How does the LGBTQ community in Ukraine fare? This article will show how essential support from other countries is and how urgently legal protection is needed. Also, it illuminates the situation of community members in structures like the military where they might face tougher challenges than elsewhere in society. And lastly, there will be a closer look on how gender and age influence support for the community respectively resistance against it in Ukrainian society.
[ Українську версію цієї статті можна знайти тут]
Protagonists (in the order of appearance):
- Edward Reese, 36 years old, from Dnipro, project assistant at KyivPride, queer
- Viktoriya Didukh (Wi_ik), 30 years old, from Khmelnytskyy, based in Kharkiv, former soldier and activist for the NGO “Ukrainian LGBT soldiers and our Allies“, trans*woman
- Viktor Pylypenko, 34 years old, from Rivne, army veteran, head of the NGO “Ukrainian LGBT Soldiers and our Allies“, gay
- Peter (name changed), from central Ukraine, university student, bisexual
* Despite several attempts, the author could not find a lesbian participant so this perspective will be missing.
A matter of definition
Edward Reese, an activist for KyivPride, defines as queer or non-binary. In his own words, he uses the term non-binary for someone who is outside the binary system, neither female nor male. “I actually prefer queer,“ he says, “because for me that is something aside of everything, something that is aside from any binary or non-binary system or any system at all.“ Reese views himself as pansexual: “I just like everyone.“ Being that much off the beaten track is not to everyone’s liking. His family could not accept that he was not heterosexual – he even underwent conversion therapy to be “cured“. The young person eventually had to flee from home; there is almost no contact to the parents today, except from occasional online chats with his mom.
Edward believes it was less his parents who objected to his queerness, but more so external influences that guided their behavior. His mother was an active member of her orthodox church at the time and identified with its values. The father, not that much devout, worried what others might think – and that there would be no grandchildren to be welcomed. Reese fondly remembers his grandmother, seemingly the sole pillar of support in the family. She did not care whether he dated boys or girls so long as they were a good person.
Unsurprisingly, the activist and artist is not associated with any institutional church today. He follows some Nordic pagan traditions, some Wicca traditions: “Nature is my church – I love communicating with nature.“ Edward broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church his mother attended when he saw how it could change people’s personalities. [Today, this church is no longer present in Ukraine and a Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been established.] Considering himself pro-choice and pro-freedom, Reese found little appeal in the hierarchies of this church – following a leader, with restricted freedom to determine one’s own life.
It is not only church, though, that assumes the power to define who people are and how they should be. Societies in general express their expectations just as clearly. Viktoriya Didukh, former soldier and activist for “Ukrainian LGBT Soldiers and our Allies“, elaborates: If she were out in a dress now and were attacked, the assailant would go free, she fears – and the assault would be blamed on her since she should have looked like a man traditionally does. “I don’t mind traditional families; but there are some people with very conservative points of view who don’t understand that every family can have its own traditions and values.“ Wi_ik describes the structures of patriarchal systems where men are ranked above women. Interestingly, a gay man loses status value and “sinks“ to the lower level of women in society’s perception. Transgender women, born in a male body but with the self-perception of being a woman, experience the same kind of devaluation when they start transitioning and look more womanlike. Accordingly, a transgender man, assigned the female gender at birth but identifying as a man, rises in value and gains more respect. Wi_ik adds that the same is true for lesbian women. For gay men in interaction, the partner assumed to be passive is as disrespected as women are while the partner perceived to be active is appreciated as heterosexual men are.
