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Ukraine’s march to legalize same-sex marriage takes another step forward

London, UK - 2 July 2022: person standing with a Ukraine protest sign amongst LGBTQ+ Pride flags
Photo: Shutterstock

Last month, Ukrainian MP Inna Sovsun submitted a bill calling for the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships. The bill has since received support from several Ukrainian political parties and is now making its way through parliament, marking yet another step forward in Ukraine’s march towards LGBTQ+ acceptance.

Sovsun – who is a member of the Holos, Ukraine’s smallest opposition party – announced her bill via a series of tweets that urged parliament to legalize same-sex marriage by the end of the year. Though she claimed that 56% of Ukrainians support same-sex partnerships, her case for marriage equality rarely invoked polling numbers and instead focused on the valor of LGBTQ+ soldiers.

Sovsun argued that it was “unsettling” that these soldiers, who “put themselves in danger protecting us,” lack equal rights. As an example, she explained that the partners of wounded LGBTQ+ Ukrainian soldiers currently lack the legal authority to make decisions about medical treatment.

“Ukrainians can no longer wait for equality,” tweeted Sovsun. “We must do it immediately. LGBT Ukrainians deserve to have a family. Every day can be their last. Just like for any other Ukrainian. There is no time for hesitation.”

Her bill has since garnered early support in Ukraine’s parliament.

In mid-March, Sovsun tweeted that 17 other MPs had joined her as co-authors of the bill – six of these parliamentarians were also members of the Holos party, while 11 were members of the Servant of the People party, which currently controls a majority of Ukraine’s parliamentary seats under the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“Given the support of the two factions, the adoption of the draft law is quite realistic, but a lot of advocacy and work with deputies of Holos and Servant of the People, who are undecided or against, is still needed in order to collect the necessary 226 votes,” tweeted Sovun. “It will definitely happen. It’s only a matter of time.”

Ukraine’s push for legal equality may be surprising to some. After all, isn’t Ukraine, like most of Eastern Europe, supposed to be a hotbed of homophobia and transphobia? According to local LGBTQ+ Ukrainians and activists, this was the case ten years ago, but much has changed since then.

When I interviewed KyivPride director Lenny Emson last spring, he used the capital’s pride parade to illustrate Ukraine’s social progress.

In 2012, Kyiv’s first pride parade was canceled when roughly 100 LGBTQ+ marchers were threatened by thousands of violent counter-protesters. By 2021, the dynamics were reversed – 7,000 LGBTQ+ Ukrainians and allies marched and were met by only a few hundred counter-protesters.

Many younger LGBTQ+ Ukrainian activists attribute this transformation to Ukraine’s 2014 EuroMaidan revolution, which decisively turned the country towards Europe. Since the revolution, lawmakers have consistently passed pro-LGBTQ+ laws to buttress Ukraine’s EU membership bid. Every day Ukrainians, particularly younger generations, have also tried to adopt European values.

However, older activists, such as Emson, believe that putting too much focus on EuroMaidan erases the advocacy work done by Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activists prior to 2014.

Though Ukrainian society liberalized a great deal prior to the war, prejudices persisted – but then the war changed everything.

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Ukraine has seen a remarkable rise in LGBTQ+ acceptance. Speaking as a gay reporter who has spent most of the past year in Ukraine, this transformation has been frequently commented upon by local friends and acquaintances and has also been corroborated by leading Ukrainian LGBTQ+ organizations, such as KyivPride.

The typical explanation is that the existential threat posed by Russian forces has created a new sense of social cohesion that has dulled old prejudices.

Throughout the war, LGBTQ+ Ukrainians have fundraised for soldiers of all genders and orientations, leading to an unexpected detente with some conservative elements of society. At the same time, many LGBTQ+ Ukrainians have bravely and proudly fought on the front lines, generating a flood of social media content and media coverage that has challenged stereotypes.

“The opinion about LGBT people [has] changed dramatically,” said Olha Onipko, a KyivPride organizer, who added that “a lot of people understand that such things like sexual orientation or gender identity are not very important when you’re saved by these people. I think it’s amazing.”

In this context, legal reforms that were unthinkable before the war now have serious traction.

Last summer, 28,000 Ukrainians signed a petition calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Zelenskyy responded to the petition last August and said that he would ask the government to explore marriage equality, but only after the war with Russia ends.

However, as the war drags on with no end in sight, Zelenskyy’s promise has created an untenable stasis. LGBTQ+ Ukrainians continue to fight and die for their country while being denied equal legal rights. For Sovsun and many others, this problem cannot be punted to the future and must be addressed sooner rather than later.

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