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Ukraine’s LGBT Community Is Fighting for Visibility in a Time of Revolution and War

In an historic statement, Ukraine's president defended the LGBT community's right to march this past weekend at a Pride parade in Kiev, which was then attacked by a far-right group. But such violence is routine.
Photo by Rob Salerno

On Kiev's "Bridge of Lovers," a rickety span connecting a park across a valley and over a highway, couples hang padlocks on the railings as a symbol of their eternal love.

It's not hard to find about a dozen locks decorated with rainbow flags and queer slogans.

They are small gestures, and anonymous ones, in a city in which it is virtually impossible to find any public signs of LGBT life.

The few gay clubs are discretely tucked away in office buildings, above or below street level, sending patrons to back entrances down alleys with no exterior signage or windows. In some big cities, this would be a mark of prestige and exclusivity. In Kiev, it's a necessary safety precaution.


The dangerous reality came into focus again this weekend, at the second ever Kiev Pride march, where far-right groups attacked the small crowd of about 150 marchers, sending at least one police officer to the hospital.

That they were marching at all could be seen as a watershed moment, of sorts. After Kiev's mayor initially refused to provide police protection and called on Pride organizers to cancel the demonstration, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko effectively overruled him and declared his support for the community's right to demonstrate, and the state's obligation to protect that right.

It was the first such statement of support for LGBT people from a major political figure in Ukrainian history.

But while this turnaround is historic, Ukraine's LGBT community has had ample evidence over the past year that their government is not on their side in their struggle for equal rights.

'Euromaidan brought significant political and social changes, but failed to change the perception and attitude of society towards the LGBT community.'

And though the attacks on Kiev Pride have drawn significant international media attention, it was an attack on another event that put the local media spotlight on the dangers faced by the LGBT community.

Last October, arsonists associated with an extreme right group set fire to the Zhovten Cinema — the oldest cinema in Ukraine — during the screening of a gay-themed film as part of the queer "Sunny Bunny" program of the Molodist Film Festival, one of Eastern Europe's most important cinema events.


No one was injured, but the historic cinema was destroyed.

Molodist's Sunny Bunny Program, founded in 2001, is actually Ukraine's most high-profile and popular annual LGBT event. Thousands of tickets are sold each year and in 2014, 17 queer features from around the world were screened at Sunny Bunny.

Despite the massive property damage and the grievous risk to hundreds of ticket holders, the arsonists, who reportedly admit that they set off firecrackers in the theatre because they hate LGBT people and wanted to disrupt the event, were given a slap on the wrist. No attempted murder charges. No hate crime charges. Not even arson charges were laid. The duo were charged with simply "disturbing the peace."

In a bizarre twist of logic, the Kiev local government has threatened to hold the cinema itself responsible for the arson attack, for not providing enough of its own security to stop the men who started the fire — even while those men are held blameless for their own actions.

"It looks like that the government prosecutor is more or less loyal to them, because to them they're representative of those young people who are fighting on the eastern borders of Ukraine against Russian aggression," Liudmyla Gordeladze, director of the Zhovten Cinema, told VICE News. "They are part of the right-wing patriotic and nationalistic movement."

The public prosecutor's office did not respond to VICE News' request for comment.


Taras Schevchenko Blvd, the main street near National University of Kyiv, named for Ukraine's best known poet. (Photo by Rob Salerno)

The arsonists' moderate penalty, however, appears to be due to the continued pressure of local community activists who have led a sustained campaign to rebuild the cinema and punish those responsible.

Serhii Shchelkunov, a young urban activist and film buff, started a Save Zhovten organization after the fire. Over months of volunteer work that he describes as a full-time job, he's been lobbying the local government to commit to rebuilding the publicly-owned cinema and tracking the lax investigation and prosecution of the attackers.

"As soon as the names of those who committed the arson appeared in media, we started to make our own investigation and found out that the official government prosecutor didn't apply all the facts to the case," Shchelkunov told VICE News. "We found out [the perpetrators] had association with neo-fascist organizations. We also found communities that said they were glad the cinema had burned, that it was the beginning of the purification of Ukraine.

"I think the government prosecutor and those who are prosecuted are playing for the same team," he says.

