Commentary

A Ukrainian victory is crucial for global LGBTQ+ rights

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian president on television. Russian President Vladimir Putin behind him.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian president on television. Russian President Vladimir Putin behind him.Photo: Shutterstock

Ukraine has made astounding progress on LGBTQ+ rights over the last decade, setting it apart from neighboring countries that are cracking down on gender and sexual minorities. If Russia is allowed to extinguish this beacon of progress, the damage to regional, and potentially even global, LGBTQ+ rights activism would be intolerable.

Hearing this may be surprising to some – but that’s only because most westerners haven’t been paying attention to the radical changes transforming Ukrainian society.

How Ukraine embraced the gays

LGBTQ+ activism has existed in Ukraine since the early 1990s, when homosexuality was decriminalized after the fall of the Soviet Union. Legalization may have spared queer people from overt state harassment, but it did not protect them from social hostility. For the ensuing two decades, being openly gay was dangerous. Hate crimes were always a concern, enabled by a Ukrainian media that habitually portrayed the LGBTQ+ community unsympathetically.

According to Lenny Emson, executive director of KyivPride, during this early period, local LGBTQ+ activists focused on community building. Year after year, they patiently assembled the social networks needed for more assertive forms of activism. They also benefitted from international funding for HIV initiatives, which could be quietly used to support the queer community under the umbrella of public health.

Everything changed in 2012, when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych proposed legislation banning LGBTQ+ rights advocacy under the pretext of thwarting “gay propaganda.” Yanukovych was notorious for his pro-Russian views and close relationship with Putin. Emson said the text of the proposed anti-gay law matched, almost word-for-word, similar legislation that Russia had proposed and would later pass in 2013.

This prompted a handful of veteran Ukrainian activists to come together and found KyivPride that year. They tried to hold a pride parade but were met with threats of severe violence. According to Emson, approximately 100 marchers faced off against thousands of anti-gay protestors, some of whom were wielding bats and other weapons. The police refused to intervene, so the event was canceled.

In late 2013, Yanukovych abruptly withdrew support for an agreement that would’ve put Ukraine on track to join the EU, committing instead to closer ties with Russia. Outraged Ukrainians protested en masse, and by early 2014, ousted Yanukoych in what is now called the Euromaidan Revolution (or “Revolution of Dignity”). A new, pro-European government was elected, which promptly resumed European integration.

Euromaidan changed everything for Ukraine. On a societal level, Ukrainians looked westward and began to consider more seriously what it meant to have European values. On a legal level, Ukraine was forced to implement significant reforms to comply with EU membership requirements – this included robust human rights protections.

Yanukovych’s anti-gay bill died when he was removed from power. Since then, Ukraine has consistently passed pro-LGBTQ+ legislation. In 2015, it passed an anti-discrimination employment law, then liberalized legal gender changes for trans Ukrainians the following year. In 2021, Ukraine repealed the ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men – a reform that most western European countries lag behind.

However, Yanukovych’s former Deputy Minister, who remained in Ukraine’s parliament as a member of the pro-Russian “Opposition Bloc” party, proposed a new anti-gay law in 2018. Like its 2012 predecessor, the law would’ve criminalized “gay propaganda” for the sake of “traditional values” and “public morality.” It was quickly rejected by the ruling government and the overwhelming majority of parliament.

Before the war, Ukraine was on track to pass a comprehensive anti-hate crime law that would’ve protected gender and sexual minorities, but its passage through parliament was interrupted by the Russian invasion. However, earlier this month, Ukraine’s parliament unanimously passed a new law outlawing the public distribution of statements that incite discrimination or oppression against LGBTQ+ people.

Meanwhile, in July, a Ukrainian petition called for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to legalize same-sex marriage. Zelenskyy responded by asking his government to look into legalization, but said that it could not occur while Ukraine was at war as it would require constitutional changes.

These transformations in Ukraine’s legal landscape have been matched by shifts in social attitudes. Nash Svit, a Ukrainian-based LGBTQ+ rights group, conducted polls measuring social attitudes in 2016 and 2022. They found that in 2022, 64 percent of Ukrainians believed that queer and trans people should have equal rights – more than double the number from six years before.

These findings are not surprising for anyone who has visited Ukraine lately. Having reported from the country for most of this year, I was shocked by how open-minded Ukrainians, particularly younger and urban ones, are. For example, last spring Toronto Pride tasked me with creating an educational installation on the struggles of LGBTQ+ Ukrainian refugees, but we had to radically change course because interview subjects overwhelmingly said that their orientation was a non-issue.

