Donbas, April 2014. At checkpoints north of Donetsk militants hand out cheap hand-xeroxed leaflets declaring their vision of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’. “We are against the seizure of power by oligarchs, extremists, paedophiles and homosexuals!”. On the outskirts of militant-controlled Slavyansk a comandeered police car screeches to a stop; armed men in black balaclavas jump out and race into the trees. “They’re looking for a homosek,” a local man explains. He sees I’m looking confused. “A pravosek,” he clarifies.
The beaten-up man the militants bring back looks neither particularly homosexual, nor from the Ukrainian paramilitary group Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) – although, who can tell. No one seems to care much who he is anyway; what he’s supposed to have done; where the armed men are taking him; what will happen to him.
May 2014, Crimea. “We’re gay patriots,” say Igor and Oleg, a gay couple long involved in HIV-prevention among Crimea’s gay community. They both joined the newly-formed self-defence militia in the beginning of March, to defend Crimea from Ukrainian fascists and Pravy Sektor, and they love Putin. They show me photos of themselves posing in camouflage on the gay beach, with medals handed out by Russian-backed Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov. “The uniform’s so sexy.”
The summer season is gearing up, they say soon they’ll soon be back on the beaches and on Sevastopol quays giving out condoms and safe sex leaflets to handsome sailors. What about Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law? I ask. Won’t that make your lives and work in HIV prevention difficult?
“Oh no, we agree with the law,” they chorus. “Putin is only protecting the children.”
“If [LGBT] activists try to demonstrate in the region, our police and self-defense forces will react immediately and in three minutes explain to them what kind of sexual orientation they should stick to,” Sergei Aksyonov, September 2014.
September 2014. Donetsk. Two young men driving from the ‘DNR’ military police HQ tell us they support the ‘DNR’ because they don’t want to be ruled by Pravy Sektor fascists and they don’t wish to be part of ‘Gayrope’. “I mean, we’ve got nothing actually against gays, its not their fault I guess. But it can be cured. Russian science has proved that. It’s just wrong, homosexuality.”
One of the men earlier told us he and his wife were expecting their first child, a son. What will you do if your son turns out to be gay? we ask.
He looks at us in startled amazement. “That’s just impossible. It couldn’t happen.”
He frowns. “It just couldn’t.”
June 2015, Kyiv. About a hundred and fifty brave souls turn out to defend LGBT rights at the Equality March, after Pravy Sektor leader Dmitro Yarosh publicly announced Pravy Sektor would have to abandon ‘other business’ (presumably meaning fighting in the frontlines against Russia and the ‘DNR’) ‘to prevent those who hate family, morality, and human nature from carrying out their plans’; and Kyiv mayor Vitalii Klitchko basically admitted he couldn’t do anything to stop them when he asked organisers to cancel the march.
There are people watching who are obviously there to stir up trouble. There are the ‘pravoseks’, young men in black balaclavas, who are actually more interested in fighting the hundreds of police than in hunting down ‘homoseks’. There are the random passersby, and the remarks they make.
“Where’s the parade of faggots?”
“I pay for the police out of my taxes. Why am I paying for them to protect a load of pederasts when everyone knows Ukraine is against homosexuality?”
“What’s going on?” “A parade of faggots.” “In front of women and kids? it’s not right…”
“Mum, they’re people having a peaceful demonstration about their human rights.” (In a minority, that one).
By the metro station, police and boys in balaclavas are busy beating the shit out of each other. Everyone else is standing around drinking kvas. “The march was 80 percent foreigners,” says an industriously gossiping blonde woman. “I saw it with my own eyes, there were at least a hundred Germans there. I mean I’ve got nothing against gays saying they want to be gay, but they were nearly all foreigners.”
The group round her nod. “Of course they were. I’ve got nothing against gays, but Ukraine isn’t Gayrope. Ukraine isn’t a gay country.”