In the Ukraine, if you are not a heterosexual, you risk being harassed. To help her country become more tolerant, Ruslana Panukhnyk is organising the Equality March. She is supported by the German Marshall Fund which is co-financed by KfW. Our author attended the event in Kiev – and experienced both rage and courage first-hand.
Ruslana doesn’t seem to be afraid. If she is afraid, she is good at hiding it. And that’s a good thing. Just a few metres away, a group of menacing-looking protesters has set up long black banners along Volodymyrska Street with slogans like “Sodomy is the way to hell”.
Ruslana doesn’t see the banners and the people holding them. She looks straight ahead in the direction of Shevshchenko Boulevard; two worry lines appear on her broad forehead under the baseball cap she is wearing backwards. “There’s a more radical group up ahead, so the police have closed the road,” she explains. A black wall of helmeted police officers stands silently on the boulevard. Behind it a megaphone blares, dozens of flags wave, black and white, black and red, in a threatening way. The flags of the nationalists who want to prevent the Kiev Equality March. “It looks like we’re going to have to change the route.” Ruslana sounds calm. A procession of mounted policemen slowly approaches, the faces of both horses and riders are decidedly neutral.
Nine o’clock in the morning and it’s already hot, but Ruslana’s black t-shirt isn’t even sweaty. Above the Anglo-Saxon inscription “KYIVPRIDE” is a symbol of a rainbow-coloured loudspeaker. The day of the Equality March is always the most important day of Ruslana’s year, and the most important day of her life every year. Ruslana Panukhnyk is thirty-one years old, a lesbian and LGBT activist (LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender). Officially she is director of Kiev Pride, less officially, she is a young Ukrainian fighting to change her country.
The participants are under threat of attacks
It is the seventh Pride, the seventh festival of sexual minorities, in the Ukrainian capital. In 2012 the Equality March, which is the final event in the festival, had to be cancelled for security reasons, but Ruslana participated in all the others.
And again it’s a war of nerves with threats of assault. Several homophobes stole a portable toilet the day before, filled condoms with the contents to throw at the LGBT demo, and the police, alarmed by the stench, arrested them. Now a fierce lone fighter charges at the banner “Freedom is our tradition” carried by Ruslana and others at the front of the parade. He wants to tear it from their hands. A scuffle occurs. After a second attempt, he is taken away.
Hardly anybody further back notices. Drag queens bravely totter over cobblestones in their high-heeled stilettos. They were supposed to perform on a lorry platform but the lorry driver changed his mind because he was afraid. Western diplomats, delegations from Canada, the USA, from Kiev’s twin city Munich follow. And thousands of happy young Ukrainians. “One hour of freedom,” Ruslana will also say later and smile.
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In 2019 the seventh Equality March was held in the Ukrainian capital. The colourful parade wound through the city for an hour.
We meet her the next day, a few streets away, at Café Charms, named after the Soviet poet Daniil Charms. He starved to death under Stalin in a Leningrad prison - he was different in his own way – he did not conform to the norm. Ruslana talks about school in Ternopil in western Ukraine, about how the teachers didn’t want to teach sex education. Homosexuality was taboo in any case. She tried sex with boys first. “But when I was nineteen, I started thinking about who I was.” She understood when she was twenty-one. “Funny,” she grins, “like a lot of activists I came out publicly at my first Pride in 2013.” She gave several TV interviews at the time that “everyone saw, including my parents”.
Since then, Pride has become part of the political science graduate’s biography. In 2014 the LGBT festival was cancelled because of the war in the Donbass. Ruslana looked after refugee families at the time. In 2015 she was responsible for security, a thankless task. The police wanted to call off the rally again, but the day before they approved a route on a remote but unsafe road along the river. “We couldn’t even check the route ahead of time.” Right-wing hooligans attacked, threw fireworks filled with nails at the 350 participants and police. 15 people were injured. “A fiasco. It ended on a road between blocks of apartment buildings, where one group of people ran after the other and beat up anyone they could catch.” Violence, especially against gays and transsexuals, is still an everyday occurrence in Ukraine. Ruslana talks about how homophobes frequently searched for their victims on Hornet and Grindr, the online dating portals, beat them up and robbed them. “People get beaten up just for their coloured hairstyles.” And for this year’s Equality March, the deputy mayor of the provincial capital Sumi posted a photo with a line of concentration camp prisoners with the caption: “The time will come when Prides will look just like this.”
