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June 13, 2016

Voices for Equality: Ukraine

"I stand with the rainbow flag. I know that many of you belong to this group. I ask that you not be afraid to claim your human rights."

-Olena Shevchenko, LGBT NGO Insight

 

The killing of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando—the deadliest shooting in U.S. history added poignancy and urgency to this weekend’s Pride events. Around the world. participants mourned in solidarity and called for an embrace of diversity and equality.

In too many nations, Pride activities have been met with violence. In the past, Ukraine was a prime example of this problem.

Ukraine has presented something of a contradictory conundrum. For all the attacks on LGBT-organized events in recent history and public displays of homophobia by government officials, there were also signs that there was mounting political will to embrace a more liberal approach to politics and human rights. Late last year, for example, as part of efforts to comply with the European Union’s Neighborhood Policy, Ukraine’s parliament passed a sweeping piece of workplace antidiscrimination legislation that specifically bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. Yet in mid-March, an equality festival in Lviv was forced to cancel because of bomb threats, a ban by the local government, and loss of sponsorship by the event’s venues. Two people trying to attend the cancelled festival were severely beaten, and police chose not to investigate the crime.

Then in the weeks preceding this weekend’s Kyiv Pride, neo-Nazi thugs openly declared that any celebration of Pride would become a “bloodbath.” But others pushed back against the threats; members of the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup announced that they would join the festivities, and government officials announced that they hoped this weekend would “present a nation that is tolerant, wise and fair.”

So what is Ukraine? Is it a country that is moving away from the ideological influence of its neighbor to the East, Russia and towards the EU and the West in terms of politics, economics, and human rights? Yesterday we may have gotten our first hint at an answer.

In a victory for Ukraine’s LGBT community, some two thousand people attended the parade and there was no significant violence from counter-protesters who may have been deterred by the thousands of police who lined the parade route. Attendees included officials from foreign governments, including U.S. embassy staff.

In March, one of the organizers of Lviv’s equality festival, Olena Shevchenko was insulted, terrorized, and assaulted. She saw the failure of Lviv’s leadership in an up close and personal way. Afterwards she urged members of the LGBT community to be strong: “It is always about visibility, it is always about how vocal you are, just don’t be afraid to be yourself, because that makes change.”

After Sunday, we can see that a change may have come to Ukraine, and while it’s only a beginning, perhaps the country’s leadership can use Kiev Pride to stand as a symbol of a nation getting on the right side of history. Maybe those tough questions about Ukraine’s identity just got a little easier to answer.