Anti-gender Movement in Ukraine

Over the past two years, the frequency of attacks on LGBT+ and feminist public events by radical right-wing organizations has increased significantly. This increase is a direct response to the growing visibility of LGBT+ people and their willingness to defend their rights and interests.

According to the May 2019 edition of ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Map and Index, which examines laws and state policies towards LGBT+ people in Europe, Ukraine’s equality indicator for LGBT+ rights in the political and legislative sphere has increased from 21 percent in 2018 to 22 percent in 2019 and 2020.“Райдужна Європа 2019” [Rainbow Europe 2019], NASH MIR, May 13, 2019, https://gay.org.ua/blog/2019/05/13/raiduzhna-ievropa-2019.

In recent years, Ukraine has seen an increased number of public LGBT+ rights campaigns and events that are important to the community (discussions, film screenings, etc.). Since 2016, LGBT+ people have organized an annual Equality March in Kyiv. Similar events have taken place in Odesa and Kharkiv since 2017. The human rights agenda of LGBT+ people partially overlaps with that of Ukraine’s feminist as activists, who have also held an increasing number of public events, including street demonstrations.

Radical right-wing organizations and groups frequently target LGBT+ events in Ukraine. In the past, however, violent crimes motivated by anti-LGBT+ sentiment were largely invisible to the general population. Unlike other indicators of vulnerability, a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity can be invisible even to their own family.

The Beginnings of the Anti-gender Movement in Ukraine

Attempts to intimidate LGBT+ event organizers and participants have been well-documented since at least 2009. The anthology of queer literature 120 Pages of Sodom was published that year and two of its presentations were disrupted. Unidentified individuals also started a fire at the Pavlo Hudimov Gallery in Kyiv during another event related to the book and vandalized the gallery walls with homophobic graffiti.Oleksiy Radynskyi, “Підпал «Я Галереї»: культурне дезертирство” [“Ya Gallery” arson: cultural desertion], Detector.Media, October 7, 2009, https://detector.media/kritika/article/48400/2009-10-07-pidpal-ya-galerei-kulturne-dezertirstvo.

Through 2014, both the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian far-right made public statements and took action, sometimes violent, against  LGBT+ people. While openly pro-Russian far-right organizations are not currently active in Ukraine, new initiatives have appeared that are either pro-Ukrainian or professedly “neutral.” The increased visibility of LGBT+ people in public spaces, and the increased number of open or semi-open LGBT+ events, has meant that attempts to disrupt such gatherings and harm their participants have also became more frequent. In the fall of 2017, the traditionalist political movement “Vsi Razom” (in English, “All Together”), adopted a so-called “National Family Strategy,” which includes a wide range of events at both the national and local levels.“Проект: Національна сімейна стратегія” [Project: National family strategy], Vsi Razom, September 12, 2017, https://vsirazom.ua/poziciya/proekt-nacionalna-simejna-strategiya. The adoption of this strategy roughly coincided with an increase in the number of incidents of radical right-wing organizations attacking LGBT+ people in Ukraine. While correlation does not equate causation, the current existence of a full-fledged anti-gender movement in Ukraine is indisputable.

What Does the Anti-gender Movement Believe?

According to researchers, anti-gender movements argue that gender equality is an “ideology,” and oppose the so-called “propaganda” of LGBT+ rights, including reproductive rights, sexuality education, and human rights education. Judith Butler, “What Threat? The Campaign Against ‘Gender Ideology,’” Glocalism 2019, no. 3, accessed 2020, https://doi.org/10.12893/gjcpi.2019.3.1. In fact, common denominators among anti-gender movements include aggressive homophobia, patriarchalism and heteronormativity, defense of so-called "traditional values," and the fight against so-called "gender ideology," through confrontations in public space and/or hate crimes. Eszter Kováts and Maari Põim, “Foreword,” Gender as Symbolic Glue: The position and role of conservative and far right parties in the anti-gender mobilizations in Europe (Brussels: FEPS – Foundation for European Progressive Studies), 2015, http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/budapest/11382.pdf. In Europe and other parts of the world, anti-gender movements have existed since the mid-2000s, but they only appeared in Ukraine more recently. The very appearance of the term “gender ideology” indicates that the word “gender” has become well-known among Ukrainians and is familiar among those on both sides of the debate.

