Ukrainian pride amid ongoing war in the country

Pride was first held in Ukraine in 2013. A total of 80 people attended the public gathering as a part of the Pride. Peaceful participants in the rally were attacked by members of ultra-right groups and some of them were physically harmed.

The 2014 public assembly was canceled because authorities refused to protect the safety of the marchers.

On June 6, 2015, while hostilities were taking place in the country amid a conflict provoked and backed by Russia, the first Pride March was held in Kiev with 250 people in attendance. The safety of the participants in this march wasn’t properly protected by law enforcement. They allowed the representatives of the violent groups very close to the marchers, did not stop their illegal actions in time, when they threw various items at the peaceful demonstrators and tried to break the barrier of the police. 10 people received bodily injuries, including police officers. One of the police officers was seriously injured, he was stabbed in the throat by a representative of a neo-fascist group. Fortunately, the policeman survived.

In 2016, about 6,000 people attended the Kiev Pride March and the event was peaceful.

In the following years as well – in 2017, 2018, 2019, the freedom of public assembly and expression of the queer community was fully ensured, and the number of participants in the march exceeded 8000.

Queer contacted Ukrainian women activists. We were interested in the legal situation of members of the LGBTQ community living in Ukraine and what strategies Ukrainian queer activists use in the process of advocating for their rights.

For reference: Anna Sharigina and Vera Chernigina are an openly lesbian couple. For more than 10 years, these women have been one of the most prominent leaders in the LGBTQ movement.

Queer: Anna, Vera, Hello, please tell Queer readers about you, how long you have been in queer activism and what you are doing now.

Anna: We both represent the lesbian feminist organization Sphere and are also co-founders of Kiev Pride and Kharkov Pride.

Vera: We have been in civic activism since 2007. We have been fighting for gender equality since then.

Queer: Therefore you were involved in LGBTQ activism in Ukraine from the very beginning. During this time, what has changed in favor of community members living in Ukraine and what remains a problem or challenge still?

Anna: There of course are challenges. First of all, a change in the civil partnership legislation is needed. There are gaps in our legislation regarding the effective prevention of hate crimes. Among the achievements, aggression on the part of citizens has been overcome. They may not support us, but they no longer support attacks on members of the LGBTQ community. Citizens negatively assess physical assault on a person on the basis of any discriminatory bases. Maybe it has to do with the ongoing war in Ukraine because people are tired of the violence that this war brings. In 2016, too many people marched against physical violence.

Vera: First of all, I would like to point out that the police actually care about our safety during public gatherings. For example, if both the Kyiv City Hall and the police support the Kiev Pride, this is not the case in Kharkov – the city does not support us, but the police do their job full-heartedly. It should also be noted that changing the passport sex for transgender people is no longer dependent on surgeries.

Queer: Are hate crimes against members of the queer community effectively investigated?

Anna: Now this is a topical issue, not only to investigate crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and to properly punish perpetrators, but also on any discriminatory grounds. Although there are minimum regulations at the legislative level, we do not have written procedures on how an investigation should be conducted to identify a motive for hatred or a sign of discrimination. Investigators sincerely complain that they find it difficult to bring the case to court in such a way that it is possible to aggravate the sentence under a special article.

Vera: I would like to continue the topic here about what has changed – the expression of homophobic attitudes by the police is no longer expected. If I call the police, I am not afraid that I will encounter homophobic treatment there as well. And I also know that if I come across and publicize a homophobic act on behalf of a public official or write a complaint, there will definitely be a response.

Queer: Are you aware of any cases where any police officer has been held even administratively liable for inaction and failure to protect the rights of a member of the LGBTQ community?

Vera: We know for sure that the law enforcement agency will prosecute the police officers if they have any wrongdoing. For example, there was an incident at Pride 2019 when law enforcement officers did not act in a timely manner and a representative of a violent gang was given the opportunity to physically approach a participant in the march. Although no case of physical violence was reported, the very fact that there was inaction on the part of the police was assessed very negatively. The city police chief apologized for this and promised to continue working at the agency to rule out similar incidents in the future.

Anna: Hate-motivated incidents against LGBTQ activists are still common. In Kharkov, for example, our office periodically gets egged, leaving graffiti on the walls, although this is done at night and not as before, during the day, for all to see.

Vera: Most recently, members of an ultra-right group attacked a police officer – he received a head injury, had a severe concussion, and the attacker was sentenced to only 2 months in prison. In this respect, we and the police are on the same side. They also need offenders to be punished more severely.

