KIEV - The way his dad found out was not good. On the other hand it was his own fault. He'd left his laptop open, and when his father came to visit him at his student apartment he started clicking around on it and found pictures of him kissing his boyfriend Petja.
First reaction – fury. Then shame. After that came the disciplinary measures: no more apartment, back to mom and dad's where he was grounded and sent to therapy to "cure" him. Shenja's father reasoned that it was a phase; if he could just keep his 21-year-old son from seeing his boyfriend then the perversity would stop. A main concern for his father, Shenja says, was "making damn sure nobody found out about it." Including Shenja's mother. A gay son? Unthinkable. The disgrace!
Actually, "gay" is not a term used in Ukraine. It's too direct. "Men who have sex with other men" is the way it's officially put, so that it sounds more like a practice rather than an orientation. Practices can be changed. In this country, homosexuality is still taboo, and many Ukrainians – including many politicians – consider it a sickness. As regards acceptance of same-sex relationships, Ukraine is behind even Russia. It is the most homophobic country in Europe.
That France, the U.S., Germany are presently legislating on marriage for gays and lesbians, adoption rights, and other issues pertaining to legal homosexual unions, sounds – in Kiev, Donetsk, Lviv or Odessa – like news from Mars.
Anna Dogopol, of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Kiev, who works "for sexual democracy and the rights of lesbian women" and is herself a lesbian, says that: "In the Ukraine, even civil partnerships are considered a perversion of European law."
Which may be the reason why two drafts for legislation – one that would make "homosexual propaganda" in the arts and media, the other that would make any suggestion that homosexual relationships are equal to traditional ones, jailable offences – are currently in development. Both drafts take their inspiration from the Russian anti-gay bill and aim to ensure that the subject of homosexuality is silenced in public, in schools, and in the medical community.
According to the initiators of the competing laws, this is about protecting children. What they're not saying is that Ukraine is the country in Europe with the most steeply climbing rate of HIV infection. Homosexuals are a high-risk group. So logically, one should be talking about homosexuality, at least in the context of AIDS prevention and treatment. That would protect children.
In Shenja and Petja's case, the attempts at silencing and covering up ultimately didn't work. For about nine months, the lovers could only meet for walks when 27-year-old Petja, a manager, had his lunch break. But now they have found a way to live together – incognito, outside the city, and with a live-in girl as a front. They tell people they're flat sharing, but both men profess anxiety in case somebody finds out the real situation.
Can they walk down the street holding hands? They've tried it. People stare. Can they kiss in public? Out of the question. "It's too dangerous, even in the city you'd probably get beaten up, and elsewhere you would for sure," says Petja. And it's only gotten worse since plans for the new laws got underway. "What the laws say to people here – who in any case are overwhelmingly homophobic – is that it's okay to hate gays and lesbians. They cement and strengthen prejudice."
The men refused to be photographed for this article, even for a German paper. There was a skinhead cousin in Germany, he might see it, and let people back home know.
"Love Against Homosexuality"
Thirty percent of the parents of gays and lesbians in Ukraine don't know their children are homosexual, and of those parents who do know only about half accept the situation. That's according to a poll conducted by Nash Mir, a human rights organization that supports gays, lesbians, bis and transsexuals. The group is largely financed from outside Ukraine, and its spokesperson, Andryi Maymulachin, says that he is ever more cautious, "even more so than I already was." The 42-year-old Ukrainian says it took him a long time to come out, and that before he took a trip to Russia he didn't even know that gays or lesbians existed. Then in Moscow in an illegal magazine he saw a picture of two gays touching each other and knew instinctively that "this was about me."
Last year a Gay Pride Parade was supposed to take place in Kiev but the police said they couldn't guarantee security so it was cancelled. Instead there was a press conference in a parking lot around the corner from the Nash Mir office attended by journalists and rowdies who beat two activists up badly.
This year in May there's supposed to be a demonstration in favor of human rights and minorities. The first threats against the demonstration are starting to appear on extreme right Russian websites. In Kiev right-wingers and "right-thinking" folks demonstrate regularly, their slogan being "Love Against Homosexuality" as if the former were an opposite pole from the latter.
Kiev Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church says with regard to homosexuals that Christians shouldn't forget why God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Archbishop Sviatoslav of the Greek-Catholic Church says that homosexuality is "as grave a sin as murder."
According to the UN, some 400,000 people in the Ukraine are infected with HIV. That's ten times as many as in Germany, although Ukraine's population (46 million) is only a little over half the size of Germany's.
Ukraine is a country where many doctors are reluctant to treat AIDS patients, where international donors invest three times what Ukraine does in the prevention of and fight against HIV and AIDs, and where people with AIDs either keep quiet about it or don't even know they have it. This is a country where drug addicts, street kids, and prostitutes are increasingly passing the virus on to heterosexuals. Homosexuals are one of many high-risk groups but not the largest. However – as if one stigma weren't enough – all the blame is placed at their door.
Shenja deals with this every day. After he got his law degree, he started doing outreach work for the Gay Alliance. Afternoons and evenings, when gay couples take walks in downtown Kiev – here amid all the tourists they're less noticeable – he goes up to them to offer help, tells them what the risks are, hands out condoms as discreetly as a dealer hands over drugs. Being a homosexual in Ukraine often makes him feel bad, he says, "but if I didn't do anything I'd feel worse."