Ukraine’s LGBTQ rights movement contends with war’s mixed impact

Photo for The Washington Post by Serhiy Morgunov.
The Kyiv Pride director Lenny Emson discusses the Pride march in Warsaw, in the Kyiv Pride office in Ukraine on Tuesday.

KYIV – War often creates previously unthinkable alliances. As the saying goes: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Taras Karasiichuk, 38, one of Ukraine’s founding generation of LGBTQ rights activists, found himself entering into one amid Russia’s invasion.

He and friends from across the spectrum of sexuality raised money for the Azov Regiment, a volunteer military unit that has proved to be one of Ukraine’s strongest, but whose ranks include members of far-right groups – the same ones that have terrorized the LGBTQ community here for almost a decade.

“The whole battalion knows they’ve gotten money from ‘the gays,’ and they are fine with it. I say if they can organize a successful resistance to Russia, it’s good,” he said. “It may shock your typical Western liberal activist, but when you witness war, your values change. You realize your roots are in a nation and that having a strong one is very important.”

As pride month gets underway around the world, and LGBTQ communities take stock of accomplishments and challenges, Ukraine’s is contending with a strange new reality. War here is causing tragedy and hardship for every Ukrainian, but it may accelerate their movement for equal rights.

There are practical factors – for instance, Ukraine has formally applied to become a member of the European Union, a process that would require steps toward greater rights and protections for LGBTQ people. But more powerful, said activists who have organized the community for the past decade, is a budding sense of national unity that is inclusive and tolerant – and unlike Russia in every way.

For Ruslana Panukhnyk, 34, who directed Kyiv Pride from 2016 to 2020, the war has helped her explain to people outside the community why she fights for LGBTQ rights, even as war threatens Ukraine’s survival.

“People always say, ‘now is not the time,’ year after year, and maybe especially this year,” Panukhnyk said. “But every day is the day for freedom. Tolerance and acceptance of differences are the foundation of democratic societies. If we do not enshrine that, how different are we really from Russia?”

Because of the war, this year’s Kyiv Pride march will take place in Warsaw, and LGBTQ organizations from across Eastern Europe will combine their usual messages with a broader one about freedom, opposition to war and human rights. It will also commemorate the many LGBTQ soldiers fighting in the war, including those who have been killed.

Photo for The Washington Post by Serhiy Morgunov.
The Kyiv Pride Office on June 7, with signs that read “Kyiv must be safe for everyone.

Kyiv’s first pride march was meant to take place in 2012, but it was violently dispersed by far-right gangs. Svyatoslav Sheremet, 44, was brutally beaten, and TV cameras captured seven attackers kicking him and stomping on his limp body.

After years of despair and repeated violent confrontations with right-wing opponents, Sheremet is optimistic about the trajectory of LGBTQ rights in Ukraine.

“It sounds crazy, but the war will help us,” he said in an interview.

He is currently organizing the movement’s political lobbying in Ukraine’s parliament, and he said the E.U. application process might be the driver of long-sought wins. By the end of next year, he expects the introduction of a bill to extend partnership rights to same-sex couples as part of a multipronged strategy to comply with expectations that the 27-nation union requires of members.

Currently, homosexuality is not criminalized in Ukraine but, rather, goes unmentioned in its penal code. Only one supportive clause exists in Ukrainian law, which protects LGBTQ people from discrimination in the workplace. That language came after years of lobbying by Sheremet and others.

Societal change is a slower process, and Ukrainian activists have few illusions about undoing the homophobia that is deeply entrenched here. Recent surveys show that less than a fifth of Ukrainians believe homosexuality should be accepted by society. That puts Ukraine behind its neighboring countries, which are often cited as examples of conservatism on the issue.

“Hungary and Poland are homophobic if you compare them to, say, Canada,” said Lenny Emson, who is directing this year’s Kyiv Pride. “But here, in a city of millions of people, you might see just one or two rainbow flags.”

Last year, however, about 7,000 attended Kyiv’s pride march, Emson said. It is a long way from the years of having to run and hide as the smattering of attendees sought cover from opponents armed with bats and sticks.

Emson cautioned against seeing war’s unifying effects as something permanent. Before Russia’s invasion, there had been an uptick in beatings of LGBTQ people by police, shattering a sense of protection built over years of pride parades in which police were the only force between attendees and potential assailants.

“It does feel like there was the beginning of a backslide before the war, especially with the police,” Emson said. “It’s very disappointing, because that is something we had worked especially hard on – we were succeeding with the police.”

For now, Emson and other activists are throwing their efforts behind the joint Warsaw-Kyiv parade at the end of this month. On a recent day, they met in Podil, Kyiv’s bohemian district, and debated the merits of various banners and logos.

News came in through someone’s social media feed that Ukrainian antiaircraft missiles had prevented a rocket attack in the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhia, where a fierce Ukrainian counteroffensive is attempting to reverse Russian gains.

It was a moment of cheer. One organizing committee member searched through files on his laptop to show off a new flag intended for sale at the march in Warsaw. It was half Ukraine’s and half rainbow stripes, and emblazoned across it were the words “Armed Ukrainian Queers Destroy Moscovian Imperialism.”