LGBTQ Ukrainians take defiant stand while Putin's 'overtly homophobic' regime attacks their country
Ukraine earlier this month liberated Kharkiv from Russian occupation, but the city's still frequently hit by Russian bombs.
However, a combination of danger and exhaustion led to an inspiring surprise this past Sunday when rainbows filled a downtown street and flowed down into the Metro through ten stations along three lines.
LGBTQ demonstrators waved rainbow flags, donned shirts, skirts, scarves, wigs, masks, dyed their hair purple, pink, green, gold and blue. Just a few days after Russia's Vladimir Putin mobilized 300,000 more soldiers against Ukraine, the Metro Pride parade blossomed in war-battered Kharkiv.
"Putin doesn't care if all he has left to rule in Kharkiv is rubble but we wanted to show we stand beside our fellow citizens to the end, whatever it will be; our Metro Pride parade was to show all Ukrainians we are with them no matter where the war zone grows," a Kharkiv volunteer medic and emergency responder, nicknamed "Olek," told Raw Story. "We are fighting for their rights and our rights."
Putin's longtime persecution of LGBTQ communities and open contempt for pride parades was cited as a valid reason for war by Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, a close ally of. This spring, Patriarch Kirill cast the war as Russia's chance "to show which side of humanity" it was on, the righteous or the Evil "club of nations" that allow pride parades to prove how debauched they are.
A Ukrainian LGBT medical lab technician who volunteered to help UN investigators document war crime evidence told Raw Story about interviews with male Ukrainians military volunteers and civilian medics abused by Russian troops. He said soldiers often mock men with homophobic slurs before raping them.
"The soldiers say, now you are homosexual because that is the worst condition of man the soldiers can imagine," said the technician, who asked to only be identified as "Yakiv" because he believes he may be on a Russian hit list.
Apparently, Russian police in Moscow also know how to weaponize rape. On Monday, poet Artem Kamardin, outspoken in his opposition to Russia's war on Ukraine, was brutally beaten and raped by police. According to Novaya Gazeta, an investigative news organization critical of Putin's regime, the police made video of the rape. They allegedly played it for Kamardin's girlfriend and threatened to rape her if she protested his treatment.
Kamardin says the Moscow cops then forced him to apologize on film for participating in a Monday poetry reading opposing the mobilization. And the police ordered to apologize for telling the Russian government to "suck it."
In February, US Ambassador to the United Nations Bathsheba Crocker wrote a letter alerting the UN to hit lists Russia had compiled of Ukrainian LGBT activists who would be kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, killed. Non-LGBT journalists and human rights activists were also on the list as natural thorns in a paranoid dictator's side. But listing LBGT activists hinted at personal boogeymen to expert Russia-watchers like Regina Elsner.
Elsner is a research fellow at the Berlin-based Centre for East European and International Studies. She lived in Russia for years just prior to the war on Ukraine and studied the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian politics while earning her doctorate.
"Homosexuality is the biggest image of an enemy and nonhuman being in Russian society," she told Raw Story.. "The army and prisons have a special hierarchical system where homosexuals are the lowest caste. This very much plays out in everyday life and even more in wartime. “Gay” is a curse in Russian everyday language."
She sees a parallel between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church leader and the many white, far-right evangelical pastors who regard Trump as God's choice to preserve American values. Elsner explains that Kirill and conservative Russians see "non-heterosexual ways of living are the core of decadent West and the Russian army is defending traditional Ukraine from the West as part of Russia."
But Ukraine's perspective on LGBT citizens had been diverging from Russia's for decades. In 1991, Ukraine laws criminalizing homosexuality were ended. In 2015, LGBT workplace discrimination was declared illegal. Elsner sees LGBT members of Ukraine's military as agents of change.
"There's a special group of LGBTQ soldiers quite visible since 2014 who use their patriotic loyalty as an argument against homophobia, showing that being gay is no obstacle to true citizenship," Elsner said. Another key difference between attitudes in the Russian and Ukrainian military stems from almost 20 percent of Ukraine's military being women "so the toxic masculinity inherent in Russian systems is much weaker or maybe even absent in Ukraine.".
Forbes magazine's March issue showcased drag performer-turned-Ukrainian regional defense volunteer Vlad Shast, 26, who uses "his contacts as a stylist to help the army find materials and supplies." Ukraine's volunteer Azov Regiment has gained fame for its valor and because members come from the LGBT community and from far right groups who bully and beat LGBT Ukrainians. The fog and chaos of war seems to have blurred or even erased some prejudices making bigots accept anyone with the guts to be on the frontlines.
Over in Russia, Putin denounced homosexuality as a threat to national security back in 2013 when the Duma passed a national law passed making it illegal for any Russian to speak approvingly of gay rights.
University of Albany Russian Studies professor Nadia Kizenko, the daughter of a Ukrainian-born Russian Orthodox priest, points out there is no buffering effect from pop culture. Russians along the entire spectrum of sexuality never danced together to a catchy gay disco anthem, or watched a Russian version of "Will and Grace" or a TV trailblazer like "Poise" or bought MAC lipstick after drag empress RuPaul advertised it.
"American attitudes have been shaped by a pop culture for decades that never unfolded in Russia," Kizenko told Raw Story.
Elsner says Russia is now "overtly homophobic... The anti-gay (agenda) is a so-called glue of the conservative and authoritarian groups and political parties in all of our societies as part of the culture wars...Gender-issues are able to mobilize people otherwise keen to stay out of politics because they frame it as a threat for their personal, private lives."
Many American LGBT leaders, like GLAAD Media Institute vice president Ross Murray, see Putin's hatred hardening into a war strategy.
"It's clear that a large reason for the Russian invasion of Ukraine is built on the demonization and persecution against the LGBTQ community," Murray told Raw Story via email. "Russia is waging a war of disinformation on multiple fronts: against Ukraine, democracy, and the global LGBTQ community. ..From Russia's enactment of propaganda laws to the invasion of Ukraine, the attacks on LGBTQ people were always a sign of a growing dictatorship that intentionally sought to erase minorities."