Same-sex Partnerships In Ukraine Would Show Its Values
By Brian Dooley
Days after Russia invaded his country in February, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy framed the war as a struggle “for values: life, democracy, freedom.”
Since then, a lean toward and reliance on the west has softened some traditionally hostile views towards the LGBT community in Ukraine, where same-sex couples currently can’t inherit their partner’s property, adopt children, or be automatically recognized as next of kin when making medical decisions.
The prominent role of many LGBT people in the Ukrainian military may be part of what is changing attitudes, as LGBT soldiers fight for their homeland and for their rights. A Ukrainian petition this year to support legalizing same-sex marriage easily reached the 25,000 signature threshold requiring their president to respond.
Zelenskiy said amending the constitution, which now recognizes marriage as between a woman and a man, could not be done during war time, but he asked the prime minister to consider options, opening the door to civil partnerships.
Parliament would have to pass legislation, and it is unclear if it would pass. Activists say legally-recognizing same-sex partnerships is realistic.
“I can sense a more positive shift in attitudes to us and our work,” says Vasyl Malikov, an LGBT activist with an NGO called Spectrum Kharkiv. “Of course there is still homophobia, but there is more public support for us now.”
National surveys this year suggest a sharp change in Ukrainian attitudes toward the LGBT community. Those who now express a “negative view” of that community have dropped by more than a third from six year ago, down from 60.4 percent to 38.2 percent. Over 40 percent of Ukrainians polled now support civil partnerships, with 35 percent also in favor of same sex marriage.
While some activists emphasize the need for full marriage rights, civil partnerships are seen by many as a strong first step. “Ukrainian politicians should accept this dramatic shift in public opinion towards same-sex partnerships, promote, and vote for legislation to make it happen,” says Malikov.
Human Rights First has worked with LGBT activists in Ukraine for many years, and came to Kyiv in 2014 to take part in the city’s pride events. They were cancelled the night before they were scheduled, when authorities said the community should wait. Some voices are saying the same now. They say that these issues aren’t priorities for a country at war.
In a country fighting for its values, homophobia is still a real danger that must be addressed. In March, we reported on some trans people not being allowed to leave the country, and while there are still huge challenges, the overall movement in recent years has been progressive.
Olena Hloba was living in Bucha when Russian troops overran the town earlier this year, and she made a dramatic escape by bicycle. In 2016, Human Rights First recognized her work as co-founder of Parents Initiative Tergo, an ally organization of parents of LGBT people in Ukraine.
In Kyiv this week, she explained to me some of the continuing challenges to the country’s LGBT community, as well as her grounds for optimism.
Last year, her organization tried to buy billboard ads to highlight bullying of LGBT school kids. As regulations demanded, she wrote to all 22 regional authorities not under Russian control, who had to give permission to put out the ads. Officials in Odesa and Kherson granted permission, while eighteen regions simply ignored the request and the regions of Lviv and Kharkiv sent complicated responses that amounted to rejections.
The billboards were later part of Russian propaganda and broadcast on TV as evidence of Ukraine’s degeneracy. Now Russia’s official policy of homophobia provides Ukraine with a political opportunity.
Ukraine can underline President Zelenskiy’s framing of this war as a battle for the values of “life, democracy and freedom.” by rejecting such bigotry.
“The civil partnership issue is an opportunity for Ukraine to demonstrate its values, and show that our beliefs are not those of Putin and his homophobic government. Passing this legislation is the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do,” said Hloba.
The United States government can press the case for LGBT rights in Ukraine in both public and private meetings with officials from that country, and encourage legislation codifying same-sex civil partnerships be passed soon.
This past June, when Zelenskiy signed the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (known as The Istanbul Convention), he declared “We share European values.”
His government has the chance to prove it by recognizing same sex civil partnerships. The U.S. government should encourage him to do so.