Equal rights for gays still distant dream in Ukraine

At least 200 Ukrainian gay activists held a gay pride March of Equality in Kyiv's Obolon embankment on June 6.

Weekend summer mornings along the riverside promenade in Kyiv's Obolon district usually include scenes of strolling families and 20-something crowds. But on June 6, tension, violence and blood ruined this idyll as two opposing views clashed over gay rights and the right to publicly support them.

Equipped with rainbow flags and posters, 200 Ukrainians gathered at a Kyiv pride “March of Equality” to advocate for the rights of all people to be respected as they are – including lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender.

Armed with nail bombs, flares, and donning balaclavas, some 80 militant and violent homophobes attempted to disrupt the march.

Hundreds of police took the brunt of the immediate attack, with one officer suffering a life-threatening shrapnel wound to an artery in his neck. A total of 11 police officers received injuries that day.

Police acted swiftly, but couldn’t protect all the demonstrators as they scattered from the scene. At least 10 gay rights activists were hunted down and beaten.

One of them, Rostyslav Milevskyi from Zaporizhya, told the Kyiv Post that their exit strategy was poorly planned.

Milevskiy was run down and beaten by a group of eight anti-gay militants. He took part in a similar event in 2012, which also ended in violence, he said.

Seven militants – mostly from a variety of small nationalist groups – were arrested by police. Volunteer battalion soldiers and Right Sector activists were placed under house arrest and charged with hooliganism. One suspect was bailed out by lawmakers from the Radical Party, led by Oleh Lyashko.

In a year of great upheaval and change, conservative attitudes towards different sexual orientations seem fixed.

Ihor Kryvoruchko, 28, head of the right-wing Center Youth Assembly, was present at the march on June 6. He’s certain that most Ukrainians consider homosexuality an aberration.

“Such parades could only take place on the territories of the self-proclaimed republics (in the east),” he told the Kyiv Post. “The real purpose of the organizers of the gay parade is to force more people to support the rights of the necrophiles, zoophiles and pedophiles,” he said.

Milevskiy was certain that many in Ukraine still have “dark age stereotypes towards gays.”

Bohdan Ovcharuk, spokesperson for Amnesty International Ukraine, said that the Right Sector seemed to be “the consolidating force” in the clashes.

A number of social media groups urged people to oppose the pride parade on the Russian-owned social network VKontakte. One of them, called Zero Tolerance, had posted a photo album of at least a dozen people the group’s moderators say are gay activists. The group has more than 2,800 followers.

Right Sector spokesman Artem Skoropadsky insisted that the group hadn’t been violent and the arrested members were victims of police brutality.

The Kyiv Post did witness police use excessive force while hunting down the anti-gay militants.

“We were there for a physical blockade, but of course not to kick their ass. We can’t beat weak persons like gays – that’s a disgrace!” Skoropadsky said referring to the group’s “traditional values.”

A scholar on rightist movements in Eastern Europe, Andreas Umland, labeled the group as ultra-Christian conservative and radical nationalist.

The group’s ideologue, Andriy Tarasenko, said that the nationalists were in opposition to the liberal principles contained in the constitution. For them, the right to free assembly had to be balanced against the interest of morality and the nation. Neither gays nor communists should be allowed to march the streets, he said.

Skoropadsky regretted the violence, but said it was to be expected when soldiers returning from the front were confronted with gays marching rather than supporting the war effort.

Asked whether rich people in expensive cars hanging out in upscale restaurants in times of war wasn’t a bigger threat to the nation, Skoropadsky responded that spending money wasn’t a political statement and that units of the group were actively engaged in the home-front battle against corruption. Widely believed to have the controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi as a patron, the Right Sector features volunteer units fighting on the eastern front.

Anna Sharygina, another Equality March organizer disagreed that it was bad timing.

Gays had been on the barricades in the EuroMaidan Revolution and volunteered at the front lines side by side with the Right Sector without making an issue of their gender identity, she told Hromadske TV.

Russian-American writer and gay-rights activist Masha Gessen said that gay rights were defining the border of Europe. She said that the timing was right because during transformations “the window of opportunity is very short. You have to seize it. In Russia we lost it – to the extent that we now are rebuilding the Soviet Union,” she told Hromadske TV.

In late 2014, marketing research firm GfK found that only 34 percent of Ukrainians disapproved of discrimination against the gay community. However, in 2013 prior to the EuroMaidan Revolution, almost 80 percent of Ukrainians said they opposed any homosexual relations.

Short of a political reaction to the violence and with no openly gay top politicians in Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko did offer his support the day before the March of Equality.

Kyiv Post staff writer Johannes Wamberg Andersen can be reached at johannes.wa@gmail.com. Kyiv Post staff writers Stefan Huijboom and Olena Goncharova can be reached at stefanhuijboom@gmail.com and goncharova@kyivpost.com respectively.