The Perils of Staging a Gay Pride March in Ukraine
Photos by Ivan Chernichkin
Ukraine was the first post-Soviet country to legalize homosexuality, which is obviously commendable, but difficult to understand given recent history. Last year, Kiev's first ever gay pride parade was called off half an hour before it was supposed to start because the police—who weren't too happy about the event in the first place—informed the organizers that they could not protect them from the hundreds of far-right hooligans en route to join the march. Moments later, one organizer was tear-gassed and hospitalized by the baying mob in front of a crowd of journalists. Many of the parade's organizers have been receiving death threats ever since.
Despite the dispiriting backdrop, this time around the Kiev Pride team thought it'd be a good idea to not just hold the march but to rally through the center of the city on "Kiev Day," a family-orientated, citywide festival of cultural events. As expected, this prompted a significant number of horrified citizens to lodge appeals for counter-marches, thus creating a logistical nightmare for the authorities who promptly banned any rally, gay or otherwise, from taking place. Once again, Kiev Pride was relegated to the outskirts of the city and its exact location was kept a closely guarded secret so as not to attract violent troublemakers. Or at least that was the plan.
On the morning of May 25, the day of the event, journalists had been asked to meet outside a metro station, register their accreditation, and wait to be transported to the rally. We did as we were asked, and found ourselves crammed into a bus that wouldn't move, surrounded by pride organizers who wouldn't tell us where we were going. We remained in this state for about an hour, impatiently smoking and filming each other, when suddenly the driver received a call. Before we knew it, we were zooming along the highway.
Twenty minutes later we looked out of the bus windows to see an angry crowd wielding lofty crosses, a column of special forces jogging in their direction, and police vans parked as far as the eye could see—all assembled around Victory Avenue. Clearly, this parade was not a secret anymore.
Bolting out of the bus, I waded through the line of cops to find a group of 50 LGBT activists calmly standing in formation, heads held aloft, rainbow flags fluttering in the breeze. A few hundred yards away, riot police were linking arms to keep a pack of Orthodox Christians at bay. Think of the scene as a well-attended Westboro Baptist Church demonstration with a Slavic twist. There was singing, there were banners equating homosexuality with pedophilia, and there was a babushka in a headscarf, clutching a photo of a saint while trembling and crying that Kiev was about to sink beneath hell's fiery tides because of the gays.
I walked a little further down the path, where I found Roman sitting under a tree. A young priest from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, he seemed like an amiable and intelligent character, though occasionally his patter let him down: “A male cat and another male cat cannot produce kittens. Why don’t we go on a demonstration which says that kittens should be adopted by male cats?"
Roman basically expounded on a fear shared by a lot of his countrymen—namely that pageantry, such as gay pride, is forced on Ukraine by western European powers in order to dilute the nation’s morals and culture. Or, as Mikhail Chechetov, MP for the ruling Party of Regions, bluntly phrased it: “We don’t want to enter Europe through the ass.” To be fair, the large number of LGBT visitors from Germany and Scandinavia in attendance didn't help matters much. But how could they remedy such a malady? According to Roman, the government wouldn't be any help because “40 percent of the parliament is gay.”
As the conversation went on, and women began to gather around us offering icons of saints, Roman started to lose track of his thoughts and got to rhapsodizing about the perils of world government. I drifted back to the march, only to find it was now completely dwarfed by the presence of police, media, and demonstrators. Things were starting to heat up. The marchers' quiet chanting and tentative progress was interrupted by religious zealots who'd managed to infiltrate the parade disguised as press. They screamed and lunged for the banners before being swiftly frogmarched away by burly police. I was talking to one activist about his hopes for a safe parade when a large firecracker sailed across the crowd and exploded by our feet, momentarily deafening us.
Three hundred yards from where it had started, the march ground to a halt. Ukrainian Gay Pride had lasted almost an hour, yet had traversed a patch of land the length of a large swimming pool. The collection of LGBT activists were hurriedly herded back onto their buses through the kind of jostling media scrum normally reserved for serial killers leaving court houses. I was told that the journey back wasn't going to be direct, as they had to switch their mode of transportation multiple times and change clothes in order to shake off any fascist tail.
While the objects of everyone’s ire were being driven off, the various disgruntled groups were left to mill around, looking for a purpose.
Lurking under a bridge adjacent to the park gates, a group of young, drunk-looking white guys were being penned in by yet another police phalanx. They wore white surgical masks ("to protect us against the flu," one of their leaders explained), which identified them as supporters of Svoboda, the Ukranian ultranationalist party which has 38 seats in the Ukranian parliament. Yet the party only really started when the Cossacks (a militaristic community faithfully defending the old Russian Empire) turned up, dressed in camouflage, swinging ropes and waving pictures of Tsar Nicholas II. A wave of supporters quckly crowded around them and it didn't take long for the mood to turn homophobic. When I asked one of the Cossacks about the accusations linking them to antigay attacks, he smiled at me and said that, “Gays are all our children, and we worry about them, so when they misbehave, they need a friendly slap.”
It was around that point that the legions of police returned to their vans and drove off, leaving us, the media, surrounded by grim-faced characters who certainly looked in the mood for some "friendly slaps." We decided that a section of the assembled masses may neither know nor care about the distinction between foreign journalists and gay tourists, so we quietly slipped away.
In retrospect, it would have been nice to see more Ukrainians present at the march, since the large number of LGBT visitors from Germany and Scandinavia only served to fuel protesters’ suspicions that the affair was a sinister, European Union conspiracy. Yet a climate of fear pervades the local gay community. There are no openly gay figures in Ukrainian public life and legal safeguards against hate crimes and discrimination (of any kind) are still at an embryonic stage. Legislation that would outlaw the promotion of "homosexual propaganda" is currently being debated in parliament.
Still, no one can argue that May 25 will go down in history as a day of victory for Ukrainian civil rights activists. The Pink Revolution may have to wait a while, but we all have to start somewhere.
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