In a conservative, deeply religious, fledgling democracy, one misunderstood minority’s peaceful march contributed to advancing freedom of press, speech, and assembly in Europe’s second largest and potentially one of its wealthiest nations.
LGBTQ Ukrainians held their first Equality March in Kyiv (Kiev – Russian transliteration) this past weekend and its significance goes well beyond calls for legal rights and protections for sexual minorities.
In sharp contrast, LGBTQ citizens in Russia and Georgia were recently beaten and attacked for peaceful marches demanding basic civil and human rights. Orthodox Church leaders contributed to this devilish behavior oblivious to Christ’s calls to love more, judge less, and build community.
Russian and Georgian history suggest centuries of destructiveness from violence, brutality, inhumanity, and political persecution do not automatically become lessons learned. The ongoing and recent treatment of LGBTQ citizens in these countries showed the international community a crass, unsophisticated, and ignorant roughness unbefitting the lands that gave civilization much beauty through Tolstoy, Borodin, Balanchine, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich among many others.
Political and religious pressures, not law or justice, prompted a court to ban the Equality March in downtown Kyiv. Organizers showed a deft political understanding by moving the event, though keeping it within city limits.
Amnesty International contributed, with the government’s acquiescence, to protecting the small, yet historically important demonstration. Foreign embassy staff stationed in Kyiv participated in the event.
Although modest in number, their courage underscored the fundamental importance of freedom of expression in any democracy. As reflected by international media, the world took notice and in stable democracies, these LGBTQ pioneers won respect for themselves and their reluctant nation struggling to understand the issue and better live as a democracy.
The potential for violence existed. Svoboda, an unruly homophobic, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic nationalist party focused on undoing centuries of Russification marginalizing and undermining Ukrainian culture, joined by religious demonstrators, attempted to disrupt activities. They failed.
Hep Monatzeder, Munich’s Deputy Mayor, observed, “We organise gay pride in Munich. It’s a joyful event, people join in, we have fun and there’s hardly a police presence. Here the situation is different – so many police, so many aggressive protesters. But I still feel safe,” said Monatzeder.
How LGBTQ organizers planned the event coupled with the refreshing, if not surprising, professionalism of local police, and Amnesty International’s participation, avoided tragedy.
Most Ukrainians still oppose extending legal protections to sexual minorities and mistakenly remain wary “homosexual propaganda” will corrupt the nation’s youth. Yet on this occasion, the country as a whole, showed a grudging civility unseen in Russia and Georgia.
In general, Ukrainians will wince at the thought of rainbow flags flying in a city over 1,500 years old where onion domes grace the skyline. They should stay focused on the big picture, however, and what it means for European Union integration and moving the country away from Russia’s ongoing economic exploitation. They should think about how fewer visa restrictions on travel will better their lives because, in part, of the event’s handling.
Ukrainians also should take pride in knowing they showed the world something important. Ukraine – as it did during periods of its long history – can be a leader in Eastern Europe. Now it must continue the momentum and nurture its ability for democratic maturity.
Paul Jesep is a policy analyst, corporate chaplain, and author of “Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically”.