What's life really like for Kiev's LGBT community?

Chris Godfrey reports from the Ukrainian capital and Eurovision host city.


When Ukraine made its debut as Eurovision hosts in 2005, it was forced to revise its competing song entry. The original rendition of Razom Nas Bahato, performed by rap band Greenjolly, carried an overtly political message: as well as drawing heavily from a traditional revolutionary anthem, then-President Viktor Yushchenko was mentioned by name. This was interpreted by some as propaganda, a clear breach of contest rules. Substantial revisions were made and eventually the now-sanitised and inoffensive hip-hop track was cleared for performance in the final. Ukraine finished 20th. It’s fitting then that Kiev’s second stint as host city arrives off the back of Jamala’s 1944, a haunting anthem about the Soviet Union’s historical deportation of Crimean Tartars. The decision to allow such politicised lyrics — They kill you all… where is your heart… you take away peace —  to stand undiluted was as surprising (and controversial) as her victory. Swiping the crown from under the noses of the Russian favourites no doubt made it sweeter. When the contest does arrive in the Ukrainian capital, it will play out against a backdrop of Russia’s military intervention in the east, in a country infamous for its endemic intolerance towards LGBT+ people (a fact not lost on many queer Eurovision loyalists). Far-right populism is sweeping the continent unabated and the very notion of a unified, peaceful Europe is under threat. Given the context, it’s difficult to see how Kiev’s second Eurovision will be anything but political. The last time a significant group of LGBT+ people had gathered in Kiev, the event was marred by violence — albeit a continent away. It was 12 June 2016. A few hours prior to their assembly in Kiev, Omar Mateen had stalked a queer Latino event at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people. By the time more than 1,500 queer activists  were ready for their annual March for Equality, the scale of the massacre was apparent. Their assembly — already a fiercely political act in an intolerant nation — grew in poignancy. Love had to win, and it did: after six years and five attempts, LGBT+ activists in Ukraine finally held a Pride event remembered for its peaceful celebration of queer expression, not for the violent opposition. That’s not to say there wasn’t resistance. A 14,000-signature petition was delivered to the Kiev city hall website, demanding a ban on such overt homosexual propaganda, and just weeks before there were threats of a bloodbath from a neo-Nazi paramilitary faction calling themselves Right Sector. Despite the city council’s reluctance to authorise the parade, Kiev’s fifth Pride week and third march for equality went ahead. Activists were flanked by secure fencing, 1,200 members of the national guard and more than 5,500 police, clad in riot helmets and flak jackets.  Although they were segregated from a cohort of religious fundamentalists and far-right nationalists — 57 of whom were detained and later released — the threats of violence never materialised beyond vocal disapproval, placards and projectiles. Compared with previous years, the fact it took place at all is a sign of progress. Since its 2012 origins, the early years of Kiev Pride have faced opposition from every aspect of Ukrainian society. They’ve seen last-minute cancellations from the council and abandonment by the police. They’ve been shunted to the city’s industrial outskirts by the courts and overwhelmingly derided by the press. They’ve been consistently attacked by fascist paramilitary groups and subjected to violence. After a turbulent six-year history, the relatively peaceful Kiev Pride of 2016 proved a welcome milestone. The lack of violence was deemed such a success that when Ukraine won last year’s Eurovision, the city council flaunted the accomplishment, in their case for hosting the competition. It worked, and this May the 62nd Eurovision Song Contest will make its way to Ukraine for the second time. LGBT+ tourists can be forgiven for feeling apprehensive about travelling to Ukraine. Given the ongoing conflict with Russia over its annexation of Crimea, not to mention the region’s well-publicised anti-LGBT+ attitudes, the destination has the distinct air of instability. But while pro-Russian separatists have dragged eastern cities such as Donetsk and Luhansk into conflict, Kiev has remained “generally calm,” according to the Foreign Office. Although public displays of affection may be met with hostility, local LGBT+ activists are adamant Kiev is safe for queer tourists. The city’s brooding Stalinist high-rises and ornate Orthodox cathedrals don’t discriminate; monuments to the country’s discordant history are open to all. Under the watchful gaze of Europe, authorities are likely to take extra precautions to ensure the competition passes without incident. It will probably be one of the few times the local LGBT+ community can come out in force and express themselves freely. Ruslana Panukhnyk moved to Kiev more than a decade ago when she started university. She joined the 100 or so activists who made up the first Pride march, and now heads up the organising committee as Pride’s executive director. Growing up in Ternopil, a city in the west of Ukraine, she was exposed to the hostility towards LGBT+ people, borne out of the Orthodox Church’s influence and a general kinship towards traditional values. As trust in politicians has decreased, opportunities to co-opt public opinion have grown; the Church is not the only faction to have noticed.

