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“When we compromise, it’s as if we admit we’re not equal”: Anna Sharyhina on feminism and LGBT rights in Ukraine

One of the founders of the feminist and LGBT movement in Kharkiv, Ukraine speaks on violence, tolerance and the struggle for equal rights.

Hanna Sokolova
22 May 2019
Anna Sharyhina
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Photo: Yulia Razmetaeva for Sphere Women Association

A tombstone with the words “Gender roles” on it, phrases such as “No means no” and “My favourite season is the fall of patriarchy” - these are just some of the designs that participants in a tattoo marathon chose as part of a recent “Week of Women’s Solidarity” in Kharkiv, Ukraine. This is an annual civic project devoted to gender inequality in the country, and is run by the city’s lesbian feminist organisation Sphere.

I sat down with Anna Sharyhina, Sphere’s project coordinator, to talk about tolerance towards violence and the fight for equal rights.

Members of ultra-right groupings often try to disrupt you holding feminist and LGBT events in Kharkiv. But this year young women - most likely from one of the city’s nationalist organisations - turned up at the women’s solidarity march with anti-feminist slogans. Did this affect your subject of discussion, “A woman’s place is in a civic movement”?

The discussion topic arose long before the march. Last year, an anti-feminist women’s organisation, the Sisterhood of Saint Olha, was started. Oleksandra Sklyar, its head, has been holding anti-feminist protests, including a seminar.

When we were planning the discussion on women in civic movements, one of the invited speakers said she’d be interested to talk about women who go out on to the streets for the right to stay at home.

Anti-feminist protest, Kharkiv, 23 March 2019 | Source: Sphere / Facebook

We took a photo of women involved in the anti-feminist protest, when they were sitting on a tank [a monument in the centre of Kharkiv], and made a poster out of it for the discussion. Personally, I felt some solidarity with these women. Just like us, they’d go on out into the street with their demands. Unfortunately, it was impossible to communicate with them - they were blocked off by men from the nationalist organisation.

Would you like to have a discussion with members of this movement?

I don’t know. For me, it’s not about discussions, it’s about values. I have an opinion about one of the presidential candidates, for example, and I make my choice on the basis of this opinion. That’s not about values, so it can be discussed, brought into a debate. But when one woman says she wants to sit at home in her kitchen, all one can say is: “Fine, but don’t force me to do it”. There’s nothing to argue about there. I could see the point if there was one scholar studying the conceptual framework of feminism and another studying a more conservative conception of women’s place in society.

But there’s no point in talking to activists who call for the restriction of other people’s rights. People who have never encountered the death penalty can probably discuss it, but not the hangman and the condemned criminal.

How have Ukrainian society’s attitudes to human rights been changing when it comes to LGBT people?

I’m wary of responding to questions about change because changes are, of course, happening and it’s crucial for me to welcome them. Let’s take the example of the human rights agenda as a whole.

Right now, people are more concerned about animal rights than equal rights for LGBT people. This isn’t about pitying some poor cat that got run over by a car; it’s about recognising animals as equal participants in urban life.

I recently watched a video about the election campaign that was centred on antagonism: older people talked about why they would vote and why young people shouldn’t. What struck me most was another example of antagonism: “What rights for animals? I spent most of my life without any rights”. The fact that this was included in the video shows that the people who made it recognise that animals also have rights. And for me that’s progress, much more profound progress than we see in our daily lives.

"Everyone's different, everyone's equal" - 23 March 2019 | Photo: Yulia Razmetaeva for Sphere Women Association

The radical rightwing groups that attack LGBT and feminist events in Ukraine claim that they enjoy unbelievable support from the public. But let’s look at the election results. How many votes did their candidates win? It wasn’t very many, probably not enough to get into parliament. In other words, radicalism in the cause of even super-eternal values is not valued by Ukrainians today. This seems to me a very telling indication of the influence of feminism on public awareness.

So feminism and LGBT rights are becoming more understandable for the public?

I still don’t think that we can talk about understanding, it’s more a question of empathy.

