Discussing LGBTQ Equality with One of Ukraine's Only Openly Gay Journalists

GAYCATION host Ian Daniel catches up with journalist Maxim Eristavi about the fight for LGBTQ equality in Ukraine.

by Ian Daniel
Sep 8 2016, 12:16pm

On last night's episode of GAYCATION, hosts Ian Daniel and Ellen Page traveled to Ukraine to engage with the country's LGBTQ culture and find out the issues and struggles they currently face. (Watch a trailer for GAYCATION's second season above.) Daniel caught up with Ukranian journalist and activist Maxim Eristavi, who appears in the episode, to check in on his progress in the fight for LGBTQ equality since the episode's filming. An edited and condensed version of their conversation is below.

Ian Daniel: The last time we talked, you were fighting really hard to get the voice out there for LGBTQ people in Ukraine. You expressed that you felt like you were sometimes in danger—there were death threats. Has that changed at all?
Maxim Eristavi:
It's still the vibe. With increasing attacks on journalists in general, the abusive language directed at me is strictly around my sexuality and being the only openly gay journalist in Ukraine. For example, my colleagues at Hromadske have the only news room in central Europe that's run by women. So when they're being attacked, it's very gendered. When the bullying starts, arguments like that are being used because the level of homophobia is quite high.

Nothing has changed with me trying to fight back. I'm launching my own project working with foreign investors in Eastern Europe who feel strongly about civil rights equality and trying to bring them onboard with the civil rights fights in their region. I'm quite realistic that we can't possibly achieve progress through going through parliament or the government, where the process is very politicized—so I'm trying to bypass it and not give up. I'm working in the private sector, finding allies outside of the political circus, and trying to deliver change on the ground without going through the mud of political battles that we're experiencing all around the region.

But since we last spoke, there are some things I feel extremely encouraged about. We had the first ever violence-free pride in downtown Kiev. It was protected by the police, but there weren't serious attempts to attack it, too. We had such a powerful outpour of public support for pride—not because people understand the concept of civil rights equality, but because they were so enraged by far-right forces threatening violence to people who want to exercise their freedom of speech. That's not something people are tolerant toward. We had so many powerful heterosexual allies, including the vice prime minister for European Integration. Then we had the second Pride in Odessa, the first Pride to happen outside of Kiev.

That's great, yes. What happened there? Was it attacked at all?
The threat of an attack was there, but it was heavily protected by police forces, and they avoided any kind of violence.

The pride marches in the past didn't seem to have much support from the government or police protection. Why do you think that shifted this time?
Because of two things. The first one is that the Ukrainian political elite care about foreign optics because they rely on international support so much—not financial support, but political support in case of a Russian invasion. They want to retain alliances that they're struggling to build against this invasion. Also, the change of rhetoric has delivered some progress on the behalf of fighters of civil rights equality. I stopped using the phrase "LGBT" altogether because people wouldn't understand what LGBT stood for. We started to talk about why it's important to support gay pride—because it's freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly—and why it's important to grant equal access to already-existing constitutional rights. You start with that—especially in developing countries—and people respond better. Then you can build that bridge where you actually agree on something before extending that agreement to rights that still do not exist.

I don't want to paint a rosy picture, though. Ukraine still doesn't have a single hate crime law, so I'm not protected in any way from violence—there's a long way to go. But adjusting and calibrating strategies seems like it helped this year. Whether or not we'll stand next year, I don't know.

I think the concept of "what is equality?" is interesting to talk about. At the time, you said it was a dirty word in Ukraine. So what does equality look like now? What is it that the LGBTQ people there want?
I always try to build bridges between freedom fighters and LGBT fighters. We are fighters between different countries, and we're trying to look into their experiences, find something helpful, learn [from] their mistakes, and provide our own experiences.

But what I've learned in the recent couple of years is that, when we look into how developed countries are trying to achieve full equality for queer people, we often project that experience automatically on developing countries. That's not something that is working. If I start a discussion about how gender and sexuality shouldn't be binary—that's not something that anyone would ever respond to in developing countries. All of those issues are completely alien to them.

It's a parallel universe, despite the fact we're living in the same informational space and share the same admiration for pop stars like Beyoncé. It doesn't mean that we think in the same space and care about the same things as well. But when it comes to something that is extremely universal for modern societies, like equality and equal access to constitutional rights—which is a very simple idea—those things that are extremely universal, whether I travel to Ghana or the United States, all people kind of agree on them in almost all countries. That's where you can start that conversation.

Yeah, I think the other part of the conversation is that Ukraine is having a hard time economically, and there's a war going on in parts of the country. Some people say, "This is not a time to talk about LGBTQ issues." What do you say to that?
The past year showed us that, if you're trying to find creative solutions to this problem, you can introduce the problem of equality—especially for queer people—into the discourse, no matter what kind of challenges society faces. Last pride, we had just two members of parliament show up. This year, it was eight. People may use homophobic language and don't want gay people to marry or have kids, but still they support basic human rights for them.

What I see when making this show is that some people seem to think that because there are more laws in place, the fight has been won—even though that's not so much the case. I see how on some level it's important to have international influence, but sometimes the place where we are in America, for example, or how we are fighting for equality here doesn't quite fit for certain countries right now.
A national pressure is crucial! It's not like it was in the 90s when homophobia would be locally tied to the history and culture—now it's fueled by international homophobic groups that operate in many developing countries. The only approach is internationalized, but if it's not calibrated and communicated to developing societies in the right way, it can backfire. We should provide full solidarity for developing countries but also be more considerate of what's happening inside without sounding patronizing or neocolonial.

In many countries I've been to, there's a conversation surrounding nationalism and traditionalism. Is the latter louder because perhaps it's dying out? How influential is the movement toward family values and traditionalism in Ukraine?
I think we should divide the issues between traditionalism and nationalism. Nationalism is not something that Ukraine is dealing with. People do not react to far-right ideas. It's more about a patchwork identity where people feel Ukrainian and a bazillion other identities inside their families and communities. There's also a lot of people from developed countries trying to hijack this conversation, imposing those clichés in a patronizing way. When it comes to traditionalism, I think we face the same issue everywhere. Because there's empirical data that tells the story of globalism evoking friction in high society, people feel more threatened and less sure about their future, and they try to overcompensate by clenching to all of those so-called traditional things. Globalization redefines everything that we thought of our society.

When we were last talking, you said, "The revolution is still happening." How it's happening in offices, in the privacy of people's homes, and all of these different spheres in Ukraine. Where is the revolution right now?
It's the same. Nothing has changed in the way that you have both positive and negative developments every day. The transition I went through in the last year was from just being an observer of what's happening to becoming an active part of a change and feeling strongly about changing—having belief, for the first time, that it's possible to change something in your country.

I'm not being a naïve optimist or saying that everything will be a success. Everything could fall apart next year, or next month. I'm quite aware of it. But as long as you feel this drive that is not only tied to you, but the people around you—that change is possible—then this is a crucial period in history where I can actually push those changes through. I can tell you that the revolution is still happening. That's a terrifying thing, but at the same time, it's the thing that keeps you going. It keeps you having this hope in the future, and it provides you with energy every day.

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