LGBTI community, human rights activists look to EU-Ukraine deal for hope
“Today it is hard to believe, but Shevchenko Park was once where all of Kyiv’s gay people came to meet,” says Gay Alliance Ukraine vice president Stas Mischenko, as he strolls past the statue of Taras Shevchenko on Aug. 11.
Instead, amid beer tents and ponies, chess players and tourists, there are none. Or, rather, none who are openly displaying their sexuality. “You have to be very courageous to hold hands with your partner in Kyiv,” adds Mischenko.
Five years ago Mischenko, who is now 30 years old, relocated to Kyiv to be with his partner. He felt everything would be different for them.
“It was winter and we were walking through the park, and (my partner) grabbed my hand and held it so I wouldn’t fall,” he says. That would have been taboo in his hometown, where he thought he was “the only gay in the village.”
“I hid it from everyone, including myself,” he explains. “I was married at 20 and then got divorced. It was hyper-compensation. I was trying to be as straight as I could be.”
For a while the big city, a far cry from the small suburb outside Kriviy Rih where he grew up, seemed full of promise. It seemed, also, like a place where he might be able to live more openly and meet publicly with other gay men and women.
But public displays of affection between him and his partner – and between other gay men and women as well – have become scarce. “We do not publicly hug or kiss. It is too dangerous.”
With two anti-gay bills waiting in the wings and an important gay rights bill shelved amid rising pressure from nationalist and religious groups here to criminalize what they say is “homosexual propaganda” emanating from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community and its supporters, many of Ukraine’s estimated 225,000 LGBTI people are choosing to remain in the closet.
The figure is an unofficial estimate by the LGBTI community, while some human rights groups put that number above 1 million, or close to 2 percent of the country’s population.
These people also face more immediate dangers than laws in parliament, including violence toward LGBTI people. At least one of the recent attacks caused the victim's death.
A young gay man named Armen Ovcharuk was hit on the head during an attack outside the Pomada nightclub in Kyiv on Oct. 22, 2012. He died of his injuries on Oct. 27.
Svyatoslav Sheremet, head of the LGBTI organization Gay Forum, was jumped following a press conference to announce the cancellation of a planned gay pride event in Kyiv on May 22, 2012, when about a dozen men sprayed tear gas in his face before punching and kicking him all over his body.
Stas Mischenko (L), vice president of Gay Alliance Ukraine, and Taras Karasiichuk (R), president of Gay Alliance Ukraine, stand outside their office in Kyiv. Despite threats and acts of violence against them, the two men continue their struggle for equal rights.
Taras Karasiichuk, Gay Alliance Ukraine president, broke his jaw in two places and received a concussion after he was jumped in the weeks following last year’s cancelled pride event. He was attacked a second time in February, but managed to escape before being seriously injured.
Heather McGill, a Ukraine researcher for Amnesty International, says police tend to ignore such cases. “There has been no investigation into attacks (on LGBTI people),” she says. “Clearly there is a problem of impunity in Ukraine when it comes to hate crimes.”
Gay activists complain that there is a particular hate group on the rise that uses online gay forums to lure homosexual men and women to meetings where they are humiliated on camera.
Karasiichuk and Olena Semenova, a Kyiv Pride organizer and board member of LGBTI NGO New Wave for the Better Future in Kherson, say the group that calls itself Occupy Pedofiliya (Occupy Pedophilia) operates across the country. Last week young gay men were assaulted in Zhytomyr Oblast.
The group was formed in 2012 and is led by 29-year-old former skinhead Maxim “Slasher” Martsinkevich. It has since garnered a massive following on social media, which it uses to disseminate its videos of confrontations with young gay people. In some, young gay men are forced to drink urine or have it poured over them. Other videos show them being physically beaten or forced to dress like women.
The goal, explains Dmitry Mikolenko, who leads the Kyiv faction of Occupy Pedofiliya, is to curb pedophilia, which the group believes is closely related to homosexuality. He prefers psychological tactics to physical violence.