The emotional argument works here – a rejection of violence and support of diversity. People sympathise when they suddenly realised that sooner or later they too could be an outsider of some kind. There are a lot of awareness raising events happening, so people are getting information, but the most important conclusion they make is the emotional one - about love, sympathy, mutual support.

When ordinary Ukrainians discover the list of rights that their country’s homosexual citizens lack, they don’t remember them. But at a certain point they develop some empathy because they discover what it’s like to lack rights – many people in Ukraine lack rights and are subject to discrimination. Then when they decide to watch a Pride procession or talk about women’s and LGBT rights in their own circles, they encounter the same social pressure as these marginalised groups and need to have their arguments ready. We’re currently in the empathy period.

Is it true that in Kharkiv, attacks on the LGBT movement have increased over the last two to three years?

Yes, Sphere and the PrideHub community centre have been attacked about a dozen times over the last year.

During the New Year’s Eve celebrations people padlocked the PrideHub door shut. And on the padlock there was a sticker, a joke. We called the police but when they arrived they didn’t take the incident seriously. And we didn’t take it very seriously either: “Hey, they locked us in – big deal!”

"We don’t need to squander precious resources on compromise. When we compromise, it’s as if we'rec admitting that we’re not equal"

But when we told people from the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission about it, they were in shock. And when you think about it, there were about 60 people inside the community centre. If someone became unwell and an ambulance couldn’t get to them, who knows who would be held responsible? The lads who thought it was a joke? Or the police who said, “But what can we do?” I was amazed that the police, who are supposed to be responsible for public order, were asking me what they should do. Read the laws, figure it out. You’re the ones who represent the state, I’m just a taxpayer.

Why do you think there have been so many attacks?

In the first place, it’s because we’ve become more active and visible.

23 March 2019 | Photo: Yulia Razmetaeva for Sphere Women Association

In the days when we just socialised at gay clubs and ran closed events that nobody knew about, nobody was interested in us. But now we also hold more public events and they write more about us. And the attacks on us make the attackers better known as well.

Secondly, there’s the public attention that hate crimes always attract. The stress and feeling of danger in the society in which you live always triggers aggression and blocks development. In their turn, people living in this kind of society don’t want to think about the future, take decisions, invest in the development of the country.

This is one of the main reasons why the police have to take a very clear and consistent line on hate crime. And the third factor is the physical attacks, such as the one at the Coming Out Fest in October 2018 – this was a kind of muscle flexing, a demonstration of power. Based on someone’s political will, an order. But whose I don’t know.

Do you see a link between these attacks, the public toleration of violence, and Maidan and the war in the east?

No, I don’t see a link. For me, Maidan has a value as a protest and revolution. And I’m sorry it was occupied by radical rightwing movements.

The war has hardened people in some situations and made them more tolerant of the violence taking place outside of it. I get it when a guy turns up after fighting in the war and when he commits a crime he gets public support rather than blame.

And it’s the same with rape.

Yes, I understand this mechanism. But when a rape happens that isn’t connected with the war or people connected with the war – their opinion isn’t present, they are speculated upon – I don’t believe it works. When people talk about the annual March for Equality and say: “What’s all this gay marriage stuff all about – we’ve got a war on our hands?” I don’t see any connection. I don’t even think the people who talk like that actually connect gay marriage with the war. They connect gay marriage with their own belief that it’s a sin or an illness.

"In my city, I feel like I’m at home, I’m in charge. This is both difficult and inspiring at the same time"

But in general I don’t think people support the violence. At the start of the war, perhaps. But now it’s frowned on: we’ve had enough of war making. It’s not one of our values.

Now civic activists are asking the Ukrainian government to create and pass a law on civil partnership. Why do you think they are talking about civil partnership rather then marriage?

I don’t know myself.

Is there no discussion around marriage?

There is, but some campaigners think that we should follow the same route as the European and American LGBT movements – from civil partnerships to marriage and then adoptions.

Out of solidarity with colleagues who were doing an indisputably important thing, I didn’t make any public statements during the period when the campaign for civil partnerships was happening. But I feel that our American and European colleagues have followed that road not just for themselves, but for us as well. Ukraine isn’t like Germany 50 years ago. We have an open border with Europe, many sources of information, social networks.

