image: Facebook/Marusya Bociurkiw

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Just one month ago I was navigating tire barricades and memorials for the dead, eating borscht with brawny men in fatigues, interviewing activists who overthrew a corrupt government. I inhaled tear gas thrown by the Right Sector, gulped back killer vodka with LGBT thinkers and activists, and, many, many times, swallowed back tears.

Long story short, I was in Ukraine, where, to quote a very bad old song, tears are not enough.

Ukraine, in the wake of a hard-won election, has many struggles ahead. One of its main obstacles is global ignorance fuelled by an intense Soviet-style propaganda war. While both standard and far left media focus on sensationalism and deploy a weary toolkit of cultural stereotypes, the actual situation on the ground is far less black-and-white — and, to my mind, much more exciting. As I visited crowded offices and hole-in-the-wall bars, meeting Ukraine’s first generation of out queer activists, I understood that I was witnessing a profound and historic cultural transformation.

Before I left, friends warned me repeatedly to “take care” of myself; one or two had even asked me not to go to Ukraine. But another friend, a Berliner, said something that resonated for me: “Life goes on, even during a war.”

Russian troops creep across Ukraine’s eastern borders with increasing aggression — last week, they killed 49 Ukrainain soldiers in an army transport plane. Newly elected President Petro Poroshenko supports an anti-terrorist military initiative, which at least 40 per cent of Ukrainians oppose. Despite this, Ukraine’s citizens are taking the helm and forming civil society. The savvy organizing coming from feminist, LGBT and human rights communities has remained largely unnoticed by international media. But, in the wake of a crucial and historic election, these may just be the people who carry Ukraine into the EU.

I was met by Anna Dovgopol outside the Zoloti Vorota Metro, one warm spring day. I was in Kyiv to do research and filming, and needed to be affiliated with a reputable organization. The Kyiv branch of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a Green Party policy reform think tank, seemed like a good place to hang my hat. The Boll Institute folks have organized and lent support to such initiatives as “Overcoming Backlash,” an international workshop on gender issues, as well as Ukraine’s first-ever queer theory conference scheduled for May 2014, which had to be cancelled due to its location in Kharkiv, in the east. Dovgopol, a seasoned feminist and LGBT rights activist, welcomed me warmly, but cautiously, it seemed. We went for coffee at an outdoor café with a stunning view of St Sophia Cathedral, and she filled me in.

Along with everyone I met, Anna had been active on the Euromaidan, for months on end. She told me about the Zhinocha Sotnya, the ironically named “Women’s Battalion” — a group of feminist activists that worked to include women in both the fighting and organizing. They worked day and night, holding vigil at hospitals so that wounded activists wouldn’t be kidnapped; helping to build barricades; organizing film screenings and lectures about women’s issues. As she talked, I realized that the Maidan had been a kind of Occupy Movement writ large: a cultural as well as a political movement, with a much wider cross-section of society, and, of course, a much more specific set of goals.

Anna was tired, and a little disillusioned. She explained how the Ukrainian government had reached a deal with the EU that would allow Ukraine to omit sexual orientation from an anti-discrimination bill — normally required for EU visa-free travel. This was a blow to LGBT activists across Ukraine, Euromaidaners all. But I never once got a sense of bitterness or defeat. Anna, like every activist I met in Ukraine, was adamantly multi-issue. She had recently helped organize an International Women’s Day (IWD) action for the women of Crimea, at that point already under Russian occupation. IWD in Ukraine is usually celebrated Soviet-style, with a rhetoric about women’s tenderness and beauty. “And then the men go and get drunk,” said Anna matter-of-factly. Instead, hundreds of women gathered to sign postcards that were later sent to a women’s organization in Crimea, to the background of a women’s drumming group. The event was pure Maidan: it had a clear political objective, but it aimed for social transformation as well.

Bogdan Globa is a clean cut young man with a gravitas beyond his years. In his early 20s, he is the director of Fulcrum, a Ukrainian LGBT rights organization that, like the Heinrich Boll Foundation, manages to make progress on a dizzying array of issues.

Because any important conversations in Ukraine happen over tea, we sat with Bogdan’s colleagues in the office’s tiny kitchen and talked about what it had been like to be gay on the Euromaidan. While western leftists (including myself) took it upon ourselves to critique the Ukrainian enthusiasm for the EU, it was suddenly clear to me that the LGBT community had no choice. It was either Europe, or a return to Russian anti-gay legislation. In fact, a law similar to Russia’s was already being proposed under the Yanukovich regime. And yet, Ukraine had been the first of the post-Soviet countries to decriminalize homosexuality. These activists wanted to keep things that way but they want much, much more. 

Unlike their counterparts in the west, the Ukrainian LGBT activists aren’t devoting most of their resources to gay marriage. For certain practical matters, they support civil partnership but it’s only a part of their multi-pronged strategy. Their activities including building a gay-friendly doctor’s network, both for People With AIDS and for the increasing number of lesbians wishing to give birth. They are excited about their building of alliances with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) — family is very important in Ukraine.

But they lobby government as well. In November 2013, Bogdan gave the first LGBT presentation to the Ukrainian parliament. He spoke of being bullied for his gayness as a boy, and of being shunned by his family. He said, “”Dear MPs, my main appeal to you is: when you vote for the bill introducing the mechanism of non-discrimination on the grounds of “sexual orientation,” you have to understand that the implementation of the EU demand is not simply a requirement of the European Commission, it is about the lives of young guys like me.”

Currently, Bogdan is publicizing the fact that Ukraine’s Democratic Alliance Party, a Christian-Democratic group that denied membership to Globa based on his sexual orientation. Fulcrum also recently published the results of a survey indicating that 79 per cent of Ukrainian’s LGBT population has suffered some form of discrimination.

Over the next few weeks I talked to many other activists. I shared pizza and salad with a middle-aged feminist involved in documenting human rights abuses during the Maidan, for the International Court in the Hague. For a forthcoming film, I interviewed a young lesbian working with Crimean refugees, and another young woman, helping those who lost their jobs in the Maidan, to find work. In Lviv, after a screening of my film, “What’s the Ukrainian Word for Sex?,” I had a long discussion with students working to change academic culture in Ukraine, whether through raising LGBT issues at a forum on human rights (they were later shunned), or through refusing to participate the corrupt bribe system at universities throughout the country.

In Kyiv, as I crossed the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) each day to return to my apartment, the tire barricades and the memorials to the dead took on new meaning for me. No longer a symbol of a seemingly futile effort to join the west, they were reminders of a population passionately engaged in rebuilding their society, from the inside out.

Canadian activists have much to learn from them.

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Marusya Bociurkiw is an author, filmmaker and Associate Professor of Media Theory at Ryerson University in Toronto where she is co-director of the Studio for Media Activism and Critical Thought. She is currently working on a film about the women of the Euromaidan.