Opinion
8 min

Push-back against gay rights linked to unrest in Ukraine

A geopolitical tug of war is changing the life of LGBT people for better and worse

Anastasia Danilova is executive director of GenderDoc-M, Moldova’s most prominent LGBT organization. Credit: Dylan C Robertson

Guys in tight T-shirts and girls with buttoned vests dance to campy Russian pop music. It’s 2am on Sunday in Odessa, Ukraine. About 60 patrons of Club 69 are jiving to tATu dance remixes while swinging back vodka shots.

Standing outside, Tosik adjusts her crop-cut hair while smoking a cigarette. “I love dancing here,” she says with a cheeky smile. “It’s the only gay place in town, but it’s a good one.”

While a gay bar is not uncommon in most European countries, here in Ukraine it’s a rarity — and under threat. “I’m afraid that without the European Union, we’ll become just as bad as Russia,” says Tosik, who preferred to give Xtra only her first name. She suddenly looks very serious. “I’m really afraid, actually.”

As the EU and Russia aim to broaden their influence over Eastern Europe, LGBT people stand to have their rights either enforced or revoked. Comparing LGBT communities in Ukraine and Moldova shows the fault lines that run across the region.

“Ukraine was the first former Soviet country to decriminalize homosexuality,” says Yuriy Semenov, 50, program coordinator for the local Ukrainian Gay and Lesbian Association. “Now we don’t know what will happen.”

For years, Ukraine had been working toward European Union membership. The debt-laden country was set to sign an association agreement in November, enabling easier trade and travel with the EU. But days ahead of the summit, President Viktor Yanukovych instead opted for closer ties with Russia, which offered to pay off huge debts. Thousands occupied Kiev’s Independence Square, worried that Ukraine was moving away from Europe’s democratic values.

Then a police crackdown led to huge anti-government demonstrations, with protests over police brutality, corruption and a slumping economy. In recent weeks, the protests have turned violent, with many people killed.

But before the sudden shift away from the EU association agreement, a political group bought ads for bus shelters, subways and billboards showing stick figures holding hands with the same sex. “Association with the EU means same-sex marriage,” read the ad, sponsored by Ukrainian Choice, an anti-EU group founded by an oil tycoon with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The group also sponsored protests where people held up posters with stick figures performing anal sex. Mirroring the current discourse in Russia, politicians soon started talking about traditional values being under attack by a radical, godless Europe.

The ad campaign was referencing the EU’s conditionality tactic: when offering closer ties, it often demands that countries address human rights issues. In exchange for easing visa restrictions, the EU demanded Ukraine enact legislation to forbid firing people based on sexual orientation. An anti-discrimination bill was proposed last April but has never reached a vote. Meanwhile, there have been three attempts to enact a law banning “homosexual propaganda.” Similar to a Russian law implemented last summer, the bills equate homosexuality with pedophilia and target Pride parades and support groups. Only one bill reached first reading in October 2012; it’s since been stalled in parliament.

“We always follow Russia,” says Alex, 27. “I’m 90 percent sure we’ll also have a propaganda law.”

Alex, who also preferred not to give his last name, is now considering moving to Los Angeles. He’s seen four of five gay bars in Odessa close. His colleagues increasingly bring up offensive myths about homosexuality that they hear on Russian TV channels. “I work in IT. Everybody’s educated and seems open, but you hear things that tell you it’s best to stay in the closet.”

Amnesty International says LGBT Ukrainians have seen some progress, despite proposed legislation to restrict their freedoms. Hundreds marched in the country’s first Pride parade in Kiev last May. Plans had been shelved the previous year when a group of thugs infiltrated media and beat parade organizers.

“The EU put a lot of pressure on making Pride happen. But that pressure’s no longer as present,” spokesman Bogdan Ovcharuk says. “We are worried what’s going to happen to LGBT people.”

One of Ovcharuk’s friends was fatally hit in the head in October 2012 after leaving a gay bar. Police have refused to deem the incident a hate crime.

Like many in Odessa, Maxim, 21, describes Ukrainian attitudes as hostile but not violent. With the exception of drunken hooligans, “most people look at you funny, or say something rude.”

Maxim has seen his acquaintances’ attitudes slowly change. He’s somewhat optimistic, but fears his country is sliding back to a Soviet mentality. “When you hold a bird with a broken wing, you can’t throw it and have it fend for itself. You have to cure it. That’s how I see our society,” he says. “There are a lot of good people here, but they don’t understand. Time can heal this, but now we’re being pushed.”

A turnaround in Moldova

That same Sunday, around 11pm, a similar scene of Russian pop music and vodka shots is replicated just 180 kilometres away in Chisinau, the capital of neighbouring Moldova. But it isn’t in a gay bar — there are none in Moldova. GenderDoc-M, a local LGBT organization, rents out basement clubs once a month, this one behind an arts college, invisible from the main street. The group can rent places only on Sunday nights and a burly bouncer makes sure no unwanted guests see the online event posting and come to cause trouble.

Alexandru Frolov, 20, sits at an information table for GenderDoc-M, where his mother works. She came out as a lesbian when he was 11 years old. He recalls his mother finding her car’s tires slashed once and frequent insults from strangers in the street. “A lot has changed since then,” Frolov says. “People are becoming more tolerant. And we have a law to protect people.”

