November 25, 2023
STUCK IN LIMBO: THE UKRAINE GOVERNMENT LEAVING THE LGBTQI+ COMMUNITY BEHIND PROGRESS FOR YEARS
"It's not the right time". This is the most frequent response received when advocating for the LGBTQI+ community. But the truth is—it is never a suitable time for changes or progress, or even for a discussion about human rights for minorities such as LGBTQI+ people. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Ukrainian Republic regained independence, a lot of progress was made. For example, Ukraine was the first country out of the post-USSR ones that decriminalized punishment for homosexuality (the Soviet Union criminalized homosexuality with seven years of imprisonment or labor camp detention).
In addition, following the Revolution of Dignity, when the Ukraine's Parliament passed progressive anti-discrimination bills, later they passed the amendment to the labor code that protects from discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). An important note: the new amendment to the labor code is still the most advanced in Europe, as many countries have adopted legislation protecting discrimination based on sexual orientation without including gender identity. Even the judicial branch made some contributions. Ukraine's constitution in Article 24 bans discrimination in general; at the same time, it doesn't have SOGI in the list, but instead has an open list. In May 2014, after two decades, the Supreme Specialized Court of Ukraine wound down legislative debates and published a constitutional review that interpreted the Constitution as banning any form of discrimination, including based on SOGI.
Unfortunately, since 2016, Ukraine's Parliament has stopped making any legislative progress towards equality for LGBTQI+ people, and all changes have moved to the government executive level. But, even though Ukraine has changed a lot culturally and politically, among the biggest and most crucial puzzles remains unsolved—same-sex marriages or, a bare minimum for the gay community, civil partnership.
Mission impossible (or not)
The biggest roadblock to same-sex marriage in Ukraine is the Constitution. Back in 1996, when the first version of the Constitution was written, Ukrainian MPs limited the institution of marriage only to men and women, preventing any marriage debates for generations. The mission to change the constitution means the LGBTQI+ movement needs to elect a supermajority in Verkhovna Rada (300 MPs out of 450) 3 times, the Constitutional Court needs to approve changes, and the President needs to sign the bill.
Other examples of stalled progress make the situation look even more bleak: Bill 5488 was introduced in May 2021 as part of a long-term affiliation process with the European Union, and part of an Action plan for National Human Rights Strategy and many UN resolutions, including recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council. This bill would change the Criminal Code to clarify language in Article 161 to add hate crimes protections for LGBTQI+ persons and other marginalized groups.
Unfortunately, the bill was dead on arrival and never voted on in the Parliament, even though it would provide protection from hate crimes not based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but also based on race, religion, color, language, gender, and disability. Broadening protections against hate crimes has broad support overall. Following threats on Kyiv Pride’s march in 2016, even the Orthodox Church of Ukraine made a statement declaring the physical attack unacceptable.
Until now, the Ukrainian Parliament held down the “last fort” of traditional family values and didn't move forward with legislation that included SOGI. Meanwhile, LGBTQI+ Ukrainians continue to lose trust in their government’s ability or desire to protect them. Only this year, the Human Rights Ombudsman reported 17 cases of hate crimes based on SOGI and only one verdict in the court. Human rights organizations may report hundreds more hate crime cases every year (Ukraine Human rights organization Nash Mir Center reported 186 documented hate crimes based on SOGI in 2020), but still, without adopting Bill 5488 or similar legislation, there won’t be an effective system preventing these hate crimes and providing justice for minorities and marginalized groups.
Another existential challenge for the LGBTQI+ community will be adopting a civil partnership bill (as same-sex marriage is realistically not possible in the coming decades). “Preserving the institution of marriage” only for straight families, but letting same-sex couples have civil recognition, could let Ukraine join the ranks of other democratic and progressive countries, while appeasing some of the conservative sector’s demands. In most European countries, a civil partnership law was the middle step before same-sex marriages were fully recognized.. That institution is long overdue and most needed in Ukraine right now, while thousands of LGBTQI+ are serving in the army with a civilian partner back at home. For straight couples, if something happens with a military partner (wounded or killed), a civilian partner will obtain a variety of government benefits, from cash support to housing. In the case of same-sex couples, they are invisible to the government and have no help or recognition. A civilian person has no right to even bury their partner's body.
The Ukrainian government demonstrates insufficient desire to fix LGBTQI+ inequality LGBTQI+ Ukrainians are equal enough to serve your country but not equal enough to get the same benefits of straight couples, or to receive adequate protections against hate crimes. The Union of the LGBT Military in Ukraine (a non-government organization) already includes a few hundred openly LGBTQI+ members and a thousand queer military who follow their activities. While they actively fight to protect the republic, they sincerely hope politicians and government have their back. And as many politicians repeat kumbaya about all Ukrainian soldiers being heroes, it does look like they believe LGBTQI+ heroes don’t need the same benefits or support as their colleagues heterosexual ones.