Shchelkunov says there has been a strong local desire to see the arsonists punished for destroying the cinema, but most of the volunteers' motivation has more to do with protecting free expression, film, and the urban history of Kiev than refuting the extremists' anti-gay agenda. But the group continues to push prosecutors to investigate and punish the attack as an arson, and supports other groups calling for stronger hate crime laws.


Related: Five Police Officers Injured as Anti-Gay Group Attacks Pride Parade in Ukraine

Homophobia runs deep in Ukrainian society, with the public presence of LGBT people routinely sparking shocking violence, like the beating of gay activist Svyatoslav Sheremet before the cancelled 2012 Kiev Pride march. Shocking, that is, to outsiders when it's caught on video and distributed online. In Ukraine, it's considered normal.

Despite the routine violence, Kiev police refuse to provide protection to gay establishments and events, even when clear threats are issued against them.

Several gay Kievans — even queer activists — refused to have their names or pictures used in this story for fear of personal consequences ranging from lost jobs to eviction to ostracism from their families.

But VICE News did arrange to meet with a pair of program officers from the national LGBT organization, Gay Alliance Ukraine (GAU), in their basement office, hidden behind a parking lot off a side street.

"After all these revolutions, people have become more tolerant to each other, but at the same time we have more radicalization of all these dangerous groups, who now have firearms and can not just beat somebody, but can shoot somebody," Valentina Samus says.

Samus related the story of a GAU staffer, Maria, who was turned away from several landlords because she was open about her sexuality.

"She and her girlfriend they said they are a couple and no one would rent an apartment for them. So it's close. It's a real experience," she says.


GAU runs a national LGBT hotline out of its office that receives up to 800 calls per month, including from people facing crisis situations with their families, work, or landlords.

"Sometimes we face homophobic cases," Yuri Yourski says. "We have these threats, people say 'we'll come and find you.'"

LGBT activists are frustrated that last year's "Euromaidan" revolution that was intended to support democracy and human rights has failed to deliver for LGBT people.

"Euromaidan brought significant political and social changes, but failed to change the perception and attitude of society towards the LGBT community. Issues related to sexual minorities continue to be ignored at the state level," Yourski says.

Yuri Yourski, of Gay Alliance Ukraine. (Photo by Rob Salerno)

Ukraine's LGBT people seem caught in a Catch-22: Without police protection, hate crime laws, and comprehensive anti-discrimination protection, it's dangerous for LGBT people to come out of the closet. But without a visible LGBT community, their needs are easily ignored by government and society.

Establishing a gay neighbourhood is out of the question, according to Samus, who believes far-right extremists would treat it like a place to go on a "safari" targeting LGBT people.

And yet, the nascent LGBT rights movement is slowly pushing to take up space and make its voice heard in Ukraine. Gay Alliance Ukraine has deployed billboards across the country that encourage tolerance and is advertising its LGBT hotline and counseling throughout the country — despite local government opposition to using the words "gay, lesbian, bi, trans" on public signs.


While LGBT causes have yet to attract popular sympathy, people are taking notice.

"Ironically, though, this arson — as well as the disruption of another Sunny Bunny screening by the far-right group Pravy Sector two days after the Zhovten arson — has caused the most attention to the subject among Ukrainians in recent years," Bohdan Zhuk, the Sunny Bunny programmer, told VICE News in an email.

But even as construction crews race to rebuild the cinema and the Zhovten organization launches an international fundraising campaign to replace the furniture and equipment that was destroyed in the fire (the cinema's insurance policy was paid out in Ukrainian money, which has lost two-thirds of its value over the tumultuous last year) it's possible the rebuilt cinema will no longer welcome gay programming.

Gordeladze, the theatre's director, could not say one way or the other.

"We're doing everything to get this cinema open once again," she says, adding that she'll have a clearer answer in two months.

For now, Molodist organizers hope that the festival and Zhovten can come to an agreement on how to continue screening their films in the historic cinema safely, despite the threats.

"What all Ukrainians need to understand is that democracy (that is, what most of us aspire for) means minorities protected by the majority. The LGBT community won't hide after one incident, but it definitely needs to be supported from outside - for the benefit of all," says Zhuk, Sunny Bunny programmer.

Follow Rob Salerno on Twitter: @robsalerno