Kelly Sans Culotte

Gay Mundo

New Ukraine, Old Homophobia
Will anything change now?
By Tomek Kitlinski

President Yushchenko (r.) with Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko.

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JAN. 28, 2005. The orange banners and buntings are just beginning to fade from Kiev's Independence Square, where President Viktor Yushchenko was sworn in last Sunday after a tumultuous two-month public drama of mass demonstrations, epic electoral fraud, dioxin poisoning, and echoes of the Cold War.

A year before the courageous "orange revolution" demonstrators swarmed over Independence Square, inadvertently turning it into a feel-good site for CNN, Fox News and the Iraq-mired Bush administration, a less edifying spectacle had taken place there. A mob attacked the Gay Pride parade on September 21, 2003, wielding placards with "Deviants Get Out of Ukraine" and "Homiki are the cause of AIDS." Homiki, or "hamsters" is Ukraine's favorite zoological slur for gays. The ugly scene, one re-enacted all over the former Soviet empire in the past few years as queers have begun asserting themselves, was not televised.

"We're totally excluded from Ukrainian politics," lesbian activist Natalia Nahorna recently told me. I asked her if Ukrainian queers were optimistic now that the presumably Western-leaning Yushchenko was President. "No," she said. "People here are not tolerant of minorities. It will take years to change that." Nahorna was one of the organizers of the 2003 Gay Pride parade and is the author of a pioneering research project on lesbians in Ukraine.

Gay activist Vladislav Topchek told me that he hears about physical attacks on queers everywhere in the country. "There is no difference in the level of homophobia" between the industrial, largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, and the pro-European Community, Catholic western part of the country, which supported Yushchenko, he said.

"Lesbians and gays here are seen as zoo animals," Topchev said. "The way we're portrayed in the media is strictly to satisfy the curiosity of heterosexuals. Even when a journalist is gay-friendly, the information about us tends to be distorted."

Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1991, when it was dropped from Ukraine's Criminal Code after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Between 1922 and 1991, when Ukraine was a Soviet republic, many gay men were sent to labor camps, while lesbians were often confined to psychiatric hospitals.

Topchev and other activists think that, given the virulence and pervasiveness of popular homophobia, the priority now is a law banning discrimination on the basis of social orientation. Admittedly, it won't be easy. The phrase "sexual orientation" was forcibly removed from an employment anti-discrimination bill the moment it hit Parliament. Although it was later reinstated, on paper, Topchev doesn't expect Parliament to debate the bill anytime soon.

Ukraine's politicians are simply not interested in queer human rights. Or women's rights. Or any kind of minority rights. But if Ukraine applies to join the European Union, the country will have to, at the very least, ban workplace discrimination.

President Yushchenko wants his country to join the EU. Paradoxically, mounting nationalism, which in the Ukraine has a Russophobic bent, played a big role in his ascent to power. And nationalism, here as elsewhere, often has a dark, xenophobic downside. "Hatred of lesbians and gays comes from a fear of the unknown, of what people don't understand," says Topchev. "Xenophobia and homophobia go hand in hand in the Ukraine. And both gays and women are seen as inferior. There is psychological degradation of both in the Ukraine."

Women participated in large numbers in Kiev's Independence Square "orange revolution" demonstrations, but did not utter a word in public about their subordinate status. Feminist scholar Natalia Monakhova was not surprised. When women enter the public sphere in the Ukraine, she said, they tend to uphold the division of society along gender lines and to subordinate their needs to the seemingly gender-neutral 'primary needs' of the country. "Women are largely invisible in Ukrainian politics," Monakhova told me. An exception that confirms the rule is Yulia Timoshenko, the gas billionaire economist, populist firebrand, and driving force of the mass protests that swept Yushchenko into power. She has just been appointed Prime Minister.

Ethnic or religious minorities don't fare any better. At the height of the "orange revolution" demonstrations, I called the Jewish community center in Vinnytsia, in southwest Ukraine. The man who answered the phone declined to be interviewed, or even to disclose his name. "I'm watching the Kiev events on TV the same as you, and like you, I don't know what's going to happen." Lying low is second nature to Ukraine's Jews and other minorities. There are plenty of reasons for it, from 16th century pogroms to the 1941 massacre of Jews at Baby Yar, near Kiev.

The website of the Vinnytsia Jewish community center, for example, currently warns its members about two ultra-nationalist Ukrainian organizations ostensibly working for the "liberation of nations from Jewish slavery." Dr. Betsy Gidwitz, an expert on Ukrainian Jewish life, says that "contemporary anti-Semitism in Ukraine emanates 'from the street,' rather than from the government as was common during the Soviet period." However, "anti-Semitic sentiment common in Ukrainian nationalism sometimes appears in new Ukrainian-language literature endorsed by the government in its efforts to encourage use of the Ukrainian tongue."

Dr. Gidwitz adds that in some areas, Jewish students are routinely taunted in schools with anti-Semitic slurs. "Public school education in human rights and tolerance is lacking, and teachers and other school officials do not always respond appropriately to incidents of bigotry. Admission to some institutions of higher education is limited by anti-Semitic quotas (...) No anti-hate legislation exists in Ukraine. It is unlikely that the Rada (Ukrainian parliament) is strong enough to enact such laws."

The post-Communist transition in Ukraine has left a wrecked and divided country. Jungle capitalism reigns supreme, with its attendant, widespread corruption, criminal mafia power, abject poverty, and growing underclass. According to the World Bank, HIV/AIDS is spreading faster in Ukraine and Russia than anywhere else in the world.

President Yushchenko will have to tackle this monumental mess. At the same time, he will have to rein in both his nationalist supporters and opponents, if he wants to remain in the good graces of the European Union, and not further incur the wrath of Putin's Russia. Is there any hope for queers (and women, and ethnic minorities) in this delicate political balancing act? Perhaps.

Gay activist Topchev thinks that Yushchenko's victory "will make Ukrainian politics civilized." Publicly, pro-Yushchenko politicians don't ever touch the issue of homosexuality, but privately, Topchev assured me, some of them support gay rights. This may not seem like a lot, but any hope that there will be at least a change in tone, if not in substance, is better than nothing. A victory by the defeated pro-Russian presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, would certainly have made things even worse.

Nash Mir (Our World), the Kiev Gay and Lesbian Centre, agrees: "We believe that democracy is the only possible way to guarantee our human and civil rights," it said in a November statement supporting the "orange revolution."

Ukraine's Ancestral Literary Queers
Ukraine Primer

From the Web

Nash Mir (Our World) Gay and Lesbian Centre, Kiev (Ukrainian, English)
Gay movement in Ukraine
The Guardian (UK): Ukrainian leader appoints billionaire populist his PM
AFP: Yulia Timoshenko, Ukraine's new prime minister

Thanks to Zbyszek Sypniewsk for facilitating contact with queer activists in Ukraine.

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