A Silent Dissonance: LGBT Rights & Geopolitics in Maidan and Post-Maidan Ukraine

By Jesse Sanchez
Cornell International Affairs Review
2016, Vol. 9 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |


"In Paris, everybody is in black, but in Ukraine, everyone wears bright colors" - Olga Kurylenko1

A faceless speaker cries out in a crowded square. Around him is an uneven cacophony produced by an undefined group of people. Fires crackle, smoke soars, and skies blacken. These masses rush frantically toward a new world order beckoning lustfully, greedily with open arms. They rush toward a vision of a new Ukraine–a European Ukraine–no longer bound to a traumatic destiny with its neighbor Russia. A European Ukraine could spell infinite possibilities but, most importantly, is seen as an optimistic future for a Ukrainian nation scarred by centuries of foreign control. Unfortunately, this vision of Ukraine has amounted to nothing more than a wicked tease for a large minority of Ukrainians.

The aforementioned description is derived from Sergei Loznitza's critically acclaimed documentary Maidan2, a cleverly construed collection of footage of the Maidan Revolution. The Maidan Revolution, also known as the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, emerged as a mass reaction to the Ukrainian government's decision to break negotiations for EU membership and has produced many unforeseen consequences on the part of Ukraine, Russia, and Europe. While much in the documentary is ready to be devoured by eager scholars and parties interested in contemporary Ukraine, I find that there remains a part of Ukraine and the revolution completely nonexistent from the narrative (if one deems the word appropriate for such a piece). Absent from the sea of yellow and blue on the maidan (Ukrainian for "square") were four other colors: red, orange, green and purple. Among a mass of protestors waving proudly their nationalist flags were a silent few who left their rainbow flags to remain in the confines of an ancient closet.

As these flags continue to collect dust, so too do their owners' dreams of a new Ukraine free of its aggressively homophobic consciousness. This is a conscious decision on the part of these Ukrainians as many queer groups choose to hide their identity deliberately among a larger protesting crowd to which they also belong. Why is it that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual and gender identities (LGBT+) community drowns its own aspirations for acceptance and integration in a new postrevolution European Ukraine? Putin, the EU, and a legacy of homophobia within the former Soviet Union (FSU).

In an effort to break away from the Russian sphere of influence, Ukraine underwent a revolution (colloquially referred to as Maidan) to rid itself of a corrupt, pro-Putin government led by former president Viktor Yanukovych. However, lack of international pressure in post-revolution Ukraine due to an escalating geopolitical struggle between Russia and "the West" has allowed for continued discrimination against those who identify in the LGBT+ spectrum.3 This is despite the fact that the LGBT+ community has helped play a considerable role in supporting and carrying out the actions of the Maidan Revolution which ousted the former pro-Russian government.4 LGBT+ activists were among the original Maidan protestors who helped begin the revolution in Ukraine but, given an intense legacy of Soviet homophobia, could not openly express a desire to see their own rights immediately realized in the European Ukraine to-be. In an effort to help legitimize the revolution, LGBT+ Ukrainians have chosen to remain silent on their cause hoping their revolution is just moments behind that of their nation's revolution.5 In addition, the EU's abandonment of its advocacy for LGBT+ rights in Ukraine has further contributed to self-shrouding of LGBT+ individuals within the Maidan. As tensions rise between not just Ukraine and Russia, but Russia and the West as well in a manner unprecedented since the Cold War, these hopes seem a long way off.

Maidan vs. Putin's Russia

The Maidan Revolution began on 21 November 2013 on Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti ("Independence Square") following the Ukrainian government's decision to "[suspend] plans for a landmark agreement with the European Union [and instead]…renew active dialogue with Russia."6 Protestors took to the streets in anger and flooded into the capital's maidan in large numbers to riot against the Yanukovych government's decision. The EU-Ukraine agreement would have meant "a pivotal shift westward for the ex-Soviet republic's 46 million people, away from [its] historic Russian ally."7 The Yanukovych government did not anticipate, however, that its decision would result in it being ousted from power some three months later by pro-West Ukrainians occupying the Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Those pro-West Ukrainians, in turn, must not have anticipated the ability of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, to use Maidan against them.