After four years of protests, heated debates and Orthodox priests threatening to withhold communion from politicians, Moldova passed an anti-discrimination law in May 2012, which came into effect last year. As with Ukraine, the EU made clear it would ease visa restriction for Moldovans only if their country passed and implemented an anti-discrimination law.

Last May, Moldovan politicians passed their own gay-propaganda ban but annulled the law in October in advance of signing the EU association agreement.

“The law itself can help, but it also changes the way people think about LGBT people,” Frolov says.

Over at the bar, Irina, 25, poses for photos with her longtime girlfriend. They’ve recently decided to raise a child together. “The situation’s not perfect, but we feel we can have a future here,” she says.

I visit GenderDoc-M headquarters the next day. A metal gate guards the unmarked, four-storey wooden house, nestled among embassies and fancy houses. About 20 pairs of shoes sit inside the front door. GenderDoc-M uses the space for political events, legal advocacy, social nights and counselling for both LGBT people and their families.

“We’re quite an active organization,” says Anastasia Danilova, the group’s executive director. “There’s quite a lot to do.”

The group says Western influence has helped with a number of victories. The EU-mandated anti-discrimination law saw its first guilty verdict last year. When police don’t prosecute homophobic violence, aid organizations threaten to suspend assistance. Media coverage has become more neutral. “I think the situation is changed, though maybe not very fast,” Danilova says.

The country had its first Pride parade last May, with 100 marchers, more than 600 police guards and scores of spectators. But officials moved the event 1.5 kilometres from the small city centre — and evacuated the event when religious groups started heading over.

Hundreds of LGBT people and allies skipped Pride, including Frolov, the student at the information table. He was about to start university and feared that being seen at the event would have affected his marks.

For Danilova, the invisibility of queer people fuels homophobia in Moldova. “We really want them to be part of our public events,” she says. “Usually, LGBT people are ready to come to our office, to use our services, but they’re not ready to go, for example, to participate in our march.”

And the safety of LGBT Moldovans remains precarious. GenderDoc-M reports that police are once again blackmailing gay men, by finding them at cruising spots and demanding bribes for not outing them to relatives. The group has also noticed an uptick in trends from Russia, such as luring LGBT people on dating websites into violent attacks — sometimes posted in online videos. “The frequency of hate crimes committed against gay and bisexual men has risen within the last year, due to the homophobic and transphobic trends that come from Russia,” says Artiom Zavadovschi, GenderDoc-M’s advocacy assistant.

Zavadovschi says Russia has a heavy influence on Moldova because of its Russian-speaking regions and a national church subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church. “We’re very exposed to Russian media and their propagandistic channels,” he says.

Meanwhile, trans people aren’t afforded any legal protection, and many LGBT people dream of moving abroad. “I live a double life. People in the countryside think crazy things, but even here in the city it’s still not really safe,” says Mircea, 22. He dreams of living in Western Europe but hopes to stay. “The EU has made things better. I hope we can be like the rest of Europe in 10 years.”

High stakes

LGBT groups believe the trend of gay-propaganda bans started in Lithuania — a European Union member state — in 2009. The former Soviet country passed a law that forbids publicly spreading information that “subverts family relations and degrades its values.”

“The EU institutions mobilized against the law. It’s still in place but not used — yet,” says Evelyne Paradis, a native Montrealer who is executive director of ILGA Europe, a continent-wide network of organizations.

Russian municipalities emulated the Lithuanian law, before Putin made it national last summer. Similar proposals are now underway in former Soviet countries Armenia and Azerbaijan. ILGA Europe sees this as part of a pattern of homophobic trends that start in Russia and ripple across the former Soviet Union. LGBT groups in Ukraine and Moldova have documented busloads of counter-protesters sent from Russia by the Russian Orthodox Church.

A 2012 Russian law requires non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding to declare themselves “foreign agents” — a former Soviet term synonymous with “spy.” Ukraine adopted a similar law last month. “There’s a trend from Russia affecting civil society in general, and that affects LGBT people,” Paradis says. “Russia is trying to exert power in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union.”

Meanwhile, the EU signed association agreements with Moldova and Georgia last year, before Ukraine’s sudden turnaround. The EU is now courting the remaining “Eastern Partnership” countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Promising trade opportunities and easier visas, the EU will demand protections for minorities, including LGBT people. Discrimination is widespread in each of these countries, often with state complicity.

But Putin also wants to broaden Russia’s sphere of influence through the Eurasian Union. This economic and political union of post-Soviet states is set to launch by 2015. Belarus and Kazakhstan have been part of the plan since 2011, and Armenia signed on last September. Ukraine’s next election, in February 2015, is being interpreted as a debate on moving closer to either Europe or Russia, with each candidate already choosing a side.

“I don’t know what we can do if we move closer to Russia,” Semenov says. “This is very problematic.”

Paradis is optimistic about Moldova, “as long as we have important leverage from the EU.” The country faces an election this November, and GenderDoc-M is worried.

“It’s hard to predict because the political situation is very unstable and everything depends on it,” Zavadovschi says. He says many pro-EU parties don’t believe in equality and implement anti-discrimination policies only so their party remains part of Europe-wide coalitions. “If they’re in power, the situation will be improving. If not, the situation will worsen . . . We’re afraid that the situation will turn to the one like in Russia.”