300 LGBT activists and their supporters took part in a March for Equality in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev last Saturday (6th June) despite threats by the ‘Right Sector’ organisation to drive them off the streets.
It was the fourth attempt in successive years to stage such a demonstration.
The 2012 March for Equality was abandoned when 3,000 protestors turned up to prevent it from going ahead. (Ukraine was one of the first post-Soviet countries to decriminalise homosexuality, in 1991. But popular anti-LGBT prejudices remain widespread.)
In 2013 over a hundred LGBT activists defied a court ban to stage a 20-minutes-long March for Equality, guarded (despite the court ban) by around 1,500 police officers.
Last year organisers called off the march after the mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko, denounced the planned march in homophobic terms, criticised it as “disrespectful” of soldiers being killed in the south-east of Ukraine, and claimed that his police force could not guarantee its safety.
(March organisers pointed out that they supported the Ukrainian sovereignty being defended in the fighting in the south-east, and that they saw their future in Ukraine, not in the breakaway homophobic ‘People’s Republics’ in Lugansk and Donetsk.
Human Rights Watch also pointed out that only shortly before the march Ukraine had been able to protect heads of state from around the world at the inauguration ceremony for newly elected President Poroshenko. Why, then, could the march not be adequately protected?)
This year’s march was preceded by even more heated political arguments and media coverage than in previous years.
Klitschko refused to meet with the march organisers, called for the march to be cancelled, and initially refused to provide police support. According to Klitschko, the march was not necessary because “in Kiev there is no harassment on any grounds.”
The march, he continued, would “inflame hatred” and “provoke another confrontation in Kiev.” Incoherently, he also argued that the march would be seen by Russia as a “provocation”, given Russia’s own repressive anti-LGBT laws.
The Right Sector – often denounced as “fascist” but in fact a far-right Ukrainian-nationalist organisation – promised to mobilise “thousands” to prevent “this sodomite gathering”. “Gay propaganda” was “destructive and doing harm to our Christian nation.”
According its leader, Dmytro Yarosh, the Right Sector would “put aside other business in order to prevent those who hate family, morality and human nature from executing their plans.” The march would “spit on the graves of those who died and defended Ukraine.”
Volodomyr Parasyuk, who made one of the most powerful speeches during the Maidan protests of 2013/14 and now sits as an independent MP in the Ukrainian parliament, joined in the attacks.
He called for the march to be banned, for any LGBT activists who turned up to be taken straight to the front line in south-east Ukraine, and for opposition to European integration in the light of Europe having “a lot of problems” in allowing “immoral actions”.
But the march was backed by President Poroshenko. In a spectacular ‘I’m not gay myself, but …’ statement, he explained:
“I support the march as a Christian and as a European president. I will not participate in it, but I see no reason why someone should prevent it, for it is the constitutional right of every Ukrainian citizen.”
Poroshenko was probably acting in response to pressure from EU governments. In the week leading up to the demonstration ambassadors from France, Germany and Sweden had contacted Ukrainian government officials to explain the importance of recognising LGBT rights.
Other supporters of the march had less cynical motivations, even if their politics were far from left-wing.
Three Ukrainian MPs took the unprecedented step of publicly backing the march on their Facebook pages (triggering outpourings of homophobic abuse in the comments to their posts).
The right-wing and often pro-Right-Sector Euromaidan Press website carried an Open Letter to the Right Sector criticising their position, denouncing them as being “no better than Putin in my eyes” (the ultimate insult in that part of the political spectrum).
Even the Right Sector’s own Facebook page saw criticism of the organisation’s position: “You are probably just a few homophobes who do not really represent the Right Sector. [They do!] Who gave you the right to decide over the streets of Kiev?”
Undeterred by the physical threats and tirades of homophobic abuse in social media the preceding week, around 300 LGBT activists turned up for last Saturday’s march, supported by Amnesty International, two Ukrainian MPs and French, German, Dutch and Swedish diplomats
Despite the presence of some 1,500 police officers, around 50 Right Sector supporters attacked the march as it was forming up and also at its conclusion, throwing tear gas grenades, smoke bombs and firecrackers.
Ten marchers were injured, as were nine police officers. Around 28 Right Sector supporters were arrested.
Amnesty International has criticised the police, despite the numbers present, for failing to properly ensure the march’s safety. The police agreed to provide protection less than 24 hours before the march, and did nothing to protect international observers from attack.
Propaganda outlets for the Donetsk and Lugansk ‘People’s Republics’, such as the “Russian Spring” website, covered the day’s events – using tags such as “Homosexualism and propaganda of perversions” and headlines such as “Parade of Perverts in Kiev Stopped by Clashes with Protestors.”
(Other articles on the “Russian Spring” website with the tag “Homosexualism and propaganda of perversions” include articles uncritically praising the homophobic views of American right-winger Pat Buchanan.)
The fact that the march took place at all, that the police eventually mobilised to safeguard it, and that there was some degree of public support for it marks progress compared with recent years. But there is still a vast distance to go. As one of the march organisers put it:
“The LGBT community has nothing to celebrate. This was a march for equality, not a parade. Today we are speaking of rights for LGBT as people. We constantly come up against problems at work. If our orientation is discovered, we are sacked. We cannot speak openly about our relationships.”