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"He Who Licks Knives Will Soon Cut His Tongue." Ukraine's Future for Sexual and Gender Minorities

Updated: Jun 18, 2023

Ukraine’s queer community has joined the fight for their nation’s survival. We owe them our support to ensure that they defend their human rights in a country which is slowly growing in it's acceptance toward sexual and gender minorities.

“Europe is associated with certain values and the alternative values bringing isolationism, intolerance, lack of respect for people’s rights, religious fanaticism and homophobia are biggest threat for us. This alternative Europe has its leader. His name is Putin. This alternative Europe has its soldiers. Their names are Russian and anti-European parties inside each country fighting against Europe,” - Former Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, February 2016

The motif of Ukraine being caught at a crossroads has become common over the past decade. The pro-European direction, espoused by successive Presidents has been couched in a set of values, including openness and tolerance, with homophobia cast as one of the shackles of the Russian alternative that Ukraine is struggling to cast off. The brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia during this past week is not only an illegal war of aggression – although it certainly is that – but, at its heart, is also a war of ideas, of ideologies and of core values.

Intelligence shared by Western governments leading up to the invasion has proved to be chillingly prescient but one of the most disturbing developments was the emerged of a ‘kill list’ covering ethnic, religious, sexual and gender minorities, who were to be detained and exterminated in the event of a Russian occupation. Should this be true, this transforms Putin’s war of aggression into a bloody genocide, with Ukrainian sexual and gender minorities amongst the first likely victims.

“These acts, which in past Russian operations have included targeted killings, kidnappings/forced disappearances, detentions, and the use of torture, would likely target those who oppose Russian actions, including Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, journalists and anti-corruption activists, and vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons.”

Ukraine’s own history of sexual and gender minorities has been far from a smooth march towards equality – ILGA ranks Ukraine 39th of 49 European states for LGBT rights and highlights ongoing pervasive discrimination within media, education and public discourse - but an undoubted sense of progression has been achieved over the past decade. Influenced in no small part by its desire to be considered for EU membership. This has seen anti-discrimination laws including sexual orientation, which were passed in 2015, transition processes for transgender Ukrainians becoming simpler the following year, and Pride marches across the country which have grown in number year-on-year to reach 7,000 for Kyiv Pride 2021. All this has served to create a greater visibility of queer Ukrainians - a precursor for a broader acceptance.

Whilst religious and nationalist-influenced homophobia still undoubtedly exists, as highlighted by ILGA, a 2021 article for the Atlantic Council was titled ‘Ukraine offers hope in an increasingly homophobic neighborhood’ and observed.

‘Ukraine has the least aggressive track record of government-sponsored LGBTQI discrimination and is arguably becoming the most welcoming nation in the region [including comparisons with EU states Poland and Hungary.]’

President Zelensky, fast-emerging as a global hero, for his calm leadership in the face of unparalleled aggression, has been clear in including sexual and gender minorities in his vision for an open and tolerant Ukraine – as he showed in 2019 when shutting down a homophobic heckler at a press conference

“Regarding LGBT: I don’t want to say anything negative because we all live in an open society where each one can choose the language they speak, their ethnicity and sexual orientation. Leave those people finally at peace, for God’s sake!’

Queer Ukrainians are well aware that these hard-won freedoms are at grave risk under potential Russian occupation. As I write this, many are fighting on the front or enlisting across the country to defend not only their existing freedoms but their right to exist in their own identities. Veronika Limina, who runs an NGO promoting equal rights for LGBT individuals in the Ukrainian military, has begun training members of the community in combat and paramilitary skills. Her reasoning for doing so is clear:

“Either we defend our country, and it will become a part of the free world, or there will not be any freedom for us and [there] will not be Ukraine at all.”