Intimidation, Confrontation, Violence

According to a 2018 report on hate crimes in Ukraine on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by the LGBT+ human rights center Nash Mir (In English, “Our World”), “the vast majority of both open and closed LGBT+ events in Ukraine were attacked by far-right and nationalist groups and organizations. Many of these events were disrupted and did not achieve [their] desired results, and participants found themselves in dangerous situations. At best, the police only ensured the physical safety of the organizers and participants of such events. None of the incidents were investigated, nor did they receive an adequate response from the authorities.” While not all of the recorded incidents involved direct physical violence, the very presence of right-wing groups at such events is considered threatening given the likelihood of violence. Right-wing opponents of gender equality and LGBT+ human rights euphemistically refer to such incidents, both violent and not, as “confrontations.”

In all, Nash Mir recorded 358 incidents motivated by anti-LGBT+ sentiment, discrimination, and other violations of LGBT+ rights in Ukraine. This includes 114 crimes motivated by anti-LGBT+ sentiment specifically. Of those crimes, far-right groups committed a quarter (28). Notably, a significant number of the remaining 86 cases were incidents involving the blackmailing of male victims targeted through gay dating sites. Russian neo-Nazi Maxim Martsinkevich is known for using this tactic, as are groups belonging to the Ukrainian far-right. That said, there is no direct evidence identifying the attackers as members of far-right organizations in any of the specific cases recorded by Nash Mir.Katerina Sergatskova, “Калька з «русского мира»: звідки в Україні виникли рухи «борців з педофілами»” [Blueprint from the “Russky Mir”: Where did the “anti-pedophile” movement in Ukraine spring from?], Hromadske, May 25, 2017, https://hromadske.ua/posts/kalka-z-russkoho-myra-zvidky-v-ukraini-vynykly-rukhy-pobornykiv-pedofiliv.

Almost all Ukrainian right-wing radical organizations and groups have joined this trend of “confronting” LGBT+ people. In some cases, religious organizations support these activities, including through joint demonstrations. In this context, Ihor Mosiychuk, a former lawmaker from the Radical Party, is a notable figure, not only for his radical right-wing views, but also as an active opponent of Ukraine ratifying the Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence) because it contains the word “gender” and its derivatives. Notably, there are also women who participate in the anti-gender movement. A separate women's initiative, the “Sisterhood of St. Olga,” was created; however, it remains extremely small. The paradoxical fact that women who oppose gender equality do so publicly is indicative of gender equality’s increasing salience even on the far-right of the Ukrainian political spectrum.

The police have acted effectively to threats and incidents only occasionally. For example, the safety of participants in the Kyiv Equality March was adequately protected, allowing the event to be held safely. That said, the Equality March is Ukraine’s largest annual LGBT+ public rally, and participants usually include foreign ambassadors and other important figures. The police appear to have little regard for the safety of participants during most other LGBT+ or feminist events, and do not work to prevent or stop offenses. Police responses to incidents is also inadequate given that offenders are rarely held accountable, and investigation and court documents rarely register when a crime was motivated by hate. As a result, the same people systematically commit offenses again and again. There are also precedents of police carrying out anti-LGBT+ actions. For example, the police raid at the Potemkin gay club in Dnipro on the night of April 19–20, 2019, during which law enforcement committed numerous human rights violations.

In short, those seeking to exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and speech face systematic difficulties in Ukraine. As such, far-right groups appear to have a significant effect on street politics, and hence, on the pace of the country’s democratic development.

Equality March 2019

In 2019, Kyiv’s annual Equality March took place on June 23.  According to various estimates, between 6,000 and 8,000 people participated in the event. An official government body, the Ukrainian Health Ministry’s Public Health Center, took part in the Equality March for the first time. First Deputy Chairman of the Kyiv City State Administration Mykola Povoroznyk also supported the March.

