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Ukraine's gays fear coming out of the closet

Proposed new laws designed to stop media outlets from "promoting and propagating homosexuality" worry rights groups.

Last Modified: 31 May 2013 15:58
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Religious leaders held a counter demonstration during Ukraine's gay pride march [Ivan Chernichkin/Al Jazeera]

Kiev, Ukraine - Sitting outside a café in Kiev's bustling Kontraktkova Square, activist Stas Mischenko speaks of some of the tribulations facing Ukraine's gay community. 

"I knew one 19-year-old guy who accidentally left his laptop lying around his house and his parents saw messages he sent to his boyfriend," Mischenko, vice-president of Gay Alliance of Ukraine, said. "For over a year they didn't let him go out of the house to work or study, they just kept him inside for fear of shame. And that's a familiar story in Ukraine."

Homosexuality is considered a taboo subject in the post-Soviet country, where being gay was only legalised in 1991. An organiser of Ukraine's first pride march - held last weekend - Mischenko said the community feels under threat. 

Last year, the country's attempt at a gay pride rally made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Minutes after cancelling the march for security reasons, organiser Syvatoslav Sheremet was brutally attacked by a group of masked thugs resulting in his hospitalisation.

"There was a case this winter when a gay man left a club and was murdered but under present legislation, this is not considered a hate crime, merely hooliganism," he said. "When I am in public, I don't express myself at all, I don't hold the hand of my partner, I just stand like a regular guy. I would be a fool if I wasn't afraid, but right now I have switched off my feelings."

This year, organisers had arranged for the parade to take place in the centre of the capital, but due to the clash with Kiev Day, a "family-orientated" series of cultural events across the city, and the multitude of planned protests from anti-LGBT groups, the authorities banned any demonstration from taking place downtown. The new location was kept a closely guarded secret until the last minute.

Religious backlash

On Saturday, journalists arrived to witness ranks of riot police and special forces surrounding a group of around 50 LGBT activists, keeping a vocal mob of Orthodox Christian protesters at bay, as they gathered in the shadow of the monument to famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. The Orthodox protesters waved banners with expressions such as "Kiev is not Sodom" and "Gays bring AIDS to Ukraine".

The parade was intermittently interrupted when some religious protesters disguised as press lunged at activists, attempting to rip banners and placards. According to the police, 13 arrests were made. After one hour, activists were evacuated from the area, changing their clothes and switching modes of transport multiple times to avoid any revenge attacks.

I ask only one question - where is the democracy in this campaign against Ukraine's traditional values? Now it seems that if you are a Christian, you are an extremist. Does this mean that democracy is now liberalism?

Yuriy Noievyj, conservative politician 

But not all members of Ukraine's gay community were in favour of the march. Bogdan Globa, director of Fulcrum, an NGO working on HIV prevention, believes in a different approach.

"In Ukraine, the LGBT community has not started to mobilise yet. We don't have a great advocacy strategy or strong organisation and now with the gay pride we have started war with very strong opponents. The march is a good idea but it's not enough and now is not the right time." Globa said. "Pride is only twenty minutes and it is a big political action, but what does it really achieve?"

Ukraine's political class are even less keen on the topic of LGBT rights, particularly Svoboda, the nationalist party which won 37 seats in the 2010 elections. Svoboda have been accused of holding racist, anti-Semitic views and some of its members have allegedly been involved in homophobic attacks.

Over a bowl of borscht in a central Kiev restaurant, Yuriy Noievyj, a Svoboda deputy for the Kiev region, argued that the party was trying to fight against extremism it sees as imposed by the European Union in trying to get Ukraine to recognise same-sex marriages.

"I ask only one question – where is the democracy in this campaign against Ukraine's traditional values? Now it seems that if you are a Christian, you are an extremist. Does this mean that democracy is now liberalism?"

Noievyj echoed concerns which were voiced by the anti-LGBT groups present at the gay pride march. The occasion, he said, was forced on Ukrainian society by international interests.

"All of these participants were from abroad, they were very few and guarded by thousands of police because of pressure from lobby groups from the West. And most of the police hate faggots."

HIV debate

Opposition to the gay pride parade was the most visible manifestation of homophobia that runs deep in Ukrainian society but many are more concerned over proposed laws currently being debated in parliament which call for the "prohibition of propaganda of same-sex relationships" which extends to a ban on any form of media "promoting and propagating homosexuality".

Some activists have remarked that this could criminalise the reading of books by Oscar Wilde or the playing of music by Queen - but the ramifications could be far more serious.

Ukraine currently has one of the fastest growing rates of HIV infection in Europe and, in the past year, the highest proportion of deaths were due to sexual transmission. Yet even the word "gay" is not always used when discussing the topic, instead the term MSM (men who have sex with men) is widely used, as many do not consider themselves gay despite their sexual relations. Anna Dovbakh, from HIV/Aids Alliance Ukraine, is deeply worried about the impact from the proposed laws.

"All these fascist and rightist groups will write letters to the local authorities calling for our punishment and we will have problems every day from police checking if we are making propaganda or not through our health-related information - and they have no clue how to check it except in their own minds," Dovbakh said. "It will close most of the registered LGBT groups and we will have to use different language to describe HIV and AIDS risks for MSM. The growing epidemic in Ukraine will be hidden again and the rate of AIDS will increase significantly."

The issue is not helped by the fact that there seems to be little will by the Ukrainian government to support initiatives that are associated with homosexuality.

"We are still trying to encourage the state to pay for HIV prevention services but so far it is zero percent," she said. "The level of deaths by AIDS in Ukraine is entirely at the mercy of outside funding."

'Can't keep silent'

In Ukraine, the church plays a prominent role in politics and society and the level of discourse from religious figures in the run up to the gay pride parade was particularly hostile.

Head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Filaret said that people supporting LGBT rights would be cursed, while Archbishop Sviatoslav of the Greek Catholic Church denounced homosexuality as a sin tantamount to manslaughter.

This is not a time to be silent and to pretend nothing is happening, these issues need to be discussed at the highest levels.

Stas Mischenko, gay rights activist

Bishop Volodomyr Wilde, of the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church is very much part of the alternative religious movement in Ukraine, largely due to his strong support for the LGBT community. "Each week we have communion with around thirty people that are not welcome by the mainstream churches and we make pilgrimages to monasteries - but of course we don't tell people that we are gay friendly," he said. 

Sat next to him is one of his congregation, Denis Younga, who is HIV-positive and uses his experiences to help others in Ukraine's gay community facing the same dilemma.

"Thanks to these laws, we will not be able to talk honestly about HIV in this country. Should we put all of these people in jail? If they start legislating against gay people then who will be next? Jews? Ethnic minorities? I don't want to publicise my personal life but I know that I can't keep silent either."

The Ukrainian government and the European Union are currently in talks over an agreement that would enable visa and trade liberalisation between the two areas, but human rights groups have demanded that the EU not sign until the controversial legislation is dropped. Despite intense pressure, the threat of violence and even disagreements within the LGBT community, Stas Mischenko is adamant that the gay pride march could enact change.

"This is not a time to be silent and to pretend nothing is happening, these issues need to be discussed at the highest levels. If we are silent these laws will be adopted, the LGBT community will be forced further into the closet and the situation will be nearly impossible to change."

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Al Jazeera
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