The well-known persecution against sexual and gender minorities within Russia’s own borders following the enactment of its odious ‘gay propanda’ law in 2013 has extended to Ukrainian territories under occupation, where sexual and gender minorities speak of an ‘imposed trend of homophobia’ (ADC 2016) including physical attack, closure of (relatively) safe queer spaces, forced conversion therapy (UNHCR 2017) and even direct death threats, as quoted a minister in the so called Donetsk People’s Republic in 2016:

‘A culture of homosexuality is spreading... This is why we must kill anyone who is involved in this.’

It would be convenient to dismiss these words as little more than parroting Putin’s own homophobic bluster had this not been Russia’s exact playbook in Chechnya where gay men have been persecuted, tortured and murdered in their hundreds, as documented in David France’s 2020 film 'Welcome To Chechnya.' Within Russia and its occupied territories, HIV-positive Russians are denied basic treatment, NGOs promoting human rights are harassed as ‘perverts’ and ‘paedophiles’ and the Chechen example demonstrates an organised campaign of genocide, which began with the same ‘classification’, ‘discrimination’ and ‘dehumanisation’ stages visible in Ukraine’s occupied territories.

As Maxim Potapovich, an organiser of Kyiv Pride points out, the fight against the colonialism propagated by Russian aggression, is ‘intrinsically linked to the fight for LGBT+ rights and equality’

“We love our country. We fight every day for freedom, for freedom without Russia, and for queer people in Ukraine. The fight against Russia and the fight for freedom have a lot in common.”

It would be easy to think that, against a context of all Ukrainians being forced to flee their homes or take cover from shelling in Metro stations, talk about Pride marches or gay bars is entirely inconsequential. But make no mistake - Russian occupation will go a lot further than a ban on waving rainbow flags. Sexual or gender minorities will be forced to flee overseas, go underground to conceal their identity or fall victim to the ‘kill list’. It has become clear, not only over the past week but the past decade, that the Russian authorities have no regard of either their obligation under international treaties, the right of sovereign states to choose their own destiny or to respect the core human rights of sexual and gender minorities. Our very existence is perceived as challenge Russia’s self-proclaimed guardianship of Orthodox Christendom values.

Against this backdrop, it’s not hard to understand why queer Ukrainians are answering Zelensky’s call to take up arms and defend their lands. So what can we do to support our friends in Ukraine?

  1. Donate to charities supporting queer Ukrainians such as Outright International which and Rainbow Railroad which are supporting LGBT organisations in Ukraine that are preparing to receive queer people in ‘search of shelter, safety and security.’

  2. Keep up the pressure on our elected representatives to take all required measures for Russia to withdraw from its illegal war – Tweet them, write to them, join protests. Use that same energy to demand the UK government supports refugees from Ukraine, including sexual and gender minorities.

  3. Follow and amplify the voices of queer Ukraine, including Kyiv Pride, Ukrainian LGBT Soldiers and Allies, Sphere (a group defending the rights of Lesbian and Bisexual Women and Nash Mir (Kyiv-based LGBT Support Group).

  4. Support the excellent initiative by EPOA (European Pride Organisers Association) to send emergency funds to Ukrainian activists. 100% of all donations will go to Kyiv Pride and Kharkiv Pride.

The fighting of Ukrainians in the opening week of conflict has been well documented from the woman offering Russian soldiers sunflower seeds so their bodies would fertilise them once dead to Russian military radio being hacked to play Verka Seduchka, Ukrainian’s most famous Eurovision entry, but this conflict will be long, brutal and painful beyond words for the 42m citizens of Europe’s second largest country.

ReportOUT stands unequivocally with the entire Ukrainian population, and will work with other NGOs and civil society organisations at home and internationally, to hold our governments to account to support Ukraine and punish the aggression that threatens the rights and freedoms of so many.

The old Ukrainian proverb that forms the title of this blog is a reminder of the challenges Russia faces in imposing its will upon a land that has rejected its intolerance and bigotry in favour of a bright and better future – and it is up to us to ensure that our friends in Ukraine do not see that future snuffed out in the face of aggression and indifference.

Article by Phil Thomas: Human Rights Researcher

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