KHARKIV, Ukraine—Anna Sharyhina, one of Ukraine’s outspoken LGBTQ leaders, wishes she had a chance to speak with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Kyiv this week. Sharyhina has several examples of hate crimes committed against her growing community that she’d like to share with him. She could tell Pompeo, she says, about violence against gays and lack of state support for the LGBTQ community.
But LGBTQ activists were not asked to join Pompeo’s Friday meeting with Ukrainian civic society leaders. The U.S. State Department determined who received invitations, and offered no explanations about who did not.
So Pompeo will not see any of the documentation from PrideHub, a community center on Podylskyi Lane in the center of Kharkiv. He’ll miss, for instance, the video footage of far-right activists pouring animal blood all over the center’s door a few weeks ago; and of somebody in a balaclava writing “Death to LGBT” on the same door in December.
Over the past three years, in fact, attacks on the center and LGBTQ activists of the advocacy group called Sphere have grown uglier and uglier. LGBTQ haters have sprayed pepper gas at gay men and women and severely beaten the activists at PrideHub, the LGBTQ community’s center.
In July 2018 about a dozen attackers in gas masks and balaclavas ran into the center and threw smoke grenades at about a dozen activists. This was a clear offense that compromised security while threatening the life and health of PrideHub’s visitors and staff.
“We complained to police, after the most recent incidents we collected about 1,000 letters addressed to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, but unfortunately nobody has been punished so far,” Sharyhina told The Daily Beast. “The attacks provoke further actions by aggressive groups, first a flash bomb flies at you in our space, where we watch films, have roundtable discussions and trainings, next thing we know, that some thugs collected animal blood to terrify us.”
Just once, in 2017, the Kharkiv LGBTQ community tried to have a public action in support of gay marriage with banners that said, “The rights of LGBTQ are human rights.” Several dozen muscled-up “nationalists” surrounded the activists, chanting “Glory to Ukraine! Traditional family means strong Ukraine!” Several of the attackers tore the LGBTQ banners and set them on fire.
After every incident, leaders of the LGBTQ community asked police to investigate the attacks, without visible results.
This year, the official answer from the Interior Ministry said the incidents on Nov. 11, Nov. 26, and Dec. 16 near PrideHub, “have been registered” and police are going to make efforts to identify the perpetrators.
But the LGBTQ community has heard this before. “Police have closed down several previous investigations into the attacks on us by far-right groups who used tear gas and smoke grenades against us,” Sharyhina said. “Nobody has been punished. That means violence is not going to stop.”
In spite of the threats, last September up to 2,000 people joined the first Pride parade in the history of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Two gay women, twin sisters Vera and Nadia Chernyginas, helped to organize the march. “Things are changing in Ukraine, progress is coming, we talk about feminism, gender rights,” Vera said. “We talk with youth, with students, who do not want to go back to the old conservative world, we work on convincing our liberal politicians to see the violations.” But she also said, "That is what makes local far-right groups so furious.”
Georgy Tarasenko would agree. He leads a group of far-right Ukrainian war veterans called Freikorps. “LGBT is not about sexual minorities and their rights, absolutely not,” he insists. “This is their political power we fight, we want to ban their propaganda, just like they did in Russia.”
“We don’t accept that these LGBT activists come to schools and universities to speak with kids about same-sex relations, trying to turn LGBT into some privileged group, apply their LGBT values politically,” said Tarasenko.
Although his particular group of veteran militia volunteers from Donbas probably numbers only about 100 people, views such as Tarasenko’s have traction among many conservative Ukrainians. “Our organization has conservative views, we defend traditional values,” he says. “Our society is conservative, people do not like these things.”
A few days before 2,000 people joined the first Kharkiv Pride parade, Tarasenko initiated meetings with the city’s police and security service commanders. “We knew we could not prevent that gay parade, whether we wanted to or not, and not least because there were about 2,500 policeman guarding it,” Tarasenko said.
Kharkiv’s LGBTQ activist community, despite all the pressure on it, remains remarkably resilient. The menacing “Death to LGBT” graffiti was cleaned off the door, and about 200 people showed up at PrideHub for a New Year Party.
The twin sisters Nadia and Vera, 36, have been a part of Kharkiv’s LGBTQ community for the last 12 years but, as Nadia said, “We try to stay low key, protect our parents, who don’t have much tolerance for our nature.”
The sisters wonder if Ukraine’s young President Volodymyr Zelensky is going to make a difference. “Our President Zelensky might be a homophobe, but we believe he is a democrat, so sooner or later he should recognize our rights,” Vera added, hoping that for now Western leaders will support Ukraine’s LGBTQ people, even if Pompeo doesn’t want to hear about them.