One-on-one | LGBTQ+

Lenny Emson: Women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights are on the frontline

By - 06.10.2022

Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activist talks about fighting for rights in wartime.

In 2012, LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine faced one of the biggest threats to their fundamental rights since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Legislators were taking aim against “gay propaganda” and pushing for a bill that would outlaw the promotion or advocacy of LGBTQ+ issues as well as impose fines and jail time for supposed offenders.

Amid widespread anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and threats of violence from far-right groups, Lenny Emson, executive director of KyivPride — the biggest pride organization in Ukraine — joined forces with other LGBTQ+ activists to organize a protest and Ukraine’s first ever Pride march.

“That’s how KyivPride was born. It was a protest against this attempt to introduce this law,” Emson said.

The first Pride, what became known as the Equality March, was to be held in Kyiv in 2012 but was called off at the last minute due to backlash.

Right radical activists and right radical organizations united and went out to where the Pride march had to take place and it was overcrowded with these guys with masks and bats in their hands ready to beat us up,” Emson recalled. “The police said they didn’t have the capacity to protect us. We didn’t risk our people and we decided to step away.”

The next year, the first Pride took place with several participants marching, a number that would increase from year to year. Meanwhile the Ukrainian government stepped down from adopting the discriminatory legislation. In 2013 neighboring Russia implemented similar legislation that bans the distribution of “gay propaganda” and “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors.

“In 2021 we had 7,000 people marching in the city center [during Kyiv Pride], and hundreds of counter-protesters, so the balance changed,” Emson said.

This year, due to the war, KyivPride moved the march to the streets of Warsaw, where the city’s yearly march, the biggest Pride event in Central Europe, saw over 120,000 participants marching for peace.

KyivPrides’s Lenny Emson has been working to secure Ukrainian’s right to same-sex civil partnerships. Photo: Igor Čoko / K2.0.

“It wasn’t a celebration. We marched for the human rights of Ukranians, for the human rights of everybody,” Emson said. “I would like other countries and other communities to join this level of solidarity because Russian propaganda is everywhere and if we are not winning, then Russia will come for other countries, maybe not with an invasion, but with political power. In either case, for the LGBTQ+ community, it would be the end.”

K2.0 met up with Lenny Emson in Belgrade during EuroPride to talk about activism in times of war, Ukrainian LGBTQ+ people joining the military and the push in Ukraine for same-sex unions.

K2.0: How has KyivPride and your activism changed since the Russian invasion in February?

Lenny Emson: We decided to postpone our advocacy and information campaigns and we concentrated our focus on humanitarian aid and community needs.

Many people lost their jobs and many companies just closed down. Many people found themselves on the street. LGBTQ+ people are always the most marginalized community in every country and Ukraine is no exception. So KyivPride is helping people with direct aid, sending people money for housing and food.

We organize a shelter in the capital city, and other LGBTQ+ organization shelters in other cities. And we partnered with LGBTQ+ organizations in Europe, so people can find safe spaces. 

I think this is a tremendous example of how a community can self organize and how it can help and support others. Though some organizations had to relocate and go out of the country, many activists decided to stay in Ukraine to help and be engaged. I am really proud of my fellow LGBTQ+ activists because they decided to be engaged, to help the country win. 

The war has transformed Ukraine overnight. It has put the lives of every resident in constant danger and spawned new forms of mobilizations and activism. What are some of the main concerns of the LGBTQ+ community in Ukraine?

For us politically and for the whole region — not just Ukraine, but also Moldova, Serbia, and in EU countries like Croatia, Poland, and France — the common thing is that we have the Russian government supporting radical right-wing groups, financially supporting them for years, supporting radical right-wing politicians who support this political homophobia and transphobia. 

It is a political homophobia and transphobia because they are not active only on the streets as aggressive people who beat us up and who marginalize us. They are active politically. They are the people who are pronouncing LGBTQ+ free zones in Poland, they are the people who are opposing same-sex marriage in Slovenia. They are the people who here in Belgrade protested against Pride.

