Why Ukraine needs its own Harvey Milk

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On 25 October, Ukraine will vote in local elections where not a single openly gay candidate will stand. The country’s LGBT movement and public conservatism are both to blame. на русском языке

Anton Dmytriiev
8 October 2015

Right now, the Ukrainian media is full of stuff about how there are several active gay organisations around—active like there’s no tomorrow. At the same time, we hear about how it’s all doom and gloom: it’s generally time to split.

We’re supposed to be fighting for European values, but only on the initiative of a few individual politicians and NGOs. It’s a planned spontaneous battle. It seems we were there on the Maidan together, fought the ‘terrorists’ together in eastern Ukraine, but neither the public nor the government has any values or impetus for change.

This month, people in Ukraine go to the polls to elect local government bodies. Across Europe, and the Atlantic, openly gay and lesbian mayors and local councillors have been elected in post-Soviet Poland and Czech Republic, in Germany and France, in libertarian northern Europe and Mexico. As for transgender people, Anna Grodska is a member of the Polish Sejm, Vladimir Luksuria has been a member of the Italian parliament and even in Cuba Adela Hernandez won a seat in the national assembly.

That is what is meant by openness, freedom, LGBT political activism and a mature society. Even in communist Cuba.

Things are very different in democratic Ukraine. We spend our time being amazed at other people’s projects – bad mouthing and passing judgement on them – rather than creating our own. It’s so much easier to copy the history of Europe or the USA than come up with something for ourselves.

It’s much easier to copy European or US history than come up with something for ourselves.

Of course, it’s much more important to sit twiddling our thumbs or publicly campaign for things that nobody really cares about than to do something really earthshaking.

Dreaming about changing the world as we play in our sandpit is so much easier than trying to actually do it.

Potemkin villages

Let’s start with copying: during Gay Pride in Kyiv this summer, there was a lot of talk about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be appointed to public office in the USA in 1977. But what's important here is that this only happened eight years after the Stonewall Riots in New York. During those years, the American public had gradually become aware of LGBT rights.

Milk served just 11 months in office in San Francisco, but in that time he sponsored an important anti-LGBT discrimination law for the city, and prevented the passing of a discriminatory amendment to Californian state law. This campaigning led to the assassination of Milk along with San Francisco’s mayor George Moscone in 1978.

Now here’s a question: how many Ukrainian and Russian gay activists – not just ordinary guys but the ones that give media interviews, lead organisations and spend grant money – were assassinated in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed? The answer is: none.

Do you know why? Because none of these gay activists and their organisations present any threat whatsoever to public life, the government or the ethical values of any part of the population, and nor do they bring anything new to the political or everyday life of their fellow Ukrainians.

None of our gay activists or organisations present any threat to our public life or government.

This is not to say that people should aim for martyrdom,. But it’s all very simple – not one gay rights organisation represents the interests and hopes of even 1,000 people. It can aspire to this, but in Ukraine, more often than not, NGOs (including LGBT ones) are like Potemkin villages – pure facades, set up to satisfy somebody’s own personal interests.

To put it another way, if our conservative society fails to react to the ideas and proposals of LGBT activists, this is because these ideas and projects never reach beyond the offices of a niche social group. It’s all just a simulation of frenzied activity.

You can read on social media about this or that gay activist receiving a grant to travel abroad, organising a training workshop or once again upsetting the Orthodox Church hierarchy. But has any of this done anything to reduce public hostility to people of another ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation? Not one bit!

What have gay rights activists done to break the stereotypes created in people’s minds by the politicians, our national culture and the media? Nothing.

The capital effect doesn’t even work in Kyiv

Of course, it's cool to live in Kyiv, organise parades, processions, festivals and cultural activities. But it won’t change public attitudes to anything. And sitting round a table in some official building and discussing some law that no one takes any notice of is even more absurd, given Ukrainians almost total disregard for any law.

It’s a truism that, in any post-Soviet country, the capital is completely unrepresentative of the place as a whole. This is the case in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, naturally, Ukraine as well. So until we have gay parades in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Lviv and Odesa we can’t talk about an organised movement and activism.

Talking of Odessa: its governor, the ‘great democrat’ Mikheil Saakishvili banned a Gay Pride parade in Odessa earlier this year, causing a storm of protest from Europe and the US. There are basically two explanations for this. In the first place, back when Saakishvili was president of Georgia, he refused to allow gay parades in Tbilisi. In 2013, the first Gay Pride event to take place in Georgia (after his resignation) was disrupted by homophobic violence. In the second, the organisers of the Odessa event were not a broad group, but a dubious organisation with a dubious past.

