Cancellation of Kyiv Pride one week after WorldPride highlights challenges
Ukrainian LGBT activist Olena Semenova is pictured during an interview with cp24.com in Toronto Sunday, June 29, 2014. (Joshua Freeman/CP24)
Joshua Freeman, CP24.com
Published Saturday, July 5, 2014 7:14PM EDT
Just a week after taking part in WorldPride festivities in Toronto, a group of Ukrainian gay rights activists has been barred from holding a ‘march of equality’ in Kyiv.
In a post on its website, Amnesty International said the event was cancelled after local police told organizers that they wouldn’t be able to secure the safety of participants.
In the post, the organization slammed the move, calling it “hugely disappointing.”
Kyiv held its first successful pride event last year after an attempt in 2012 also ended with a cancellation over security concerns.
Despite the cancellation, activists said they were able to hold a small flash mob with multi-colored balloons near the city centre.
Last week, four Ukrainian LGBT activists attended WorldPride after they were sponsored by Slava Vodka, a Canadian vodka label distilled in Ukraine.
During their visit one of the Kyiv Pride organizers, Dr. Olena Semenova, sat down with cp24.com to talk about what life is like for LGBT people living in Ukraine. Here is part of what she had to say (conversation has been condensed):
What is life like for LGBT people in the Ukraine?
I can describe our lives with a very well-known phrase ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’
If you’re (in the closet) you can create a great world for you, a small world. If you want to be open, if you want to make a partnership, if you want to have kids in your same-sex partnership – you will definitely fail because you have no rights. You will have a very poor life in comparison with straight (people).
What can you do as an LGBT person in Ukraine? Is there anywhere you can go to hold hands in public?
We have gay clubs. We have two of them in the capital and in three regions, three more. For a country of 46 million and 26 regions, I think it’s not a big number of clubs.
Is it safe to go?
It’s pretty safe if you come in a taxi and go home in a taxi. Of course you can be risky and take a walk from the club to a metro station, but it’s not recommended.
You were involved in organizing Kyiv pride in 2012?
We founded Kyiv Pride as a group of independent activists because we wanted to answer our parliament that was about to adopt a law about so-called gay propaganda. With this law they wanted to ban any mention of homosexuality, LGBT and such things in all media. This is absurd. Even if you come out, you will be punished because you’re (spreading) propaganda about gay life with your coming out. You could be arrested.
They (authorities) gave us a place almost in a central part of the city and we were about to gather there with a crowd of 100 people to make our demonstration. But we met with huge huge opposition, thousands of protesters who were there not to protests against us, but to beat us. They were armed and ready to fight.
Police were there and they didn’t recommend that we hold the demonstration.
The same day a few of our activist were beaten up and bloodied . That made the homophobic part of Ukraine society very visible. We finally saw that homophobia is not only comments on the Internet. Homophobia is a really great threat of physical violence. That made us really angry and we got many good support from all over the world.
In 2013 we made a real pride. We were on the street. We were a crowd of 100 people and we were protected by police.
It was not like usual pride (celebrations) around the world. We were surrounded by police buses and we were inside the perimeter marching because outside this small box, there were again thousands of people who wanted to… beat us and kill us.
What’s that like to be in a smaller group like that where you’re surrounded by people who want to attack you just because of who you are?
To be honest it’s scary. When you arrive at the pride march and you see the great crowd, aggressive crowd and you hear them shout, you feel a bit… nervous.
That would be fair.
That was from the one side, scary, but from the other, exciting. People who were gathered there, they were those kinds of people who get more excited when you try and put them down. We are such a kind of people. The more they will oppress us, the higher we will rise up.
We are really glad that today Canada is on a list of our supporters. The Ukrainian community in Canada is very big. That’s why we find it very important to find these connections and be in touch with this community.
Is the Ukrainian community here supportive?
We find it very supportive. With the contacts we have here, we see that we can work with people. They can help us. To see us represent Ukraine at WorldPride, I think this will make Ukrainians in Canada see that their country is represented with diverse people and their country can be different.
You took part in the human rights conference that was part of WorldPride. How was that?
It was amazing. We understand now that maybe we in the Ukraine don’t have as hard a homophobia as they have in Uganda for example. But the problems they have and the problems we have –we can share the ways we use to overcome these problems. We can share the experience and support each other.
How do you see Toronto as a visitor here and as someone who’s active on LGBT rights?
I see Toronto as an example for Kyiv. I would like to see Kyiv in 20, 30 years, like this. In the week we had here, I saw rainbow flags everywhere and welcoming slogans and these words that we support you from commercial companies. That’s really important. It’s really important when straight people are involved in this understanding of human rights for all.
What was the standout moment?
The thing that really touched me is how people were listening to me. I made a speech about the Ukraine twice for different audiences. That was just amazing. They were really interested and really supportive.
Also at a reception for us… (prominent Russian activist) Masha Gessin decided to say some words to us.
What really touched me, she said, ‘my dear Ukrainians, I apologize for Putin, for the things that Russia does for now.’ She apologized for this government that they have in Russia, for this aggressive government – that for now does these things in Ukraine. That was -- I was about to cry. My hands were trembling because I was so glad to hear that in Russia there are people who really understand the situation, that really stand for us, for Ukrainians who are just looking for justice.
What is the connection between the conflict with Russia and the fight for LGBT rights?
People who are for now looking for asylum in other regions of Ukraine, they also deserve human rights and LGBT people are among them. So Ukrainians will see the situation with human rights from the other side.
This will help them to understand that human rights is not just a thing for LGBT activists.
@Josh_F is on Twitter. Remember for instant breaking news follow @cp24 on Twitter.