In an effort to help legitimize the revolution, LGBT+ Ukrainians have chosen to remain silent on their cause... the EU's abandonment of its advocacy for LGBT+ rights in Ukraine has further contributed to self-shrouding of LGBT+ individuals within the Maidan.

In an official 2014 speech to the Kremlin, Putin declared the lack of a "legitimate executive authority in Ukraine" due to the onset of the 2014 revolution.8 Consequently, Putin, in order to protect Russian "interests" in Ukraine, called for a referendum in Crimea that would allow its residents "for the first time in history…to peacefully express their free will regarding their own future."9 Putin included statistics on the referendum claiming that an overwhelming majority—96% of the 82% of Crimean voters10—voted for independence from Ukraine and eventual integration into the Russian Federation.

The fall of the proRussian Kiev government at the hands of what he called "[Ukrainian] nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites" revealed Putin's view of the post-revolution government as both illegitimate and composed of deliberately staunch antiRussian agents. This revival of World War II-Era rhetoric, coupled with the Russian president's description of the referendum as a purely Western-style referendum, allowed Putin to depict himself as a leader against fascism, a discreditor of the hostile Ukrainian government, and the implementer of Crimea's justified "reunification of Russia."11 "[T]he people," Putin claimed, are "the ultimate source of all authority."12 Yet, there exists a flaw in the president's logic: the "people" chose Europe, not Russia, popularly.

The rhetoric espoused by the ousted Ukrainian government consisted of heavily inspired uncompromising homophobia imported from an increasingly LGBT+hostile Russian Federation.

Yale University professor and historian Timothy Snyder looks past the Kremlin's smoke and mirrors by characterizing the Maidan Revolution as "a classic popular revolution."13 The revolution began with a corrupt leader (Yanukovych) taking power via democratic means. Subsequently, this leader began increasing and exploiting said power (embezzling millions from the Ukrainian treasury to fund "the ugliest [homes] in architectural history,"14 among other things) for personal gain to the detriment of the people. Consequently, the people rose up and rebelled against this corruption and exploitation via a popular revolution (Maidan). Snyder, in a multitude of works concerning Ukraine, Maidan, Crimea, and many other Ukrainian contemporary histories, slams the Russian government's actions and rhetoric concerning events which transpired (and are still transpiring) in Ukraine.

Snyder labels the intense homophobic propaganda which dominated the state-sanctioned news cycle in Russia as "the gay conspiracy."15 The rhetoric espoused by the ousted Ukrainian government consisted of heavily inspired uncompromising homophobia imported from an increasingly LGBT+-hostile Russian Federation. "Ukraine could not have closer cooperation with Europe, since the EU [is] interested chiefly in gay marriage,"16 was the reasoning behind a failed deal between Ukraine and the European Union. Russian propagandists coined the term Gayeuromaidan during their propaganda waves as well in order to persuade Ukrainians out of their desires for membership in the European Union. The former government claimed there could be no Ukraine in the EU without conceding to popularly opposed pro-LGBT+ measures. Yet despite a hostile Russian front and a domestic uncertainty, the greatest threat to a future in which Ukraine embraces its LGBT+ population is, arguably, not Russia or Putin or conservative Ukrainians, but the European Union. The very liberalizing force so tantalizing to the Ukrainian nation—a force Ukrainians have and continue to die for—has proven to be a false hope for many.

Voiceless Echoes: The EU & LGBT+ Ukraine

In 1991, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine made history by becoming "the first post-Soviet country to decriminalize homosexuality."17 But, other than this landmark achievement, conditions for the gay community in Ukraine have been at a stagnant low point compared to its East European neighbors. Despite multiple violent attacks targeting Ukraine's LGBT+ population in recent years, "there is no article in the [Ukrainian] criminal code on hate crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation."18 However, had the Yanukovych government completed the deal former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko helped negotiate with the European Union, Ukraine would have needed to meet certain requirements, including an anti-discrimination bill to be implemented in Ukraine which would have finally protected LGBT+ Ukrainians under strict federal and international law.19

Consequently, a powerful propaganda machine by the Kremlin emerged against Ukraine's EU bid, since "the [European Union] really does mean homosexuality."20 Dmitriy Kiselyev, head of the Russian media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya, known to be a staunch homophobe, "successfully weaponized gay rights and turned them against the process of European integration."21 Kiselyev, who once said that gays' "hearts should be buried in the ground or burnt as unfit for helping to prolong anyone's life,"22 discredited Ukrainian politicians Vitalii and Volodymyr Klychko after they "met with the gay former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle."23 Yet, while the Kremlin attempted to question the legitimacy of a pro-LGBT+ Ukraine, the European Union already turned a blind eye to Ukraine's own homophobic agenda.

