"Inside The Quiet Struggle For LGBT Rights In Ukraine"
KYIV, Ukraine — When the pro-Russian separatists arrived at the homes of Oleg Yashtulov’s activist friends looking for evidence of any connection to him, he refused to leave the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. As a human rights and LGBT activist, Yashtulov has to watch his step, so he has secured an informant from inside the group to let him know if he is at risk. Finding nothing with his friends, “they made these visits to my informers, but did not find anything,” said the 23-year-old. “This was good because they would be killed, and then I would probably be killed.”
Still, Yashtulov stayed in Ukraine; Donetsk is his home, and he had work to do. Yashtulov documents discrimination, violence, and human rights violations by police and now the DPR with various organizations and the LGBT community in the city. The Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) is both the region in eastern Ukraine claimed by right wing, pro-Russian activists in early April, and the name of the militant group that now runs the territory. But in late May when a DPR informant called to tell Yashultov he was on their kill list and would be visited within 48 hours, he had no choice but to flee for safety in a nearby city.
Yashtulov’s story is an increasingly common one for those in eastern Ukraine who express any opposition to the pro-Russia DPR. For members of the LGBT community, like Yashtulov, the stakes are often even higher. Russia’s state-sanctioned intolerance of the LGBT community has increasingly crept into Ukraine, bolstered by the bigotry of groups like the DPR and attempts to pass Ukrainian legislation that mimics Russia’s famed “anti gay propaganda” bill that date back to before the current crisis. Just last month, militant DPR members attacked a local gay club, assaulting male and female patrons, stealing money, and photocopying passports.
As more LGBT Ukrainians are forced to leave their homes in the east and the Russian-controlled Crimean peninsula, the need for safe houses is growing. In Kyiv, I spoke with Olena Shevchenko at the office of Insight, a non-governmental organization primarily focused on assisting lesbian and bisexual women, as well as members of the transgender community. In late June, Shevchenko and her colleagues were busy assembling the first formal shelter for those displaced by the conflict.
According to Shevchenko and Yashultov, this part of the broader LGBT community is underserved, particularly outside of Kyiv. Thanks to the interests of major donors and foundations, most of the 42 LGBT groups and projects across Ukraine are geared toward supporting the needs of cisgender gay and bisexual men, particularly in the context of HIV. Thus, Insight aims its legal, medical, psychological, and now housing support toward the LBT population.
“Because of the crisis with Russia, things are changing really fast every day,” said Shevchenko as her coworkers darted busily back and forth behind her. “Even two weeks ago, I couldn’t imagine I would be working on this shelter.” The Euromaidan Revolution and occupation of Kyiv’s Independence or Maidan Square, began in November 2013 and came to a head in February when former President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine following the murders of nearly 80 Maidan activists killed by snipers from surrounding rooftops. Many assume the murders were government sanctioned. Yanukovych’s choice to cozy up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin instead of supporting EU integration stoked the fire of November’s Maidan occupation.
The immediacy of the ongoing crisis enabled Shevchenko to obtain a rapid grant from the United States-based Urgent Action Fund, which will provide enough seed money to house and support six displaced people for three months, though Insight anticipates many more will need housing, likely for much longer.
The six individuals who Insight will shelter are just a small cross-section of those in east Ukraine and Crimea who have been deeply impacted by the pro-Russian occupation’s habit of frequently stopping people on the street to check their documents. Trans men and women are more likely to be harassed or assaulted during these stops because their names, gender identities, and physical appearance may differ from those formally printed on their passports and other forms of identification.
“In many cases your physical appearance is in between this binary system,” said Shevchenko. “This is the case with two transgender activists who escaped and are living here now. They lost their jobs, and were beaten on the streets because they are a couple.”
Anna Kirey, a Researcher with Human Rights Watch, has spent the past two years interviewing over 80 LGBT people across Ukraine about the discrimination and violence they experience. She echoed the problem of omnipresent checkpoints and street stops amidst the crisis, and the challenge this creates for transgender people: “If you are gender non-conforming at a checkpoint, you will be targeted.”
