Tough norms

Over the past two years, the LGBT communities in Crimea and in the part of the Donbass not controlled by Ukraine found themselves under the rule of new laws. Experts of the Anti-discrimination Center “Memorial” interviewed members of gay communities both still living in these regions and those who had left following the changes in the political situation, asking them about this new situation and the new laws. Materials from these interviews were included in the report “Violation of the rights of LGBTI people in Crimea and Donbas: the problem of homophobia in the territories beyond the control of Ukraine”. It is obvious that the level of homophobia in Crimea and Donbas had been high even before the recent events, and transparency in matters of sexual orientation and gender identity did not exist, with only rare exceptions. Respondents indicated that talking openly about their sexuality in the past “meant guaranteed conflict, friends would turn away, some people were frightened and shocked [when discussing this]”.In Ukraine, the situation of sexual minorities began to improve after the change of power, but these positive developments for obvious reasons did not affect residents of the self-proclaimed republics in the east of the country, where proposals to introduce death penalty for gays was discussed. Although such laws were not adopted, witnesses confirm to us that murders for “[sexual] orientation” had indeed occurred. In Crimea in the spring of 2014 attacks against members of the LGBT community had been carried out by nationalists who came from Russia. Since then the level of homophobia on the peninsula has not decreased. Intolerance fueled by aggressive rhetoric led to increase in violent attacks.

Information about the facts of violence in these regions is particularly difficult to gather. Violence against gays is seen by many as almost a norm, even victims themselves do not pay attention to the beatings and as a rule these cases are not reported. Physical attacks in Crimea and Donbas are even possible due to non-standard appearance. Such is the evidence provided by a participant in the survey from Crimea: “He just had an earring, a man saw this and began telling him: “Are you one of those? Are you a [fag]?” then the man rushed to beat him”. One of the respondents also said that in the autumn of 2015 the appearance of his acquaintance in Donetsk in bright-colored trousers caused an immediate homophobic reaction: “over a period of five minutes he was called a “fag” ten times”.It is well known that armed separatists actively use violence, torture, humiliation against their prisoners, forcing them to work or demanding a ransom. But the risks are still higher than for the members of the LGBT community. An eyewitness from Donetsk said: “This is an area of the absence of authority, anything can be done to a person. For example, they can pick you up and shoot”. A former resident of Donetsk said: “Every day I was afraid for my life. Near the entrance to our house a trench was dug. They were preparing for a [military] encounter with the Ukrainian army, people were asked to present their passports. [They were] drunk, smelly, armed. One could lose one’s life there”. Everyone knows that after being taken “into the basement” in Donetsk people are very much at risk. Some respondents argued that not all people returned from there. Many of those who had been captured were sent to dig trenches. Witnesses who had later left Donetsk said: “Being taken to dig the trenches equals becoming cannon fodder. There are checkpoints, where snipers operate, so they were taken there to dig trenches”.

Paramilitaries hunted gay people and took them as “prisoners”: “If you are gay, then you are supporter of Europe, as Ukraine seeks to integrate into Europe, that means you are for Ukraine. Some people could have been caught in the street, some could have been turned in by others, who could give [the paramilitaries] information about their dwelling. It is quite simple: a car drives to a house, they wait near the entrance and then take a person. Armed men seized a minor boy, when he was smoking. Instead of punishment he was told to “hand in two men”. And he handed in his two brothers. They were captured separately, at different times”.One respondent described what happened to the “imprisoned”: “A friend of mine had a surgery on his kidney, after three months he was taken to “the basement”, because he had been turned in by someone. They kept him in some basement, gave food like they gave it to dogs, in some bowls, just shoving it to him by legs, the attitude was terrible. He was beaten with a metal stick and insulted because he was gay”. At the same time, according to some eyewitnesses, LGBT people are also found in the ranks of armed groups of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). A witness from Donetsk reported that because of the need for money a woman “enrolled into the military force of DPR, then was captured and beaten up so badly for two weeks she could not leave the house two weeks after that. She wanted to go to Ossetia, but a man from DPR who was from Ossetia himself, learnt about this and beat her. If they knew that she was also an LGBT person, she would simply be shot”.

The authorities of the self-proclaimed republics in the Eastern Ukrainian and Crimea do not hide their homophobic beliefs, trying to speak on this subject at any occasion. “Political commissar of the Ministry of Defense” of the so-called DPR stated that “a culture of homosexuality is being propagated… That is why we have to kill all who are involved in this”. Unambiguous threats were also voiced by the governor of Crimea Sergey Aksenov: “In Crimea such people are not needed and they will never be allowed to hold any public events. The police and self-defense will be quick to explain what orientation must be kept”. In Crimea and Donbas many members of the LGBT community are forced to formally enter in heterosexual relationships, to marry under the pressure of parents or society in order to cover themselves up.The difficulty of communication has become one of the important problems in Crimea and Donbas. Those who stayed there say: “We are suffering from constant paranoia that we are being watched. It takes a lot of effort to try to withdraw myself from the constant state of panic”. On the territories controlled by separatists, the situation is compounded by the fear that gay people can be “turned in” not only because of their sexual orientation, but also because of their political positions. Respondent in Lugansk says: “Even if a real gay person wants to meet me, I meet with him, and he starts blabbering about the Great Lugansk People’s Republic. How do I know what is his actual position? We will certainly speak about how we live, but in fact I am pro-Ukrainian. Maybe he will later call a friend to say: “Here lives an Ukrop [pejorative term for Ukrainian coined in the years following Maidan revolution and the war]”, they will come to me at night and arrest me”. LGBTI persons fear not only live communication with others, but also correspondence over the Internet and, especially, meetings with strangers.

Transgender persons, especially those whose photographs in the IDs are different from their actual appearance, find themselves in a particularly difficult situation. They could neither stay in Crimea and the Donbass region because of the risk to their lives, nor leave these regions. A couple of transgender women told that they managed to escape from the Donetsk region on the day of an Orthodox holiday, when in the morning all the militias were drunk and no one checked documents. A transgender man was able to leave Donetsk only facilitated by the UN, and while he had stayed in the so-called DPR, checks of his documents ended in gunfire and beatings on numerous occasions. Transgender people staying in Crimea and Donbass are unable to make the legal transition and get new documents, they live in constant fear and deep depression. LGBT children find themselves in extremely vulnerable position after the annexation of Crimea and proclamation of the DPR and LPR. For the new generation of children sexual identification becomes much more difficult than for the previous generation, because “the notion of rigid rules is being broadcast and anyone who does not fit into it, remains alone with himself. Suicides and everything else is possible here. The teenager has no positive role models”.It is obvious that in this situation LGBT activism in Crimea and Donbass is almost impossible. As one of the respondents from Crimea said, “the struggle for equal rights does not make sense, there are few fighters”.

Inessa Sakhno

Photo by Maria Kulikovskaya (http://www.mariakulikovska.com)