At the same time, right-wing radical groups actively opposed human rights values. The March was preceded by a week of educational, human rights and cultural events, which saw multiple attacks on attendees. A priest from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Yaroslav Kulyk, recorded a video message calling on “Christians and patriots” to join a “counter action” in the form of a “prayer guard.” Oleksiy Kuzmenko, “Calls To ‘Fight’ LGBT People By Ukrainian Cleric Emblematic Of Church’s Proximity To Far Right,” Bellingcat, June 21, 2019, https://ru.bellingcat.com/novosti/ukraine/2019/06/22/ocu-anti-LGBT+-activists. Metropolitan Epiphanius of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church also issued an anti-LGBT+ statement. Viktoriya Bega, “Глава ПЦУ Епіфаній: Теми ЛГБТ та гендеру «нав’язані Заходом»” [PCU Head Epiphanius: LGBT and Gender Issues "Imposed by the West"], Hromadske, May 14, 2019, https://hromadske.ua/posts/glava-pcu-epifanij-temi-LGBT-ta-genderu-navyazani-zahodom.

Members of radical right-wing groups gathered around the perimeter of the Equality March, including those affiliated with Tradition and Order, Brotherhood, Right Sector, Carpathian Sich, National Resistance, and Love against Homosexuality, as well as former lawmaker Ihor Mosiychuk. They set up banners near the location of the start of the March, as well as a stage with chairs next to a nearby park along the March’s planned route.

During the March, several eggs were thrown at participants, Vlad Holovko, Facebook, “Сьогодні на Марш Рівності 2019 KyivPride мені прилетіло в око курячим яйцем” [Today at the 2019 KyivPride Equality March a chicken egg hit me in the eye], Facebook, June 23, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/okvoloh/videos/1217597168401953. a member of the radical far-right tried to grab a banner from a group of marchers, and at least one participant was followed and assaulted after the event.“Невідомі побили активіста після Маршу рівності” [Unknown individuals beat activists after the Equality March], Zmina.Info, June 24, 2019, https://humanrights.org.ua/material/nevidomi_pobili_aktivista_pisljia_marshu_rivnosti_. A float that was supposed to carry a drag queen was reportedly unable to take part in the March because the driver received threats. Prior to the March, law enforcement also seized more than 200 condoms filled with excrement, which opponents of the Equality March planned to throw at participants.“A Tough Weekend For Ukraine’s Anti-LGBT ‘Excremists’,” Bellingcat, June 25, 2019, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2019/06/25/a-tough-weekend-for-ukraines-anti-LGBT+-excremists.

After the March, channels began to appear on the messaging platform Telegram, where users shared photos of the participants in the Equality March, as well as calls for violence against them. Despite numerous complaints, Telegram did not remove any of these channels.

The Honorary Consul of Israel in Ukraine, Oleh Vyshniakov, also made anti-LGBT+ comments.Oleh Vyshniakov, Facebook, “Сейчас в Киеве проходит марш равенства” [The Equality March in going on in Kyiv now], Facebook, June 23, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=483645015714443&set=a.131586894253592&type=3.

On the eve of the March, Maksym Halytskyi, the Deputy Mayor of Sumy (a city in northeastern Ukraine), wrote a post on his Facebook page, expressing his desire to see the March’s participants in a concentration camp. The post included photos of prisoners wearing pink triangles. This statement prompted the Prosecutor’s Office to open a criminal case for “deliberate actions aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred” (this falls under Section 1, Article 161 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code).“Через висловлювання заступника мера Сум щодо ЛГБТ почали провадження” [Proceedings began in response to the deputy mayor of Sumy’s statements regarding LGBT people], Ukrayinska Pravda, June 23, 2019, https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2019/06/23/7218945.

Conclusions

The anti-gender movement is a global trend among the far-right that has not bypassed Ukraine. It is an apparent response to the growing visibility of LGBT+ people and the spread of feminist ideas. In Ukraine, a significant portion of the anti-gender movement’s activities are enabled by the impunity the movement enjoys due to inaction or passivity by law enforcement agencies in response to the movement’s violence and other violations of the law.

Attempts to disrupt LGBT+ and feminist events in Ukraine take place regularly and have become more frequent. Members of radical right-wing initiatives actively collaborate with religious organizations to thwart these events. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to anti-LGBT+ sentiment, which is still rarely and inadequately confronted in Ukraine.