The new generation of LGBT activists in Ukraine, and how the migrated generation of former activists sees the chances for the political fight in the country today
When I had the honor to visit Ukraine for the first time around the year 2000 as a guest of the Molodist film festival in Kyiv, I was introduced to a bunch of young, fierce, and determined lesbians who were ready to change the world – and their home country. 20 years later, most of these women have migrated to other countries and therefore are lost for the LGBT movement in Ukraine. Why did they leave, what happened to their visions and how do they see their former home today?
Ever since I met these incredible people, we stayed in touch over the decades, and I am proud to call them my friends until today. I kept traveling back to Kyiv and they visited me in Berlin. Back then I was sure they would start a gay pride and many other rebellious, revolutionary actions in Ukraine. But it turned out after the failure of the Orange Revolution and other political disasters, they felt that they rather needed to leave their home country to live a free and better life in countries abroad.
Today a new generation is taking action in Ukraine and, despite all obstacles, is able to bring LGBT issues to the political agenda.
I asked two lesbian migrants from Kyiv, who I’ve known for 20 years, how they look back and how they see Ukraine and its LGBT movement today.
“We were enthusiastic and hopeful”
Olga Shevtsova is 44, living in Toronto, Ontario and married to her wife – also from Ukraine. She is working as an audit manager for the biggest insurance company in Canada.
Oleksandra Lopata will be 50 next March. She is living in Be’er Sheva, in southern Israel. She doesn’t have a partner and is living with her relatives who have been living in Israel for more than 20 years. She is working in a studio that translates films and TV shows for a major Israeli cable TV channel.
Olga was with the group Women’s Network in Kyiv, looking back on the old days she says:
“We were very enthusiastic and hopeful. There was no real ‘movement’, rather a number of isolated initiatives and organizations with a different focus, goals and priorities. For example, Women’s Network was solely focused on activities and projects targeted at women, other groups emphasized an anti-HIV initiative targeted at mostly gay men. Some groups wanted to focus on entertainment activities with commercial interests. Every group was so protective of their own territory and not really interested in joint efforts, like for example lobbying gay rights.”
Oleksandra left Ukraine 6 years ago. She was mostly involved with Ukrainian LGBTQ organizations as a participant or used her journalistic skills for their goals. She was on TV and radio shows and talked openly about LGBT issues. She was also the editor of the Gay Alliance Ukraine website, even for two more years after her departure. Looking back, she reflects:
“15 to 20 years ago, Ukraine was a country that recently gained independence and moved on its own path. I belonged to the generation that was born in the USSR, but in my teens I faced perestroika. Although this era is now considered controversial, it was a real breath of fresh air at the time, and these sentiments were partly preserved when I thought about the future of Ukraine as a European country where LGBT people would gain more freedom. Don’t forget that in 1991 Ukraine became the first of the former USSR countries to abolish the criminal law ‘for sodomy’. Many people shared my views, and the prospects of a new Ukraine oriented towards Europe motivated us.”
And does she feel that the “movement” failed, despite the motivation?
“I would not say that this movement failed, but it certainly slowed down, and this was due to many factors. First of all, with the zigzags of Ukrainian politics in general. Ukraine has experienced two ‘color’ revolutions, and different presidents have changed its political vector either towards Europe or towards authoritarian Russia under Putin’s regime. During the presidency of Viktor Yanukovich, who decided to turn Ukraine back into an appendage of Russia, several bills similar to the infamous Russian ‘propaganda of homosexuality’ law were submitted to Verkhovna Rada. Some of them involved even harsher punishments. In the country, under such conditions, any progressive movements, including the LGBTQ movement, were hindered.”
“Enjoy what you are doing”
Of course, I also wanted to know if they left the country because of the missing freedom for LGBT people. Both of them actually had many reasons to leave, Olga said, “including, but not limited to, that particular issue.” Oleksandra also said that “the lack of rights and freedom for LGBTQ people was one of the reasons for my departure from Ukraine. But not the only one and not the main one.”
And looking back at Ukraine today, how does it feel, and did things improve for the LGBT community? Oleksandra has mixed feelings:
“Currently, the situation of LGBTQ people in Ukraine has improved slightly. Even 15 years ago, we couldn’t imagine that the ‘Equality March’ could take place in the center of the capital, and the same marches would be possible in other cities. That they would be supported by some representatives of the Parliament and different celebrities, and Ukraine would discuss the possibility of legislative introduction of civil partnerships.”
What could the next generation do better to avoid known mistakes and be more successful in their political activism? What advice would Olga and Oleksandra give to the Ukrainian activist of today from all their experience? “Enjoy what you are doing. Educate yourself continuously. Be in dialog with other LGBT groups,” is Olga’s clear and smart advice. While Oleksandra sees a worrying tendency towards too much routine and self-purpose:
“I see young LGBTQ activists who sincerely support the movement, but I also see those for whom this movement has become a routine work. I would like to work more on the principle of ‘grass roots’, because without it, it’s impossible to achieve change.”
And will a profound change be possible in the future in Ukraine? Recent developments give a reason for hope, but when asked if Ukraine will ever be a country where LGBT people will be able to live freely and have the same rights as others, Olga has only one depressing sentence to say: “Not in my lifetime.”
Oleksandra is a little bit more optimistic, but also skeptical about things to come soon:
“I can imagine that Ukraine will become a country where LGBTQ people will be equal citizens, and I still believe this. However, I remain realistic and assume this will not happen in the near future.”
So there remains a lot of work for the LGBT movement in Ukraine, especially after almost the whole generation of smart and determined activists have left the country, and they basically had to start from scratch again. Taking that into account, this new generation was quite successful in establishing a new movement and will hopefully succeed.
This material is prepared as part of the Covering LGBT issues in transnational journalism project with the support of the Eastern Partnership Program of the German Federal Foreign Office
Publisher of LGBT magazines SIEGESSÄULE and L-MAG in Berlin