Fault lines within the rainbow community
“Today, we have quite big acceptance for people in the LGBTQ community, except for queer and non-binary people,“ Edward Reese says, “even in the community, non-binary and queer people are not quite accepted. First, we have to get gay marriage, and then maybe, maybe we can talk about non-binary documents or toilets. We have maybe two lines of acceptance: lesbians, gay people, hetero, cisnormative trans people are on one level, gender-nonconforming people and queer people are on a lower level of acceptance. We saw that many cis gays, cis lesbians, even trans people don’t understand what queer is, don’t want to identify with this word, don’t want to accept non-binary or people with queer gender or sexual identity.“
No safe haven: An unholy alliance between religion and right-wing activism
Does Reese feel safe in society, being out and open? The answer: a resounding “No“. He explains: “Not feeling safe is part of an activist´s life in Ukraine. We have a big and active movement which calls itself right-wing or conservative movement. They want to spread fear.“ These activists on the other side of the aisle post hateful messages on their channels and social media pages. And will not stop there: They ask their followers to bully LGBTQ activists and beat them. They also seem to destroy offices of activist organizations and hack and block their social media accounts. Physical violence is an option as well: Bullies will also show up on women’s marches, pride marches, and feminist events, always eager for some prey to beat up. While Edward has not yet been physically attacked to date, he always walks the streets of Kyiv in constant awareness that it might happen any minute, he reports matter-of-factly. Not your idea of personal freedom or quality of life? Rural areas might be even worse off. The biggest, most visible, and most active of these organizations seem to be “Tradition and Order“ and “Catarsis“. Reese describes the latter one as specialized in bullying and harassing online, sending out death threats and similarly kind messages. Sadly, the acitivst considers the Ukrainian police to be mostly inactive when such incidents occur. Both “Tradition and Order“ and “Catarsis“ are male-dominated, not surprising in right-wing groups that care for a masculine appearance – and not surprising in groups that are prone to violence. Reese draws a clear line between the Ukrainian society as a whole which he describes as nice and tolerant. The troublemakers were right-wing and Christian groups – not big as an entity, but loud, aggressive, and persistent.
Reese reports a harrowing act of violence when a gay man leaving a bar was beaten up in the street, lapsing into a coma. He finally became conscious again, and the perpetrator turned out to be an active member of the police force – exactly the group whose job it is to protect their citizens against violence like the one he committed. Any more proof required that this system needs to be reformed? Edward details another incident where right-wing teenagers beat up a young journalist on the job “because he looked gay“ (dyed hair, earrings). People might even be beaten up for just looking different (bright colors, dyed hair, men wearing earrings). Reese demands more attention to be focussed on these ever-present dangers on the street.
Toxic masculinity and gender-specific threats
Threats seem to vary based on the gender assigned to the potential target of hate. Directed against activists, they mostly “promise“ death or attacks. However, women, people interpreted as women, or gay men also receive rape threats. Looks like everything that was not in line with traditional masculinity deserved subjugation through sexual violence. Women in higher offices or with a highly visible public profile share this experience.
While Edward Reese generally does not feel safe being around in public, this discomfort increases when his girlfriend is with him. They would both be read as women, he confides, and as a loving couple they represented a deviation from what society expects. They would of course receive negative comments (like “disgusting“). Generally, younger people, read below 30 years of age, would seem to be less inclined to make hateful comments. Reese speculates that a low level of tolerance might be even more widespread in smaller cities with no LGBTQ organizations present and less exposure to the community for the general public than in Kyiv with its visible rainbow community.
A muted voice
Wi_ik has been born in a male body, but feels like a woman. However, she cannot really act accordingly. Due to threats on social media, she still lives with her old documents, complaining about the lack of trained medical staff that could attend to the needs of trans people and about the lack of legal protection. “Right now, I look like a femine gay person, like a very tender guy. I don’t wear any skirts, I wear jeans or some unisex clothes.“ While in reality Didukh would prefer to dress up in a more feminine way, read what is traditionally considered feminine, so that “the inner self corresponds to the outer self“. She puts up some sort of public performance by dressing differently – for fear of attacks.
After giving a video interview to Deutsche Welle, Wi_ik received many death threats. People would wish her to “burn in fire“, for instance. Were these haters just venting their anger or did they present an actual threat? Didukh has felt unsafe in public ever since: “Even when I’m wearing genderneutral clothes, I’m still afraid.“ Basic human rights are violated here in unspeakable ways if people have to be afraid for their safety or their lives just for who they are and how they want to express themselves.