Pictured opposite, protestors celebrate after a compromise deal is reached between parliament and President Yanukovych.

Pictured opposite, protestors celebrate after a compromise deal is reached between parliament and President Yanukovych.

During initial talks between the revolutionary Ukrainian and European Union officials, rumors spread among the Ukrainian LGBT+ community that the EU considered dropping its anti-discrimination requirement for the nation to join the union. In March 2014, the newly appointed Ukrainian Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko "triumphantly announced that the EU had dropped a demand requiring the inclusion of sexual orientation in an antidiscrimination bill."24 A mixed response within the LGBT+ community surfaced, some arguing the Kremlin's effective anti-gay spin team would have salivated at the opportunity to scare Ukrainians straight while others felt betrayed by their supposed Western liberators. European Union officials denied the dropping of the anti-discrimination bill.

Yet Ukraine reportedly "ignored the requirements of the EU visa liberalization roadmap by failing to include prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation"25 in the amendments package requested by EU officials. In May 2014, the European Union endorsed Ukraine's exclusion of the antidiscrimination bill for LGBT+ citizens "by allowing Kiev to move to the second phase of visa liberalization anyway."26 Such a move by an organization viewed as the epitome of Western ideals contributes to the lack of "visibility"27 of a large minority of LGBT+ people in Ukraine. Domestic homophobia, Russian propaganda, and an increasingly aggressive Putin policy toward Ukraine have been cited by Ukrainian politicians, LGBT+ activists, and EU officials as reasons to deter LGBT+ legislation. This has proven critical in the LGBT+ community's decision to halt calls for pro-LGBT+ legislation.

"Gay" Euromaidan & Ukraine

In any piece of writing concerning attitudes towards homosexuals in contemporary Ukraine there appears a commonly quoted statistic. A poll conducted in 2013 by Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung (GfK Group) "found a full 80% of [Ukrainian] citizens [hold] negative attitudes towards sexuality."28 This is an almost universally referenced finding in journals, newspapers, blogs, and interviews on homosexuality in Ukraine. Less featured is another poll conducted in 2013, this time by Gay Alliance and the State Sociology Institute, which found "63% of surveyed Ukrainians said homosexuality is a perversion or mental disease [and] only 9% supported same-sex marriage."29 Even after the revolution the LGBT+ community helped create, violence against the LGBT+ community has only increased. The number of far-right groups in Ukraine "who prey on LGBT+ people has increased from 30 to 74"30 between 2012 and 2013 alone, before the revolution. During a screening of an LGBT+-friendly film at a Ukrainian youth festival in November 2014, "right-wing radicals burned down the Zhovten cinema in Kiev"31 which played the film. To the many LGBT+ people in Ukraine, these are not statistics but facts of life. They are a legacy of the Soviet regime and an amalgamation of homo-hostile historical factors. Surprisingly enough, it is not the intensely homophobic Ukrainian majority that has succeeded in actively suppressing invisible pro-LGBT+ activists from Maidan, but the LGBT+ community itself.

"We use Ukrainian and EU flags instead [of rainbow flags],"32 replied prominent Ukrainian LGBT+ activist Bohdan Globa when speaking on LGBT+ participation in Maidan, describing the process of intentional concealment as "self-closeting."33 Globa, like many other LGBT+ Ukrainians, chooses to place gay rights on the backburner of the Euromaidan Revolution, and "opposes including sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination law [required by the European Union for Ukrainian acceptance into the organization] because Moscow would cynically seize upon it to tell Ukrainians [the EU means homosexuality]."34 Realizing the current geopolitical calculus in the RussoUkrainian region devised by a certain antiWestern Russian president has made LGBT+ rights in the foreseeable future in Ukraine a very unlikely possibility, LGBT+ activists in Ukraine like Globa have chosen to put the revolution before their own political aspirations. In fact the LGBT+ community "was almost the only revolutionary group which, in the aftermath [of Euromaidan], did not insist on converting their participation in the events into new positions of power"35 as many other revolutionary groups had done.