Kirey, who is from southern Ukraine, has also observed the challenges and incidents of discrimination in employment that hit the transgender community especially hard.
“Because their documents don’t match their identity, they have to seek employment which is not legal,” Kirey told me by phone. “They have to work jobs that are not based on their skills, but jobs that are available for people who don’t have documents.”
To avoid discrimination, many trans people try to hide their documents, which can invoke violence and unemployment if their employer later becomes aware of their gender identity or sexual orientation. In one case documented by Kirey, a woman in southern Ukraine was sexually assaulted by her boss when he found out she was transgender.
When this kind of egregious violence or discrimination takes place, there is no real legal recourse for those who are working illegally without documents. “You cannot really take these issues to court because there’s no [employment] contract,” explained Kirey. Furthermore, filing a complaint about LGBT discrimination with the police generally proves fruitless — if not dangerous— so many avoid the process entirely.
“They don’t trust the system, or they believe the police are more likely to add to their burden,” said Kirey. “You can file a complaint, but it’s very unlikely you’ll hear from them ever again.”
In Donetsk, extortion and violence has instilled an even greater sense of distrust and fear of the police in the LGBT community. In 2009, Yashultov documented numerous cases in which officers set up fake online profiles to lure gay men to “dates,” then demand money. If the men refuse to pay, the police threaten to disclose their sexual identity to their employers and families, or arrest them. Kirey pointed out the similarity of the practice to that of homophobic, nationalistic vigilante groups in Russia, who lure in men and boys, berate them for their sexual identity, then humiliate and beat them on camera.
Though Yashultov said the extortion practice has since stopped, the Donetsk police remain negligent in the context of hate crimes. When the DPR attacked the gay club, the police failed to arrive at the scene until three hours after the attack began. Then, Yashtulov told me by phone, “They did nothing. They just did not react.”
While in the past, reported hate crimes might be met with hateful slurs and harassment, according to Yashultov, “Now they just say okay, we can write your statement, but you shouldn’t mention your sexual orientation.” They will then classify the crime as hooliganism, or some other nonspecific offense. In effect, progress in Donetsk’s police department means that instead of being verbally assaulted, victims of homophobic hate crimes are simply told to quietly deny or camouflage not just their sexual or gender identity, but also their traumatic experiences.
In the midst of political crisis and armed conflict in the east, the needs of Ukraine’s LGBT community have been pushed further aside, in spite of the amplified displacement and increasingly homophobic climate caused by the upheaval. Kirey planned to release a report of her documentation of the LGBT community, but that project has been placed on hold because it is clear the government has bigger problems on its hands.
“Right now there’s a kind of denial by government officials that any of this is happening,” said Kirey. “LGBT are just one of a number of targeted groups in Ukraine that are not able to properly seek justice because of the flaws in the system. I think the government needs to lead the way.”
Last year, Kyiv hosted its first ever Pride march, surrounded by anti-LGBT protesters and police. This year’s event, set to take place in Kyiv on July 5th, was canceled by authorities who said they could not protect the march. Mayor Vitali Klitschko, the former boxer that abandoned his own bid for Ukraine’s presidency in favor of mayorship, shut it down, telling event organizers that “this was not the right time for a celebration.” One step forward, two steps back.
For Shevchenko, a kind of tired optimism has set in. “Every day you expect that something will change in a better way; that it will finish, the anti-terroristic occupation will be done. But it’s still going.”
This challenge lingers regardless of political conflict. Even prior to the Euromaidan uprising, getting officials to prioritize LGBT issues was a nearly impossible task. “All the time, they think we have bigger and more important problems than problems of the LGBT community and people,” said Yashultov. “Honestly, I don’t think things will improve.”
Photo: A man holds a rainbow flag at Ukraine’s first gay pride parade in 2013.
Rebecca McCray is a New York-based freelance journalist who reports on domestic and international issues of social justice and criminal justice reform. Previously, she worked with the Criminal Law Reform Project of the ACLU.