Warsaw, Poland – Ukraine’s biggest LGBTQ rights event, KyivPride, is taking place on Saturday. But not in his native streets and not as a party.
He will instead join the annual Warsaw Equality Parade, Central Europe’s biggest gay pride event, using it as a platform to keep international attention focused on Ukraine’s struggle for freedom.
“We are marching for political support for Ukraine, and we are marching for the basic human rights of the Ukrainian people,” said KyivPride director Lenny Emson. “It’s not a party. We will wait for the victory to celebrate.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are among the civilians and soldiers killed by Russian forces. There has been a recent push for same-sex partnerships to be recognized, not least because of the need for partners to bury themselves in war.
If the country were to be defeated, it would be a tragedy for the Ukrainian people as a whole, but LGBTQ people would risk being “completely erased”, i.e. killed, forced to flee or hide their identity, said Emson, whose organization also runs a shelter for LGBTQ people who have fled Ukrainian territory occupied by Russian forces. An LGBTQ rights activist in occupied Kherson has disappeared.
In a manifesto, KyivPride calls on people to realize that the geographical border between democratic Ukraine on one side and autocratic Russia and Belarus on the other “is not only a dividing line between states, but also a border between the territory of freedom and an area of oppression”.
Russia passed a law in 2013 that prohibits portrayals of homosexuality to minors, which human rights groups see as a way to demonize and discriminate against LGBTQ people. Dubbed the “gay propaganda” law, it came amid a greater crackdown on civil liberties in Russia and inspired the passage of a similar law in Hungary last year.
Klementyna Suchanow, the author of a book on global efforts to roll back the rights of women and LGBTQ people, says if Ukrainians lose the war, it would mark a defeat for a range of progressive causes, including feminism , LGBTQ rights and efforts to fight climate change.
“That’s why the war in Ukraine is about everything,” said Suchanow, a prominent Polish feminist activist and author of “This is War: Women, Fundamentalists and the new Middle Ages.” She planned to walk on Saturday.
KyivPride could not take place in the Ukrainian capital this year because martial law prevents large gatherings, Emson said.
On Saturday, he will have the honor of leading the Equality Parade in Warsaw – one of the many ways Poles have stepped up to help their beleaguered Ukrainian neighbors.
Poland’s conservative government has been a strong ally of Ukraine, sending humanitarian aid and arms and allowing other countries to use its territory to transfer their own aid.
But his stance on LGBTQ rights has also made Poland an unlikely host for a gay rights event.
In recent years, the government has portrayed the LGBTQ rights movement as an attack on the country’s Catholic traditions and a force that threatens to corrupt youth, echoing the rhetoric behind Russian and Hungarian laws.
But Polish society as a whole is increasingly accepting of LGBTQ people. Emson said KyivPride organizers considered staging their event in other European capitals, but decided Warsaw’s young and energetic rights movement was a better fit.
LGBTQ people in Ukraine still face considerable discrimination, but they have made progress in recent years as the country has sought to tie its fate to the West. The evolution of LGBT rights is underscored by KyivPride’s own evolution since its inception 10 years ago. In 2012, he outnumbered the angry counter-protesters so much that participants dared not march. The participants were beaten and a large police presence is needed to protect them. Yet the event has grown steadily, with 7,000 attendees last year.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose courageous wartime leadership has drawn attention in recent months, won the respect of LGBTQ people in Ukraine when a man wearing a cross and spouting homophobic rhetoric heckled him during a a press conference in 2019.
Zelenskyy angrily fired back: “Leave these people alone, for God’s sake.”
Since then, however, his party has also taken steps that LGBTQ rights activists see as a threat to their struggle.