When Euromaidan commenced in Ukraine in late November 2013, the world stood at attention. But as is so often the case during popular uprisings, many of us overlooked the various unique parts that made up the whole. Over one million Ukrainians protested in favor of joining the European Union and ousting their country’s Russian-backed government. Among those protesters were many members of the LGBT community, who have a lot to lose should Russian influence prevail in the country. Giving us a front row seat to the conflict is This is Gay Propaganda: LGBT Rights & the War in Ukraine, a new documentary by queer Ukrainian-Canadian filmmaker Marusya Bociurkiw.
In 2014, Bociurkiw traveled to the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odessa to speak with LGBT refugees and activists. The main purpose of the trip was to track the impact of Russia’s now infamous “gay propaganda” law in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine. Seeing as how Ukraine became the first post-Soviet country to decriminalize homosexuality (this back in 1991), the potential success of the propaganda law would be a huge step backwards for the country’s LGBT community.
We get a taste of this when we hear Alexandra’s story. Alexandra is a feminist activist and refugee from Donetsk who is currently living in Kyiv. She shares that she’s always been open about her sexual orientation and has even received support from her family. Before the revolution, her biggest brush with discrimination was her university kicking her out so she wouldn’t have the chance to teach children (which is a pretty big deal if you ask me!). Her being so blasé about this should tell you a lot about how bad things would eventually get.
Alexandra had all her ID taken by the cops and the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic militia. Worse yet, she had her face plastered on a “Wanted” poster with the caption “Pro-Bandera (“Fascist”) Lesbian from Donetsk” written under it, as well as her cellphone number and her VKontakte (Russia’s Facebook) account ID. The text threats were bad, but it was when people started showing up at her home that she knew she had to leave.
Fortunately, with some help, she was able to sneak out of Donetsk. She found shelter in a refugee safe house run by Insight, an LGBT organization. Insight’s director Olena Shevchenko also features prominently in the movie. As does Anna Sharygina, vice president of Sphere, a feminist organization based in Kharkiv. There are actually plenty of kickass women in the film, and it’s nice to see us outnumber the men in the cause for a change.
On that note, there’s also Nina Verbitskaya and Anna Leonova, organizers of Odessa Queer House, who speak to the present situation. Bociurkiw had wanted to interview activists in Crimea, but after learning that the region was too dangerous, she traveled to nearby Odessa instead. Odessa Queer House is one of only four LGBT community centers operating in Ukraine–a recent development made possible with the support of Gay Alliance Ukraine.
Indeed, Crimea and Donetsk are no-go zones for LGBT people. And yet, there are undoubtedly LGBT people living there and others hoping to one day be able to return home. What’s more, today Russian influence is creeping into other parts of Ukraine and continues to be a threat to the country as a whole.
If we hope to help, we must first understand the issues at hand. That said, if you’re at all interested in learning about the Ukrainian situation from an LGBT perspective, you need to watch This is Gay Propaganda.
This is Gay Propaganda: LGBT Rights & the War in Ukraine is premiering at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival on August 17. Check in with your local LGBT film festival to find out when it’ll be playing near you.