Ruslana Panukhnyk is the executive director of Kiev Pride.

“The main factors against LGBT+ issues are the aggressive nationalistic organisations,” says Panukhnyk. “They had this resistance movement in the Soviet Union which they are trying to replicate now, linking ‘heroisation’ with the Maidan revolution, where they were very visible. They have all the ownership in the eyes of the general public. That’s where they get their support.” Ukraine’s far right was the subject of international disdain in March 2016 when 200 nationalist activists launched an attack on a venue hosting an LGBT+ festival in Lviv, Western Ukraine’s largest city. Wearing balaclavas, they surrounded the hotel, hurled projectiles, and chanted: “kill, kill, kill.” LGBT+ activists were evacuated by bus, with just one police car turning up to protect them. They’d only attended the festival for film screenings and literary discussions. For the local LGBT+ community, Ukraine’s capital is slightly more accepting compared with the rest of the country, but Kiev is by no means an oasis of equality. “I guess that the whole of Ukraine is different to Kiev,” says Panukhnyk. “[Attacks] are not common, except when the annual Pride approaches. They try to find [people] to beat up, especially after a successful march. They want to show their aggression. We are trying to inform people not to go out after the march because it’s not safe.” In both Kiev and rural Ukraine, the LGBT+ community remains quite closeted. Safe spaces — where members of the queer community can meet — are at a premium, while Kiev has only two gay night clubs, LIFT and Pomada (which translates as Lipstick). There’s little respite to be found on dating apps and websites, with numerous cases of infiltration by the far right. “There are cases where far-right radicals meet with guys and beat them up just for fun,” says Yuri Yoursky, the programme director at Gay Alliance Ukraine (GAU), one of the country’s largest LGBT+ advocacy organisations. “Last year we also saw attacks on community LGBT+ centres.”

Yuri Yoursky, programme director at Gay Alliance Ukraine (GAU)

Yoursky grew up in Zaporizhia, a south-eastern city with a strong industrial tradition. He describes it as innately homophobic, a product of its low levels of higher education and a post-Soviet hangover. It’s representative of most Ukrainian cities. As part of his work at GAU, Yoursky has set up regional LGBT+ centres in these hostile areas, supporting their rental costs and the grassroots initiatives of activists. They’ve successfully started eight across Ukraine, a task completed without government funding. For many it’s the only space where they can express themselves fully, without repercussions. “If you’re fitting into that typical definition of a cis-man or cis-woman and working with all gender stereotypes then you won’t have any difficulties,” says Yoursky, reflecting on life for LGBT+ people in the capital. “The people who have a queer gender expression may face abuse and it can happen on the streets or at work. People believe that homosexuality is something that is not natural, that it’s something that can be adopted. Propaganda tells people it can be adopted.” In a conservative society with nationalistic leanings, non-conformity comes at huge personal risk. It’s a notion that Fritz von Klein, a prominent trans activist, knows all too well. His androgynous gothic presentation and unruly blue dreadlocks hardly lend themselves to the masculine ideals of a post-Soviet nation. Even in Kiev it’s deemed too much. “Kiev is less transphobic and homophobic but I was attacked because of the colour of my hair,” says Von Klein, who grew up in Donetsk and moved to Kiev three years ago to join other trans activists. “For people, it is a marker of my sexuality — which it is not, of course. If you were straight but you have coloured hair or you painted your nails, you’re a faggot; in this country, you’re a faggot. It’s a fear of the stereotypes. People on the streets who don’t know that I’m trans, they like to guess whether I am a girl or a boy, and they are always laughing or making fun of me. I am afraid of physical violence. I am really afraid because I have had a lot of verbal violence from people who appear to be Nazis.”

