How Pink is Orange? Phobias of the Revolution
"We're left outside Ukrainian politics," lesbian activist Natalia Nahorna tells me. "Is there optimism now with the changes?" I ask. "No," she replies, "People are not tolerant to minorities here. It will take years to change." Nahorna has done research on lesbian life in Ukraine and organized its 2003 pride parade. In the same Independence Square where the Orange opposition demonstration is maintained, counter-demonstrators waved banners: "Deviants get out of Ukraine" and "Homiki are the reason for AIDS" (hamsters, a zoological slur for homosexuals).
Viktor Yanukovich, the self-proclaimed winner of Ukraine's fraud-ridden presidential elections, now faces a re-vote. Neither Yanukovich nor his Orange opposition, led by Viktor Yushchenko, cares for the situation of women and gays in Ukraine.
"Lesbians and gays are seen as a zoo," gay activist Vladislav Topchev tells me. "The presentation of us in the media is to satisfy heterosexual interest. Even if journalists are gay-friendly, information tends to be distorted." Homophobia is rampant both in the industrial, largely Russian-speaking East, and the pro-EU and Catholic western regions of Ukraine, Topchev tells me. He hears about physical attacks everywhere. "There is no difference in the level of homophobia."
Ukraine is split several ways. As in other east European countries, economic divisions are rampant. Classism is both felt and acted out strongly: there is a brutal divide between the super-rich oligarchs controlling eastern Ukrainian industry and the media, versus the disenfranchised masses throughout the country. The economic gap continues between men and women, supporting social masculinism that is taken for granted as the natural order. Even matriarchs, the babushkas who enable Ukrainian families to survive, support patriarchy. Feminist scholar Natalia Monakhova comments that women entering the public sphere in Ukraine uphold the division of society along gender lines and subordinate their needs to the seemingly gender-neutral 'primary needs' of the nation. As Monakhova tells me, "Women are unnoticed in Ukrainian politics."
Ukraine is one of Europe's largest countries: it has powerful potential -- fertile soils, mild climate, and massive mineral riches. But Ukraine's economy has been deteriorating. Its environment has been damaged by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, pollution, deforestation, and all-too heavy industry. The infrastructure is in disrepair, as is everyday life in Soviet-style apartment blocks and the dangerous streets. Ukraine is plagued by corruption and organized crime. A former Soviet republic, Ukraine is wanted to stay loyal to Russia's sphere of influence. Between the Russian anvil and the US hammer, Ukraine is grappling with its fragile independence. Moreover, the Ukraine is very badly affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis. According to the World Bank, Ukraine and Russia are the two countries where AIDS growth is fastest.
Former Kiev correspondent of The Economist, Anna Reid, writes: "Center of the first great Slav civilization in the tenth century, and divided between neighbors for the next thousand years, Ukraine finally won independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union." Ukraine was colonized by Poland, Russia, Austro-Hungary and the Soviet Union. After a spell of independence after 1918, Ukraine was annexed by the Soviet Union and suffered famine under Stalin. Five million peasants died of starvation during 1932-33. Now Ukraine is wedged uncomfortably between East and West.
Ukraine is not only desirable to both the former Cold War super-rivals, but it has suddenly becoming a lover-darling of the European Union. Poland, a new member of the EU and one that had for centuries colonized Ukraine, eagerly supports Yushchenko as a soul-mate. Rightist, homophobic Polish politicians are leaders in voicing that support. Warsaw mayor Jaroslaw Kaczynski, also head of the ultra-right Law and Justice Party, who banned a gay parade in Warsaw and calls them "deviants," visited Kiev and gave an address in Independence Square. A once-closeted gay (outed by Lech Walesa, Poland's then-president, who publicly invited Kaczynski with "his husband"), Jaroslaw Kaczynski is anti-abortion, anti-secular, pro-capital punishment, pro-Yushchenko, and knows where to find friends.
After the fall of Communism and Ukraine's independence from Russia in 1991, homosexuality remained unmentionable still in Ukraine. But after the election demonstrations "Now, at long last, the word 'gay'" will be pronounced in public in Ukraine says LGBT activist Vladislav Topchev. He tells me how difficult it has been to pass an anti-discrimination bill that includes sexual orientation in employment. The words "sexual orientation" had to be dropped from the bill during parliamentary debates. Although the phrase has been returned, he says "There is no time for a debate of the bill now."
"Hatred of lesbians and gays comes from fear of the unknown, of what people don't understand." Topchev comments "Xenophobia and homophobia go hand in hand in the Ukraine." "And misogyny?" I ask. "Yes. Both gays and women are seen as inferior. There is psychological degradation of them in the Ukraine." Topchev is an aeronautical engineering student, but plans to major in psychology in order to analyze and fight homophobia.
Women and minorities stand to lose the most from a Yanukovich victory, since he is most likely to continue the Soviet and Ukrainian legacy of xenophobic and homophobic hatred. The victory of the Orange opposition, Topchev believes, would make Ukrainian politics more civilized. Publicly, the opposition does not even touch the issue of homosexuality, but privately, Topchev says, gays know that they have supporters among opposition politicians.
The emergence of the LGBT movement in the Ukraine has been difficult and delicate. The Orthodox Church, dominant in eastern Ukraine, has an ambiguous attitude towards homosexuality. As Yale University historian John Boswell proved, the Orthodox Church performed same-sex unions. In the western Ukraine, the Vatican-controlled and conservative Ukrainian Catholic Church is widespread, with all attendant attitudes towards homosexuality. These attitudes had secular as well as religious traditions. Under Communism, homosexuality was penalized: gay men were sent to labor camps and gulags, while lesbians were confined to mental hospitals. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the post-communist Ukraine in 1991, but popular homophobia is rising.
