LGBT Activism in Russia and Ukraine

“This was my first Pride without fear,” said Elena Kostyuchenko, a Moscow-based Russian journalist and LGBT activist. “In Moscow, Pride demonstrations only last around 30 seconds to a minute… then the police come and beat us. I was hospitalized twice.”

“This was my first Pride without fear,” said Elena Kostyuchenko, a Moscow-based Russian journalist and LGBT activist. “In Moscow, Pride demonstrations only last around 30 seconds to a minute… then the police come and beat us. I was hospitalized twice.” Kostyuchenko has participated in Moscow Pride demonstrations for five years. Each time, she has been beaten and arrested, then ostracized by a largely homophobic Russian community. Pride parades have been banned in Moscow for the next 97 years by the city council. But on Sunday, Kostyuchenko, along with other Russian-speaking LGBT activists, marched in the NYC Pride March with an organization called RUSA LGBT. A record 250 Russian-speakers from 10 countries marched in the NYC Pride March this year, alongside Americans, like myself. We marched with bilingual signs that read “No borders for equality” and “Love is stronger than hate.” For many, it was their very first time living openly. “I wore a dress and heels in the march,” said Kostyuchenko happily. “In Moscow, I never could do that. It is not practical when you expect arrest. In this March, it was so different.” Life in Russian-speaking and former Soviet countries can be incredibly difficult for LGBT people. A friend of mine from Uzbekistan told me, “If I came out in my country, they’d kill me.” While marriage equality was being debated in the United States, a law to ban transgender people from marrying at all was proposed in Russia. Russia’s notorious anti-propaganda law makes it very challenging to help LGBT youth. “There are so many LGBT youth who have to run from their homes,” said Mariya Kozlovskaya, a senior lawyer of Russian LGBT-Network. “And opening a shelter for them would be illegal.” About a year ago, a chilling law was proposed in Russia to forcibly remove all children from LGBT parents. Though the law has yet to pass, Kostyuchenko said with an uneasy laugh: “It’s creepy.” She said many LGBT Russian families would likely seek asylum in the West to stop the government from taking their children away from them. The United States has already seen an influx of asylum seekers from Russian-speaking countries. In Ukraine, the LGBT movement utilizes the current political climate for their gain. “We say, ‘If you want to be like the West, why don’t you adopt Western ideals?’” said Volodymyr Naumenko of Gay Alliance Ukraine. Seated beside him, activist Taras Karasiichuk nodded in agreement. Karasiichuk had his jaw broken and suffered a concussion in 2012 after two violent antigay attacks. In Russia, the conflict in Ukraine and resulting sanctions strengthens anti-Western sentiment. Kostyuchenko says that until the conflict in Ukraine erupted, LGBT people were considered “the number one threat to Russia… Now [we] are number two [to Ukraine].” Life for LGBT people in Russian-speaking countries can be terrible. But there is a glimmer of light on the horizon. LGBT youth in Russia are forming their own organizations, in small towns and big cities. LGBT activists refuse to give up, even in the face of violence and danger. Russian politician Leonid Volkov of the Democratic Coalition and Senator Konstantin Dobrynin voiced their support of LGBT rights in the wake of the same-sex marriage ruling in the United States. The world has its eye on the treatment of LGBT people. “Do not think that there is no hope,” said Svetlana Zakharova of Russian LGBT-Network. Over the past few decades, the fight for LGBT equality in the United States has progressed enormously. Perhaps Russian-speaking countries will see the same occur.