"I am afraid of physical violence" - Ukrainian trans activist Fritz von Klein

Life doesn’t get any easier off the streets for Ukraine’s trans community. Doctors who understand the trans experience are few and far between. Most were trained in Soviet Ukraine and still treat trans people as if they are mentally ill. Even the more progressive among them implore those transitioning to conform to binary notions of masculinity and femininity. Legal recognition is even more difficult to obtain because changing the gender marker on a passport requires sterilisation. “It’s very dangerous for me to go to Donetsk because of my documents; it could cost me my life,” says Von Klein. The conflict in Donetsk has shown little signs of ending and as the situation deteriorated, his mother and grandparents were forced to move in with him in Kiev. When he first began transitioning none of them supported him but his mother has since joined TERGO, a group for the parents of LGBT+ children. It’s rare and a welcome instance of progress among a generation that internalised decades of institutional homophobia and transphobia under Soviet rule. It’s a potent influence even Kiev’s gay community hasn’t managed to escape. “In my country, I’m not so popular with my appearance because I’m more goth,” says Von Klein. “In our society the word ‘queer’ is an offensive term. It’s as if you let down the whole LGBT+ community if you say that you are queer or if you are non-binary. “They like gays who look straight, more masculine. Of course, the younger generation…they are often queer, they fight against the stereotypes.” For LGBT+ activists, the opportunity to demand equality came with the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, Euromaidan, when protestors took to the streets across the country to demand closer ties to Europe. It resulted in the removal of President Yanukovych. Although the nationalists alongside whom they demonstrated prohibited any rainbow flags or pro-LGBT+ messages (they did not want to alienate the rest of the country), there was at least the prospect of closer integration with Europe. The promise of a new Ukraine, one free from Russian influence and a champion of LGBT+ equality, was worth the compromise. But progress has been slow and many LGBT+ activists feel betrayed by the revolution they supported. Despite this, there have been a few minor steps forward: the police force is undergoing reforms which include tolerance training, while support from the media for LGBT+ rights, particularly with regards to Kiev Pride, has shifted from explicit opposition to neutrality. “Many people in Ukraine try to oppose Russian influence because they hate Putin,” says Olena Shevchenko, a board member at ILGA-Europe and chairwoman of advocacy organisation LGBT+ NGO Insight. “They resist him and are trying to go towards Euro integration. But when it comes to LGBT+ issues, it’s a different reaction. They think we need to protect traditional values and morality.” And there are almost no allies in the parliament. “We still don’t have any open politicians who say they are part of the LGBT+ community and we still have a lack of speeches from our politicians which are at least respectful towards LGBT+ communities,” continues Shevchenko. But it’s better than it was a few years ago. Visibility has been raised and many people at least know what it means to be LGBT+. “After the Maidan revolution, we have more people who are socially and politically active and are trying to bring about change.” Ukraine’s younger generation may be more tolerant, accepting even, but coming out is still a tough ask for the country’s youth. Mark Radionov, a 22-year-old artist, grew up in Kherson, a small southern city with an estimated population of 329,000. Without the internet, information was hard to come by and he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. Eventually the pressure of hiding his identity started to have an impact on his physical health. “There was no talking about gays,” he says. “Growing up I had no internet, no computer; I’m from a poor family. I’ve never heard good things around me [about being gay], so I tried to like girls, but in vain. I was very nervous and two years ago that had an effect on my heart.” While fake social media profiles are used by the far right to entrap unsuspecting gay men, they’re also the first line of defence for those coming out. For many it is the only way to chat with other people in the community. The first interaction Radionov had with any gay people was conducted through the social media site VK, a Facebook-esque platform popular in Russian-speaking countries. “The first thing was hard for me,” Mark recalls. “I just came to VK and made a fake profile. I’ve never participated in gay life; in Kherson I didn’t even find anyone that was talking about it. On Grindr, I was the only person in the whole of Kerson. The nearest other one was 60km away.” Radionov moved to Kiev in May 2016 and though there’s been a slight improvement in his life, the city has fallen some way short of the liberal, tolerant place he hoped to find. Although his parents are cool with his sexuality, (“they know despite not asking questions,”) and while he is now happier, reconciling himself with his sexuality has done little to end the animosity he feels towards his country. “I don’t like Ukraine” he says. “It’s not even a question; I will move somewhere. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, or where. But I will move.” Before he leaves, Radionov plans to attend Kiev Pride next year. Having seen the recent successful march, which he avoided out of apprehension about protestors, he’s confident about joining his peers this year. Activists hope 2017’s march will take place through the city centre, rather than the outskirts. Plans are already underway to convince the city council to agree to the route, a fight they’ve lost regularly. But this time they have a secret weapon: Eurovision. “Every year the argument starts that they don’t have the capacity to have Pride, so cancel it. Or move it to the outskirts so nobody will see,” says Ruslana Panukhnyk.  “But they used us an argument, saying they have the capacity [to host Eurovision]. They said that they managed to have a safe Pride so are ready to deal with a lot of LGBT+ people in Ukraine. Next year there are no excuses for them.” If you are planning to visit Ukraine, check the Foreign Office website first. Mores stories: Who wants a sneak peek at ‘I’m a Celeb’ star Joel Dommett’s Attitude shoot? Single & Fabulous? | How a decade of dating taught me to be my own Valentine