Even more inner conflicts arise from Wi_ik’s voice. She is literally afraid to speak out as the base sound will give her away as male. While hormonal treatment might help some trans women to sound more like society expects women to, others have to undergo surgery or intensive vocal training for the same effect – especially when a physical gender transition sets on later in life. Wi_ik deeply desires this kind of surgery “to live a full life“ – but, she regrets, there is only one doctor in entire Ukraine who can perform this kind of genital surgery, and she describes him to be transphobic. Since health insurance does not cover transition in Ukraine, the only way for people to afford surgery is to earn money abroad first. There is no way of paying this expensive medical intervention from salaries that only enable living from paycheck to paycheck.
Lost in space or when aliens turn into role models
In general, Reese sees progress in society as a whole which has become more liberal and open. He attributes this development mostly to the dedicated work of LGBTQ organizations and bloggers, but also to the internet being more accessible for everyone. Thus, it becomes a place for people to see and learn – and see stereotypes on LGBTQ individuals destroyed that originated from biased TV content. Edward vividly describes his feeling of isolation as a young person: “When I was a teen, there was no internet. I could find people like me only in science fiction, for example, like some aliens or monsters outside the gender system.“ So while he did not feel female in his early teens or even as a child, he had no words to name his identity and also nobody to look to as a role model. That changed at around age 20 when he found the US-American actor Ezra Miller, who came out as queer in 2012, and thus catapulted the term into public discourse. Other queer human beings surfaced that Reese could identify with.
War and peace and a legion of armed unicorns
Ukraine has been stuck in lingering military tension with Russia for a while. Does this war have an impact on how people in Ukraine feel about the LGBTQ community? According to activist Reese, this ever-present conflict with Russia seems to make citizens in general more accepting and tolerant. Interestingly, though, right-wing campaigners in the country replicate Russian talking points in their hateful agenda. “Our tradition is freedom,“ stresses the queer activist, homophobia and transphobia would represent Russian behavior patterns transplanted onto the Ukrainian population. “Right now, I feel we are quite alone in this situation. I wish for more acknowledgement of the Ukrainian-Russian war from Europe and the US, for example.“
What is it like not to be an average heterosexual person in the military, in general or under the conditions of a lingering war in particular? Viktor Pylypenko, army veteran and head of the NGO “Ukrainian LGBT Soldiers and our Allies“, gay, had a very public coming out. He participated in a photo exhibition that portrayed LGBTQ soldiers most of whom chose to conceal their faces. It was then when he decided to let everyone know about his sexual orientation. While younger fellow soldiers were rather accepting and some of his 50+ male colleagues sort of “adopted“ him and showed paternal affection, he also faced resistance from some. These people had quarreled with him before on the internet, where he was present on chat groups for veterans that were supposed to make LGBTQ troops more visible. Part of their aversion might be religiously motivated, the former soldier assumes, inspired by the Russian and the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, in his view “similarly archaic“. Another attributing factor might be political influence from Russia. Had it not been for Soviet times, Pylypenko says, Ukraine would have become a good European civilized country with good economy and good democratic institutions. With heartfelt affection he describes Ukraine as a rainbow of ethnicities – people with roots in Russia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Georgia, Greece, Armenia, Germany, Jewish citizens… Such a colorful array of different groups – why not embrace gender and sexual diversity as well?
While Pylypenko’s experience as a gay soldier was largely positive, Wi_ik should not be so lucky. She received medical and psychiatric treatment, based on her diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Even though she wanted to finish her military service, of which there was only one year left, she was barred from doing so. The soldier was eager to receive a formal document that would allow her to legally start transitioning. Wi_ik had to present to a military medical commission that was to decide on her future in the armed forces. They told her she had none, due to her psychiatric diagnosis. Also, they refused to issue the desired document. According to Wi_ik, the Ukrainian army sticks to very traditional interpretations of a binary gender system: There are strict rules on hair and makeup, and if you are a man as stated in your documents, you are supposed to look like one – as society sees fit. She would even like to serve today if she could, were it not for widespread homophobia in the military and zero tolerance for transitioning. After all, patriotism and willingness to enlist for your country should overrule biases if people are not just like everyone else. Didukh states: “We show that your sexual orientation and gender identity do not influence your patriotism and nationalism. There are a lot of openly gay and lesbian people in the military, I know some transgender people in the non-binary system who are serving.“
More progress to be made with women and younger people?
