“Gaycation” recap (2.1): Ukraine

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I’m grateful for Gaycation because it’s easy to get complacent. As an American, who has been out for over half her life, I’m ashamed to say there have been many times that I have only seen what lies directly ahead of me. My rights, the safety of my friends and loved ones. Gaycation shakes me out of that everytime I watch it. It reminds me that we are a global community, and many members of our community are under siege. For so many, simply existing is an act of bravery. So yeah, I’m grateful that Gaycation kicks my ass and tells me to wake up, because who else will stand up for our community when they struggle under the heel of oppression.

That leads us to the premiere episode of Gaycation Season 2, where Ellen and Ian travel to cities across the Ukraine and speak to the brave queer and trans citizens, as well as those who mean them harm. Ellen, wearing her cap, and Ian suited up for the chilly weather and started their trip in Kiev. Their first guide is a drag performer named Vladislav Shast, one of Kiev’s only drag artists. Vlad is trying to elevate the perception of drag into an art form, and make it a bridge between communities. Vlad admits he fears for his safety while in drag, but so far, he’s received mostly positive responses. He suits Ian up in a costume, and walks him through his first drag experience. They head to Pomada Club, where Vlad performs and Ellen and Ian enjoy some time with the queer folks of Kiev. Just a couple years before, Pomado was the scene of an attack by right wing extremists. Pomado has bounced back, as have the people, but you can’t help but wonder what effect the rising tide of intolerance in Ukraine has on this community.

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Ellen explains how in 2014, there was an attempt at a massive revolution and a breaking of ties with Russia, but the people of Ukraine got quite the opposite. Instead of peace, over 100 protesters died and many more went missing. They are joined by Maxim Eristavi, one of the few out LGBT journalists in Kiev. In Maxim’s opinion, the revolution is still happening, but he fears for his safety when he speaks out. That doesn’t stop him though. Ellen commends Maxim for his bravery, but Maxim remains humble.

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Next, Ellen and Ian take a look into the other side of the LGBT divide and the ultra-right extremists, who have been targeting and terrorizing queer and trans Ukrainians. Activist Zoryan Kis was a victim of such an assault and was given a chilling warning—the violence will continue as long as the LGBT community speaks out. Ellen and Ian then meet-up with a group of these extremists, who have roots in Neo-Natzism. These groups have been using social media to lure unsuspecting queer folks into violent situations. The hatred and fear is intense and one can’t help but wonder what level of violence they will go to to get their point across. The duo then meets with the leader of this particular group, Nikolay Dulsky, and decide for their safety to not share their sexuality with him. As Dulsky describes it, his group, Fashion Verdict, started online and grew from there, inspiring young people all over Ukraine. Not unlike many extreme right-wing groups here, Dulsky says his group stands for traditional morals and the rejection of the normalization of homosexuality.

Two weeks before Ellen and Ian arrived, over 200 right wing nationalists surrounded and attacked an LGBT festival a few hours away from Kiev. The organizer of the festival, Oleana Shevchenko, spoke with Ellen and Ian about the experience. Shevchenko finds the good in all of it, because there was a lot of media coverage of the situation and helped get the word out internationally about what the LGBT community is dealing with there.

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Shevchenko also runs an LGBT group called Insight, which aims to give the community a safe space and resources. Ellen asks her about special challenges that queer women face in Ukraine and Shevchenko points out that Ukraine is still firmly rooted in the patriarchy, which makes it especially challenging for women’s voices to be heard. When Ellen asks Shevchenko if she’s afraid of what might happen, the activist tells her that the Ukrainian queer community can’t sit back and let fear control them. They still have to live their lives and try to make things better.

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A young activist named Yuri joins the hosts as he tries to change hearts and minds about the LGBT community. He runs into a lot of opposition however, from people who think that being gay is something that is being taught to their children. Yuri tries to explain that’s not how being gay works, but this misunderstanding and fear runs deep.

Ellen’s voiceover tells us about the Russian propaganda law passed just a few years ago, which basically makes any Pride events, festivals, demonstrations, even queer art and film, illegal. There are those in the Ukraine who want to pass a similar law, and the charge is being led by anti-gay activist Ruslan Kukharchuk. Ellen and Ian meet with him and between steely looks, Kukharchuk explains that he doesn’t believe that LGBT expression should be protected under free speech, therefore it would be fair game. 

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Despite the voices of dissent, there is still much hope. Ellen and Ian are invited to a same-sex commitment ceremony, and while same-sex marriage is still illegal, there is much joy in the room.

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Next up is a visit with the underground arts community in Kiev, and Ian heads out with out Ellen for this adventure. He meets up with fashion designer and performance artist Misha Koptev, who is instantly smitten with Ian. Ian takes a trip backstage before Misha’s big show, and holds a chicken. It’s also pretty much the the only SFW pick I could pull.

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Misha was displaced from the Eastern Provinces when fighting between Russia and Ikraine broke out there, and has been making a new name for himself in Kiev. Misha is frank about his feelings about Russia, and admits that he puts his own safety in jeapordy for speaking out about it. Ellen joins Ian again for a visit to a safehouse for displaced LGBT citizens in Kiev. There they meet a queer couple named Marina and Marina. The women had to leave everything behind, the looming violence becoming untenable.

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The women are ready to start building a new life in Kiev, and despite all the loss and fear they have experienced, their love seems to keep them going.

On the opposite end of things, Ellen and Ian meet a trans man named Fritz Von Klein. Fritz is stuck in the Ukraine because of his refusal to become sterilized in order to get the paperwork to leave the country. Trans people in Ukraine are forced to find and fund transition on their own, and must physically match the gender before any surgery is authorized. It leaves a lot of the trans community, like Fritz, in limbo. He’s stuck in Ukraine, while his partner and their daughter are in Latvia.

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Since most of the episode takes place in Kiev, Ellen, Ian and Vlad from earlier in the show, take a road trip to a smaller town seven hours away. Vlad shows them around his home town, where he almost runs into a high school bully. Vlad tells the host about the near constant bullying and harassment he received as a teenager. Vlad swears it made him stronger though.

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Back in Kiev, Ellen and Ian take a self-defense class at the LGBT center in preparation for Pride. The last few Pride festivals had been marred with violence, so the community is taking steps to defend themselves. There have been threats make, but Pride marches on. In a blessed turn of events, there was no violence at this year’s march. The LGBT community remains strong, proud and ready for change.

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Gaycation airs Wednesday nights on Viceland.

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