When Svytoslav Sheremet left a secured building to alert the press that the Ukrainian Pride March would be canceled, he cited the threat of violence from the 2500 anti-gay protestors against the 200 marchers. His words proved to be true as he was brutally attacked shortly after making the announcement.
First, he was assaulted with pepper spray. Next, 10 masked man began punching and kicking him. After he fell to the ground, the assailants jumped on his back and kicked him in the face and all over his body.
Although he was battered and bruised, Sheremet insists that Ukraine’s first Pride was a success in a QSaltLake interview while visiting queer-rights groups in Salt Lake City as part of a U.S. Department of State program to examine LGBT advocacy in the U.S.
“We may not have had a march, but only two of us were attacked and we were able to start a lot of conversations in homes, with families and in the press,” he said. “Politicians, educators and parents had to have the discussions that are so important and what will ultimately advance the cause.”
Sheremet is the president of the Gay Forum of Ukraine, which launched in 2004. What was first a simple organization designed to list gay bars, saunas and other gay-friendly destinations has blossomed into a national organization with more than 1,000 unofficial members and more than 200 registered members. Sheremet, along with his colleagues in the group, has launched more than 40 nongovernmental organizations to support queer Ukrainians. Before the group was founded, the entire country had less than a dozen such groups.
“Surprisingly, things have become far worse in Ukraine in the past decade because homosexuality isn’t so hidden. People want to come out and be open about who they are,” he said. “Before everyone was fine just keeping it all underground in a few gay bars. But as soon as people started to ask for equal protection, there was immediate backlash.”
Gays and lesbians are frequently blackmailed by underpaid police officers who threaten their exposure, he said. And while there is some recourse against such actions, in order to find help, the victims must be ready to publicly declare their sexuality, which is not common, Sheremet said. Also, Ukrainian police officers are not often friendly to victims of gay hate crimes and most attacks simply go unreported, he said.
The Ukrainian parliament is currently debating a bill that would ban any positive public portrayal of homosexuality and would effectively stop all Pride celebrations, as well as block the sale of movies and TV programs such as Brokeback Mountain. The bill is sponsored by the president’s political party and offenders would face unspecified fines and up to five years in prison.
Pavlo Ungurian, one of the six lawmakers who authored and sponsored the bill told reporters that gay rights progress is “not evolution, but degradation” and that it needed to be stopped.
“Our goal is the preservation of the moral, spiritual and physical health of the nation,” Ungurian said. “We must stop the propaganda, the positive description and the publicity … of this abnormal lifestyle.”
Sheremet faces similar attitudes from lawmakers, politicians, businessmen and other community leaders on a daily basis, but hopes to be an agent of change so others won’t have to be subjected to the same discrimination that he’s faced.
While working for a political agency in 1999, Sheremet’s sexuality was discovered and he was fired for being gay. He used the experience as a positive impetus for action. First he came out of the closet to friends and family so no future employer, police officer or individual would have the ability to use his own identity against him. Since then, he has launched his own consulting firm and uses it to advance equality around his country. All his hard work as the president of the largest gay rights organization in Ukraine is completely voluntary and unpaid.
“I was finally able to be at peace with who I am. I came out and knew I’d face some problems because of it, but ultimately, I am so much happier with where I am now,” he said.
In addition to be being brutally beaten, he’s been threatened and protested against. He even had one demonstrator throw yogurt on him during a recent press conference. But through all the protests, threats and attacks, he’s somehow remained positive and said he hopes to see some form of civil unions or marriage rights for gay couples in Ukraine.
“We are in the middle of it all right now. It’s as bad as it’s going to get, I hope,” he said. “But the work we’ve done must be continued. We have some progress and that has to be pushed.”