‘The whole battalion knows that they have received money from ‘the gays’ and they are fine with that. I say that if they can organize a successful resistance against Russia, it is good,” he said. “It may shock your typical western liberal activist, but when you witness war, your values change. You realize that your roots are in a nation and it’s very important to have a strong one.”
As pride month kicks off around the world and LGBTQ communities take stock of achievements and challenges, Ukraine faces a strange new reality. War here causes tragedy and hardship for every Ukrainian, but it can accelerate their movement for equal rights.
There are practicalities – for example, Ukraine has formally applied to join the European Union, a process that would require steps towards greater rights and protection for LGBTQ people. But more powerful, activists who have organized the community for the past decade said, is a nascent sense of national unity that is inclusive and tolerant — and unlike Russia in every way.
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For Ruslana Panukhnyk, 34, who directed Kyiv Pride from 2016 to 2020, the war has helped her explain to people outside the community why she is fighting for LGBTQ rights even as war threatens Ukraine’s survival.
“People always say, ‘now is not the time,’ year after year, and maybe especially this year,” Panukhnyk said. “But every day is the day of freedom. Tolerance and acceptance of differences are the foundation of democratic societies. If we don’t record that, how different are we really from Russia?”
Because of the war, this year’s Kyiv Pride march will take place in Warsaw, and LGBTQ organizations from across Eastern Europe will combine their usual messages with a wider message about freedom, resistance to war and human rights. It will also commemorate the many LGBTQ soldiers who fought in the war, including those who died.
Kiev’s first Pride March was supposed to take place in 2012, but was violently dispersed by far-right gangs. Svyatoslav Sheremet, 44, was brutally beaten and TV cameras captured seven assailants kicking and stamping his limp body.
After years of desperation and repeated violent clashes with right-wing opponents, Sheremet is optimistic about the trajectory of LGBTQ rights in Ukraine.
“It sounds crazy, but the war will help us,” he said in an interview.
He currently organizes the movement’s political lobby in the Ukrainian parliament, saying the EU application process could be the engine for long-sought victories. By the end of next year, he expects the introduction of a bill to extend partner rights to same-sex couples as part of a multi-track strategy to meet the expectations the 27-nation federation is demanding of members.
Currently, homosexuality is not punishable in Ukraine, but it is not mentioned in the criminal law. There is only one supporting clause in Ukrainian law, which protects LGBTQ people from discrimination in the workplace. That language came after years of lobbying by Sheremet and others.
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Social change is a slower process, and Ukrainian activists have few illusions about undoing the homophobia that is deeply rooted here. Recent surveys show that less than a fifth of Ukrainians believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society. That puts Ukraine behind its neighbours, who are often cited as examples of conservatism in this area.
“Hungary and Poland are homophobic if you compare them with, for example, Canada,” says Lenny Emson, who is directing this year’s Kyiv Pride. “But here, in a city of millions of people, you might only see one or two rainbow flags.”
Last year, however, some 7,000 attended the Kiev parade, Emson said. It’s a long way from the years of running and hiding while the few in attendance took cover from opponents armed with bats and sticks.
Emson warned against seeing the unifying effects of war as something permanent. Before the invasion of Russia, there was a surge in police assaults on LGBTQ people, destroying a sense of protection built up over years of parades in which the police were the sole force between those in attendance and would-be attackers.
“It feels like there was a downturn before the war, especially with the police,” Emson said. “It’s very disappointing because we had worked very hard on that – we had succeeded with the police.”
For now, Emson and other activists are committed to the Warsaw-Kiev joint parade at the end of this month. They recently met in Podil, Kiev’s bohemian quarter, and discussed the merits of various banners and logos.
News came through someone’s social media feed that Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles had prevented a missile strike in the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhya, where a fierce Ukrainian counter-offensive is trying to reverse Russian gains.
It was a moment of joy. A member of the organizing committee searched files on his laptop to show off a new flag intended for sale during the march in Warsaw. It was half Ukraine and half rainbow stripes, emblazoned with the words “Armed Ukrainian queers destroy Moscovian imperialism.”
Kostiantyn Khudov contributed to this report.