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Gays in Turbulent East Ukraine Flee to Kiev to Escape Discrimination, Violence

LGBT Ukrainians living in the nation’s east, center of conflict between Ukraine and neighboring invader Russia, are being forced to flee from their previously tolerant homes in the aftermath of Russian takeovers of towns.

AFP interviewed Oleksandr, who lost his job because he is gay. Two Russian speakers with rifles on their hips, though it is unknown if they were actual Russians, cornered Oleksandr in Donetsk. “So what are you, a fag?” asked one of the men.

Oleksandr told AFP he believes they questioned him due to “his expressive gestures and soft voice.” He avoided their gaze and left. “By the end, I was just afraid someone was going to hunt me down and shoot me outside my apartment building,” he explained.

He is one of many who fled the war in the east and seeks refuge in Kiev with friends. Oleksandr lost his job when someone tracked down his boss on social media and outed him.

“You’re a good worker, but I do not want gays on my staff,” his boss reportedly said.

Gay rights activist Oleksandr Zinchenkov said homophobia in the east is worse than it was during the Soviet Union. During that time, laws stated men received five years in a hard labor camp, but no laws stated anything about lesbians.

In June 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin passed an anti-gay propaganda law “that stigmatizes gay people and bans giving children any information about homosexuality.” The bill bans all “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and is used as a way to fight against Western liberalism. People who pass out “propaganda” or hold gay pride rallies are subjected to heavy fines.

Unfortunately, when gays reach Kiev, attitudes toward homosexuality are not much better. Yulia, 29, is a lesbian who also fled Donetsk. She and four friends live together in a flat built in the 1970s. A Western donor set up the safe house, and it is the only one Yulia knows of. This same donor also pays for their medical treatment, while volunteers send them food. None of the roommates attended the gay pride parade in Kiev in early June.

“I sensed the public’s mood in advance,” said Andrei, one of Yulia’s roommates.

The Ukrainian LGBT community organized the gay pride parade in early June. However, it was not easy, as Christopher Miller at Mashable reported that participants needed “to have someone vouch for their character before being told the secret location of a parade that would last for less than an hour along a typically quiet 300-meter stretch on a promenade in a residential district north of this capital’s bustling center.” Cops in riot gear formed a barrier around the group to protect them from harm. Kiev Mayor Vitaly Klitschko even asked the organizers to cancel the parade to avoid confrontations. But President Petro Poroshenko broke major ground when he voiced support for the LGBT rally.

“I will not participate in it, but I don’t see any reason to impede this march because it’s a constitutional right of every citizen of Ukraine,” stated Poroshenko at a press conference.

It is the first time in history a Ukrainian president “ever voiced support of the country’s LGBT community.” But far-right groups such as Right Sector attacked the parade and police officers.

Andrei told AFP he and the others will not tell people in Kiev about his sexual orientation.

“I feel like I am always hiding behind a mask,” he said.

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