Ukraine today is reforming on all fronts: dealing with Russian invasion in the East; curbing corruption; and performing shock therapy to resuscitate the country’s economy. I argue that amid numerous developments Ukraine is experiencing, advancing human rights is a necessary precedent for other successful reforms in the country and is interconnected with other issues. Last year, the EuroMaidan protests united people of different backgrounds, occupations, religion, and gender – including the LGBTI community- in order to build a better future with freedom and democracy. Despite the ideas of the “revolution of dignity,” the LGBTI community is still discriminated against and faces violence.
In recent years the situation in Ukraine has improved, with about 40 registered LGBTI organizations, 10 of which are active. Ukraine needs to adopt liberal values in order to move closer to integration with the EU. Such social inclusivity, however, is not widely accepted in Ukrainian society. It is difficult to escape the country’s Soviet past, where being a part of LGBTI community was illegal and punishable with a prison sentence.
Particularly in Crimea today, the LGBTI community is heavily repressed, along with other groups. Because it is now under Russian jurisdiction, the law banning gay “propaganda” is enforced, resulting in fines and detention.
But is Ukraine’s tolerance of LGBTI community much better than Russia’s? On May 10, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe) released its 2015 Rainbow Map, an annual review of the human rights situation of LGBTI people in Europe. Russia and Ukraine were rated to be some of the worst places for LGBTI persons in Europe, with 8% and 10% tolerance of human rights and equality respectively.
Because of this, the LGBTI community in Ukraine is facing violent attacks. Perpetrators are often members of marginalized nationalist groups, whose credo is against something, rather than for a cause. In November 2014, two men who burned down Zhovten (one of the oldest theaters in Kyiv) confessed that their attack was against gay people, in response to the screening of a film on LGBTI-related topic during Kyiv’s annual festival “Molodist” (Youth). On that day the lives of nearly 100 audience members were put in jeopardy. Luckily there were no casualties.
Although Ukraine does not have a law similar to the Russian “propaganda” law, its recently released National Strategy on Human Rights—a 5-year plan for Ukraine- excludes calls for anti-discrimination on the basis of sexuality. In response to this release, Deputy Special Advisor of the Secretary General (SASG) of the Council of Europe, Markus Jaeger said, “it is not conceivable in this century that Ukraine has no ambition as to the respect of the basic rights of LGBTI persons.” Indeed, many Ukrainian MPs see supporting such legislation as damaging to their reputation and a quick path to losing votes. For instance, in November of 2014 Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitchko commented at the “Eurocities” conference on LGBTI rights after the arson at Zhovten; that while he thought human rights were a good thing, he “would not stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians.”
“A common argument used by politicians is that the Ukrainian society is not ready,” Zoryan Kis, Campaign Coordinator at Amnesty International Ukraine explains—“that is why legislation has not been passed.” The council of LGBTI organizations of Ukraine issued an open letter appealing for “full realization of human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” and demanded a separate article on protection of LGBTI rights to be included in the National Strategy. However, no action has been taken.
While Ukrainian civil society is growing stronger, it has to counter the heavy Russian propaganda machine. For instance, this May Russian tabloid Lifenews portrayed a Ukrainian social campaign as an agitation of gay marriage and deterioration of traditional family values. In reality, this campaign was run by an organization called Gay Alliance Ukraine, which put up billboards across five Ukrainian cities, aimed to stop the offensive name-calling of different social groups by the media, officials, and the general public including LGBTI persons, Jews, persons with disabilities, and women.
Russian propaganda is appealing to the conservative segment of population. “People who speak out against LGBTI issues know very little about it, and do not want to study the scientific research, but speak out of emotions or fear,” explained Kis during our discussion.
Looking ahead to Ukraine’s future, public discourse about LGBTI rights needs to continue. It must include politicians, civil society members, educators, and others who need to build tolerance and support of human rights, not just to indicate a political orientation or a checkmark for the association with the EU, but work for the benefit of the Ukrainian society as a whole.