'It's Even Worse Than Before': How The 'Revolution Of Dignity' Failed LGBT Ukrainians

November 21, 2018 15:27 GMT


KYIV -- Anastasia Eva Domani lists several personal milestones in her 39-year life. Her wedding was one. The birth of her daughter was another.

Two more were the day she began hormone-replacement therapy as part of her transition to becoming a woman two years ago, and when she finally obtained legal documents that match her gender identity.

The last two, she told RFE/RL in a recent interview at Kyiv's President Hotel, might never have been possible -- or would have been significantly more difficult -- if not for another, more public, milestone: the Euromaidan uprising of 2013-14, known by many Ukrainians as the Revolution of Dignity.

Indeed, among the hundreds of thousands of protesters who endured freezing temperatures during the months-long, pro-democracy street protests were dozens of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Ukrainians -- including Domani, who had not yet come out to many family and friends and was still publicly using her birth name, Oleksandr.

The unrest and public outrage at the resulting clampdown ultimately propelled the ouster of a Moscow-friendly president for a pro-Western administration, tipping Ukraine and its 45 million people toward European institutions and cementing the enmity of neighboring Russia.

The protests also struck at a "really crucial moment for the LGBT community," according to Olena Shevchenko, chair of the Kyiv-based LGBT rights NGO Insight.

Shortly before the demonstrations began on November 21, 2013, Ukraine's parliament had passed the first reading of a bill that would have criminalized the spread of so-called "gay propaganda."

"It was worse than laws in Russia," Shevchenko said, referring to legislation passed earlier the same year that essentially forbid public mention of homosexuality. Under the Russian law, violators can be punished with fines, while gay-pride events have been blocked and activists detained.

"But our [Ukrainian] deputies were considering criminal responsibility for so-called ‘gay propaganda,'" meaning jail time, Shevchenko said. "If Euromaidan had not started, we were 100 percent sure it would have passed."

So when protesters ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 and the bill was abandoned, the LGBT community was optimistic that laws would be amended to curb discrimination and that societal attitudes would change.

That seemed more possible with the new government in Kyiv promising to impose European standards and values.

"There were many LGBTI people out there...in 2013 and 2014, protesting against the Yanukovych government’s repression and in support of democracy, dignity, and a closer relationship with Europe," said Matthew Schaff, Freedom House’s Ukraine office director.

But Domani and many other LGBT Ukrainians still face persecution and prejudice. They complain that the rights and freedoms demanded by the protesters on Kyiv's Independence Square, or simply the Maidan, have been overlooked and ignored.

Domani was among the first people to heed public calls to gather on the Maidan. The first thing she did was to add her name and contact information to a list where Ukrainians arriving from outside the capital could seek housing so they could remain in Kyiv during the protests.

For the next 93 days or so, she said, she shared her modest Kyiv apartment with 10 to 15 people, depending on the week.

When Domani was on the Maidan, she could often be found on the barricades alongside other protesters as they clashed with police and pro-government thugs, known as "titushki," amid the blazing fires and freezing cold.

She recalled in vivid detail how the brutal Berkut riot police pummeled protesters with truncheons or cut them down with live rounds from shotguns and sniper rifles.

"I saw so many dead bodies," Domani said of casualties that culminated in the deadliest day of the Euromaidan clashes on February 20, 2014, when around 70 protesters died.

Domani was also active with AutoMaidan, the mobile wing of the Euromaidan protest movement. She often cruised in a car with the group around Kyiv, collecting tires to burn on the Maidan and bottles to fill with petrol for Molotov cocktails that would be hurled at police lines during the more violent clashes.

"It was scary," she said recently.

But the support she felt from those around her back then kept her going. Protesters were united in their desire to overthrow a corrupt and violent government, Domani explained.

Then, she said, it felt like perhaps the tide was changing -- for the country and perhaps specifically for transgender people, too.

In the aftermath, there was some positive change.

The ostensibly pro-European government under President Petro Poroshenko went on to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union -- the rejection of which by Yanukovych had been the catalyst for the protests in the first place. The passage of an amendment to Ukraine's labor code followed, making it illegal to fire anyone on the basis of their sexuality.

Ukraine has also subsequently hosted LGBT Pride marches each June, which despite being targeted by far-right activists have been mostly protected by the country's police force. That helped bring visibility to LGBT rights that didn't previously exist.

The Health Ministry, headed by American-born Ulana Suprun, has arguably gone the furthest, at least for transgender Ukrainians.

In late 2016, the ministry took a major step by repealing laws that forced people who wanted to transition to a different gender and be legally recognized as having done so to undergo extensive psychiatric observation, divorce their spouses, undergo sterilization, and submit to gender reassignment surgery.

Today, the process remains arduous but is better, said Domani, who has gone through it herself. Patients still have to undergo psychiatric examination, but it is less intrusive and the other requirements have been dropped.

Domani, who is one of Ukraine's most visible transgender activists, said at least 50 transgender people have since received legal certificates affirming their gender reassignment.

But the Health Ministry represents the exception when it comes to LGBT rights in Ukraine, not the rule.

Many LGBT Ukrainians see little progress and even warn of a reversal.

"I'd say it's even worse," Shevchenko, the Insight NGO chair, said. It was the eve of a march her group helped organize to mark International Transgender Remembrance Day on November 18.

While she praised the Health Ministry for its work to help transgender Ukrainians, she argued that the ministries of Justice and Social Affairs have not been supportive to them or the LGBT community as a whole. And she cautioned that homophobia and transphobia remain rampant.

Shevchenko lamented the lack of protection provided by Ukrainian police at all events except for the annual Pride march in June.

"Pride is the exception, because Ukraine needs one day every year for LGBT rights," she said. "But it's not really about LGBT rights, it's about showing a picture of this for Western partners."

The other 364 days of the year, however, the LGBT community faces the threat of physical attack and lacks adequate protection guaranteed under Ukrainian law by authorities, she added.


For instance, little has been done to stop far-right extremists from organizing "gay safaris," where they use social media to lure LGBT people to a meeting, only to attack and humiliate them on camera.

"They say, ‘It's the LGBT community that's being provocative,'" Shevchenko said, referring to police.

In some cases, when Insight has asked police to investigate threats, she said, officers have told the group in profane and no uncertain terms, "There's nothing we can do."

Events the next day, and on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the Euromaidan protests, appeared to lend credibility to her assessment.

As roughly 40 LGBT activists, including Shevchenko and Domani, gathered near Kyiv's University subway station for what was meant to be a march, they were attacked by far-right radicals, who hurled smoke bombs and pepper-sprayed them. Two young LGBT women were beaten, and a Canadian reporter covering the event was punched in the face.

Instead of pushing away the attackers, police forcibly removed the LGBT activists and ordered them down an escalator inside the subway station.

Domani, who expressed disappointment that the march was interrupted, said police behaved like radicals "but in a uniform."

"If you undress them," she said with a slight chuckle, "and ask them what they think about [LGBT people], they will say the same things about us as far-right extremists."