Peter, a young university student from central Ukraine, chose this name to conceal his identity. He came out as bisexual to some female family members, like his grandmother. She turned out to be very supportive, while his aunt sometimes struggled with his identity. Which he can accept. He noted that his male family members were generally more conservative than the women and thus less accepting of diverse sexual orientations.
Peter finds a clear distinction between age lines when it comes to accepting identities and walks of life different from one’s own: “I like my country and I would like to stay here, but I’m not sure about the society here. I still feel kind of pressured.“ Younger people would definitely be more open and accepting towards the community, Peter feels. In his social circle, closer and wider, almost everyone knows – and does not seem to bother.
Call to political action
General question to lawmakers, high-ranking VIPs, and trusted leaders: If there is a vulnerable and exposed community and you do not act to protect it, do you inflict harm? There is, after all, enough propaganda against the community: “Gayrope“ is a term used by conservative respectively right-wing groups that discredits being LGBTQ as an attack on traditional Ukrainian values, orchestrated by foreign influence. But what do these traditional values look like? Wi_ik describes the holiday “Malanka“ when men would dress up as women (according to traditional interpretation). And what about the wedding custom when bride and groom would swap their clothes, just as well as maid of honor and best man?
How does the Ukrainian president act towards the rainbow community? Pylypenko is disappointed by Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s position: “He did not do anything to enhance the lives of LGBTQ people, unfortunately. We don’t have civil partnerships, we don’t have a law against homophobic assaults. For our politicians, the LGBTQ topic is like a hot potato; nobody wants to touch it and deal with it.“ The activist definitely sees an urgent need to reform the police and the judicial system: Even with existing laws police might be hesitant to investigate and courts might not prosecute when LGBTQ people are being attacked. After the Orange Revolution in 2004 citizens saw their due done after they had elected the president. No real civil society took shape, corrupt men installed themselves in powerful positions. Things changed after the Revolution of Dignity, Pylypenko feels. Ukrainians gained trust in their institutions, activism set off.
Wi_ik echoes the perception that Zelenskyy were too passive: “When other politicans speak against the LGBTQ community, the president keeps quiet. When someone introduces a new law draft that supports equal rights, the president keeps quiet.“ If he and his political party publicly backed the community, Wi_ik would consider that “a key support in the country“ because this would help to have more LGBTQ-friendly bills accepted. “If we had this support, we would move from this homophobic transphobic place to a more civilized country.“ Adds Edward Reese: President Zelenskyy would even inflict harm on LGBTQ people by frequently installing homophobic and transphobic elements in his still-running show. [He was an actor and comedian prior to his presidential office.]
Are there countries that Wi_ik looks to as an inspiration how Ukraine could or should treat its rainbow community? “Belgium, Denmark, and Germany. As a result of World Wars I and II, people in Germany became more accepting. It’s the mindset.“
Pylypenko points to places outside of Europe as role models where Ukraine could find inspiration. Definitely Israel and the US, he says empathically: “They have very strong institutions that are hard to damage, as we can see now. What takes us years to do, we could do within months with the support of our Western partners.“ This kind of alliance sends a powerful message to the Ukrainian people, Pylypynko observes, who raised the rainbow flag on several embassy buildings during a joint project. Allies were the embassies of the Netherlands, Canada, and the US. Will Germany join these ranks? A future government coalition might focus more forcefully on human rights.
Support is considered especially helpful when it comes from a governmental level since people might trust this more and also since there has already been some support from society. “Ukrainian LGBT soldiers and our Allies“, headed by Pylypenko and having Didukh in its ranks as a passionate activist, has been officially listed as NGO: https://www.lgbtmilitary.org.ua/eng. They are present on Facebook groups, with different subgroups for gays, lesbians, and transgender people. TikTok and Instagram accounts exist as well.
