LGBT Gains in Ukraine Are in Danger

Ukraine just passed some surprisingly progressive LGBT protections — but they might not last longer than a few weeks.

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LGBT rights have long been a contentious issue in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where homosexuality was a crime until the early 1990s. Despite the best efforts of a dedicated minority of LGBT activists and their supporters, lawmakers in Russia are considering a ban on public displays of LGBT identity. In Kyrgyzstan, leaders are considering a law that could send anyone to jail for so-called propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.

But Ukraine was supposed to be different. The country’s 2013 Euromaidan revolution, commonly referred to as the Revolution of Dignity, threw out the corrupt Yanukovych regime and installed a new and ostensibly more reform-minded government, which promised to bring the country in line with European standards and values. With many of the old guard still in power, reforms have been slow in coming. But, since the European Union requires workplace protections for sexual orientation and gender identity as a precondition for instituting visa-free travel, Ukraine’s vocal community of LGBT activists were confident that the country would soon move beyond the homophobic and transphobic discrimination that still pervades.

And indeed, last week — after several attempts — Ukraine’s parliament passed an amendment to the labor code that bans discrimination based on race, disability, and a host of other characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity. This seemed like a big win, both for human rights and for Ukraine’s prospects of European integration. The amendment promises Ukrainians protection from discrimination that citizens of many other countries, including the United States, do not enjoy. But in fact, this victory may not be what it seems. As soon as the vote was cast, opponents of LGBT rights began scheming to water down or do away with these new protections. If they succeed, the new rights LGBT Ukrainians have won might not last longer than a few weeks.

Ukraine is still a conservative country in which outbreaks of anti-LGBT violence are all too common. This summer, the KyivPride March for Equality was violently attacked by right-wing thugs wielding improvised explosives. In a 2011 survey of LGBT people conducted by the Ukrainian LGBT rights group Nash Mir, 89 percent of those who had come out reported experiencing discrimination or human rights abuses in the previous three years.

Even many of the country’s most reform-minded politicians are unable to accept that LGBT people deserve the same rights as everyone else. Vitaliy Klitchko, the Mayor of Kiev and a regular presence on Maidan square throughout the revolution, urged KyivPride activists to cancel the 2015 March of Equality demonstration. While President Poroshenko has boldly acknowledged that LGBT people have the same constitutional rights as anyone else, including the right to peacefully assemble, many other leaders loudly insisted that LGBT people should keep their identities in their bedrooms where they belong. The Right Sector, a right-wing nationalist movement that emerged during the Euromaidan protests, threatened to “deal with this evil” by sending thousands of its supporters to break up the march.

As the deadline to meet the EU’s workplace discrimination requirements approached last week, politicians, commentators, and activists clashed about the controversial legislation, pointing fingers at each other, either for caving to the EU and abandoning Ukraine’s traditional values, or for destroying Ukrainians’ dreams of integrating with Europe. Civic activists organizing on Facebook took to the streets under the banner “Don’t Fu€k With US!” to demand that parliamentarians do their job and pass the laws necessary to satisfy EU requirements — but displayed discomfort with the visibility of LGBT activists who arrived with rainbow flags. In the end, after failed attempts on November 5 and 10, and six roll-call votes on November 12, each of which inched closer to the necessary threshold of 226, the anti-discrimination amendment finally passed on November 12 — just barely — with 234 votes.

But the battle between competing visions of Ukraine’s future — a liberal, pro-European Ukraine or a more conservative, religious one — continues unabated. In an odd twist, the amended labor law is already due to be replaced in a few weeks with a newer version that has been in development for over a year. The new labor code does not include the comprehensive anti-discrimination provision that was recently passed, and must be amended before passage in order for these protections to continue. After the recent amendments were passed, opponents of LGBT rights argued that the protections were only temporary, and began scheming for ways to water down the language or keep it out of the new labor code altogether. In effect, the recent vote will have given the appearance that Ukraine had fulfilled its promises to the EU while failing to permanently institute the required protections.

Ironically, the deep religious values of Ukraine’s largely Catholic westernmost Galicia have prevented some of the country’s most pro-European political forces from supporting the pro-LGBT amendment. On November 12, Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya of Chernihiv and Nizhyn expressed his strong opposition to LGBT rights in a sardonic Facebook post, criticizing an unwillingness to compromise among proponents of the anti-discrimination protections and comparing the debate to the repression of the church under Soviet rule.

In response, Anna Romanova, a legislator from the pro-reform Samopomich party, which is strongest in the region, noted that the law would exist for only a month, until the new labor code is in place. In a statement on the party’s website, Oleh Bereziuk, another Samopomich deputy, opposed clear separation between church and state and voiced support for the church’s “superior, democratic and humanitarian approach to protecting human rights and freedoms.” Bereziuk and Romanova both said that their party would introduce an amendment more acceptable to religious leaders to the new labor code.

Other opponents of LGBT rights have proposed watering down the language of the recently-passed amendment with meaningless and ineffective variants. In a statement issued by Patriarch Filaret, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) suggested a “compromise” that would “adequately protect everyone from discrimination in the workplace and maintain harmony in Ukrainian society.” In his statement, he proposed changing the language of the labor code to ban discrimination on the basis of “attitude towards sexual relations” instead of the internationally-accepted term, “sexual orientation and gender identity.” His proposed term reduces nuanced questions of gender and sexual orientation to just sex and has no clear definition, raising questions about whether it would provide effective protection from anti-LGBT discrimination.

Yet another group of deputies from the Opposition Bloc, which is effectively the successor to former President Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, has proposed removing the new anti-discrimination protections altogether, justifying their opposition to violations of procedural norms during the voting process.

Even among those who voted for the amendment, support has been tepid. Another Samopomich legislator, vice-speaker of the Rada Oksana Syroyid, raised doubts that the EU was really going to allow Ukrainians to cross its borders without visas. She referred to the anti-discrimination amendment as a “Potemkin Village,” meant to “distract attention from the real reason that [Ukraine] will almost certainly not get a visa-free regime” with the EU — which she claimed was due to Ukraine’s lack of control over its borders, corruption, and other challenges.

It’s clear that the new LGBT protections are in danger. The question, then, is how to save them. With widespread antipathy among the Ukrainian public towards LGBT rights, EU pressure was a key ingredient of the recent victory. And it is continued pressure from the EU that will now be necessary to preserve this important step forward for human rights. The EU must reject any gimmicks, whether a temporary or watered-down ban on discrimination. The carrot of EU visa liberalization will help Ukrainian leaders make Ukraine a more pluralistic and democratic country — one where LGBT people can get a job or walk down the street without fear of discrimination or violence, and where LGBT rights and religious freedom are viewed as complementary rather than contradictory. The U.S. and Ukraine’s other friends should insist that the country justify its place among European democracies with real reforms. These efforts will reinforce the efforts of Ukrainian civil society to promote positive change. Without this pressure, not only LGBT rights protections, but reforms across the board, may fail. And that would leave Ukraine with a very uncertain future.

In the photo, Ukrainian LGBT activists rally in front of the parliament in Kiev during a hearing on November 10, 2015.

Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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