From the far reaches on the steppes of Eurasia, a American gay couple residing in Ukraine write about their experience in this difficult new nation: “For the gay male tourist, you are truly in the land of beautiful boys (no attitude and no body fascism). Of course, we are not as exciting as Berlin or Paris, but Kiev has its own special charm and style. Kiev boasts a lively gay disco, sauna, a few simple bars, even a nude/gay part of our very own “beach” along the Dnipro river…” With slow and careful luck a “Gay Life in Ukraine” can quietly be achieved.
By Richard Ammon
(Also see Gay Ukraine story 2012)
Brief Overview of Gay Ukraine
The following grim commentary is from
Gay Ukraine International web site. (The awkward
English is original to the site.)
Since 1933 in the Soviet Union male homosexuality was illegal and prosecuted by USSR Penal Code. Consensual male homosexual anal intercourse was punished by imprisonment of up to three years (Article 122 of the Penal Code of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic). Lesbian sex did not constitute a criminal offense but Lesbians were subjected to forced psychiatric treatment.
Although Soviet legislation has moved the gay population to the edge of social life, gay men had several advantages those years (excluding the Stalin period of Soviet history of course). First of all they were invisible for the rest of population because Soviet propaganda never spoke about any gay issues.
Homosexuality as a human behavior didn’t officially exist in the former Soviet Union. Most Soviet gay men and lesbians felt safer staying underground with their experiences as now. Because the Soviet people didn’t know anything about gay sex it was not hard to find one night stands with straight partners. Although being exposed by militia (police) led many of them to the mental hospitals.
The years of Gorbachev’s perestroika allowed some gay liberation movement. Being on the wave of general democratic moves in the Soviet society gay liberation gave political birth to such well-known and indisputable leaders as Roman Kalinin or Valeria Debryanskaya.
That was the time of heroes, social giants and radical dramatic changes. The time when the population of great monstrous country was ready to accept any democratic values, including the rights of sexual minorities. Unfortunately Soviet gay people have lost this unique chance to win equality and esteem.
However the Ukraine was the first among the former Soviet republics to repeal criminal responsibility for non-violent male homosexual intercourse between adults. It happened on December 12, 1991 after the Ukraine has gained state independence from Moscow on December, 1. So this year we anticipate celebrating a full decade since the Repeal of criminal prosecution for consensual homosexual intercourse between adult men in our country.
Today it is quite hard to determine the reasons for such progressive responsiveness by RADA (the Ukrainian Parliament). In any case, the country was on the highest democratic rise, so everything was possible. The recommendations of the European Community seemed persuasive even for conservative deputies and the law was passed without obstacles. Many gay and straight Ukrainians were supervised listening to the radio return about new Parliament decree that evening.
To summarize what happened, on December 12, 1991, RADA (Parliament of the Ukraine) passed the Law “On making amendments in Penal and Penal-Procedure Codes of the Ukrainian SSR”. According to this law, Article 122 of the Penal Code of Ukraine was fixed in new wording. Article 122 henceforward provided punishment only for homosexual contacts that involve violence. That opened new period of the gay rights in the Ukraine.
However the hopes of Ukrainian gay men for better life and social acceptance were absolutely vain. On January 1, 1992 the state prices for food and other goods of the first need were aborted and the living standard of Ukrainians dropped dramatic the democracy lost.
Hungry and angry people began to search of scapegoats for their sudden abject poverty. The hate became most favorite attitude of Ukrainian society. People started the witches’ hunting wanting to find out the reason of their dashed hopes. The gay men as well as M. Gorbachev, the USA, Jews, domestic nouveau riches and new criminal units symbolized the reasons of economy breakdown.
Paradoxically this was slightly seen in the years of total economic chaos, but has developed itself definitely later. Many significant political figures have used it to gain the votes on parliament elections. Ukrainian gay community was prepared neither for such kind of political propaganda nor for democratic struggle for own rights. Fresh established gay liberation groups such as Lilia Taranenko’s “Hanymed” in Kiev or Oxana Bocharnikova’s Foundation in Kharkov (aka “Pink Panther Group”) haven’t gain any authority among gay population because of its fear to be exposed.