But still, there can never be enough support… Activist Reese welcomed the support for the LGBTQ community that was readily granted during the Eurovision Song Contest or the recent UEFA European Championship: “People see the news in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary where there is a lot of hate crime. They see that the Soccer Championship supports our country. Some countries, like Germany, Sweden, and other European countries, had some problems in the past [i. e. There was oppression of the LGBTQ community as well, the author] and they have changed. So maybe, some day, Ukraine can change as well.“
Reese participated in a Stockholm Pride Festival and saw firsthand what things could be like: The biggest difference between Stockholm Pride & KyivPride was the amount of police. In Stockholm, you would not even see the police, Reese recounts. He also perceived the Swedish public to be welcoming towards the event, with straight people joining or having a happy time on the balcony with some wine while watching the parade. In stark contrast, there might be sometimes more policemen than participants on Kyiv LGBTQ rallies to protect against backlash and threats of violence. And visitors to pride parades might face restrictions of self-expression, like not wearing glitter or rainbow decoration on their way to the parade to avoid too much visibility.
Should there be more support from the EU? Definitely, when it comes to the legislative struggle for more anti-discriminatory laws and in the push for police reform, Reese states. He also wishes for more European protection against Russian war activities and for European officials and ambassadors to shove Ukrainian officials more to the right direction, so they would take protecting the LGBTQ community more seriously.
What is in legislegative store
Asked for legislative inspiration from other countries, KyivPride activist Reese asks for an X-marker or a third-gender-marker for non-binary people in official documents. Under current legislation in Ukraine, Reese would have to undergo full transition to male to reveice a marker different from the gender assigned at birth – and he could only receive the male marker in his documents.
Yet Edward Reese compares Ukraine favorably to other Eastern countries: It would definitely protect LGBTQ issues much better than Russia and Belarus, a bit better than Poland and Hungary even though these countries were closer to Western Europe.
Still a lot remains to be done. But initial steps have been taken: Government Bill #5488 is on its way. Carrying the title “On Amendments to the Code of Ukraine on Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code of Ukraine on Combating Discrimination”, it provides amendments to national legislation in order to combat discrimination and regulate liability for crimes motivated by homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of intolerance. It was submitted to the parliament by the Cabinet of Ministers on 13 May 2021. It clearly differs from various legislative initiatives in recent years with its comprehensive approach and focus on systematically removing a number of gaps in legislation.
Human rights advocates believe this bill to be a powerful response to a number of challenges, including crimes motivated by intolerance, oppression of the rights on the basis of various grounds, insufficient rights of the authorities to respond to discrimination and violence, and deliberate spread of hate speech. While approving of the bill in itself, human rights activists see many parts that could be improved, like more precise wording to achieve greater legal certainty, and walking the line between freedom of speech and belief and the responsibility for inacceptable public speech.
It’s all about respect
Reese’s concluding message: “It’s important that we respect each other. And ourselves – if we don’t respect ourselves, we can’t respect other people. And we must remember that our freedom ends where other people’s freedom starts. If we see some LGBTQ content on the web that we don’t like, we don’t have to look; we can just move away. We are not obliged to write hateful comments. If we want to be good people, we have to educate ourselves about diversity and differences between people”.
While the LGBTQ community in Ukraine seems to fare better than respective groups in other Eastern countries, it still needs support. Everyone can act: If you play in a sports team and support equal rights for the community, you could wear a rainbow-colored captain’s armband. You can contact your regional or federal representative in parliament and ask them to speak out in favor of the community. Just as well could you contact your secretary of state and demand they make human rights a high priority on their agenda when traveling abroad. Political leaders must address the protection of all vulnerable communities on their state visits. Business leaders can make equality a requirement for starting financial transactions. And, of course, LGBTQ people must be sufficiently represented in decision-making positions. Acceptance should be taught early on: Textbooks for schools and universities must convey modern and diverse society concepts; cisheteronormative family systems cannot be the sole standard. And lastly: When dealing with other people, treat them with the same dignity and kindness you wish to see bestowed on yourself.
It is humanity that we all share.
The author is deeply grateful to all participating interviewees for sharing their time and sometimes painful experience, and to the interpreter Oksana Serha for making sure that language was no barrier.
This material is prepared as part of the Writing for Diversity project with the support of the Eastern Partnership Program and the German Federal Foreign Office.
Freelance journalist based in Bad Berleburg, Germany (non-binary)