Ahead of Ukraine’s presidential elections, the problems of the country’s LGBT community are being ignored by our leading politicians. None of the leading candidates’ programmes even mention LGBT rights or address the issue directly, without vague euphemisms.
Instead of fighting for gay and lesbian rights, Ukraine’s presidential candidates continue to fight for their ratings by promoting populist ideas, rather than the ones that Ukrainian society needs The idea of introducing same-sex marriage is still not accepted in Ukraine, and the majority of the population do not understand what the term “civil partnership” means.
At Donbas News, our recent survey on the streets of the cities of Mariupol and Slovyansk proved this fact. We asked people the following two questions immediately after one another: 1) Do you support the introduction of civil partnerships? 2) Do you support the introduction of same-sex marriage? The first question received more positive responses, whereas the second tended to provoke dismay. For some respondents, it was embarrassing even to answer the question, let alone thinking about supporting the idea politically.
These kind of reactions aren’t particularly surprising. After all, presidential candidates freely declare their homophobia. Indeed, they are the ones saturating Ukrainian society with their arguments about LGBT rights - the most famous one being, for example, “this is not the right time to think about this”.
Even presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky, a seemingly liberal host and actor in popular Ukrainian comedy show 95 Block, is connected to homophobic statements. In a 2018 sketch about Pinocchio, actors decided to mock the idea of coming out, in which the Pinocchio character admitted to being a “she” rather than a “he”. The rest of the cast then proceeded to insult the Pinocchio character on air.
In response, activists organised a rally near the 1+1 television channel’s headquarters in Kyiv. They held posters saying “95 Block = a systematic crime against humanity” and “Je suis Pinocchio”. After this public reaction, the TV channel issued a press release: “We apologise for this episode and assure you that no harm was meant.”
Yet Ukrainian society did not react to the latest homophobic attack by the country’s leading politicians. For example, Oleksandr Turchynov, head of the National Security and Defence Council, made the following statement at a recent family forum in Kyiv:
“Under the guise of defending human rights, an anti-Christian term [gender] is being forced on our society [...] We need to remove the ideological terms from our laws аnd reinstate the word ‘sex’ instead of the artificial term ‘gender’ that has been forced on us.”
This forum hosted many representatives of the country’s top political elite: President Petro Poroshenko, Yuliya Tymoshenko, his main opponent, and key ministers of Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman’s cabinet. The audience applauded Turchynov’s statement.
In her address, Yuliya Tymoshenko went even further in her vision of Ukraine’s future:
“We should create a country that will show Ukraine and the world that Ukraine can change both itself and the world, and become an example for others. Because it will be built on the right laws, the right faith and the right goals. I believe this firmly, and I want us to be a united Ukrainian national team on this.”
I wonder, will representatives of Ukraine’s LGBT community be allowed to join Tymoshenko’s united team, or will they be banned?
Outrage to these statements has not travelled beyond Ukraine’s LGBT community. Not a single politician has ventured to publicly criticise how the head of state and principal opposition candidate seemingly stopped their campaigns to send a joint signal to society: “We have remained in the USSR, and the values declared on Maidan five years ago mean nothing to us.”
Protecting LGBT rights in Ukraine will demand confidence from Ukrainian politicians that they won’t lose their already modest approval ratings. Today, it is politically more profitable to flirt with the “majority” of the population which enjoys bad jokes about a “confused Pinocchio” than to start a real discussion about human rights and European values.
This kind of discussion requires work in the long term, and politicians are interested in results here and now. But how can Ukrainian democracy work without the values of universal democracy? Will Ukraine be able to become a member of the European Union without parliamentary groupings that will state their support for pride events, and protection for gay and lesbian Ukrainians?
We journalists ask ourselves these questions as well: how many articles can we write about the violation of LGBT rights in Ukraine? How many times can we ask politicians about their attitudes to pride events on national television?
Today, there’s only a few Ukrainian journalists trying to raise awareness of human rights in public discussion. For instance, on International Women’s Day in March this year, the majority of programmes on national TV were not about women’s rights or the demands of the Women’s March. When the host of news programme Podrobnosti Nedeli asked MP Tetiana Ostrikova about her attitude to 8 March, the MP answered that she loves the “spring holiday”, and that “Ukrainian women, despite gas prices, are energetic, kind, responsive, and can survive in any conditions.”
Hardly a single TV channel discussed the concerns of women who joined the demonstration on Kyiv streets on 8 March - in particular, about how to raise the voices and visibility of women in Ukrainian society.
This is the description of the demonstration by the organisers of the Women’s March 2019:
“We are women who have different sexual orientations, gender identities, skin colour, ethnicity, and nationality. We are of different ages, different beliefs and social classes. We belong to different social groups, which makes us vulnerable to different kinds of discrimination and violence. Our voice must be heard; our demands must be met, and our rights must be equal.”
Was anything from the above list discussed on Ukrainian television? Did Ukrainian politicians attend the march and include the participants' demands in their programs? No.
It’s like a vicious circle: TV channels refuse to set the tone for a real public discussion and are ignoring human rights movements and women’s organisations; politicians are not able to explain their positions on any topic simply because they have no real understanding of the issues - particularly as something as “complicated” as gender studies.
Meanwhile, viewers set their own views in relation to the TV and politicians, and come to the conclusion that “this issue is not topical”.
The desire to preserve their popularity prevents Ukrainian politicians from solving the real problems of their fellow citizens - a part of whom are cast aside or are forced to follow the “generally accepted” political “norms” of today's Ukraine. But as they reject a section of their fellow citizens, Ukrainian politicians show that they are still very far from the “European dream” they claim to be following.