Taras Karasiichuk, principal leader of the Ukrainian LGBT community, says that although things might be better for LGBT people now than they were 11 years ago when the movement first began, he has been forced to seek asylum in the U.S.
Karasiichuk told The Daily Beast he’s suffered a concussion, a broken jaw, and long term emotional and psychological injury over the last 4 years.
According to Karasiichuk, threats against his life continue to pour in on social media—and even, at times, his cell phone. He says he doesn’t see any alternative but to seek asylum.
“Right now I don’t see any possibility to come back because of security—all the threats we get because of our international campaign,” he said.
“We get threats sent to our LGBT rights website, promises to punish us with Kalashnikovs. It’s difficult to say if they are really serious about the threats but after all the times I’ve been attacked I can’t really be sure.
“I also get threats on social networks. My colleagues and I at the rights organization will even get threats sent to our personal cell phone. And on June 19 there was an attempt to attack me on my way home from the office—it was around 7 pm and I had to call a taxi and leave quickly.”
The history of the LGBT movement in Ukraine is short, and Karasiichuk has been involved every step of the way.
Beginning in 2005, he started working with LGBT friends in Kiev to create awareness; in 2009, they founded the Gay Alliance Ukraine and chose him as the leader. After holding private LGBT awareness events each year in June, the Kiev LGBT community decided it was time to stage the country’s first Pride parade in 2012.
However, because of threats, plans for the public march were aborted and, in the months following the 2012 Pride events he’d helped coordinate, Karasiichuk told the Daily Beast he was attacked three times—in June directly after Pride, in December while leaving a gay night club, and in February on the street while on his way home from work.
From this series of attacks, Karasiichuk says he sustained a concussion and a broken jaw. The Daily Beast asked several times for more specific details about these events and the recent attack on June 19: what did the attackers look like, how many of them were there, where did they come from. Karasiichuk simply answered, again, that he was attacked multiple times and was left more and terrified after each event.
Due to continuing threats, Karasiichuk says he was forced to change his address in Kiev several times until he finally moved to Lviv on Ukraine’s western border in 2013.
He stayed in Lviv during Kyiv’s 2013 Pride—the first successful public march, guarded by over 1,000 police—and Pride wasn’t held in 2014 because of the Ukrainian revolution.
In spite of continuing threats online, Karasiichuk was back on the streets this June in the 2015 Pride parade.
The 2015 “March of Equality” in June of this year was hailed as the first successful Pride since the revolution, but it was also attacked by thugs just as the parade disbanded.
Kiev’s mayor, Vitaly Klitschko, had initially refused to provide police or logistical support, but ultimately directed 1,500 police to protect several hundred LGBT marchers in a far-flung suburban district of the capital.
The 20-minute march itself may have been a success but its aftermath was bloody: Far Right protesters violently attacked the marchers as they tried to make their way home, even tossing nail-studded firecrackers and sending one policeman to the hospital.
In the aftermath, Karasiichuk was forced to hide in a nearby post office as thugs chased many of his friends through the streets.
Though the far right has had a recent resurgence in Ukraine—including an attack by Svoboda on national guardsmen in front of the parliament building in Kiev—it’s difficult to establish whether this has made it more difficult for LGBT people in the country.
In the last elections, far right parties only garnered 1.5% of the vote, and the thugs who attacked after the 2015 Pride in Kiev were not openly aligned with any party.
Regardless, those thugs—whether they are aligned with political parties are not—are a big problem for LGBT people in Ukraine and continue to harass every place LGBT people openly gather.
Karasiichuk and his partner Mykola Maslov decided to take a break this summer, accepting an invitation to New York City, and the couple spent their first few days in town celebrating with the local Russian and Ukrainian émigré community.
They marched along Christopher Street with RUSA LGBT last June in a much different Pride parade—one that celebrated marriage equality, one of the U.S. LGBT rights movement’s biggest wins yet. The contrast could not have been more stark.
Karasiichuk and Maslov stayed on in the U.S. and, in late July, tied the knot at New York’s City Hall, still planning to return to Ukraine even though their marriage, legal in every state in the U.S., would not be recognized back in Kiev. The ceremony was covered by the New York Times.
