Olena Shevchenko

Olena Shevchenko (2015)
HD video, sound, color, 16:9
15:00 minutes

My name is Olena Shevchenko and I represent the NGO Insight. Ours is a feminist organization and we also deal with queer issues. The concept of ‘queer’ is more or less new to post-Soviet countries. We see ourselves as a feminist initiative. We are trying to work on making the position of the different groups that constitute the LGBTI community equal. This means that in Ukraine, the most dominant discourse is the gay discourse, so we are trying to work with lesbians and with bisexual women on issues which include feminism. We also work with transgender people. And last year, we started working with intersex people.

We have adopted the following approach: We are aware, we understand and we try to explain to people that you cannot only work with one discriminated minority. Because issues of discrimination and harassment directed at different minority groups are actually intersectional. They are interrelated. They cannot be addressed separately. The biggest task is to help people become aware of this. Because even in the LGBTI community we encounter racism or intolerance towards other minorities who also face discrimination. These issues are very important when we see them in the light of creating a unified human rights movement in order to stand and fight together.

I have been actively involved in sports since my school years. I was a professional athlete engaged in wrestling, a purely "male" sport. At first it was judo and sambo and then it was freestyle wrestling. In a sport where there are virtually no girls, discrimination and disrespect are almost everywhere. This helped me to become aware of myself as a feminist and as a person who is fighting for equality between men and women. You have to work two or three times harder just to prove to other people, to men, to “guys,” that you have the right to engage in the sport along with them. This is absurd, in my view, because a person is always unique, and in principle, anyone should be allowed to develop according to his or her interests. Labeling people, making everyone fit the same standard of "women" or "men” is not worth doing.

This binary characterization presumes that masculinity is a purely male feature and femininity in contrast to masculinity is a purely female trait. Masculinity means activity and force. Femininity means weakness and flexibility. If you do not fit in, neither as a man nor a woman, there will be sanctions. Sanctions in the form of violence, hostility, hatred and condemnation.
It is useful to understand why these things matter so much for traditional society. There is a huge prejudice against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. However, most often when we hear about LGBTI people, we hear about gay men. Why is that? Because men constitute the most important category in life. In traditional societies they are more valuable than women. If a man is gay, in the eyes of heterosexual males, he has betrayed everything masculine. He is a traitor and descends to the level of a woman. He becomes an object instead of a subject.
All women are objects in traditional cultures. A woman can be owned, forced to do something, humiliated and raped. The fight against different kinds of stereotyping and prejudice is basically a fight that does not have an end. If you make it a long-term goal to achieve full equality in society and to overcome every prejudice in, say, twenty five years; it will never happen. But the process is very important, because every day when you change attitudes, voice opinions, give information and see changes at least in one person: This gives meaning to your life.

Changing society is difficult and I think in a way that idea is formless. "What are you doing? We are changing society!" Nobody knows what that means. It means daily work, which consists in communicating and investing in people. Only through dialogue are people willing to change. If you talk to them from the position of power, it is a monologue, and people are not psychologically ready to accept things; it is as if something is being imposed on them. When you talk as an equal, you can influence each other in dialogue. Mutual understanding begins with dialogue.

At the moment we are engaged in investment and propaganda. I specifically use the word "propaganda" because it immediately causes resistance; the word is rather controversial. It is associated with violent methods although the word "propaganda" has several meanings, including advertising and addressing the public. Articulating your messages. Addressing the audience and saying, "I am here, and I am the same as you. I just differ from you." This does not mean that I violate anyone's rights, as the people in Russia who passed laws banning the “propaganda” of homosexuality believe. The very idea that sexual orientation or anything else can be forcibly imposed is fundamentally untrue. But it is an interesting method and a rhetorical device too. It can be seen when the arguments you use are more or less logical, but the hypothesis you offer is fundamentally flawed and incorrect.

I hear from different people with different educational backgrounds: “Your rights as a representative of a minority violate my rights as a representative of the majority.” What does this mean? People give strange examples. I find understanding that logic difficult, but it sounds like this: “I am a heterosexual white male and I do not want to see you in the street and know that you're a lesbian.” Attention please, if my existence and my being visible violates someone's rights as a heterosexual, a homophobe, I can offer them this answer: You can avoid seeing me, which means not going to a place where I am going today. You have that right. You have the right to close your eyes and you have the right to protest and go to another place or the same place without violating my rights or being violent to me.

It is very difficult to talk about the history of the feminist movement in Ukraine, because I cannot quite confirm that it exists. There have been attempts to create something. There were and there are now different organizations and informal initiatives. However, we cannot expect the feminist movement in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries to follow the development it had in America or Europe. The movement here evolved in vastly different ways. We have different backgrounds. Our society does not have a history of fighting for rights, including the rights of women. In Soviet times women were given the right to vote and to work. This does not mean that we had equal rights in the Soviet era. No, it means that the state did not have enough economic power and enough manpower, so everyone was welcome: Women, children, come help the industry! Women worked both at home, doing housework, which was never paid for and never considered a job, and also worked in the factories. They carried a double burden. There was, basically, no feminism during the Soviet era. It was a form of dissidence. People who engaged in the protection of human rights, women's rights, in feminism, were usually persecuted, because these ideas were harmful for the state where everyone was "equal." Therefore, we see a very difficult process in Ukraine today, because in Soviet times there was this leveling when women in the workplace were treated like men, but at home like women, like staff.

A glass ceiling still exists in Ukraine. You will not shoulder your way into male communities in our society simply because they will not let you in. You are not an equal, you work for a lower salary, you most often do "female" work. Sexism is mistakenly perceived as a struggle for women's rights. Similarly to the situation with the fight for the rights of LGBT people where it is believed that this is a struggle for some special rights. And it is the same with the struggle for women's rights. Why is this happening? Most heterosexuals, and the part that consists of men, feel privileged, they do not face the problems women face. They find it difficult to understand this concept because they are already in a privileged position.

It is necessary to try and be honest with ourselves. It is very easy to shout that these people do not want to give up their privileges. In fact, becoming aware of one’s privileges is a very difficult task because they are not always visible. You simply use them since birth, you do not notice them precisely because you have them. They get noticed by those people who do not have them. I believe that becoming aware of these privileges and trying to give them up requires great inner strength and efforts. It would be absurd to ask everyone to become aware of them. All of us have some privileges: someone is white, someone is heterosexual, someone was born into a family with a large income. Have you seen a lot of people who give these things up? I have not.

A conflict with Russia is unfolding and escalating in Ukraine. We have the occupied territory of Crimea, we have a conflict, and the escalation of violence in two eastern regions. I do not think that our task, as human rights activists, is to assess what is happening now. Our task is to try and help people whose lives have been affected by this war, and our task is to try and understand the causes of the war. If the state does not help its citizens to develop, if it neither support the development of their critical thinking nor invests into their education nor provide decent means of subsistence, I believe that such a state cannot ask for anything in return.

We need to look a little deeper inside ourselves and find out what exactly we are, what our identities are, what we choose, what we feel, and what has been imposed on us for a long time, since childhood. What is the way other people want to see me and what is it that I am? One’s identity is one’s choice, and we should not be afraid of declaring openly what we choose. We do not need to act along the lines of, “Oh please pity on me, I was born that way.” We must join together in order to defend the concept of personal choice, because this is what freedom is based on.