Over the past year, I have interviewed and socialized with dozens of LGBTQ+ activists and community members across every corner of Ukraine – veteran activists, artists, IT professionals, journalists, drag queens, and so on. Uniformly, they have been optimistic about Ukraine’s social climate.

I’m not the only foreign journalist to have observed this. Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, the only known transgender war correspondent working in Ukraine, has spoken at length about the near-total absence of transphobia she has experienced.

Meanwhile, in 2021, KyivPride was happily celebrated by 7,000 marchers, who faced off against only a few hundred counter-protesters. It was a stunning reversal of the inaugural march a decade earlier.

It’s a popular narrative among younger LGBTQ+ activists that Euromaidan, and Ukraine’s subsequent Europeanization, explains the country’s attitudinal shift towards gender and sexual minorities. However, some older activists, such as Emson, feel that focusing too much on Euromaidan obscures the preceding activist labor that set the stage for greater LGBTQ+ rights.

There are also other, quirkier factors at play.

Several LGBTQ+ Ukrainians I interviewed said that, incredibly, the Eurovision song contest had a hand in boosting LGBTQ+ acceptance. Eurovision has been a cultural craze across the continent for decades, and, incidentally, has a large LGBTQ+ following. When Kyiv hosted Eurovision in 2017, the city was allegedly “flooded with gays,” creating a pang of queer visibility associated with joy and national pride.

Kyiv also has a huge underground techno scene that brings heterosexual and LGBTQ+ people together to dance and party. Rivaling Berlin in its size and sex-positivity, the Ukrainian techno underground is an engine of queer tolerance – no ghettoization, no prejudice. Some gay men in Kyiv even said that techno clubs have inadvertently done more for social acceptance than traditional activists.

Like any country, Ukraine still has a far-right fringe that hates LGBTQ+ people. Hate crimes have been going up over the past few years, which has perplexed local activists. Some might speculate that greater visibility leads to greater resistance, but LGBTQ+ activists often had another culprit in mind: Russia.

Under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has been a generous patron of far-right political movements throughout Europe and North America. Not only do international far-right groups align with the Kremlin’s socially conservative values, but they can also act as useful tools to destabilize Russia’s adversaries.

Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activists believe that far-right anti-LGBTQ+ activism in Ukraine receives support and financing from Russia. “When they would protest against us, they had all these banners and flags – and I’m a Pride organizer and event manager. I know how much this stuff costs. I know how much money is behind them,” Emson says.

Borys Khmilevskiy of Paralegals UA, a group which provides legal aid to LGBTQ+ Ukrainians, said, “We know that, before the war, most radical groups in Ukraine were financed by Russia. It’s one part of Russian influence in Ukraine. They finance these radical groups and then say that Ukraine is a Nazi country because it has these radical groups.”

In theory, the Ukrainian far right should be Russia’s enemy. Ukrainian ultra-nationalists ardently want to protect their country’s independence, while Russia denies the very existence of a distinct Ukrainian nation.

However, a 2021 paper, published by George Washington University’s Illiberalism Studies Program, meticulously detailed how the two sides sometimes collaborate due to their shared hatred of progressive values – specifically feminism and LGBTQ+ rights. Since 2014, the level of cooperation between Russia and the Ukrainian far right has increased.

Though Ukraine’s far right has benefitted from Putin’s support, its power within Ukrainian politics shouldn’t be exaggerated. Since Euromaidan, far-right parties have never managed to secure more than 5% of the national vote in parliamentary elections. This falls far below vote shares seen in other European countries, such as France and Germany, where far-right politicians are significant parliamentary players.

When Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activists and community members were told that some North Americans believe that Ukraine is a “Nazi country” and controlled by far-right forces, they were appalled and emphatically condemned the narrative as propaganda.

Their answers mirror the responses given by other minority groups I have interviewed or spoken with over the past year, such as Ukrainian Jews, foreign students, and racialized Ukrainians.

I subsequently met with seven leading Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activists in KyivPride’s offices in April. In back-to-back interviews, the activists spoke at length about how myths of Ukrainian Nazism were not only wrong, but also offensive, as they erased Ukraine’s social progress and, by extension, the labor of Ukraine’s human rights activists.

These activists beseeched the world to actually listen to LGBTQ+ Ukrainians, rather than speak over them. “Listen to us. Ask us. Talk to us. Follow our social media. Look at what we are posting and you can talk to us anytime. You can address us. You can ask all questions. Do not just follow Russian propaganda. Do not just believe. Ask us, because we exist here,” said Emson.

