Gay soldiers fight to dismantle homophobia in Ukraine | International

Entering the army was for Boris Khmelevski a logical decision, a way to continue his activism in defense of homosexual rights. Until last February he had never considered it. But the war started by Vladimir Putin pushed him to make the decision. “Until then I lived the pleasant life of a gay in a European capital. But I had no choice. I know that if the Russians come they will go after people like me. And I can’t imagine my life without my freedoms”, he assures from a park in kyiv.

Holding a gun is equivalent to fighting for what he has always believed in: democracy and freedom in the face of an increasingly authoritarian and homophobic Russia. Next week he will be called to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, where hundreds of soldiers are dying every day. How are you doing? “I try not to think about it too much,” she replies with a nervous smile, taking a deep drag on the cigarette that she has just lit as soon as she finished the previous one.

Cases like that of Khmelevski – a member of the LGTBI Military for Equal Rights, an association that breaks the stereotypes about the two groups: homosexuals and those in green uniforms – are earning gays, lesbians and transsexuals growing recognition in Ukrainian society. Even the most conservative observe how young people who openly show a sexual orientation different from the majority risk their lives to defend their country.

Despite these small steps, the road to real equality in Ukraine is still very long. The balance of the group is bittersweet. And, depending on who you talk to, some put the emphasis on progress and others on how much remains to be achieved.

Optimists argue that the lives of non-heterosexuals have improved in recent years, that surveys show a growing acceptance by society or that the Government has approved laws against discrimination at work or in health. The pessimists, on the other hand, note that same-sex marriage is still a dream in a country whose Constitution proclaims that weddings are an exclusive matter for men and women, that there is not a single minister, deputy or mayor out of the closet who serves as an example or that homophobic attacks continue to grow.

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Iván Tereschuk, 28, knows this well, since every day he has to make sure to turn on the alarms when entering and leaving the premises in Odesa of the Liga collective that he directs. He says that in recent years they have suffered 10 attacks. And that his colleagues from the city of Mikolaiv have come to find mines in the office. The number of homophobic crimes —beatings, insults, attacks on premises…— has increased. But this, says Tereschuk, could even be considered good news. “Aggressions are increasing because there are more and more people out of the closet, who live their sexuality without secrets,” he explains in his office while petting his dog Pónchic.

Iván Tereschuk, director of the Odessa section of the League organization, last Saturday in his office.
Iván Tereschuk, director of the Odessa section of the League organization, last Saturday in his office.louis doncel

This activist also believes that the war has increased the view that many have of people like him. “Before it was thought that homosexuality was something of rare people who lived in other places. But the stories of LGTBI soldiers defending the homeland have shown that we are as much a part of society as any other, ”he adds, after confirming that his and his friends’ daily lives have improved a lot in recent years. Although he warns that the polarization resulting from the war is also giving wings to ultra-conservative nationalist voices in his own country.

A recent survey conducted by the International Institute of Sociology in kyiv and the LGTBI organization Nash Svit shows that 38% of Ukrainians have a negative opinion of homosexuals. It may seem like a lot, but six years ago that percentage exceeded 60%. Those who declare themselves indifferent have gone from 31% to 45%; and now 13% see it favorably compared to 3% in 2016. Acceptance levels are still very low compared to those of Western Europe, but the trend is clearly favourable.

According to the Rainbow Europe index that the international association ILGA carries out every year among 49 European countriesUkraine is ranked 39th in terms of respect for the rights of the collective. Among the shortcomings pointed out by the body in its report on 2020, the 80 aggressions committed that year against LGTBI people stand out and that between 80% and 90% feel insecure or excluded at school.

Zelensky: “Leave those people alone”

Ukrainian politicians do not usually comment on homosexuality. Perhaps that is why the activists applauded in October 2019 some words of the president in an act in which a man charged against gays and lesbians. “I don’t want to say anything bad about people with non-traditional sexual orientation, because we live in an open society where everyone chooses their own orientation. Leave these people alone,” Volodymyr Zelensky said. It does not seem like a revolutionary speech, but in Ukraine it was seen as the first pronouncement of a president in favor of sexual freedom. Later, Zelensky signed a statement with US President Joe Biden, in which he promised to fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“Things began to improve after the Revolution of Dignity in 2013. Then, we Ukrainians showed that we want to take a path towards Europe and move away from the Russian model,” says Khmelevski from kyiv. Ukraine’s greater tolerance is precisely one of the favorite arguments of the Kremlin, which warns of an alleged degenerate drift in a country in which gays and lesbians have many more rights and guarantees. Russian propaganda uses derogatory words like gayeurope to refer to Europe or tolerancean attempt to confuse child abuse with respect for diversity.

Deterioration in Russian-occupied areas

The scant news coming out of the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine is depressing. Tereschuk says that in Kherson, a city in the hands of Moscow since the beginning of the war, the activist Olexii Polukhin has been missing for some time and nobody knows what has become of him. In addition, in Mariupol scenes have been recorded of Russian soldiers ripping out rainbow flags like someone removing a cancer. “They say they come to rid the city of depraved people who want to pervert minors,” explains Khmelevski, 26.

Hatred these days runs rampant between Ukraine and Russia. A young gay man from Odessa recounts how recently while chatting with another Russian guy on Hornet, the most popular gay dating app in Eastern Europe, he told him that all Ukrainians were Nazis and should be dead. He immediately blocked it.

This year there will be no pride parade in kyiv, Odessa or Járkvok, as there were in 2021. The martial law approved by Zelensky as soon as the war began prevents any type of concentration. The demand had to be transferred to the other side of the border with Poland. A Ukrainian group was invited on June 25 to demonstrate in the streets of Warsaw, which welcomed tens of thousands of people.

Khmelevski says that he has not encountered discrimination in the army. “We know of a case, but it has been reported and quickly resolved. It is a safe place for us,” he explains. The young man has assumed that this is where he has to be. “It’s not what he planned, but if I don’t do this I’m sure I’m going to die.” He says that recently he read the profile of the first victims of the Russians in the areas they occupy: human rights activists, homosexuals, members of the army and promoters of the Revolution of Dignity. “It seemed like they were describing my biography,” he says with a laugh. “So I had no other choice.”

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