In order to preserve and maintain the unity of Maidan protestors and prevent an already extensive homophobic propaganda campaign from Putin's Russia to discredit the revolutionary vision, the LGBT+ community "didn't champion the rights of the gay minority."36 This is not to say that the gay rights movement in Ukraine has been permanently silenced in order to establish the "European Ukraine" desired by Euromaidan activists (whether LGBT+ or not). Rather, leaders of the movement have opted to wait for democratic revolution (in the form of Maidan) to establish a democratic government (a pro-Western government) so as to "start a nationwide debate, based on logic, science, and European values, about Ukraine's history of intolerance [towards homosexuals]."37

Post-Soviet Ukraine: Axing the Soviet Legacy

Political science professor Philip Ayoub argues "the extent of states' openness to international organizations and informational flows…has demonstrable effects [by allowing]…new ideas to enter the domestic discourse."38 In a Ukrainian context, openness to Western ideas of LGBT+ rights as fundamental human rights would come from a dissemination of proLGBT+ ideas. Furthermore, the degree to which "international norms [in this case LGBT+ rights] resonate in various states—and become internalized within them—depends on…transnational channels and domestic interest groups that make political issues visible."39 Consequently, international pressure, through the creation of a transnationally homophobic solidarity network, coupled with strong domestic efforts, has proven effective in combatting traditional political atmospheres. Ukraine possesses a cultural climate in which LGBT+ rights are "inherently contentious…often portrayed as violating the moral foundation on which nationhood is structured."40 Ukraine has yet to "come out" to itself. Only through this "coming out" process, which Ayoub terms as "visibility," can LGBT+ rights fully emerge. What proof is there that these political theories can translate into tangible success?

During the consolidation of the Soviet Union, attitudes toward homosexuality seemed to be radically changing for the better. During the October Revolution, Russia decriminalized homosexuality.41 LGBT+ people living within the ever-changing borders of the Soviet Union experienced a period of tolerance. This would be a very brief period as 1933 witnessed the reinstitution of many of its anti-LGBT+ legislation.42 Sociologists Roman Kuhar and Judit Takács trace the development of antihomosexual attitudes in the former Eastern Bloc in their book Beyond the Pink Curtain. They find that LGBT+ people represented in film appear "not as themselves, but as a metaphor for political dissidence, or for capitalist exploitation and corruption."43

However the political suppression of LGBT+ people under strict homophobic laws kept them closeted allowing "straight directors" to create representations of LGBT+ people. Under Article 121 of the Soviet criminal code, "sexual relations between men are punishable by prison terms of up to five years."44 Yet over time there would be a fusion of identities, the homosexual taking on the form of the antithesis to an ideal communist form. By rooting the norm of LGBT+ as a synonym for internal collapse, the Soviet government successfully propagated a negative image of homosexuals. In doing so, a suppression of sexuality spearheaded by the government created a lack of visibility of LGBT+ citizens in the country.

Ukraine has yet to "come out" to itself. Only through this "coming out" process, which Ayoub terms as "visibility," can LGBT+ rights fully emerge.

Although the Soviet Union no longer exists, its legacy remains largely intact in much of its former territory. In fact, certain portions of Ukraine – specifically the pro-Russian eastern Ukrainian provinces as well as the whole of Crimea – have made a conscious effort to return to criminalization laws such as Article 121. In the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, tensions between a proEuropean western Ukraine and a pro-Russian eastern Ukraine have produced a crisis of political legitimacy. "Russia has waged an aggressive propaganda war in Crimea"45 that leaves many LGBT+ people in Crimea just as susceptible to legal discrimination found throughout separatist regions of Ukraine. The new prime minister of Crimea, Sergei Aksynov, has taken to implementing "Soviet legal templates" of anti-gay legislation in Crimea as the province "[does] not need such people."46 What hope then lies for LGBT+ Ukrainians? Current research suggests that historically homophonic nation-states, when tempted with economic advancement and efficient international pressure, are willing to redefine the national consciousness to include their LGBT+ population despite an overwhelmingly homophobic majority.

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