Historically, the most significant and quickest progress for the LGBTQI+ community in Ukraine has happened (2014-2016) in combination with a few factors: the process of joining a visa-free regime with the Schengen zone and integration into the European Union, the cultural revolution when Ukrainian start to watching more Netflix and Western media than Russian channel, and US government investment of great resources to promoting democratic values, including many cultural and exchange programs which help to bolster civil society and the LGBTQI+ human rights movement in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, with the changing power in the White House in 2016, the US government's priority shifted dramatically, and the Ukrainian LGBTQI+ community was left with markedly less support in the fight for their civil rights with the Ukrainian government, at the same time fighting back against Russian anti-LGBTQ propaganda, the Russian orthodox church’s lobby, and rising right-wing organizations. To add insult to injry,a few representatives from US Congress came down to Kyiv to participate in a prayer breakfast and lobby for traditional family values, including banning “gay propaganda”. In fact, a group of US congressmen who came to Ukraine's parliament to lobby for a ban on “LGBTQI+ propaganda ” was led by Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA). The same Rep. Juan Vargas who is a member of the Congressional Equality Caucus and have 100% score LGBTQI+ friendly reiting by the organization Human Rights Campaign, a member of the Democratic party (which by many press releases in favor of protection of the LGBTQI+ community abroad) and representing greatest state of California. Until now, it was only a delegation representing US Congress and including member of Congressional Equality Caucus, which made a trip to Ukraine to talk about LGBTQI+ issues, but just sadly, they talk about the need to criminalize the quer community, not share experiences of how the US navigate true many discussion and made gay marriage possible.
At the same time, the European Union is losing the opportunities to stand for the human rights for LGBTQI+ in Ukraine even though the European Commission and other institutions have a lot of tools in the box to be more actively advocating for equality. Unfortunately, integration into the EU does not require recognition of same-sex marriages, as the EU doesn't regulate marriage standards for members, and after Ukraine passed antidiscrimination legislation and banned the bare minimum of protecting the LGBTQI+ community from discrimination in the workplace, European bureaucrats checked all boxes and lost political interest in any advocacy for the queer community.
The greatest example was a few weeks window in 2022 when the EU was considering Ukrainian application to become a candidate for a member of the European Union, and the Erocommision passed to the Ukrainian government must to do list which included the ratification Istanbul Convention but failed to mention hate crime bill there, what was already in parliament and ready to vote, even more - less sensitive and controversial then Istanbul Convention (religion organization was massively oppose ratification on affair “gender ideology” and actively pushing back in parliaments many years).
The last miles of the equality marathon
Ukraine did make enormous progress toward equality for the LGBTQI+ community in the past. More than that - the newish Ukrainian society is much more tolerant, welcoming, and friendly, and if in 2015, KyivPride had a few hundred activists - the last one counted more than ten thousand participants. Surprisingly, most of them were straight people. Ukraine has the biggest movement of LGBTQI+ soldiers in Europe, the larger parents of queer children movement, and many more.
The picture becomes even brighter if you look at the map and realize all regional countries are going backward on LGBTQI+ issues. Belarus and Russia criminalized homosexuality back in their wish to relive the Soviet Union. Still, even Poland has a free LGBTQI+ zone movement where some regional counties declare themself free from the LGBTQI+ community. On that background, Ukraine looks like the most promising and leading country in the region. Only the Ukrainian government took a nap on the last miles of a marathon.
How can we shake the Ukrainian government and help them stop lingering on the most essential legislation for the LGBTQI+ community, and end the inequality battle in Ukraine? We can start actively using our diplomacy again. For example, Congress can send a delegation to exchange experiences on how they pass the Marriage Equality Act. The White House and State Department can be more proactive in working groups for the implementation of the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, which includes the Ukraine government's obligation to pass the hate crime bill, The Department of Justice can organize education program for its Ukrainian counterpart and help them to learn from the US experience on preventing hate crimes. And as we are a country with the largest number of LGBTQI+ envoys in the government per square foot - can we use them at least once for the greatest good?
LGBTQI+ as national security for the US
The important nuance that many experts miss - the LGBTQI+ issue in Ukraine and Eastern Europe (and even broader), is a more complicated issue than we think. One of the self-declared reasons Russia justifies its war and invasion of Ukraine is “traditional family values” and their preventing Slavic people from biting the forbidden fruit of GayEurope. When the Russian army took over Mariupol, the first biggest TV story on the Russian government channels was a video of how they found the “US strategic center of gays and lesbians in Mariupol”. The fact is that was an office of the local non-government organization that works with USAID on humanitarian projects and happens to have some posters from KyivPride. But even this Russian crusade against liberal values in Europe is not so damaging as their professional disinformation, work, and influences on American society with a false narrative. Right at this moment, thousands of Russians somewhere in a troll farm in the Crimea are making sure for the millions of US citizens in the coming election the most important issue will be what restroom to choose instead of social security reform.
Nina Jankowich, an expert on government strategic communication, in her book How to Lose the Information War gave a few examples of Russian misinformation campaigns that started in Ukraine but had real consequences on the US presidential election in 2020. She asks a question in her book: “The US and the Western world have finally begun to wake up to the threat of attack from Russia… what can the West do about it?”.
From my perspective as a Ukrainian by birth, American by choice, and gay by nature, the answer is simple: What if we start not talking about values but implementing them? What if, bit by bit, we will all be together to fight for democratic values and principles? And maybe Russians will never choose another matrix, but our matrix will be stronger and more resilient to the “Evil Empire”.
Bogdan Globa, President and co-founder QUA - LGBTQ Ukrainians in America, Former assistant Human Rights Committee Head in Verkhovna Rada (2014-2016), co-founder and CEO (2012-2016) larger LGBTQI+ advocacy organization Fulcrum
We seek to assist Ukrainian LGBTQ + individuals living in the US and Canada to integrate, adapt, and productively contribute to American society.
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