All this had predictable consequences: an Odessa court banned the parade; gay groups complained about censorship and curtailment of their rights; the EU and the US embassy sent messages of support, and both radicals and church authorities had another chance to pronounce that LGBT and Odesa were incompatible.

Everyone, in short, was happy and got what they wanted – apart from the public and gay people themselves.

Harvey Milk and the local elections

Many LGBT activists, thanks to their close relations with the centres of power, have connections with and are known in political circles. People from president Petro Poroshenko’s political bloc even took part in the Gay Pride parade in Kyiv in June this year, and Poroshenko himself said he would not interfere with the event. But will we see the first real gay and lesbian candidates at the real local elections? Far from it. 

The simplest explanation of this is that Ukraine's political parties are conservative. They have no desire to sully their unblemished image by consorting with members of the LGBT community. But that’s a double lie: the parties’ reputations are less than spotless, and they would be happy to welcome gays and lesbians, but only if the activists were real activists, involved in advocacy campaigns and lobbying. There is no problem about coming to an agreement with a party or an individual politician – it’s just a question of social impact and the influence of the activist.

However, the fact that a gay activist who works as an aide to a parliamentary deputy close to Yulia Tymoshenko can’t even stand as a candidate in a local or municipal election is an indicator of his social worth and his organisation’s influence, even at local level.

As it happens, in Kyiv nobody will stop a gay candidate from standing for mayor. Again, it’s the capital effect: there have been openly gay mayors in Paris and Berlin, and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, although he’s not gay, is a far cry from the grey bureaucrats of eastern Europe. But Kyiv hasn’t produced any colourful candidates.

And would the armchair and Facebook activists have the guts to follow in Harvey Milk’s footsteps not only in inspiring tens of thousands of his fellow Americans, but in sharing his tragic fate?

This is the main problem for Ukraine’s LGBT community: most of those who call themselves its leaders would rather sit in their armchairs, speak at meaningless conferences and dispute with the perennially conservative Orthodox Church. This is the vicious circle of LGBT activism in Ukraine.

The leaders of Ukraine’s LGBT community would rather sit in their armchairs and speak at meaningless conferences.

All the members of our organisations are also terrified of being murdered, as Milk was. For in spite of all the assurances it gives the west, the Ukrainian public’s level of tolerance has not noticeably risen in the last few years – indeed, if anything it has fallen.

Of course, it is easy enough to condemn some politician who makes a provocative demand for a ban on abortion or the criminalisation of single-sex relationships – this is in fact what most Ukrainians do, and they even derive some sado-masochistic pleasure from it.

But at the same time the self-appointed leaders of our country’s gay movement are incapable of standing for election openly, as members of our community, at even a local level. Many of the activists that I know hide their fear and impotence behind protests that they ‘are destined for higher things’ and are aiming for membership of the Verkhovna Rada, the national parliament. What of it, they ask, that Harvey Milk started small? We Ukrainians can make it to the top in one go.

So why bother, then, with the activism and bravery, or the human rights and awareness-raising activity that all these LGBT groups engage in? Is it to raise their leaders, on the bones and wounds, the stigma and discrimination experienced by thousands of gay men and lesbians, to their desired lofty place in a high-ceilinged cabinet in the corridors of power? Why?

To satisfy their own egotism and prove to themselves that all their demonstrative but worthless efforts for the LGBT movement can be transformed into not only money, but real power. Power for power’s sake.

Ukraine can’t reproduce western LGBT movements

That’s it. In Europe and the USA the battle for gay rights was always accompanied by radicalism and frequent violence (both justified and otherwise) on the part of all sides in the conflict. It was also gradual and attracted members of different social groups. And public opinion was often swayed by openly provocative actions by LGBT activists and groups, especially at local level.

Ukrainians will never hear sexual minority voices, selectively transmitted through their somewhat amorphous LGBT organisations, simply because these prefer intrigue, backroom deals, alienation from processes, arrogance and non-interference to confrontation and real activism.

In other words, LGBT groups, instead of fighting for their rights, continue their mere semblance of activity: talking about draft laws, amendments, decisions, constitutional changes and other bits of waste paper. None of this has any connection with the real world and real people – the law here has never shaped how things actually happen.

In the 24 years since Ukraine became an independent country, our gay activists, living in their imaginary, mythical world, have found themselves unable to organise an open and bold political campaign, to show that Ukraine could produce a gay mayor or parliamentary deputy.

Thousands of LGBT Ukrainians are still forced to lead a double life and live in fear.

Meanwhile, thousands of LGBT people in Ukraine are still forced to lead a double life and live in fear, just because the people who call themselves their leaders are even more cowardly, unself-sufficient and dependent on foreign grants.

These activists and organisations are no use to Ukraine. They don’t help it become better, and think broadly and globally. We need to take our cues from Harvey Milk.

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