This is our common regional problem and it was long before the war. And we need to understand this: here we have a common enemy who is opposing our basic human rights. We need to look into it, and we need to unite to oppose it. And the war that is going right now in Ukraine is kind of the culmination of all this.

KyivPride provides shelters for LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine, whether they’re fleeing the violence of the Russian military, or of local homophobia. Photo: Lenny Emson.

If Ukraine wins — when Ukraine wins — this is the starting point from where we will have to organize to fight this political influence all over Europe. 

In Ukraine we were fighting for years for legal gender recognition for trans people. In 2016 we reached it. And finally trans people got the right to change their gender marker; after a few consultations with a psychiatrist you can change the gender marker on your passport. 

But we are still battling for same-sex marriage. As you probably know we sent a petition to the President’s Office and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy supported it, but said that now under martial law we cannot change the constitution but we can look at civil partnerships for same-sex partners. Now the parliamentary session is in fall and I believe we will push this issue to be looked at by parliament.

But also I see how the community is growing. We have more young people who aren’t afraid to come out; we have more people who are not afraid to come and march in Pride. We have more activists and the community is growing. It is growing because people aren’t afraid to come out. 

When I started my career I was an open activist and I would have many requests from the media and all questions were below the belt: ‘How do you like sex?’ ‘Who is the husband and who is the wife in your lesbian couple?’

Now, journalists talk to you about the right to march, about marriage, about adoption. They don’t look at you as a social object but as a social group. 

So this is a big change that happened in the media in the last 15 years. When we started with the Pride march there were so many journalists who were not necessarily against us, but they were looking at the March as a sexual demonstration because of the propaganda narratives.

Change happened because the LGBTQ+ community fought for their rights and freedoms.

But now, they see that the Pride march is a protest. When they saw that the Pride march is a gathering of human rights organizations they changed the media narrative. And the media narrative is what influences societal opinion. Of course there are many homophobic and transphobic people. They are there, but they are everywhere. 

These changes, this advancement of LGBTQ+ rights over the last decade is quite evident when reading about Ukraine over the last decade. Many progressive policies and laws, such as anti-discrimination policies in employment, coincide with the post-Maidan period. Some media reports suggest that this more accepting approach to LGBTQ+ rights is related to the country’s EU goals.

The thing is, this change wouldn’t be possible without the work of activists. This change isn’t just because of politicians or some other influence. This change happened because the LGBTQ+ community fought for their rights and freedoms.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Ukraine in 1991, immediately after we got our independence. Ukraine was the first country in post-Soviet space to decriminalize homosexuality. Then in 1993 the first LGBTQ+ groups were created. In 1996 the first LGBTQ+ association in Ukraine was created.

So it was step by step, and the community was growing and by the Maidan protests in 2013-2014 we were strong enough to be a political power. We as a community did a lot to push on politicians — it wasn’t vice versa. We influenced them, we pushed them, and we attracted a lot of support. 

LGBTQ+ people, who are often highly disadvantaged, face additional perils in the turmoil of war. How are LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine handling the war?

We know from the people who are stuck in the occupied territories that Russian Army forces are committing hate crimes and harassing LGBTQ+ people. We are interviewing members of the community in the occupied territories, so we will have examples of what is going on now, but still, just individual examples.

Then, on the other side, we have many hate crimes towards LGBTQ+ in not-occupied territories. Because now when the police and Army are busy with the war there are many people who feel free to commit crimes. 

Emson poses with a dual member of the Ukrainian Army and of Ukraine’s LGBTQ+ community. Photo: Lenny Emson.

Hate crimes towards LGBTQ+ people are on the rise. So the visible members of the community, such as trans people, gay people, they are getting beaten up, and subjected to humiliation, to all sorts of hate crimes, from people and from the police. 