Anna: Ultra-right organizations no longer attack LGBTQ activists. They publicly refused to oppose Pride. They have developed a strategy with which they say nothing about Pride or LGBTQ activists in public in the open. The people who carry out physical attacks do not officially represent these organizations, although they are encouraged by them. These organizations are interested in political development, and a group that physically abuses people will not have a political future in Ukraine. Periodically trans women are attacked, unfortunately these cases often do not go to the police and investigation.

Queer: We have a similar problem in Georgia, because the most vulnerable community is the community of transgender women who are involved in sex work. According to established beliefs, the frequency of attacks on transgender women increases during the period when public LGBT events are planned and / or held. Also, some community organizations are protesting the holding of the Pride because they believe that the LGBTQI community is not yet ready for the Pride and the event itself does more harm to the community members than it benefits. Have there been similar discussions in Ukraine, or what do you think about these issues?

Anna: There was talk within the community that physical attacks on community members were carried out because of Pride. Such accusations are again answered by the members of the community and they say that the physical attacks are due to homophobia, transphobia, and the effective tool to fight it is Pride. The aggressor is always to blame for expressing aggression. I would like to add that the issue of mobilizing the LGBTQ community is very important. Pride is usually the next step. If we compare the Prides held in Ukraine – those Prides were more successful, for the organization of which the community was well mobilized, and vice versa – the Prides where the community was less mobilized were less successful. Numerous parades were held in cities where LGBTQ organizations worked to involve more community members. Community support is very important, but it is not necessary to have such support at the very beginning. We know of cases when only activists came out to Pride at the beginning. For example, in 2015, about 300 activists attended and in the following year, Pride gained a lot of support – more than 6000 people came out.

Queer: What do you think caused the upheaval when thousands of people marched in 2016 and everything went peacefully?

Vera: In my opinion, law enforcement officials saw a great danger in the fact that they were deprived of power vested in them by law, and it was passed into the hands of informal criminal

gangs. Of course, our European colleagues also helped us by sharing their experiences. They showed the police what was wrong with them – in 2016 they allowed a violent rally very close to us, there was only a distance of 500 meters between us and because of that a difficult situation was created, people were injured. Also, after the event, they did not take any preventive measures, they just let us go and then also found it difficult to control who and where they were being chased down. Although the Pride had many volunteers, without the help of the police, it was still impossible to deal with the violent groups.

Anna: I would like to add the process of reforming the Ukrainian police, which turned out to be very good for us as well. Western countries have done a lot to train our police officers and this has also yielded good results. Much work has been done in training police in protecting peaceful demonstrations. The Council of Europe Special Mission monitors the work of the agencies responsible for this.

Queer: How well known are the groups that organize attacks on members of the LGBTQ community? Who funds them and for what purpose?

Vera: Here we share the view that these are groups funded by pro-Russian money, whose main goal is to destabilize Ukraine and hinder the development of democratic processes.

Anna: We have the following strategy – we do not spend resources on studying the activities of these groups. Such use of resources would be ineffective. We are doing our job and moving forward to reduce homophobic and transphobic attitudes in order to hinder these groups.

Queer: It is interesting how different the situation is in different regions of Ukraine.

Anna: Yes, the situation is different, for example, in the city of Lvov no pride has ever been held and there, the frequency of attacks on members of the LGBTQI community and the dangerous nature of these attacks is much higher. The Lvov to me is another proof that where pride is held, over time life becomes much safer for community members. In everyday life at least. In Lvov, without any public gathering, attacks are carried out of nowhere and provoked by nothing. Girls were recently attacked and physically assaulted.

Queer: How many cities in Ukraine are holding Pride now? Vera: Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, Zaporozhye…

Anna: Not all LGBTQ public gatherings are called Pride. For example, in Kherson it is called the “Equality March”.

Queer: What would you like to recommend to the Tbilisi Pride activists, who will be marching in the central streets of Tbilisi on July 5 to hold The March of Honor.

Vera: Involve as many people, organizations or countries as possible in this process. We will also help you to share information and listen to you. Everything will be fine.

Anna: I wish you patience, health. Given the Russian factor, it is clear to me that you are doing a very difficult job at the most difficult time for you and the country. I wish you strength. Personally, I will carefully and anxiously observe the events of July 5. As it is said, the night is darkest before dawn and there is very little left till the sunrise.

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