For Ruslana Panukhyk, just one broken nose at the hands of ultra-nationalist hoodlums was something to be proud of.
That was the injury tally for last year’s pride march in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the first since its inception that came off without major biff (said nose notwithstanding) or violent counter-demonstrations.
In 2015, police forced the march to be held on the outskirts of the city, but it was still stalked by far-right protestors. “They jumped over the fences and tried to attack people. They threw firecrackers with nails and other stuff, they injured badly one of the policemen,” recalls Ruslana, the head of Pride.
Last year, 6,000 security personnel protected the approximately 2,000 participants, setting up an exclusion zone ringed with metal detectors and guard dogs.
Welcome to celebrating LGBTI pride - the former Soviet Union way.
In May, Kyiv will host the 2017 Eurovision song contest, and the boulevards of this former Soviet metropolis will be thronging with queer folk.
The eyes of Europe - and Eurovision cultists everywhere - will train on this often overlooked country of around 45 million; one afflicted by a separatist insurgency in the East and Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea.
It’s a fascinating time for the country to be hosting an event that unites all corners of Europe (and, for now, Australia). Three years on from the Maidan revolution that ousted a Vladimir Putin-allied President, the country is still beset by division between those who are thirsty for European integration, and others who want to return to Russia’s embrace.
The often-violent opponents of LGBTI activists accuse them of trying to import unwanted immorality and perversity from western Europe. Homosexuality and bisexuality are often lumped in with pedophilia.
Yet there is also confidence that the situation is improving. Or at the very least, that things are not sliding backwards, as in Russia under the last few years of Putin’s reign.
One example is the country’s legal gender recognition process for transgender people. Until recently, those wanting to undergo medical transition had to undergo an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital, after which they would be “diagnosed” with “transsexualism”. Now, neither a hospital stay nor compulsory sterilisation is required, and the government is working to set up accessible facilities and trained staff across the country.
Soldado Kowalisidi - who works on trans issues at Amnesty International’s Kyiv office - says there have been scarce reports of attacks on transgender people in recent months. For Soldado himself, Ukraine has actually been a sanctuary, of sorts.
In Russia, he was a trans activist, and tried holding semi-public events like poetry slams. “After half a year I became ‘popular’ from a nationalist group from one side, and from the other side the FSB [Russia’s main intelligence organisation] controlled every step that I took,” he says.
Yet the threat of violence in Ukraine persists. “When I started hormone therapy I looked more androgynous,” says Soldado. “I felt that it’s very dangerous in the regions and I had some [incidents] with groups, violent attacks. In Carpathian [region] one guy just threw a stone at my head, because he thought that I was a lesbian or something like that.”
When I ask Kharkiv’s chief LGBTI activist Anna Sharyhina if they would like to hold a pride event in the city, she giggles and says “In Kharkiv!?”
This industrial city near to the Russian border, while large, is much less hospitable to open displays of queerness than the capital. In 2015, a young gay man was brutally stabbed to death in his apartment. His killer had lured him to his death on a gay hookup app. Bizarrely, the judge reportedly included the killer’s homophobia as “mitigating circumstances” when handing him a relatively light sentence.
On a quiet, icy street near the river sits the Kharkiv Queer Home, a community centre. They have to balance their desire to improve community relations with a hard-headed regard for safety. They share the location of events only through text message with verified members.
“I would like to have different kinds of events in Kharkiv,” ponders Anna, “like the international day of action against homophobia and transphobia. That’s what we want, but on the other hand we don’t want to subject people to possible violence.”
Yet, they have open days where a few locals drop by, showing bemusement. They also have an LGBTI choir, who are getting ready for their first public performance where they actually declare that they are LGBTI. I ask Anna, is that safe? “No, I guess not, but it’s so important for these people... this particular group of people realise it’s not important to just sing but also sing as LGBTI.”
Safety for Eurovision fans
Ruslana says she has been approached by a number of European embassies passing on queries from their citizens about security for gay visitors to Eurovision, for example, if they will be able to hold hands or kiss their partners in public.
The question of whether same-sex PDA’s are okay here usually elicits a lot of thoughtful umming and ahhing. Ruslana’s answer is a tentative yes, but with caution. “Probably it’s more appropriate for the girls than the guys - it’s more tolerable from our society for lesbians than gay men. But still it depends on the place and on the surroundings. Like, if you see some skinhead people looking very aggressively, then don’t do this.”
LGBTI groups plan on setting up a legal and support hotline for Eurovision visitors, and to distribute maps of Kyiv’s (smattering) of queer hotspots. They are yet to decide if they will incorporate any of their own events into the Eurovision calendar.
That’s if it happens. Last week, in a splash of eastern European drama, the entire Ukrainian organising committee resigned.
Photographs by Jacob Atkins