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Ukraine Clashes Spotlight Deep Rifts Over Gay Rights

Policemen detain a man who attacked a gay pride march in Kyiv on June 6.
Policemen detain a man who attacked a gay pride march in Kyiv on June 6.

Petro Poroshenko made history last week by becoming Ukraine's first president to publicly voice support for sexual minorities.

Speaking at a news conference ahead of a gay-pride march in Kyiv on June 6, he said it should go ahead as planned and upheld "the constitutional right of every citizen of Ukraine" to participate.

The brutal assault on the march by antigay activists, however, suggests that Poroshenko faces an uphill battle to foster greater acceptance of homosexuals in the mostly Orthodox Christian, socially conservative country -- including within his own camp.

Zoryan Kis, an activist for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community who took part in the "Equality March," says the violence highlights deep rifts over gay rights among supporters of the pro-European Maidan protest movement that ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych and brought Poroshenko to power.

"Now we see that people who took part in Maidan had different understandings of what Europe means," he says. "As it turned out, some people think we can take certain things from Europe and reject others."

Poroshenko, in his comments on June 5, said: "As far as the 'March of Equality' is concerned, I view it from both the perspective of a Christian and a pro-European president. I believe these are two completely compatible ideas."

But Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko, a key figure in the Maidan protests, called on organizers to cancel the rally, citing possible provocations and "bad timing."

The march, he argued, risked further dividing Ukraine as it battles separatist rebels in the east.

'Moral Decay'

The ultranationalist Right Sector movement, which actively took part in the Maidan protests, went a step further by vowing to derail the march.

"It's not only aimed at causing the moral decay of the Ukrainian people, it also amounts to spitting on the graves of those who died in the fight for Ukraine," Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh, who is now a member of parliament, wrote in a Facebook post ahead of the rally. "We have enough issues, however circumstances force us to turn our attention to that evil as well."

While Right Sector has not been explicitly tied to the attack, the Ukrainian media has described assailants as far-right activists.

They hurled stones and smoke bombs at the march, spat on the participants, ripped posters from their hands, and shouted homophobic slurs. Members of the Orthodox Church and a Cossack group were also present, threatening to whip the marchers.

Up to 30 people were detained and several police officers were reportedly injured in the clashes.

Condemnation of the attack and of Right Sector's aggressive stand has not been limited to LGBT activists.

"Right Sector's star faded today," Alexander Roytburd, an artist, wrote in a June 5 post on Facebook. "They were able to avoid the trap of anti-Semitism but they fell into the trap of homophobia."

But, on the whole, gay-rights activists say Ukrainian society has mostly watched on in silence.

While few Ukrainians are inclined to publicly slam gays in the way Right Sector does, many Ukrainians still feel LGBT rights are a nonissue in their country.

"There is no discrimination against homosexuals in Ukraine, this is a made-up problem," Right Sector spokesman Artem Skoropadskiy told RFE/RL. "War is going on, why are they holding this march, which cannot be seen as anything other than a provocation?"

Deeply Entrenched Hostility

For Ukraine's LGBT community, however, discrimination is very real.

Ukraine has passed an antidiscrimination law, one of three legal changes it needs to introduce to pave the way for a liberalized visa regime with Europe.

Although the landmark law guarantees equal protection for sexual minorities, hostility towards homosexuals remains deeply entrenched.

A 2013 poll showed that 80 percent of Ukrainians disapproved of homosexuality, which until 1991 remained a criminal offense in the country.

According to the gay-rights group ILGA Europe, Ukraine ranks 46th out of 49 rated countries in terms of acceptance of sexual minorities.

INFOGRAPHIC: Attitudes To LGBT Rights -- Click Here To View

Activists regard LGBT rights as a litmus test for Ukraine's bid to join the European Union.

Konstantin Gnatenko, an openly gay singer, songwriter and former journalist, says he received SMS threats over his participation in the Maidan protests. He was eventually beaten up.

Despite his desire to see Ukraine join Europe, he believes his country has no place in the Western world as long as sexual minorities are persecuted.

"We are a homophobic country and it's right that we are not being granted a visa-free regime," he says. "We don't deserve it."

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.

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    Mykhaylo Shtekel

    Mykhaylo Shtekel has been a correspondent in Odesa for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service since 2017. Shtekel, who began his career in journalism in 2003, has covered the Donbas conflict and issues related to the annexation of Crimea for various Ukrainian TV channels and has experience working in conflict zones.