However, last week in a post in Ukrainian to the Gay Alliance Ukraine website Karasiichuk gave up his 6-year leadership post and stated he would be seeking asylum in the U.S.:
“As of mid-September, I cease to be Executive Director of the Ukrainian organization “Gay Alliance of Ukraine” and I have alerted the Chairman of the Board, Stanislav Naumenko, in a written statement.
“Reason: Due to my absence out of the country I can not adequately perform my duties. And, more news (although for some that’s not news): my husband and I are staying in the United States and will begin the process of obtaining political asylum.”
The Daily Beast talked to Karasiichuk about his 11-year fight for LGBT rights in Ukraine, and his decision to seek asylum in the U.S.
The Daily Beast: What does the timeline of your LGBT rights involvement in Ukraine look like?
Karasiichuk: “I’ve been involved in the Ukrainian LGBT movement since 2005. But the more active stage began in 2009 in prevention programs. Then, in 2012, I founded the organizing committee to hold Kyiv Pride.
“The first Kyiv Pride was in 2012 but the parade itself was canceled. But in general, all the other Pride events [in private, often-secret locations] were successfully held. Pride is not only a rally, it’s a series of events as well.
“Then, I had to move to Lviv [on the western edge of Ukraine] just to have a good opportunity to continue to work safely for Kyiv Pride in 2013.”
Is Lviv safer for LGBT people?
“No, it was just a completely new city and was a new environment, so there was much more safety because I was in a new apartment and no one knew about my involvement.
“But, following all the attacks in 2012 and 2013, I sustained deep emotional and psychological trauma and spent several years recovering.
“This year, however, we had a lot of security to protect us, but the security plan wasn’t very good because it was made without contacting the LGBT organizing committee. An offer was made to hold the rally in an unsuitable place, and the police really didn’t make a good plan for transport after the rally.
“The biggest problem was in leaving—we had a lot of these right wing groups who were in this neighborhood who just waited for us after the rally. So, on our way home we were attacked.”
Were you surprised when Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, didn’t support Pride this year?
“No. Last year and this year Klitschko said it wasn’t the right time to hold Pride because of the war and because people didn’t have a good understanding.
“However, the government right now is not friendly but, at the same time, we don’t feel a threat from the government. The most difficult situation right now is the right wing groups, because after the revolution they’ve become much more powerful.
“They were legalized and now they are getting respect and support from the general population because of their involvement in the revolution. But they are ideologists—you understand what I mean—and for them gay people and the LGBT movement are, maybe not first, but at least the second enemy for the Far Right.”
Are you suggesting that, before the revolution, the previous leader (Victor Yanukovych) wasn’t friendly to LGBT people but kept groups like Pravy Sector under control. Now is it in some ways even more dangerous for LGBT people?
“Well, it is not only Pravy Sector, because Pravy Sector is only one of the right wing groups. In general, the former security service before the revolution kept the right wing movement better under control. But, at the same time, when Yanukovych was in power our rights movement was much less organized then it is now, so you can’t really compare.”
What situation led you to seek asylum?
“Mykola and I were invited to take part in NYC Pride. But, after more threats to attack me online, and what already happened in 2012 when my jaw was broken, I have a quite good experience as to what could happen. So, we have decided to live here in New York because of the threats from the Far Right groups which are now more powerful and organized.”
Have you formally requested asylum in America?
“Yes, we will make it this week with our lawyer and I hope that in one month we’ll have the official papers ready. You know that it takes some time to prepare all the documents, but our lawyer has already started to work on this with Human Rights First.”
Do you expect to be given asylum? How soon will you know?
“I hope, because I don’t have other options right now. I have heard examples of Ukrainians who have received asylum even without the troubles I’ve had, so I feel like there is hope. I don’t know how long it can take, but I have hope.”
What are you doing for work at the moment?
“My husband and I are working odd jobs, just temporary things to make money while we are staying here in New York.”
Are you sad to leave Ukraine?
“I’m not sad because I still love my country, and the LGBT movement. In Ukraine I had quite a good position at one of the biggest LGBT organizations in Eastern Europe. I had a good salary and a very interesting job.”
Do you see the violence against LGBT people lessening there?
“My husband’s relatives—even some of his friends—are very homophobic and heard about his activism through Ukrainian media, and it’s simply not safe. So, I don’t know, if your own family and friends aren’t supportive, I don’t know.