This situation exists despite the undeniable strength of gay culture and history. Homosexuality is powerful, albeit understated or silenced, in Ukrainian literature. One writer whose lesbian texts are being discovered is Lesya Ukrayinka (1871-1913). Lesya traveled to Italy, Egypt and the Caucasus for tuberculosis cures; eventually becoming bed-ridden, she authored lyric and epic poetry, and dramas. The critic Svetlana Saliy has published and analyzed Ukrayinka's autobiography, poetry and her last letter from Egypt to her woman lover. Cryptically, punningly and bilingually, Ukrayinka asked "Who are they still, who are they that belong together? Who is it that loves, who is it that is loved? Who?"
Author of The Inspector General, The Overcoat and Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), was born in Sorochintsy near Poltava, then the Russian Empire, now Ukraine. Gogol's Ukrainian childhood with Cossacks, serfs and folk demons re-emerged in his writings. Conservative literary criticism regarded Gogol as asexual, but in The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, Berkeley scholar Simon Karlinsky demonstrated Gogol's homosexuality. Another writer viewed by traditionalists as asexual, Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Slowacki (1892-1941) was born and bred in Ukraine. He was a consumptive dandy who, in his exile in France and Switzerland, wrote poems of narcissism and national tragedies inhabited by Byronic youths. Slowacki's drama depicts the Ukrainian steppes and the Cossack sexual transgressor Ivan Mazeppa (about whom enthused the homo High Romantics, Gericault and Byron). A museum in Slowacki's honor operates today in his Ukrainian birthplace -- without mention of his literature's eroticism. Outstanding Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) eloped to Ukraine with her lesbian lover. Tsvetaeva's work is undergoing a revival in eastern Europe and the West due to feminist theorist Helene Cixous, who has written and lectured extensively on her. Yet in Ukraine now the historical curtain remains drawn: homosexuality is banished beyond the Pale of Culture.
The Gay Ukrainian International website says "Describing Ukrainian gay issues, we should emphasize that coming out still is impossible and absolutely unrealistic here. Homosexuality still is considered as shameful and undesirable, so a majority of Ukrainian gay men try to withhold this aspect of their lives. Actually, it is traditional for all Ukrainians to keep their private life in secret. Since Soviet times our people associate private life with sexuality and feel great shame just thinking that their privacy could be exposed."
Both sides in Ukrainian politics suffer from their majoritarian tone. Ukraine is in need not only of changes in its civil liberties culture, but also of changes in attitudes toward minorities. Natalia Nahorna tells me that a mix of queer cultural tradition, current research, and emerging activism is creating -- all too slowly -- what she calls a new construction of homosexuality in Ukraine. But change is hard, Nahoma says, when "politicians fear that touching lesbian and gay rights will not win them popularity."
Pinks in Orange Kiev
Kiev is teeming with pro-democracy demonstrators having sex in tents. Five straight couples that met in the demonstrations married, and fifteen pregnancy tests per day are given in make-shift clinics for the protestors. But where are gays in orange Kiev?
"We were campaigning for an anti-discrimination law, but with the instability now, we need to wait," says Vladislav Topchev. Vladislav hopes that the same political forces that brought about the new elections will bring more democracy and tolerance. Even though Ukraine decriminalized homosexuality nearly fifteen years ago, physical attacks are frequent. Last September, skinheads assaulted the Gay Pride in which Topchev participated. Media coverage of gays is prejudiced: "Even gay-friendly or gay journalists present us as not fully human," he says.
Lesbian activist Natasha Nagorna tells me, "There is a circle of people interested in the queer tradition of culture, there are clubs." And there is the banya, the traditional steam bathhouse. Even Kiev motorcycle gangs relish their banya. Bathers flagellate each other with birch branches. Cruising, hustling and not-so-safe sex culminates in the pre-modern banya. There is a banya at hand near where the protesters demonstrate, as well as a modern gym. At home, speedos and porn flicks on counterfeit DVDs are the fave turn-on of Ukrainian gays.
From the pre-modern steam sex to postmodern pink revolt? The Guardian's Jonathan Steele calls what is happening in Ukraine a postmodern coup. But it is wholly majoritarian; minority identities need not apply.
Orange protesters in Ukraine are silent about gay rights. "But privately, the opposition supports us," says Vladislav Topchev. Is this enough? Does it not beget an anti-Enlightenment and a closed society where twins are being shoved into the closet? Orange ideology is becoming the liberal ideological monologue in Ukraine. Topchev and other homosexuals hopefully anticipate they will be granted tolerance by a new president: they struggle for political change, organizing the gay movement, and preparing legislation that gets stripped of its sexual orientation provision.
In Kiev today, American money for NGOs powers the coffee and pilmeni, as well as privileged, less-crowded tents. As one demonstrator tells me, top-echelon protesters camp in better, Amerikanskiy tents. This is all the joyous Kiev wedding night of yet another majoritarian regime in the New Straight Order.
Every revolution is bulimic; it vomits its own indigestible children. Ukraine's revolution of Orange neo-liberals is bulimic and its anorexia is rooted in phobias against so-called others.
Tomasz Kitlinski is a lecturer in philosophy at Marie Curie University in Lublin, Poland. He acknowledges and thanks contributions from Joe Lockard at the Bad Subjects Collective, and Zbyszek Sypniewski for assistance in Ukraine.
Image: A 1995 Ukrainian postage stamp honoring the poet, Larissa Petrivna Kosach-Kvitka (also known as Lesia Ukrayinka). Design by Raphael Tsessin.