Ukraine: Amid War, LGBTI People Fight for Equal Rights

The issue of same-sex marriage has been thrown into focus by the ongoing conflict.

Ukraine: Amid War, LGBTI People Fight for Equal Rights

The issue of same-sex marriage has been thrown into focus by the ongoing conflict.

In late September, the LGBTI community in Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv defied ongoing shelling to hold a week of Pride events under the slogan, United as Never Before.
In late September, the LGBTI community in Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv defied ongoing shelling to hold a week of Pride events under the slogan, United as Never Before. © KharkivPride
In late September, the LGBTI community in Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv defied ongoing shelling to hold a week of Pride events under the slogan, United as Never Before.
In late September, the LGBTI community in Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv defied ongoing shelling to hold a week of Pride events under the slogan, United as Never Before. © KharkivPride
In late September, the LGBTI community in Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv defied ongoing shelling to hold a week of Pride events under the slogan, United as Never Before.
In late September, the LGBTI community in Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv defied ongoing shelling to hold a week of Pride events under the slogan, United as Never Before. © KharkivPride
Monday, 3 October, 2022

In late September, the LGBTI community in Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv defied ongoing shelling to hold a week of Pride events under the slogan, United as Never Before.

Kharkiv Pride saw activists decorate the city – severely damaged from Russian missiles - with banners, organise rallies on the metro, hold memorial events for LGBTI people killed in the fighting and raise money for military personnel.

The events highlighted ongoing efforts by Ukraine’s LGBTI community to fight for their rights, even amidst the full-scale invasion.

Ukrainian legislation still deprives the LGBTI community of many of the rights that heterosexual people have. There is no civil partnership legislation, and same-sex couples in Ukraine cannot adopt children, inherit their partner's property, access alimony or automatically serve as next of kin when making medical decisions.

Equal marriage has become a symbol of the fight against discrimination. Three months ago, a petition calling for President Volodymyr Zelensky to consider legalising same-sex marriage gained far more than the required 25,000 signatures for it to be considered.  

Many activists were surprised at the unusual level of support it received, and the response from the president – who has stressed that his country is a democracy fighting against autocratic Russia – was also positive.

Noting that Ukraine’s constitution deemed marriage to be based on “based on the free consent of a woman and a man,” Zelensky said that, while this could not be changed during wartime, his government had been working on plans to legalise same-sex civil partnerships. The president tasked his prime minister to look into this and report back.

The issue of equal marriage has indeed been thrown into focus by the ongoing war. LGBTI people serving in the armed forces are well aware that their partner would have no rights to any benefits if they were killed, or the ability to make any decisions on their behalf if they were injured.

“When, if not now, are we supposed to care about the military?” asked Timur Levchuk, co-founder of the Fulcrum UA NGO, which is working on a draft civil partnership law. “We have no guarantees that all LGBTI [soldiers] will return from the front alive. I wish these people knew that they were fighting for a country that at some point gave them civil rights. I don’t want them to die without receiving equal rights for same-sex couples in Ukraine.”

Activists believe that the president could intervene to speed the process of equal marriage.

“The political will of the president’s office could still give the green light to the extension of the institution of marriage to same-sex couples without changing the constitution,” said Sviatoslav Sheremet, policy and legislation coordinator at the National MSM Consortium, another group working on civil partnerships legislation.

The National Human Rights Strategy, which is part of Ukraine’s European integration course, set the deadline for legalising civil partnerships in Ukraine for December 2023. Shemeret said that because the state had been slow introducing a draft law, NGOs had been developing their own proposals.

“Usually, in Ukraine, if civil society has prepared a quality draft law, the state takes it into account and improves it in order to have one unified joint product,” he explained, adding that the National MSM Consortium had cooperated with the Fight for Health lobby group and the National LGBT Consortium umbrella group.

 “The draft law was sent to several political departments some weeks ago. We have not yet received a response,” Sheremet said.

According to their bill, the institution of civil partnerships would provide same-sex couples with most of the rights and obligations that exist in marriage for heterosexual couples.

Due to ongoing prejudice, civil partnerships would be considered confidential information which, for instance, will not need to be shared with an employer.

“The changes will take a very long time."

Another draft law on civil partnerships is being developed by lawmaker Inna Sovsun from the Voice party along with Fulcrum UA.

“You can live together for 20 years and have no rights. You are lucky if your partner’s family accepts you, but there are many cases when the family is homophobic. That means no state benefits, no opportunity to say goodbye, no opportunity to bury the body, no access to compensation. If your partner was injured, you cannot make decisions about their health,” Levchuk said.

Neither draft law addresses other areas of inequality such as the right for LGBTI people to adopt. Currently, even if the biological parent of a child dies, their same-sex partner has no right to adopt. Campaigners say that Ukrainian society remains strongly opposed to such moves. Similarly, the draft laws call for the implementation of civil partnership, rather than marriage.

This is seen as a far more practical option, especially given that some Ukrainian lawmakers staunchly resist the recognition of same-sex unions. Three deputies have each recently introduced draft laws aiming to ban homosexual “propaganda”.  

The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches, a highly influential organisation in Ukraine, also strictly opposes same-sex partnerships.

“Religious communities are becoming more liberal, but the church is the most inflexible system and has existed for centuries,” Levchuk said.

Russian disinformation also played a part, he continued, adding, “Russian propaganda is based on homophobia, transphobia and hatred of human rights.”  

Since 2013, the number of Ukrainians who support the rights of homosexual couples to formally register their family relationships has increased from 33 to 53 per cent. Still, the concept of marriage for people of the same sex remains highly unpopular.

“The president's office knows this, that is why everybody is working on civil partnerships, even though this law will still be limiting the rights of same-sex couples,” said Sheremet. “It would be simpler to remove the requirement of heterosexuality from the legal concept of marriage. Make a marriage according to a universal formula regardless of gender, but I am not sure if it will be better than civil partnerships. Ukraine needs a completely new constitution that regulates relationships.”

Levchuk agreed that campaigners should focus on the issue of civil partnership rather than pushing for equal marriage. 

“The changes will take a very long time. We should leave the marriage for the church and the civil partnerships for the state. Then they won’t have arguments for what they are fighting for.”  

He stressed that using the example of LGBT soldiers fighting for their country was key to convincing opponents to support a change in the law.

“The only option to pass our draft law is to stress that it solves the problems of the military,” he said. “Only this way is there a chance that such a project will be legislated and accepted as soon as possible.”

This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).

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