Ukraine offers hope in increasingly homophobic neighborhood
As the world marks Pride Month, there was a historic first on Capitol Hill recently with Ukraine’s LGBTI community as the focal point. In its first-ever hearing devoted solely to protecting LGBTI rights, the US House of Representatives subcommittee on Europe, energy, environment and cyber audience on the fight for the protection of these rights in Europe and Eurasia.
Expert witnesses focused primarily on four countries: Hungary, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. With the increase in cases of discrimination and violence against LGBTI people in the region, Ukraine is an example of progress in an increasingly homophobic neighborhood, argued Dr Lenny Emson, director of the organization non KyivPride government.
Of the four countries featured, Ukraine has the least aggressive record on government-sponsored LGBTI discrimination and is arguably emerging as the most welcoming nation in the region.
While Hungary currently has more protections for LGBTI people on paper than Ukraine, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban is brazenly working to undo Hungary’s more pro-LGBTI past. The Hungarian parliament recently past a law that mimics Russian legislation on “homosexual propaganda”. Coupled with the “LGBTI-free zones” of Poland arise across the country, it is encouraging to see Ukraine following a more progressive path.
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Emson’s testimony described the growth of Ukraine’s LGBTI community through the expansion of the annual Kyiv Pride event, which went from a short walk of around 50 people on the outskirts of Kiev in 2013 to a massive rally of over 10,000 people in central Kiev in 2019 As Emson noted, “the story of our pride marches illustrates the larger history of the LGBTI movement in Ukraine. This striking difference in the numbers in the space of just a few years demonstrates the remarkable progress made by our company. “
Courageous and committed activists in Ukraine are leading the charge for equality. As Emson noted, they were further aided by the continued support of the United States in efforts to strengthen Ukrainian civil society and promote police reform.
An example of progress put forward by LGBTI activists came into relationship with the Ukrainian trans community. As of December 2016, transgender Ukrainians no longer have to file a complaint with a board of mental health professionals or spend a month in a psychiatric ward before legally changing their gender.
However, the situation remains far from satisfactory. Transsexuality is still considered a mental disorder and still requires a “diagnosis” before the transition can begin.
In some cases, Ukrainian regional and local courts have helped uphold the rights of LGBTI people. In 2019, the city council in Rivne, western Ukraine, attempted to ban LGBTI groups from demonstrating publicly, citing the need to prevent the spread of LGBTI “propaganda”. While it took a year, the Rivne District Administrative Court subsequently declared the ban illegal.
The same happened with the Kyiv Regional Administrative Court in 2020. Despite some polls showing that only 14% of Ukrainian respondents believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, the government and the judicial systems have shown a will welcome to defend some LGTBI rights.
As the world marks Pride Month this year, Ukraine can report some progress in terms of protecting the LGBTI community. However, the road to reform has not been easy and a lot of work remains to be done. Emson highlighted some critical gaps in Ukrainian legislation, as well as the need for more effective investigations into anti-LGBTI discrimination.
Ukrainian law currently does not recognize homophobia and transphobia as discriminatory grounds for hate crimes. Along with these legislative loopholes, perpetrators often enjoy almost total impunity in practical terms.
Despite KyivPride’s increased visibility and the continued work of other activists, hate crimes are on the rise in Ukraine. According to Emson, attacks on LGBTI activities and events have more than doubled over the past year to 24 attacks. Questions remain about the authorities’ commitment to address this worrying trend.
The case of Ukrainian activist Vitalina Koval, organizer of the lesbian community for LGBTI people in Uzhgorod, is emblematic of the need to go further. Koval was attacked in March 2018 and suffered chemical burns to her eyes after six counter-protesters sprayed her with red paint while she was participating in an International Women’s Day event. Following this, the same group allegedly followed two other activists home and beat them. The court took nearly three years to process Koval’s case and ultimately ruled that his attackers could not be brought to justice because the statute of limitations had been reached.
The struggle for better protection continues. Emson in particular highlighted a newly registered parliamentary bill that would bring long-awaited reform and make necessary improvements to existing Ukrainian legislation against hate crimes.
Presented by the Council of Ministers on May 13, Bill 485488 would have develop anti-hate crime legislation to protect the Ukrainian LGBTI community. This bill is expected to face fierce opposition, but Emson hopes strong support from allies in Ukraine and abroad will help convince Ukrainian lawmakers to continue Ukraine’s progress in building a society. safer and more inclusive for all citizens.
While Ukrainian attitudes towards the LGBTI community are in many ways still far from the levels of acceptance encountered elsewhere in the Western world, Ukraine’s modest progress in recent years offers hope in a region where intolerance is increasing.
Adrian Hoefer is a program assistant at the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. Shelby Magid is the Associate Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.
Fri 5 Feb 2021
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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
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