Ukraine has never been an easy place for LGBTQ people as homosexuality was considered a crime during the Soviet era. In 2012 and 2013, imitating Russia’s anti-homosexual propaganda law (which prohibits the distribution among minors of materials that depict homosexual culture as a societal norm), Ukraine’s parliament proposed draft laws that would criminalise public discussion of homosexuality.
The recent Ukrainian crisis has put more pressure on minority groups, including LGBTQ people. Last year, the Ukrainian LGBTQ support on her organisation Insight opened the first shelter for LGBTQ people who have escaped from conflict zones of eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The organisation provides food, and psychological, legal and social support for these people.
Founded in 2008, Insight is a feminist organisation that plays an important role in LGBTQ rights, feminist and anti-censorship movements. Insight’s work to fight homophobia has been welcomed by the United Nations. OURS Magazine met Olena Shevchenko, founder and president of Insight, to talk about the current situation of the LGBTQ community in Ukraine.
Following the Euromaidan protests, the aim of which was to demand a closer integration with the European Union, the country has not seen any progress. Instead, it ended up with the annexing of Crimea by Russia, a conflict and an economic crisis. In this kind of troubled period, minority rights are usually pushed aside as other priorities emerge.
You said that the LGBTQ community in Ukraine is stuck between “Russian homophobic culture” and “Ukraine homophobic intolerance”. Could you elaborate on this point of view?
I think that many people understand that in the world today, there is some kind of war in people’s minds which opposes traditional values against human rights culture. Ukraine is a good example of what it goes like. So, before Euromaidan, we had really hard situation – like in Russia. Our parliament had three proposed laws on the prohibition of homosexual propaganda. The proposals say it is not only our civil responsibility (Russia deals out administrative fines), so they proposed a criminal responsibility: up to six years in prison for any positive information on any sexual orientation seen as non-traditional. One of those laws actually passed through at the first reading in the parliament. Every deputy group said ‘yes’. And of course we were afraid it would pass the second reading, but then we had the Euromaidan. For LGBTQ in Ukraine it was really lucky that this revolution was orientated towards European integration. Everybody in LGBTQ and human rights in Ukraine believed that Euro-integration would change something for human rights and particularly LGBTQ. Unfortunately, I can say that we are experiencing some kind of stagnation when it comes to any improvement of human rights in this period after Euromaidan. Our country is stuck between geopolitical fights; between traditional values versus human rights concepts.
Could you clarify the distinction between so-called ‘Western values’ and Russian values?
The concept of a ‘value’ is really vague and difficult to explain, and especially to understand, for the majority of people. I would say that regular people never really think about those concepts; they just know from their childhood that there are some stable things like tradition, which we all need to be proud of, and they think of these as traditional values. If you asked anybody in the street in Kiev or another region of Ukraine, “what does a traditional value mean to you?”, they would say it is something really positive – or maybe the most popular answer would be family values and morality. And nobody really knows what it is about or why homosexuality should be contrary to such values. Nobody really adheres to traditional Russian values, rather it is traditional Orthodox Christian values. But Russia invests so much money and effort in this concept that they are slowly starting to be perceived as Russian values, which they strongly defend. The concept of ‘Western’ values is not really understood in Ukraine. People think it is something about homosexuality, gender issues; they perceive some threat in deviating from this binary system with its traditional role of men and women. If that changes, there will be a total crash of the system. That’s what they think.
Why weren’t human rights at the centre of the Ukrainian revolution?
For me, it is obvious because the protest from the beginning was mostly about anti-corruption and social matters. All those people who came to Euromaidan in the centre of Kiev knew they wanted a better life, not somewhere in Russia but somewhere in Europe – but they did not know anything about human rights. Nobody has taught them about human rights from childhood, so the concept of human rights is not understood and nobody talks about it. Therefore, people came to defend a social benefit, to defend their willingness to reach a better life and we saw some human rights defenders, including us, with human rights slogans to improve human rights for democracy. Indeed, some people understand that democracy is something good, but still not everybody understands what human rights are. It is impossible in countries like mine, in all those post-Soviet countries, to make human rights the central agenda of the protest.
We can read in the media that 80 percent of the Ukrainian population is homophobic. How has the Ukraine crisis affected the LGBTQ community in Ukraine?
Personally, I don’t think that 80 percent of the population is an accurate statistic. I think it is less. I think that in any country, even in Europe, when you have a social crisis and a political crisis it means that people do not earn enough money to give to their family, to buy enough food, good clothing. So any time you talk about minority groups, people react with anger because they think that you are talking about some special rights that you want to give to those groups. At the moment, it’s hard to talk to them about homophobia, transphobia, migrant-phobia, because they think that those people are not from their circle and that some groups are asking for special benefits.
So what can you tell us about street violence against LGBTQ people in Ukraine?
We do not have monitoring results because the police does not want to register cases of homophobic violence. We do not have hate crime legislation for crimes committed against anybody – including, of course, LGBTQ individuals. So, when it is physical violence, when somebody is killed, beaten or raped, it’s just registered as casual hooliganism, so nobody knows that that person was LGBTQ. We are currently providing legal assistance on three cases. One is the killing of a gay man by a group of people. It seems like it would be the first case to qualify as homophobic crime, but it’s still based on hooliganism because still we do not have hate crime legislation. Another case is rape and the other is physical violence towards two people in the street. But it is very hard because it is impossible to work with the police on homophobia and transphobia, since our government does not launch incentives for these issues.
Could you tell us about your current activities with Insight?
We opened a shelter for internally displaced LGBTQ people in June 2014. It is quite new for us. We did it because some people in eastern Ukraine and Crimea asked us for help. Firstly, it was three people from eastern Ukraine and one person from occupied Crimea, and all those persons were transgender. They asked for help because they had unsuccessfully tried to escape these zones. To help them we decided to open an apartment that would be a refuge and shelter. It was really hard to start that project because international funders have other priorities. They want policy changes and they are not interested in direct support for the LGBTQ community. We spent three months searching for funders willing to support such a project. So, to start with, we just put our own money in. The second difficulty was finding an apartment, because nobody in the Ukraine wants to give one to LGBTQ people or internally displaced people – that’s a double stigma. We spent a month calling owners and explaining that we would pay, that everything would be OK, that these people are not bad people, that they had escaped from difficult conflict zones. We explained that people could help by renting us an apartment. We finally found one and can now provide support.
We grant shelter, we provide three months of free living expenses, food and travel expenses and we also help them to socialise in the new region, try to find a job for them, and we provide psychological and legal assistance. It is quite successful. Over the course of one year, we had 43 people who came through the shelter. It can host up to seven people and it is rotational, working in three month cycles. In really difficult cases, like transgender cases, where identity documents do not match current appearance, it is more complicated for the person to find a job, so we give additional months if needed.
How do you see the future of LGBTQ people in Ukraine when you see on the one hand the president Petro Poroshenko’s party making a statement in support of LGBTQ, and on the other, the parliament, which is anti-gay?
I still don’t know. The Europe integration process would finally bring us to a place of progress in LGBTQ rights, and human rights in all minority groups. Until the war is over in Ukraine, they will continue saying it is not the right time for our society, because we have crisis and we have more important things to do than improve some minority rights. The attitude seems to be “You are just a minority and we should think about the majority”. On the other hand, the statement is not enough. The authorities should make positive legislative improvement for the LGBTQ people. Last year, we fought to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the discrimination amendment, at least in the protected grounds. In the end, they excluded it from the document. Even when the EU pushed them, they said that we have war and that it would provoke a conflict; that they will do it some other time.
This is an excerpt from our Sexuality issue OUT NOW. Order it here!