”The march makes us visible, it makes us real.“
For Ruslana, Pride is lifelong endeavour
Ruslana is sitting there in a denim shirt with a piece of cheesecake in front of her. Her eyes still look a bit tired. But she listens attentively, gives detailed and animated replies. You can see how important the conversation about her Pride is to her. “It’s my job and my life.” She smiles tentatively. The job wears her down. Only a week and a half ago the police wanted to shorten the agreed route. “We had to launch a campaign, mobilise ambassadors and reach out to the Minister of the Interior to change the minds of the people in charge.”
together for the final weeks in a conspiratorial apartment for security reasons. Ten per cent of Pride’s funding comes from crowdfunding, five per cent from donations in kind, and eighty-five per cent from foreign foundations. One example is the US-American German Marshall Fund, which promotes key figures from civil society like Panukhnyk to strengthen democracy and civil liberties. Germany contributes to the foundation through KfW. Despite the strong support, Ruslana and her co-organisers have to dig into their own pockets to organise parties, for example. Private life? Ruslana only has to think for a second. “Don’t have one anymore.” Her former partner was not an activist. “It was hard to explain to her why I had to leave for work in the middle of the night. Or why I can’t go to dinner with friends.“ The job is all-consuming. Before the march everyone swears never to do Pride again! “But the next morning, we are already planning for next year.”
For Ruslana, the Equality March is a question of her very existence. “According to polls, only five per cent of Ukrainians know gays or lesbians personally. But the march makes us visible, makes us real. If we keep sitting in the closet, everyone else will pretend we and our problems don’t exist,” LGBT relationships are outlawed in Ukraine. Only married couples or individuals may adopt children. But if the “legal” LGBT parent dies, the other parent cannot prevent the child from ending up in an orphanage. And Ruslana tells us about the death of a transgender individual, whose partner was not allowed to bury him. The parents took care of that and buried him in women’s clothes.
New record number of participants at CSD in Kiev 2019
Sometimes she is afraid that she will never see things get better. “But I believe it will happen. In the Ukraine the way things happen can be surprising.” She says that her contract will expire in 2020 and that she will probably not extend it. She is hoping for new, younger people. “We older activists experienced the attacks on the Pride 2012 and 2015 and are not as open to new ideas. The younger activists are less afraid.”
This year the Equality March ends after an hour. Followed by a press briefing. 8,000 participants: a new record. That's a hundred times more than the first march 7 years ago. And for the first time, 30 men wearing the uniform of the Ukrainian army took part. But it’s not over yet, Ruslana’s gaze remains tense. Next to her, somebody uses a loudspeaker to tell everyone to hide the LGBT paraphernalia before boarding the subway for security reasons. “Don’t walk,” advises someone else.
We still walk down to Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main street, which is very empty today. Four girls, barely twenty years old, sit on the granite balustrade of a closed pedestrian underpass. They are wearing pink and rainbow t-shirts and headbands and chatting to each other. I ask them if they are afraid. They answer by laughing. It is probably thanks to Ruslana and her collaborators that her little sisters are looking forward to the future more positively than they are.
The described project contributes to the following United Nationsʼ Sustainable Development Goals
Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
International studies and estimates show that women are still at a disadvantage nearly everywhere in the world and are robbed of their rights. The majority of poor people and the majority of all illiterate people are women. Each year, nearly 300,000 women die due to complications during pregnancy or birth, and 99 per cent of them are in developing countries. According to a study for the World Health Organization (WHO), over a third of all women in the world have been victims of physical or sexual violence.
All United Nations member states adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. At its heart is a list of 17 goals for sustainable development, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our world should become a place where people are able to live in peace with each other in ways that are ecologically compatible, socially just, and economically effective.
Published on KfW Stories: 8 October 2019