When I asked how to find Kiev's only queer community center, a man outside blowing cigarette smoke nodded, grimaced, and pointed at the unmarked entrance without a word. The only hint for potential visitors is a printed sign saying "queer home" taped to the inside of a window. The entrance is a heavy metal door and the stone steps leading into the basement space are worn down and uneven. This is what serves as the capital's only permanent gathering place for the LGBTQ community, discreetly hidden away for safety.
In Ukraine, activists and allies have been steadily fighting for LGBTQ acceptance. But as visibility grows, so does intolerance and violence. Activists try not to let the threat of getting beaten up or killed get in the way, but the government and police are overwhelmingly indifferent to LGBTQ issues and unwilling to help.
Ksysha, sitting on the steps of the center waiting for it to open, said she moved to Kiev from Crimea right after the 2014 referendum to join Russia. In Crimea, like in Ukraine's capital, the LGBTQ community had gatherings and dances but for her there is more to do here. The community center has events almost every night and there are more people to talk to.
"I don't know if there's more negativity here, I ignore them, I don't give a shit," she says. "There are no huge problems for me—boys have bigger issues.
"I can walk down the street with my girlfriend and sometimes I'll get yells and profanities but it's not a constant problem. But if boys do the same they could get beaten up or worse. In terms of public displays of affection, it's more difficult for them. I don't think people give much thought about what boys do in private, I think they just like yelling the word 'pidoras.' I think they just want to hurt someone's feelings."
That word, pidoras, is hard to translate. It's a gay slur used to wound both LGBTQ people and any heterosexuals who deviate from the norm in the way they speak or dress. Pidoras is the go-to homophobic insult that has become a part of life for the community, just like death threats.
Vladimir Naumenko, manager of regional growth of the Ukraine Gay Alliance, says they're thinking about hiring a private security firm as violence against the LGBTQ community rises with its visibility. Last month, a Ukrainian parliamentary committee on constitutional reform, under pressure from Ukrainian churches, declined to study the possibility of classifying violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people as a criminal offense. Gay marriage and civil union are out of the question in Ukraine, and the situation is getting worse.
Alexander Zinchenkov has been working for Our World LGBTQ Centre since 1997. He and his partner used to live in Luhansk, a territory now under Russian occupation. He has lived in Kiev for 12 years but has never seen violence against LGBTQ people so bad. "Those who visually stand out almost always risk aggression," he says.
A recently released video of a gay couple in downtown Kiev getting assaulted in broad daylight proves his point. So does an alleged brutal beating of two young men by former parliamentary candidate Oleg Kytserib.
Kytserib wrote a Facebook update (since deleted) about beating up a gay couple sitting in front of his home at night. According to the post, he told them, "Have you gone crazy, pidoras, bitches, being cute here? There's a war going on, and you're here relaxing? This is not Gay-rope, especially beside my home."
When, according to the post, they replied, "Are you jealous that we love each other?" he went home, woke up his almost 18-year-old boxer son, took a wooden stick left over from the days of Maidan, and together they beat up the two men. "Two pidoras and the two sympathizers [sitting beside them] will be in the hospital for two weeks." He wrote that the only damage he suffered was a torn jacket and a hand hurt where it "hit pidoras' teeth."
Alexander said he has been trying to find the victims by calling hospitals, but they haven't turned up. In the last six months to a year, he has seen a huge increase in violent cases reported to his organization. Part of the problem is Ukraine's police, who are often unwilling to do anything about the assaults—at most, charging perpetrators with disturbing the peace. Still, he wants to tell authorities about those potentially beaten by Kytserib.
"I'm going to write a police report, but I'm not sure whether the police will be careful with information about where I live," said Alexander. "I don't know that these right-wing activists won't show up at my door. I will write the report, but I still feel in danger."
According to both Alexander and Vladimir, the conservative and violent right-wing movement sprung from the revolution. Ukrainians have a complicated relationships with those groups. On one hand, they are active in conflict zones and served as security during Maidan. At the same time, they are not accountable to anyone.
Those who attacked the Kiev March for Equality in June associated with the movement but received little, if any, punishment. Right-wing activists also burned down a historic movie theater in Kiev that played a gay film. They were only charged with disturbing the peace.
While violence against individuals has grown, some politicians began showing support for Ukraine's queer community for the first time. Two politicians marched with the activists during a pride parade in June and president Petro Poroshenko voiced his support. But Vladimir says he might just be playing politics as no concrete changes are made.
"The government doesn't see this as a priority right now, which is dangerous," he says, referring to the war in the country.
Aleksander also points to the war as the reason for increasing violence.
"Homophobia in society is a reflection of the larger feeling in Ukraine," he says. "There's a lot of unrest and negative attitudes.
"About ten years ago, LGBT people were not noticeable both in the newspapers and in the streets. But now LGBT activists are more vocal and the issues are more visible. An anti-LGBT movement has formed and it's fairly influential. Many Ukrainian politicians and churches are homophobic and have a big influence on society."
For Vladimir and Gay Alliance Ukraine, death threats have become a part of routine procedure. When they had a help line, funded by the Canadian Embassy, brutal threats of violence were just a part of the job. They have tried reporting them but nothing comes of it. Police say they can't do anything until physical harm takes place. "By then it might be too late," says Vladimir.
He has faced those threats and uses them to fuel his work. Gay Alliance Ukraine has opened community centers across the country, organized activities for queers, and sends volunteers on skills exchanges to other countries. He hopes, one day, for acceptance in the country.
"As an individual, I would want change the entire infrastructure," he said. "I would burn it down and build a new one. As an activist, I just want our government to notice what democracy is and that every person is important. That society is made up of minorities."
I asked him how he brings himself to keep going in this climate. After a minute of silence, he says, "I don't know." After another minute he adds, "If we don't keep going, nothing will change."
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