Unexpectedly, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine seems to have turbocharged LGBTQ+ acceptance among some more conservative Ukrainians. Queer Ukrainians have spent months openly and proudly fighting for their country, softening hearts with their valor. Their stories have been widely shared in Ukraine, via both social media and traditional media.

The brutal realities of war have forced ultranationalists to reevaluate their prejudices. Early in the war, several high-profile ultranationalist figures declared that orientation and gender were irrelevant to recruiting new fighters – all that mattered was that everyone come together to protect their homeland.

The attitudinal shift was so significant that Taras Karasiichuk, a Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activist who had to flee Ukraine years ago due to homophobic right-wing groups, found himself fundraising for soldiers associated with said groups.

War is good DEI training, it seems.

Russia’s weaponization of anti-LGBTQ+ politics

LGBTQ+ Ukrainians are terrified by the prospect of a Russian victory and believe that, should Ukraine fall, all national progress on LGBTQ+ rights will be extinguished.

In Russia, homophobia is not only tolerated by the government, but also actively encouraged. Gays can be hunted and killed with impunity, and it’s a criminal offense to recognize, let alone defend, LGBTQ+ rights. To understand why this is, it’s important to be cognizant of recent Russian history.

For a brief period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian society was more open to western liberal values, including, to a limited extent, LGBTQ+ rights. But the 1990s turned out to be a disastrous and humiliating decade for Russia. “Shock therapy” capitalism failed as the country’s political elite robbed the nation’s wealth, using their connections to acquire privatized infrastructure at bargain prices. Inflation soared and the economy almost collapsed. Misery, anarchy, and poverty germinated everywhere.

When Putin became president in 2000, he promised stability – and he delivered. Between 2000 and 2013, Russia’s economy exploded by 800%. The growing illiberalism of Russian society, exemplified by the murder of political dissidents, was tolerated as a Faustian bargain: freedom for security.

This bargain fractured in the early 2010s. Memories of the 1990s had faded and a resurgent middle class became more assertive about its democratic voice. In 2011, Putin allegedly rigged his reelection, which incited unprecedentedly large anti-government protests that raged for over a year and threatened to topple him.

So, Putin changed direction. Rather than focus on economics, he made jingoism and social conservatism the basis of his regime legitimacy.

Domestically, this meant rolling back liberal rights and allying with the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian policymakers became preoccupied with protecting the nation’s moral hygiene from the corrupting “decadence” of the west, which meant, more than anything else, clamping down on LGBTQ+ rights.

The LGBTQ+ community was framed as a western invention – a blot on Russia’s proud, Christian Orthodox soul. At the same time, Russia cracked down on foreign NGOs operating within its borders, reinforcing the idea that queerness and foreignness were synonymous.

This domestic paranoia was accompanied by a more aggressive, expansionist foreign policy that yearned to reestablish Russia’s lost imperial pride. When Ukraine turned towards Europe during Euromaidan and offended that pride, Putin responded by annexing Crimea and using unmarked troops to orchestrate a “separatist” movement in east Ukraine’s Donbas region. His popularity soared, even as the economy sputtered.

In the ensuing years, Putin’s anti-westernism has grown in tandem with his homophobia. His patriotism as a Russian, hatred for the west, and loathing for LGBTQ+ people are three heads of the same hydra.

In 2017, the world was appalled to learn that gay men were being hunted, tortured, and killed in Chechnya. Russian officials chillingly responded that such abuses could not have possibly happened as gay people do not exist in Chechnya. Though the anti-gay purge showed the brutal cruelty of Russia’s politicized homophobia, not much could be done about it. Civil society actors, such as Canada’s Rainbow Railroad, helped evacuate refugees, but, over time, the incident faded from public consciousness.

According to Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activists I interviewed, a similar purge happened in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine but went unnoticed by the international media.

Therefore it did not surprise Ukrainian activists when they learned, earlier this year, that their names were included on Russian kill lists. At the beginning of Putin’s full-scale invasion, Western intelligence confirmed that Russia had assembled such lists so that, upon occupying Ukraine, it could speedily decapitate Ukraine’s political and civil society leaders.

“My colleague was warned that she is on this list. And I was very afraid for myself, for my friends, because they could also be on this list,” said Olena Hanich of Odesa Pride. Oksana Solonska of KyivPride added, “We need to understand that, if there is a Russian occupation, the hands of homophobes will be untied.”

For Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activists, Russia simply cannot be allowed to win. There is no possibility of life under Russian rule – there is only death.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has left Russia increasingly isolated and impoverished. To maintain popular support for the war, the Kremlin’s propaganda networks increasingly stoke a paranoid victim complex among everyday Russians. The crux of their narrative is simple: “Russia did nothing wrong and is besieged by a Satanic west, which, in alliance with LGBTQ+ perverts and pedophiles, is trying to destroy your families. We are defending you against anti-Russian racism.”

The deeper Russia descends into warmongering, the more necessary it is to stoke hatred and paranoia, hence why the Kremlin has been increasingly vocal with its anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.

When Putin made a major speech in September announcing that he would consider Ukrainian territories legally part of Russia, he made sure to also include attacks on LGBTQ+ rights in the west. Russian embassies now openly post homophobic memes. Meanwhile, the Russian government passed another “gay propaganda” law in November that, expanding upon its 2013 counterpart, makes it impossible to show any public support for the LGBTQ+ community.

This politicized homophobia is not purely meant for domestic consumption. The American far-right has been enamored with Russia’s embrace of “traditional values.” An astonishing number of far-right figures have openly embraced Russia, an adversary that openly wants to harm the United States, in an attempt to score points in domestic culture wars. Their lobbying and media campaigns have undermined Republican support for Ukraine, jeopardizing US aid. Ronald Reagan would be appalled.

Russia’s global crusade against LGBTQ+ rights

Putin’s alliance with the American far-right is not surprising. Russia has been vigorously exporting homophobia around the world for at least a decade.

When Yanukovych tried to pass a Ukrainian anti-gay law in 2012, he was not alone. At the time, such laws were proliferating across Russia’s close neighbors, abetted by Moscow. From 2013 to 2014, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova all introduced legislation banning the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” for the sake of “protecting families and children.” All of these bills failed due to pressure from the west, despite Moscow’s protestations.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, an authoritarian ally of Putin’s, passed an anti-gay law in 2021. In response, the European Commission took legal action against Hungary, arguing that the law violates the EU charter of fundamental rights.

When I interviewed gay rights activists in Azerbaijan this November, they, too, were concerned about Russia’s role in fomenting anti-LGBTQ+ politics. One activist noted that anti-LGBTQ+ Azerbaijani politicians were adapting Russian talking points. He feared that, should Azerbaijan need to curry favor with Moscow in the future, the Azerbaijani LGBTQ+ community would be persecuted to please the Kremlin.

In Serbia, Russian influence has also fused with local anti-LGBTQ+ politics. When EuroPride was held in Belgrade this September, thousands of Serbian ultranationalists and orthodox leaders organized counter-protests, often carrying Russian flags and symbols. In one protest, they paraded a 500-meter-long Russian flag through the capital while encouraging everyday Serbians to beat LGBTQ+ people with weapons.

The Serbian government, which is increasingly allying with Russia, initially canceled EuroPride. After intense pressure from the EU, it relented at the last minute and allowed the event to continue, with the protection of thousands of police officers. As a journalist attending EuroPride in person, the contrast was stark: Russian-aligned crowds wanted to beat me, while EU politicians marched in solidarity beside me.

Not all homophobia in Eastern Europe can be traced back to Russian influence. Poland, for example, has implemented anti-gay laws under its current right wing government, which has also elicited condemnation from the EU.

Amid this rising tide of anti-LGBTQ+ hate and Russian influence, Ukraine stands as a rare and much-needed beacon of progress. Ukraine’s firm commitment to Europeanization has transformed the country’s legal and social landscape in an astonishingly short period of time. Just ten years ago, a Russian-influenced government wanted to ban LGBTQ+ activism. Today, Ukraine’s parliament is passing new anti-discrimination laws while exploring legal recognition of same-sex partnerships – all amid a war.

Russia’s invasion has only made Europeanization more popular in Ukraine – to adopt modern European values and reject the “Russian world” is now not a matter of taste, but of survival.

No wonder Putin feels so angry and threatened.

Should Ukraine have its victory, it will be a catastrophe for Russia’s “traditional values” foreign policy. The heart of Eastern Europe will be occupied by a large nation that sees LGBTQ+ people as humans, not moral threats. Kyiv will demonstrate that acceptance of gender and sexual minorities is compatible with Eastern European life. The intolerance of Belarus, Poland, Hungary, and Serbia will finally have a major counterweight.

And what if Ukraine falls? Its LGBTQ+ activists will be executed, and its anti-discrimination laws repealed. LGBTQ+ life will be shoved back into the closet at the point of the gun. The suffocating miasma of oppression will seep westward from Moscow, across Eastern Europe, until, behind a new iron curtain, every queer caress, every kiss, and tear, and embrace, will be done in darkness.

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