Pride and prejudice

Gay pride in the Ukrainian capital Kiev (2013 picture)Image copyright

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Gay pride will take place in Ukraine amid fears of violence

Ukraine’s politicians are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to gay rights.

The hard place is public opinion.

Most people see homosexuality as “something alien”, says gay activist Zoryan Kis.

He says same-sex couples are sometimes asked to leave restaurants and that the majority of Ukrainians just want gay people to “leave the country”.

And many do leave. Others have suffered homophobic violence, and in the most extreme cases murder.

The rock is represented by Western governments.

A trip to Kiev in the run-up to Gay Pride (its official title is Equality March) by the US State Department’s first-ever envoy for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual rights, is testament to that.

Judith Gough, the UK Ambassador to Ukraine – who is a lesbian – argues that gay rights in Ukraine should be seen in a broader context.

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Riot police have stood guard to protect similar events in Ukraine

“When people took to the Maidan [Kiev’s Independence Square] two years ago they were fighting for European values.”

Britain’s top diplomat in Kiev says an important part of a post-Maidan Ukraine is “tolerance and protection of the rights of the individual”. And on a personal level she says she has found most Ukrainians to be welcoming.

Even though she admits Ukrainians generally feel “less comfortable” talking about the issue, Ambassador Gough is encouraged by a level of debate which was previously absent.

‘Bloodbath’ warning

However, the issue of gay rights in Ukraine is further complicated by two factors.

Firstly: the role of far-right Ukrainian nationalist organisations like Right Sector.

The group’s press spokesman, Artem Skoropadsky, warned in a post on social media recently that if Gay Pride were to go ahead there could be a “bloodbath”.

When we met Mr Skoropadsky he claimed he did not support violence, and was simply warning that it was possible.

Very few Ukrainians would condone violence. However, Mr Skoropadsky’s justification for attempting to block this Sunday’s march – because it “goes against nationalist, Christian values” – will resonate.

Far-right groups in Ukraine, including Right Sector, lack popular support. Their prominence has often been overstated by parts of the Russian media.

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Some Ukrainians see gay campaigners as representatives of Western decadence

However, if they bring violence to Kiev’s gay pride it is likely to feature prominently – possibly disproportionately – in the media-sphere of Ukraine’s eastern neighbour, and be held up as another example of far-right-fuelled instability in Ukraine.

And that leads to the second complication: by pushing gay rights in Ukraine, the US and EU risk feeding a perception, popular in Moscow, that Ukraine today is having unpopular liberal values forced upon it.

US President Barack Obama’s Ambassador for Gay Rights, Randy Berry, says it’s simply about Ukraine giving “equality for all its citizens”.

“I don’t think it’s that controversial,” he adds.

Ukraine is undoubtedly changing. Kiev is a dynamic, creative city that surprises many people arriving from abroad.

The question is whether Ukrainian society and politics are ready to accept equal rights for gay people.

And those who support Ukraine’s move to a more European mindset on the issue see Sunday as an important test.

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