All-Ukrainian Association”Hanymed” was registered in the spring of 1994. Yet that organization’s Statute barely mentioned gay men and lesbians and emphasized the problem of AIDS. This was typical of the gay liberation in Ukraine. The only context in which Ukrainian authorities allowed homosexuals to be mentioned was in the context of the AIDS epidemic problem. Bocharnikova’s Foundation “Defence Of Sexual Minorities’ Rights” was registered in the fall of 1995. Its Statute also emphasized the prevention of AIDS epidemic and safe sex propaganda. However reprisals against sexual liberation groups in Kharkov 1996 and criminal prosecution of their leaders forced Mrs Bocharnikova to emigrate. Association of gays, lesbians and bisexuals of Nicola “Liga” was registered in December 1996 but under the pressure of authorities has to stop with activity.
The typical feature of gay activism in Ukraine in the years (after disillusionment in mass gay liberation organizations such as Association”Hanymed” or Bocharnikova’s Foundation) was the appearance of numerous impostors posing as the leaders of Ukrainian gay movement. Realizing for sure that no gay movement will be possible in Kuchma’s Ukraine, they noticed that there are many philanthropic institutions in Western countries willing to support gay liberation process in FSU.
Several phantom GLBT groups and centers exist in Ukraine nowadays. They send numerous representatives to the international gay conferences, Gay Games, etc. asking for moral support and material resources for “Ukrainian freedom fighters”. The world gay community greets them with cheers avoiding the obvious truth: the only true intention of the impostors is to come faster to Western money. They are absolutely unknown to gay people of their own country. Phoney organizations have a tradition in Ukraine: failure of the IX Regional Conference of ILGA for the countries of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe in May 1995 gave rise to this scam.
As a matter of fact, the conference was held but the main part of the money allocated by ILGA for conducting the conference disappeared in an unknown direction. Organization “Dva Koliory” which was in charge of the conference was expelled from ILGA. For now the Ukrainian gay movement has to be underground and if you ever hear about gay organizations in this country or such actions like CSD-celebrations or Gay Pride parades, be sure that people who report them are telling the truth: they usually do it with aim to obtain the money intended for “Ukrainian gay liberation”.
Interview with American gay couple residing in Kiev, Ukraine
From Jeff and Glenn
Jeff and Glenn are an American couple who have lived in Eastern Europe and the Middle East for many years as financial consultants.
Globalgayz: What suggestions for reading about gay Ukraine do you have?
GG: What advice so you offer to gay foreigner’s visiting Ukraine”.
Couple: Come to Kiev and Ukraine with an open mind and a sense of humor. There are some wonderful sites to see (Churches, non-touristy post-Soviet ways of living), a young and non-attitude gay scene, and most importantly, warm and genuinely friendly, non-cynical people. As long as one doesn’t try to impose any PC attitudes about what gay life here should be or how “gay” individuals should live (not be married, apolitical, etc) you will be fine. Please, no cultural imperialism on what is the proper way to be “gay”. Observe and have your streets smarts with you. Someone you pick up or meet at a train station or sleazy bar at 2 AM may not be the best representative of the gay community or country here. Meet folks through word of mouth, is the best advice.
I would also tone down any outward PDA, gay buttons etc. outside of the main cities (Kiev, Lviv, Odessa). By all means visit the gay disco, bar, gay/nude part of our “beach” at Hydropark along the Dnipro River. Also, realize that any “rich” foreigner will attract his or her share of hanger on types… be conscious of being showy with money and so on. Brushing up on basic greetings in Russian (or Ukrainian for the Western part of the country) would be helpful. If you have time, familiarize yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet since few signs are in English. Finally, come with an open mind, and let fate take you on an adventure. Who knows where you’ll end up (of course, it should be safe and all). One bit of warning, if you have a problem with alcohol, avoid the country entirely since drinking is so tied to the culture here.
GG: What kind of ‘scene’ might I expect to encounter–organizations, clubs, bars. media, cruise places, cultural/social/sexual events?