I believe we could do things differently and move towards equal marriage laws. We also have the experience of the Czech Republic, where civil partnership arrangements were instituted ten years ago, but nothing was said about marriage for a long time. Today we all understand the need for equal rights, whatever our religion, skin colour or sexual orientation.

We don’t need to squander precious resources on compromise. When we compromise, it’s as if we're admitting that we’re not equal. But we need to say that we are the same people and should have access to every possible right.

Am I right in thinking that there has been no discussion about same-sex couples adopting children?

That’s right, and that reflects society’s discussion as a whole, although I’m not sure what’s the cause and what’s the consequence. People say: “It’s all fine, but children are a sacred matter. Get married if you want, but don’t have children.”

People think that homosexuality is a virus that causes perversions. If lesbians don’t have sex like heterosexual people, it means that they’ll do it everywhere and all the time and involve their children in it. Some straight people really do have these fantasies, and I have no idea how to change this public perception. But I think political will is very important here – we need a government that sees human rights as its highest priority.

You have said in one interview that Ukrainian lesbians face threefold discrimination: as women, as homosexual women and within the LGBT community. What form does this internal discrimination come in?

In Ukraine, gay organisations started receiving financing 15 years ago. Donors working on HIV prevention came to Ukraine, and men who have sex with men are one of their target groups. These organisations managed to find resources, and this had a significant influence on their organisational growth and development, their visibility. This situation basically left lesbians without any influence on the LGBT movement’s agenda.

Here’s a concrete example: for more than ten years now, Ukraine has had an annual National LGBT Conference. But when its agenda is being drawn up, only organisations that contribute to it financially have the right to put forward names for the organising committee. So if you represent a small initiative in Kryvyi Rih, or even a pretty prominent lesbian organisation in Kharkiv like ours, but don’t donate any cash because you don’t have any, you can’t be part of the organising committee and hence you can’t influence the conference agenda.

At best, they’ll let you run a training workshop, which will run simultaneously with five other workshops in an optional panel session. And this is called “providing equal representation for different groups”.

Did you analyse the presidential candidates’ manifestos from a human rights perspective?

I read other people’s analyses of them and watched a few interviews. They’re now saying about Zelensky that everything is up in the air; it doesn’t matter what who said when. I don’t agree: after all Zelensky made homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic “jokes” a few months ago, and before that too.

As for Poroshenko, he seems inconsistent and lacks a position on human rights. My interpretation of this is that for him this is question No 18 on his agenda, and in these questions he simply listens to his advisors. One advisor sent him to a UN Women conference; another to a conference on traditional family values.

I feel that human rights issues gained more from that than leaving him to listen to the constant idiocy, homophobia and sexism demonstrated by Zelensky.

Why do you think that the candidates’ manifestos made no or very little reference to human rights issues?

It’s all very simple. It’s connected to the fact that not every candidate can set a trend, many just follow the trends set by the Ukrainian public. It’s an endless circle. Were it not for the level of development of the European community, the question of human rights in Ukraine would, possibly, not exist at all.

It’s a piece of real luck that we actually want to join the EU and it’s important that the politicians who represent us at international level share these aspirations. I always tell our international partners that it’s great if you ask our politicians and officials what they think about LGBT, women’s and other vulnerable groups’ rights, and thanks to these questions human rights issues are turning into a trend.

Why do you continue your feminist and LGBT activism in Kharkiv, rather than moving to Kyiv, where there must be more opportunities for influencing change?

I don’t have an answer to that question, although I ask myself it regularly, since in Kharkiv there are many barriers and very few allies. You know, if I come to visit someone in their home, I sit down where I’m told to and stay there. If I visit a friend and see dirty dishes, I offer to wash them if she doesn’t have time. The dishes may mount up and I can leave them unwashed, but sooner or later I’ll have to do it myself.

In my city, I feel like I’m at home, I’m in charge. This is both difficult and inspiring at the same time.

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