This is my small act of straight-ally solidarity with my LGBT brothers, sisters, friends and family – my account of Kyiv’s Pride march and an attempt to spread some good news after yesterday’s unspeakable act of homophobic violence in Orlando.
What a difference a year makes.
Last year’s Kyiv Pride march was attended by a few hundred brave souls, who were met in Kyiv’s northern suburbs by far-right thugs wielding fists, flares and even firecrackers packed with nails.
This year looked like it was shaping up to be much of the same. A few months ago one far-right leader publicly called for participants to be killed. Another one promised a few weeks ago that the Pride march was going to be a “bloodbath.”
Thanks to organizers, who worked with local and national governments to arrange for more than 6,000 police officers and national guards to protect the more than 1,500 marchers, Kyiv’s Pride march in the city centre on Sunday was safe.
Riot police, shields on standby, and national guardsmen held a perimeter around a few blocks of the city, including around the leafy sprawl of Shevchenko Park. Metal detectors framed the few entrances to the interior, pat-downs and bag checks greeting you before you could get inside.
If there was any nervous tension before the march started, I certainly didn’t feel it.
There were a handful of anti-gay protesters inside the perimeter, a few off to the side holding signs like “No to gay propaganda in Ukraine,” like you might see from a street preacher or someone in an American or Canadian city.
To their credit, they weren’t getting in anyone’s face. No one was getting in theirs. When I did see and hear discussions between marchers and anti-gay activists like them – I deliberately use the term “discussions” here – they weren’t particularly tense or loud.
You know when you’re overhearing an argument and you think “damn, this might escalate”? Not here. I’ve heard angrier arguments at baseball games.
I recall two disruptive protesters in total getting bundled away. One got carried off fifteen or twenty minutes before the march started, followed by hordes of journos with cameras (not me, because I was too slow). Another got surrounded nearer to when the march was about to start, shouting something about ‘пидорасы’ (‘faggots’), which is a surefire way to get yourself justifiably bundled away from a gay-friendly event.
As the cops flanked the march and it started to inch forward, the aforementioned handful of anti-gay protesters got shuffled off to the side by the cops, out of the way, tossing a few anti-gay fliers into the air like oversized confetti.
The marchers themselves were a mix of LGBT Ukrainians, allies and friends. A few Ukrainian MPs (more than last year), a German MEP, foreign ambassadors and embassy staff, families with children and even two fighters from the Aidar battalion.
With drums beating the march made its way to the corner, taking a left at Lva Tolstoho (Leo Tolstoy) and started to make its way down the hill (for the uninitiated, Kyiv has way, way too many hills).
Drums kept beating. Cheers and chants kept coming. A few people looked on from their balconies and behind storefronts, looking more…well, curious than anything else.
After about twenty minutes the march made it to the bottom of the street, to Lva Tolstoho square, and that was that.
Velyka Vasylevska street was fenced off at both its north and south ends, with cops and national guards holding fort against a handful of demonstrators and far-right thugs waiting outside.
The square itself was full of buses waiting to ferry marchers out of the city centre to safety, and the metro was ready with special cars to shuttle other marchers away to a station in the southwest of the city.
I was on one of these cars, each one guarded by a pair of police officers in full face shields who, at least in my car, made people feel safe enough to belt out an impromptu rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem as the doors slid shut.
I eventually made my way back into the city centre. Just as the march organizers had warned, there were a few far-right thugs roaming around central Kyiv looking for a fight. Outside the entrances to Teatralna station at Pushkinska and Bohdana Khmelnytskoho, a few anti-gay protesters (peaceful, from what I could see) were holding court with banners.
Across on another corner maybe ten far-right thugs stood around, one wearing a ‘Misanthropic Division’ t-shirt, the same gang/hooligan firm/what-have-you that violently broke up Lviv’s equality festival in March. Right around the corner from them was a (larger) group of cops on the ready. I didn’t stick around much longer, but if these barely-out-of-high-school-looking kids with tattoos found trouble, it was likely with them.
Since yesterday I’ve only heard about a few instances of violence after the march, though I know how much of an issue under-reporting of anti-LGBT violence is in this country.
I know it’s going to take a while for the LGBT community to build a proper home in Ukraine. Progress on LGBT rights here isn’t going to come overnight, and I know it’s not going to come without its share of heartbreak.
But yesterday I saw some brave people building that foundation. And when I hear that LGBT Ukrainians are happily telling journalists things like “I feel like I’ve been given a voice,” I think – even as a naïve straight guy from the suburbs – that I’m right to feel optimistic.
Ironically (and sadly) enough, I think President Obama described it best yesterday, when he said that Orlando’s Pulse is more than just a club – it is:
“a place of solidarity and empowerment, where people have come together to raise awareness to speak their minds and to advocate for their civil rights.”
Feels like he could have just as easily been describing KyivPride2016.