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In post-revolutionary Ukraine, homophobia and oppression deepen

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, 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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Flight MH17 might also harm LGBT Ukrainians

The devastating loss of noted Dutch AIDS researcher, Joep Lange, who died in the recent downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight in the skies over Ukraine may turn out to be just one of multiple tragedies surrounding the air disaster that have special relevance to LGBT people and our allies.

The horrifying downing of a passenger airliner, whether by negligence, malice or both, is steadily galvanizing European and American support for Ukraine in its efforts to extricate itself from Russian domination. As a result, there may be less need for Ukraine’s leaders in Kiev to respond to western pressure to make life safer and more equal for lesbian, gay, bi and transgender people in the country.

As cynical as it may sound, more outrage and sympathy on a macro level could mean less leverage on a “micro” level; not that there’s anything small about the need to secure human rights for LGBT Ukrainians nor about the mission to differentiate the “new Ukraine” from Russia with its draconian anti-gay law.

I and one of my editors were struck by a particular quote in a story I filed recently. The story was about the cancellation of an LGBT Pride march that had been scheduled to occur earlier this month in Kiev. The Pride march had to be canceled because government officials said they could not protect participants and that, as Kiev’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko put it, “this is not the right time for a celebration.”

No one would say that times of armed conflict are good times to “celebrate” LGBT Pride or any other cause. However, grown-up democratic nations should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Put less cavalierly, democracies should be able to allow minorities to safely demonstrate for better treatment by majorities even while difficult national circumstances are at hand.

But the quote we found so striking was not that of Mayor Vitali Klitschko. Rather, it was a quote within a formal statement issued by Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights First in reaction to the cancellation of Kiev Pride 2014. While profoundly germane to the “lost Pride” story in Kiev and the tough situation LGBT Ukrainians face moreover, the quote had an overarching relevance to the very nature of democracy.

“For all of its talk about sharing European values the new Ukrainian government has failed a major human rights test today,” said Human Rights First’s (HRF) Brian Dooly. “The U.S. government should make clear publicly to the Ukrainian authorities that peaceful freedom of assembly should be respected for all.”

Dooly is director of HRF’s Human Rights Defenders program. His quote about Ukraine’s failure to ensure that the Kiev Pride march could be safely conducted even while a de facto war with Russian separatists to the east continued (and still continues) to escalate was an answer to an unasked, yet perennial question: Can fixtures of the democratic ideal such as freedom of expression and the right to protest be rightfully suspended or otherwise dispensed with in times of crisis by nations that claim to be democracies?

Because there is no aim of democracy more fundamental than that of protecting basic human rights, and because there are no tools more requisite to ensuring basic human rights than freedom of expression and the right to peaceably assemble, the answer must be a full-throated “no.” The right to peaceably assemble cannot be compromised if democracy is to flourish – much less take hold.

Some might point to periods during the American Civil War or even the years immediately following the 911 attacks when, respectively, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush tampered with and hampered fundamental freedoms and rights, including as habeas corpus and the right to peaceably assemble as evidence that extraordinary measures can be taken in times of war without a democracy’s long-term survival being threatened.

But is that really so? Was democracy not imperiled when Lincoln suspended habeas corpus? Essentially the right to face one’s accuser in court, habeas corpus (guaranteed by Article 1, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution), is one of the most fundamental distinctions that separate truly free nations from those with some of the window dressings of democracy but none of the fixtures and furnishings.

Was democracy not threatened when intelligence officials targeted the weekly meeting of a central California group that was described by Dahlia Lithwick in a 2004 New York Times op-ed as “cookie-wielding pacifists?”

Although it appears to have pretty much survived for now, of course democracy in America was threatened by those breeches of basic democratic rights and freedoms.

What is striking about Dooly’s statement is how instantly and completely it obliterates doubt. Dooly eliminates both the benefit of the doubt one might subconsciously want to afford the government in Kiev as it writhes under the boot of its behemoth neighbor to the north, as well as any doubt that denying people the right to peaceably assemble is by definition a cancellation of basic liberty.

If an erstwhile democratic nation cannot endure peaceable assembly, in this case taking the form of an LGBT Pride parade in Kiev, Ukraine, then that nation is in fact not worthy of claiming democracy as its form of government. Democracies have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Democracies have to be able to fight wars and protect free speech at the same time.

As the guilty party in the surface-to-air missile downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 appears to be the Russian-supported separatist rebels to the east versus the supposedly western values-aspiring government in Kiev, the U.S. and the European Union will likely ramp up support for the government of new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko without exerting much if any new pressure to protect sexual and gender minorities in the country.

Even toothier support from Washington and Brussels in favor of Kiev is likely to emerge if it turns out the missile that downed the Boeing 777 was launched from inside Russia itself. The onus to keep the pressure on Ukraine to respect and protect the rights of LGBT Ukrainians now falls upon LGBT-rights activists as well as equality-minded politicians, business leaders, diplomats and even journalists.

If we don’t show up, stand up and speak out loudly in defense of our LGBT brothers and sisters in Ukraine, leaders in Kiev have proven they will do as little as possible – or worse – to protect and respect their rights.

As Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the original drafters of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights said on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the signing of the declaration in her remarks about places where small assemblages of oppressed people gather, “… Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”