Struggling through COVID 19: challenges Ukrainian LGBTQ people face during the pandemic

By Dr Maryna Shevtsova

On June 21, 2020, a Ukrainian NGO KyivPride, that for several years already has been the main organizer of the Pride week and Equality march in Kyiv, posted a video in which a drone carrying a large rainbow flag flew over various districts of the Ukrainian capital. The flag ended up placed on top of the Motherland Monument, a Soviet-era war memorial in Kyiv. The monument is a large steel statue of a symbolic mother holding a sword and shield. The drone flew in front of the sword so that on the video, it looked as if the mother was waving a flag.

As in many places across the world, Pride month in Ukraine was moved to an online format forcing the organizing committee to be extremely creative. For more than a week, Ukrainian activists hosted zoom-conferences and interview marathons as Ukrainian cities were under strict COVID 19 lockdown. Despite screen fatigue, online events had quite decent attendance. As everybody was talking from the comfort of their own rooms and flats, it was the first time that none of the Pride Month events were disrupted by conservative right-wing groups’. The safety and accessibility of online meetings also allowed for the participation of people who could not make it previously due to health conditions or not being able to afford it. For example, a Ukraine-based NGO I am working with, Parents’ Initiative TERGO, for the first time in seven years of its existence hosted a series of online meetings of parents of LGBTQ people. Bringing together parents and activists from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and Lithuania. Of course, in theory, it could have been done before COVID, too. Still, it took a pandemic to push people to finally overcome their fear of technology and learn how to use online communication tools.

In other words, like others, LGTBQ organizations in Ukraine had to adapt to a new reality and had quite a few unexpected gains. At the same time, similar to other spheres of life, the pandemic highlighted problems, that had previously not been so obvious, even for the LGBTQ community itself.

First, isolation. Ukraine introduced a complete lockdown in all regions between April and May 2020, forcing people to spend more time with the members of their families or flatmates than they were prepared to. For many LGBTQ Ukrainians, who had not come out to their families yet or whose parents knew about their sexual orientation or gender identity but did not accept it, the COVID months became a real struggle. The only place where they were able to find support were community centres or groups of friends. However, during the pandemic, communication with friends via social media was restricted – even simple phone conversation was impossible for many due to the risk of being heard. As mentioned before, many LGBTQ-rights-related NGOs have worked actively online and organized multiple events for their audience of different ages. Nevertheless, many LGBTQ youngsters either did not have access to a private computer or tablet or would not risk opening the pages of those events, in fear of finding themselves having to provide explanations to family members.

Many LGBTQ people, both youngsters, and adults, faced increased levels of domestic violence, verbal as well as physical abuse, threats, and insults. The number of calls to hotlines increased several times, yet human rights defenders and activists were powerless to provide any help other than psychological support. There is only one LGBTQ shelter in Kyiv, sponsored by foreign donors and crowdfunding, and it has a limited capacity. COVID 19 strengthened restrictions and worsened the living conditions in the shelter since, usually, those living there could leave during the day, some even had full or part-time work. Therefore, during the lockdown, the shelter was rather crowded. While limited, LGBTQ adults have the option to move out and live in shared flats with their friends. But human rights NGOs in Ukraine cannot do much for minors, as work with this audience requires special legal authorization. The social workers on a hotline told me that they had an unusually high number of calls from teenagers whom they, in fact, had to convince not to come out to their parents during the lockdown. They were too worried about the safety of these teenagers – some of them already had faced domestic violence from their parents, usually fathers, in the past.

Most disturbing, though, has been the situation of trans and non-binary people in Ukraine. According to a survey conducted during the lockdown, many of them faced a sharp decrease in income making it impossible to cover even basic needs, such as paying rent, getting hormonal therapy, and doing groceries. Even if they had economic means, they still faced numerous issues filling prescriptions for hormonal therapy, medication for mental health issues, and other medications. They also had to deal with the lack of funds for medications and doctors, lack of access to doctors and significant fear of ending up in the hospital and whether they will receiving quality care in the case they contract COVID-19; and lack of reliable information about COVID-19 and its risks for trans and non-binary people. Finally, almost everyone reported a meaningful decline in psychological wellbeing related to stress, fear for own health and future, psychological violence, threats of physical violence, uncertainty, bodily issues, and issues with starting or continuing transitioning.

There is no help from public institutions, the police in particular. New guidelines were developed to prevent and combat domestic violence in Ukraine, and a chat-bot was created to connect victims directly with hotlines. Still, there were not enough police officers to address the increased number of calls since they had to patrol the streets. LGBTQ people in Ukraine have all the reason to distrust police eagerness to handle the cases of homo- and transphobic violence, so the majority of those cases either were left undisclosed or were only documented by human rights organizations.

Ukraine is currently considered a ‘safe’ country for LGBTQ people by the European Union when it comes to granting asylum to queer refugees. Indeed, the country has anti-discrimination law (though not mentioning neither sexual orientation nor gender identity directly). Until the pandemic, Kyiv hosted a handful of marches of equality where state security forces protected people walking under the rainbow flags. Yet while the government of Ukraine still refuses to ratify the Istanbul Convention, aimed at protecting women and LGBTQ people from domestic violence, the representatives of the ruling party, “Servant of the people”, found time during the pandemic to register a draft of a law that would ban vaguely defined “propaganda of homo- and transsexuality.” The question remains, though, how safe is the country for the people who are always overlooked by the government and whose needs are rarely addressed by public policies and actions even during ‘normal’ times, not to mention during the COVID 19 crisis.

Dr Maryna Shevtsova is a Swedish Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Gender Studies in Lund. Maryna’s current project focuses on LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers from Ukraine and Russia to the USA and EU Member states. She is now finishing her book LGBTI politics and value change in Ukraine and Turkey: Exporting Europe?  on Europeanization and LGBTI activism in third countries to be published later this year with Routledge.

September 3, 2020

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