willingness by the country’s relatively liberal gay community to squash equally revolutionary tactics for wider acceptance.
In a thought-provoking piece on ForeignPolicy.com, Dimiter Kenarov retraces the steps leading up to a cultural, political and economic war against the Ukrainian LGBT community that was supposed to be anything but.
As the narrative goes, the Ukraine, in a bloody, often times lopsided military campaign, unshackled itself from the wizened Cold War grip of once-mother-country Russia. The plan was for the Ukraine to turn to the West, not only to gain acceptance in the European Union, but to prove that the country was an economically viable country to do business with.
But even the pessimists among the LGBT community could not have anticipated the levels of hate that rose from the ashes of a new Ukraine. There was the grenade bombing of Kiev’s Zhovten (October) theater, the oldest in the city where Les Nuits d’Été (Summer Nights) was playing as part of Ukraine’s annual Molodist film festival, which included a selection of queer-themed features, and many in the audience — about a hundred people in all — belonged to Kiev’s LGBT community. The ensuing fire destroyed the roof of this iconic theater and rendered it useless. No one was injured.
Two days after, a dozen or so men branding the insignia of the ultranationalistic group Right Sector attempted to shut down a screening of another gay film. It was, in their world view, “amoral.” But according to the article, “[When] asked at the recent Eurocities Conference how he would support human rights after the Zhovten homophobic attacks, Maidan’s hero and current Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko said he considered human rights a good thing, but would “not stand up for gays and lesbians.”
But is it really surprising in a fundamentally conservative society that we should see a rise in nationalistic sentiment? Kenarov reports: Although it was decriminalized after Ukraine became independent in 1991, negative social attitudes persist to this day. According to a 2013 poll conducted by GfK Group, almost 80 percent of Ukrainians say they oppose any sexual relations between people of the same sex. In another poll, by the Ukrainian Gay Alliance and Ukrainian State Sociological Institute, 63 percent labeled homosexuality “a perversion” and “a mental disease.” That same year, a survey within the LGBT community carried out by Nash Mir Center found that 65 percent of respondents faced infringements of their rights due to sexual discrimination. The list included verbal abuse, intimidation and loss of employment or direct physical violence. Few of these cases (about 15 percent) ever get reported to the police authorities because of the victims’ fear of further reprisals and humiliation. There have been other cases of arson, too, long before the one at the Zhovten theater: In 2009, the Kiev art gallery Ya was set on fire after the presentation of a gay literary anthology.
Worse, after liberal and conservatives fought bravely together to push back at Russia’s own geopolitical land grabs, the LGBT community acquiesced to calls for restraint in public demonstrations, realizing fully that in the current political climate, displays of rainbow flags or public displays of same-sex affection were “huge liabilities.”
As it stands now, certain parts of eastern Ukraine have criminalized homosexuality, using Vladimir Putin’s own directives against LGBT ‘propaganda’ as both a legal and moral template. In the Crimea, newly installed Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov has bluntly stated that they “do not need such people.”
And, for right now, Ukraine’s push westward is a blessing and a curse, a time of new beginnings masking a fearful nation undergoing profound social and economic change. And caught in the middle of the storm? An LGBT community equally frightened but for an entirely different set of reasons.
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