The work of this group has many of Ukraine’s LGBTI people fearing for their lives, and holding their cards close to their chest, says Mischenko.
“On dating websites for gay men, only 10 percent have their pictures,” he says.
Sometimes it is enough to simply appear gay. Mischenko recalls an incident in Donetsk Oblast in which a young man was beaten by a group of men on the street “because he looked gay and was wearing tight jeans.” A similar incident occurred in Rivne last March, when Mykola Lebed was punched in the face by two men at a local bar, again because his pants were too tight, but also because he was wearing an earring, the young man told police.
Bad as they are, things could take a turn for the worse quite soon, the same way it happened in Russia in June, when an anti-gay law was approved that deems their very lifestyle as propaganda of homosexuality.
Ukraine's gay community fears that Russia's move can once again be copied by Ukrainian lawmakers. This would be the opposite of what the European Union expects from Ukraine if the two sides are to proceed with signing this November a landmark Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive free trade agreement.
One way for Russia to make sure the European agenda does not advance here is “to spread its anti-gay agenda,” says Karasiichuk.
Outlined in the EU deal is a requirement for Ukraine to address its poor human rights record, including passing an important anti-discrimination bill that would disallow employers to fire or not hire someone based on his or her sexual orientation, among other things. Karasiichuk and other activists are crossing their fingers that parliament will hear and pass the bill once its new session begins in September. But it's far from clear if and when it will happen. The bill was on parliament's agenda in May, but was never debated.
In the meantime, Kyiv hosted its first ever gay pride event in May. Some 50 activists marched on May 25 about 300 meters near Pushkin Park and Shuliavska metro station, waving rainbow-colored flags and chanting “LGBT rights are human rights.”
“Right now our government and country are not so interested to allow LGBTs to be attacked,” Karasiichuk says, pointing to the fact that this year’s Kyiv pride event was held without major incident.
Amnesty International called the event “an important step forward for human rights in Ukraine,” while Olena Semenova, one of the organizers, said it was “a historic day.”
But everything can change if the Association Agreement is not signed, says Karasiichuk. “(The EU-Ukraine summit in Vilnius in November) is a key moment for us and Ukraine’s government, who can show that it supports human rights and LGBT rights. After that, Ukraine will not have another possibility to change course, and the situation (for LGBTI people) will become much worse.”
Popular opinion is already swinging in favor of anti-gay rights groups.
Orthodox believers protest against gay rights activists during Kyiv’s first-ever Equality March on May 25, 2013. About 50 people from around Ukraine and some from as far away as Sweden and Germany chanted and paraded down a narrow pathway near Pushkin Park and Shuliavska metro station, carrying rainbow flags and signs with slogans such as “LGBT rights = People’s rights.” More than 100 anti-gay activists gathered to oppose them.
A 2007 national poll conducted by sociological company TNS Ukraine on the country’s attitudes towards granting equal rights to Ukrainian homosexuals, when compared to a similar poll taken in 2002, shows an “increased polarization of negative attitudes towards the LGBT community,” wrote Nash Mir (Our World) Gay and Lesbian Center coordinator Andriy Maymulakhin in his 2012 analysis.
He continued: “Over the past five years, the number of people who support granting equal rights to homosexual citizens has decreased from 42.5 percent to 34.1 percent. The number of people who think that homosexual citizens should have the right to register their relations as a conventional couple, has decreased from 18.8 percent to 15.8 percent. The number of people who think that homosexual citizens have a right to raise children has decreased from 21.5 percent to 17.1 percent.”
Furthermore, a Gorshenin Institute study done the same year showed 72 percent of Ukrainians had negative attitudes towards sexual minorities.
Semenova says that one reason could be general discontent among Ukraine’s population, who are looking to attach the blame of a failing economy and government to someone.
“People are tired of suffering and aggressive because of poverty and instability,” she says. “They need to put this aggression out, and discriminated groups, such as LGBT, women and ethnic minorities, today are very convenient objects for this.”
Pictures by Anastasia Vlasova, Christopher J. Miller