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Zoryan Kis and Timur Levchuk

Zoryan Kis and Tymur Levchuk (2015)
HD video, sound, color, 16:9
13:46 minutes

Timur: My name is Timur. I work for the LGBT organization Fulcrum and for the national LGBT portal.

Zoryan: My name is Zoryan. I am a human rights activist and work for the organization Freedom House.

T: After the Soviet Union collapsed Ukraine became the first ex-Soviet republic to remove the article criminalizing homosexuality from its Criminal Code. After that the efforts to protect human rights seemed unnecessary since LGBT people in this country are not formally prosecuted.

Z: But society exerts a huge amount of pressure on those people. Society wants us to keep quiet, to refrain from demonstrating or “propagandizing,” which is what they accuse us of. So people have very limited choices: Either be themselves, which means putting up a daily fight, leaving the country, or be totally closeted and hide their lives from society.

Ordinary people who have little information about LGBT issues continue to ask us: “Who is oppressing you? Who is persecuting you? You haven’t lost your job because of that, have you?” We try to explain that we are talking about everyday situations where our rights are restricted. For example, if, God forbid, I end up in the hospital unconscious, Timur, who is the person closest to me, won’t be allowed to visit me or make any decisions about my treatment, because legally he has no relation to me.

Z: LGBT activism has become more crucial since EuroMaidan when Ukraine made its “civilizational choice.” We are moving in the direction of Europe. But this shouldn’t mean imposing some other values on Ukrainians. It means that all people can be equal and be themselves. This also includes equality for LGBT people.

T: This year we tried an experiment walking around Kiev. I expected to encounter more homophobia in the street than we did. In fact, we encountered its absence. In the end we were beaten a bit, but it is worth noting that we were not beaten by the majority, but by a very small minority of people. I am not even sure that this minority is greater than the number of LGBT people in Ukraine.  

Z: We spent over an hour holding hands around the city. We noticed that most people didn’t react. It was as if we were aliens. Or maybe they thought we were foreigners who don’t know what is not acceptable here. But most people chose not to show any reaction. At the end we encountered a lot of aggression from an organized group of young people who were wandering around looking for a target. They began talking to us so the police who were standing nearby would go away and they could start beating us. At first the conversation was actually interesting. They asked us if we were patriots. We said yes we are patriots and we love our country. They asked whether we would like our nation to be better and stand above the rest. I replied that we have different understandings of patriotism. We told them the Maidan revolution was the essence of the Ukrainian nation. We were there too. There were people there who consider themselves Ukrainians. People who speak Ukrainian or Russian. People with different sexual orientations, with various professions... This is a new Ukrainian nation that is fighting for its self-determination. They replied that we are not patriots because we are breaking the laws of nature and shaming the white race.

Since the conflict between Russia and Ukraine began the influence of Russian propaganda in Ukraine has significantly decreased. Russian propaganda was the main source of these myths about “Gayropa” and about LGBT culture being a Western trend aimed at destroying civilization and what they call the “Russian World.”  Ukrainian nationalist far-right forces have taken up the messages delivered to Ukrainians through Russian propaganda. They say that LGBT people are a foreign element that has to be eliminated or otherwise our nation will perish. The most common accusation that far-right movements throw at the LGBT community is that we did not create our own LGBT battalion to fight in Eastern Ukraine. But gays and lesbians are everywhere. We also volunteer in the in the armed forces.

T: The conflict is an important reason why we need to talk about human rights and about protecting people from discrimination. Discrimination in Ukraine concerns not only LGBT people but also a wide range of groups. For example, people displaced from the conflict zone suffer discrimination as well. But each time that MPs draft a nice bill on “Protecting people from discrimination,” sexual orientation always ends up disappearing from the bill.

The same thing is happening with the adoption of changes to the Ukrainian Constitution. The first version of the amendments included the “Prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” But the Church Council protested so they won’t include it.

Z: We know that religious organizations are very influential. This is one of Ukraine’s most serious problems. Very few people understand that Church and State are separate and that we live in a secular state. The Church cannot deny the rights of certain people. Today we see more violence against LGBT people. This year we saw several homophobic murders, we saw the attack on the Equality March and we saw on video how we were beaten because we were “violating the laws of nature.” Violence against LGBT people continues to grow and we have to decide how to respond to this violence.

The Ukrainian LGBT movement could respond to this violence like they did in the USA. During Stonewall the LGBT community physically responded to police aggression and originated the US LGBT movement. But we can choose a different path and talk about how there is already too much violence in Ukraine. Violence is undesirable under any circumstances. We will not respond in the same way, we will talk about our rights.

We are seeing the discussion about LGBT issues shift from traditional values to the political sphere. And we saw that two MPs participated in the Equality March for the first time this year. Although most politicians still view talking about LGBT rights as political suicide, this is a chance for Ukraine to become a more progressive country and to become a regional leader in human rights and LGBT issues.    

We have a very difficult situation with the HIV epidemic. Ukraine is one of the few countries in the world where the epidemic continues to grow. Earlier, it was an epidemic that mostly involved injection drug users and sex workers. Now its main mode of transmission is sexual and most of the contacts that lead to infection are heterosexual, not homosexual. But that is only what official statistics tell us because HIV-positive gays don’t necessarily reveal that they are gay when they go to AIDS centers. HIV-positive gays face double discrimination in our society.

In October last year we witnessed a very sad event when the Zhovten cinema was burned down during the screening of an LGBT-themed film. Two young people, who later were recognized as being tied to far-right organizations, brought two explosive packages to the screening and set the theater on fire. The investigation concluded that the boys simply wanted to interrupt the screening. And the fact that the cinema nearly burned down was unrelated to their actions. Now they are considering their behavior as hooliganism, though it was clearly, as it is called in civilized countries, a hate crime. Honestly, legislation itself doesn’t change the views of society. But the lack of legislation is the first obstacle to start changing these views. Legislation has to be passed to allow for changes in society. Along with legislation we have to transform our society.

We are trying to do this by being as open as possible in our social circles. The more LGBT people in Ukraine are open, the more Ukrainians will personally know one of them. When someone knows a person who is gay or lesbian who is a friend, a colleague, a relative or an acquaintance, then this person will no longer stick to stupid stereotypes such as that LGBT people are aliens or an error of nature. We are ready to defend people we know personally even if they differ from us.

T: I think that in a society where everyone can themselves our life could be much happier. People won’t bother you or me for having certain convictions. Maybe this would eliminate certain conflicts.

Z: I assure you that among your relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and fellow citizens, there are gays and lesbians, even if you don’t know it. Perhaps they don’t tell you because they are afraid that you will stop talking to them or working with them. Or that you will cross the street to the other side or disrespect them in some other way. Maybe this comes from their own fear, but maybe you said something once that convinced them of this. Maybe it is more important for you to be ready to support them when they have problems in order not to lose them as friends, neighbors or colleagues. It is important for these people to be able to turn to you and tell you that their love has left them, or that they have been fired, or something else happened just because they are different. In most cases these people don’t have friends with whom they can share these things. It is important for you to support them. They are certainly amongst the people you know.