Couple: By reading the Kyiv Post, or the Russian language “Afisha”, or the Russian language “Aden Zenas” (One of Us) publications; they can clue you in on what is going on club wise. The “Kievsex” web site lists cruise spots, bars, discos, sauna, etc. Any fashionable bar, cafe, club will get a small gay scene late at night. Things change so often it’s better to make contact through an Internet chat room to see what’s going on. Of course the cruisey parks are here and shouldn’t be to hard to find. I would always travel with my passport and be prepared for the consequences should you be arrested or entrapped in a compromising position. Never bring anyone back to your hotel room unless you really know the person extremely well. Plenty of folks have been drugged and robbed of all their belongings by cute, sexy, innocent things. Be extremely careful.
GG: What are the”factions” that seem to be in competition in gay Kiev (as mentioned in the over view quoted above)?
Couple: Basically, the older, over 30 more ‘Soviet’ crowd are so different from the younger, empowered, 20-something guys many of whom identify as gay in the Western model. There are plenty of vicious queens and hustler types like anywhere else. On the other hand, the kind of guys you’d like to meet probably aren’t hanging out at a gay bar in the early hours (or they could, though). Any cultural type events which are popular here would naturally attract a number of gay fellows (the Spartak opera especially).
GG: How are gays treated by the public in general?
Couple: As a rule, if you have money and a good job and live in Kiev people don’t care. We think a sizable majority of gay guys get married and fool around on the side–secrets are an accepted Soviet way of life. People’s private life is typically opened up to only a few close friends, not casual strangers. Just asking a gay fellow about his family, job, etc. might be considered rude, since, as a rule folks are not as chatty or (understandably) trusting toward new acquaintances.
Gays are more a curiosity or Western thing for many folks. Although there are plenty of old timers, there are also newer Christian fundamentalists (imported from the West) who are disgusted by gays, and would love to eradicate them and AIDS. Most people are pretty tolerant as a rule. Just don’t rub it in people’s faces and most Ukrainians get by with their everyday life and for many, struggle. Having the time to worry too much about sexual politics is a time luxury few indulge in.
GG: What is the level of homophobia–violent or verbal?
Couple: For many areas outside of Kiev, gay doesn’t even register on the radar screen. There are small, anti-foreigner, racist, anti-Semitic, skinhead, sometimes nationalistic, sub groups, but not as bad as, let’s say, Berlin or Russia. For sure, being black or Asian is more dangerous, regarding rude comments and harassment by the authorities, than being gay. Of course, mouthing off to a militia man late at night who might ask for your documents can be dangerous and stupid.
GG: How are gays treated by the authorities and the church?
Couple: Once again, the authorities don’t think about it too much. There used to be a well known but quiet gay justice minister and one or two rumored Rada (Parliament) members. The repressive, anti-gay Soviet laws were done away with years ago right after independence. The ‘gay laws’ are more than likely more progressive than some American states. The tabloid press and media have even done stories on a gay couple adopting children, known gay Ukrainian celebrities, titillating stories about the Gay Games or a gay Pride parade somewhere else. The Church doesn’t have that much clout (unlike Russia) and is usually fighting among their various factions. It’s no secret that many priests here are gay and have unofficial ‘parties’.
GG: What about lesbians: are they visible and how are they reacted to?
Couple: We only know a very small group who often go to the mens clubs and bars since they don’t have anything of their own. A former Peace Corp volunteer who is a lesbian friend of ours has a Ukrainian partner. As our web site mentions, there is a thriving gay expat group which also includes a few westerners with long term local Ukrainian boyfriends or girlfriends.
GG: How serious is the AIDS situation and is there a lot of stigma attached; what kind of medical care is available to natives?
Couple: Of course it’s a disaster waiting to happen.The Ukrainian government is committed to fighting this problem which is mainly thru IV drug use and prostitution. The UNAID’s has a major presence here as well as US and other donor countries trying to tackle this problem. Condoms (Western brands) are widely available and safe sex messages and commercials do take place. One of the major radio stations”Gala Radio” and Super Nove routinely inform young people about the need for safe sex. As a rule, the Church doesn’t seem to care or interfere with the safe sex campaign. Unfortunately, the government is limited in fighting all kinds of medical problems so there is always insufficient funds for HIV.
Campaigns to Combat Spread of HIV/AIDS
Gay Ukraine News & Reports 2000 to present