We actually counted over 100 cases just reported to LGBTQ+ organizations. And we would suggest that the real number may be 10 times more, because many do not report. 

LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine are torn between two evils. On one side are the Russians, who are cruel to all Ukrainians. On the Ukrainian side you have so many people that hate LGBTQ+ people and feel themselves kind of free to commit hate crimes.

In Serbia, the Orthodox Church supported the ban on the pan-European LGBTQ+ event EuroPride, declaring it a threat to traditional values. In Belgrade, the Church is a highly politicized institution with a large influence on how narratives on such topics are shaped. What is the role of the Russian Orthodox Church and that of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church when it comes to shaping society’s views on LGBTQ+ issues?

In Ukraine we have a Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and they have arguments between each other, but in terms of LGBTQ+ issues, they are very much united. They and Catholic Church as well. 

They have a Council of Churches in Ukraine and this council has a very clear position on LGBTQ+ people and the position is not in our favor. 

Fortunately, these people don’t have as much political and societal influence as in other countries. Or like in countries like Serbia or Poland, the Church has much more influence. Ukraine I would say is not that religious, and with that I think we are very lucky. The Church is still our enemy. They are not tolerating us but fortunately for us they don’t have political power. 

Many LGBTQ+ people are joining the Ukrainian Army to fight for their country. Despite all the progress, across the world many queer people in military spaces face discrimination or harassment, or are forced to hide their sexuality. How are LGBTQ+ people in the Ukrainian military doing?

I was discussing this with a gay activist who is serving in the Army and I asked his opinion and he said that all these reports about discrimination in the Army come from the armies that are not in active action. 

In European countries armies are just an institution. But when you are on the frontline you see the enemy right there and you see the bullets coming in and artillery shooting you down and in this situation, you want to be open about yourself because your life might end in one minute.

We are fighting for our right to be visible in the Army.

And you want to spend the time left for you as you are, and people around you, they see you as a comrade who they fight together with and they don’t discriminate against you as a LGBTQ+ person. These activists tried to measure hate crimes towards LGBTQ+ soldiers in the Army and they said that now in the active stage of war there are not many reports inside of the Army. His explanation is that people are too busy fighting. 

War can exacerbate pre-existing patterns of discrimination against women and girls, and LGBTQ+ people. Often the struggle for gender-equality and LGBTQ+ rights is belittled or marginalized within the ultimate national liberation struggle. We witnessed something like this during the Kosovo War. How are women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights kept at the forefront while fighting for freedom?

I would say here, maybe it is very unique for Ukraine, but right now women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, they are on the frontline as well. Because women are fighting for the right to be accepted as soldiers, not just to take part in medical assistance. Fighting for the right to be there equal to men on the frontline. 

And same for the LGBTQ community. We are fighting for our right to be visible in the Army.

There are many activists who joined the Army and are open. They are fighting because they are already engaged in the Army and already engaged in the movement and they are combining this together, their right to be visible and keep the LGBTQ+ agenda more visible and colorful. 

Lets talk about civil same-sex partnerships. We are pushing on this because we need it first of all for our soldiers. Because if you are not married, you cannot officially collect the body. If they are killed on the battlefield you cannot collect the body. You cannot organize the funeral. If the person is wounded and in the hospital you cannot take care of them and make a decision for them if there’s a surgical operation. 

This is the most critical thing, but there are everyday things too: the right to own a house or apartment together. A married couple can own an apartment together, but an unmarried couple cannot.

That is why we’re pushing for civil partnerships right now in the middle of the war. Because this is a politically important issue for LGBTQ+ people. So straight people — I cannot remember the exact number — but from this period, if we compare with the previous year, 10 times more people got married than the previous year because people think they can be killed tomorrow. 

Straight people can do this and we cannot and this is not right. And we are fighting for our rights at the frontline.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation was conducted in English.

Feature image: Igor Čoko / K2.0.