This month, to celebrate Global Pride Month, the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) is recognizing the essential work done by our partners to promote Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex (LGBTQI+) equality.
This spotlight focuses on the work of Gender Z, a civil society organization (CSO) in Ukraine.
Rostyslav Milevskyi is the executive director of Gender Z, a local CEPPS/NDI partner in Ukraine advocating for LGBTQI+ equality. His organization protects and empowers LGBTQI+ people in Ukraine, provides safe spaces for LGBTQI+ communities to convene and get the support they need through their community center and work to ensure that police, doctors, and other professionals have accurate information on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as information on and how to become better allies. Gender Z also helps LGBTQI+ communities build power and increase their visibility as a strategic partner through the Rizni.Rivni national public awareness campaign.
Political participation is extremely difficult for LGBTQI+ people in Ukraine, particularly outside of larger urban areas. Gender Z is based in Zaporizhzhia, an industrial town in south-east Ukraine where many members of our community are motivated to participate in politics but experience barriers and discrimination. For example, political parties are not inclusive and members of local councils tend to ignore issues related to gender and the rights of LGBTQI+ communities.
This is evident institutionally as well. For example, the Zaporizhzhia City Council does not have a Gender Equality Commissioner and the media do not cover LGBTQI+ issues in their reporting. Leaders create an environment of discrimination and exclusion. In 2016, a city councilor, in his perceived “responsibility before God”, demanded that a rainbow-colored fence in Zaporizhzhia be covered up because he regarded it as “LGBTQI+ propaganda.” More recently during the October 2020 local elections, a candidate of a national party made multiple homophobic statements during their campaign and still won a seat on the City Council.
Gender Z is working to eliminate discrimination against LGBTQI+ communities in Ukraine across two dimensions. First, we conduct hundreds of educational events on sexual orientation and gender identity every year. The target audience of these workshops, seminars, and information sessions are individuals who have routine interactions with LGBTQI+ communities including psychologists, journalists, social workers, teachers, doctors, and police. Participants attending educational events receive factual information about sexual orientation and gender identity and learn how they can be better allies.
Second, we work with LGBTQI+ audiences through our Community Center. The center provides an essential safe space for LGBTQI+ communities to convene and host a variety of activities and events including discussions on LGBTQI+ issues, lectures on mental health, support groups for transgender and non-binary people and, more recently, a place for aid and support during the pandemic.
In addition, Gender Z managed to organize the first-ever Zaporizhzhia Pride. This event was crucial to raising the level of visibility and unification among LGBTQI+ communities to fight against discrimination and advocate for tolerance. For more information on the Pride parade, check out our video.
COVID-19 has had a painful and limiting effect on LGBTQI+ activism in Ukraine. Despite quarantine, the number of attacks on LGBTQI+ centers and activities by far-right groups has risen sharply. At the same time, the attempt to adopt a new National Human Rights Action Plan, which expired in 2020, failed. The draft Action Plan includes the development of laws on the criminalization of hate crimes and the introduction of registered civil partnerships, making this pathway available for same-sex couples in Ukraine. During quarantine, the number of cases of persecution of activists increased, and LGBTQI+ activism remains one of the three most dangerous areas of public activism in the country.
Moreover, human rights activists reported that police have made little improvement over the past year in protecting LGBTQI+ people from attacks and in properly investigating hate crimes on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, experts note that police in Zaporizhzhia have been much more professional, cooperating with the organizers of Zaporizhzhia Pride and providing reliable protection from aggressive opponents. This is ultimately a result of Gender Z’s activities to educate local police, including a number of information sessions about protecting and promoting the rights of LGBTQI+ communities.
Due to the quarantine, we have found new opportunities to connect with others and promote our activities online. In particular, we launched a show entitled “LGBT Propaganda” on our YouTube channel, in which we share news related to LGBTQI+ life in Ukraine. The show explores common stereotypes about LGBTQI+ people in Ukrainian society and provides clarity on what is true and what is not. In addition, the show provides an excellent opportunity to learn about the latest news from Ukraine and the world. Online broadcasts have also become an important part of the life of our organization. The broadcasts are aimed at both LGBTQI+ communities and broader society, providing a safe way for these groups to learn and engage.
Pride for me, personally, and for our entire organization, is not just a human rights rally, but celebrates long months of hard work. After all, despite the threats and challenges, last year we conducted the first Zaporizhzhia Pride. We announced the event at the beginning of the year, and despite the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Organizing Committee decided that Ukraine cannot afford to cancel offline pride marches in 2020. ZPride (Zaporizhzhia Pride) was held in September, taking all possible precaution measures, including social distancing, wearing masks, etc.
Pride is vital to me. It increases the visibility of LGBTQI+ communities and emphasizes the unacceptable nature of human rights violations, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is a tool helping Ukrainians see that there is, in fact, violence and hatred towards LGBTQI+ people. On marches, I always cry from an excess of emotions. Pride in Zaporizhzhia is my pride, in my home city, organized by our efforts.