How LGBT People Are Treated in Russia-Occupied Territories
28 June, 2019
Drag queens in Simeiz, Crimea Krym.Realii (RFE/RL)

In the town of Simeiz – famous in the USSR for being a gay resort – it was possible to go to the legendary bar Yezhi ("Hedgehogs") for a drag show until 2014. According to Svyatoslav Sheremet, head of the All-Ukrainian Association Gay Forum of Ukraine, about 10,000 gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people lived in Crimea before the annexation.

Fear and loathing in Crimea

In March 2014, LGBT people became one of the most vulnerable groups in the occupied peninsula. In Crimea, Russian legislation prohibiting the “propaganda of homosexuality” was implemented and the practice of persecution of LGBT people began. In the first months of the occupation, many members of Russian nationalist movements – known for their homophobia – came to Crimea.

Today, international human rights organizations and UN missions are not allowed to enter the peninsula, while the self-proclaimed de-facto government incites hostility towards LGBT people. 

In September 2014, Sergey Aksenov – the head of the government of Crimea – threatened on Twitter: “If gays take to the streets, self-defense forces and police will react accordingly. There won’t be gay parades in Crimea.”

The Yezhi bar is still open in Simeiz – but for 5 years, not a single public LGBT event has happened in Crimea.

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In April 2016, the Russian LGBT activist Nikolay Alexeyev began to send alerts about hate crimes to the de-facto authorities of Crimean cities. Rather than cooperate, the Crimean authorities advised them to get out of Crimea: "We can recommend going to a free ‘Gayrope’, and walking along the streets of European states in safety, where there is complete tolerance. There is no need to come to our heroic land and walk here with rainbow ribbons, Dmitry Polonsky quotes Criminform quoting Deputy Aksenov, the so-called “Minister of Communications and Domestic Policies of Crimea ”. At the same time, the militants of the “Crimean self-defense” made public insults and actual threats to Alexeyev.

"The regiment of the people's militia of Crimea is ready to meet proponents of same-sex perversions, pack and post them to where they will all be happy - to the Maidan" said the press service of the "self-defense of Crimea.

Alexeyev appealed against the refusal first in Russian courts, and then to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). A total of 360 such bans were adopted in Russia and Crimea. According to the bans in Russian cities, the ECtHR has already made two decisions in favor of the activists, but, as Alexeyev said in a comment to Hromadske, "there is no progress in the implementation of these decisions." The ECtHR has postponed consideration of complaints about bans in Crimea due to geopolitical issues, he says.

Bar Yezhi in Simeiz, Crimea. Photo: Krym.Realii (RFE/RL)

In 2016, Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” together with the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties prepared a human rights report on violation of LGBT rights in occupied Crimea and Donbas. The text contains numerous cases of physical attacks, moral violence against LGBT people, as well as people with an “unusual look” which may classify them as members of the LGBT community. There are even cases of targeted hunting for gays. 

One respondent, who lives in Crimea, spoke about the case of a fake date, arranged through a social network. “In the apartment, five aggressive homophobes were waiting for him. They undressed him, brought him into the shower, beat him, forced him to lick the toilet, drink vodka, filmed everything on camera. He was a foreigner, he did not know what to do. Then they uploaded the video to the Internet. It hurt him a lot,” the report reads.

Discrimination in Donbas

In the self-proclaimed “DPR” and “LPR” the situation is even worse. In the first edition of the “Constitution of the DPR” there was a direct ban on same-sex relationships: “Perverted unions between people of the same sex are prosecuted by law.” These lines were removed from the “constitution”, but persecution remained.

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Human rights activists cite numerous cases of reprisals against LGBT people: “A friend witnessed a gay man being shot and buried behind the Yasynuvatskyi post,” said a respondent from Donetsk. Often the persecution of gays in the self-proclaimed “DPR” and “LPR” was connected with mercenary motives: “People were brought to 'the Basement' for intimidation, ransom, and free labor,” respondents said. 

Many LGBT people have already left the territories not controlled by the Ukrainian government in the east of the country. Transgender people have it even harder. Due to inconsistencies in appearance in the documents, they cannot leave. And social discrimination makes it almost impossible to find work, get social services, rent housing.

Oleksandra Romantsova, deputy head of the board of the Center for Civil Liberties, draws attention to the fact that Russian legislation has some progressive elements regarding transgender people. For example, there is a procedure for changing sex and obtaining new documents. But these norms are difficult to use, at least in the occupied territory - because of the attitude of the security forces and the authorities:

“There were people who remained in Crimea hoping that this opportunity would be greater and better than in Ukraine. And now they have left Crimea - they are in mainland Ukraine. They say that everything that is positive in the legislation of the Russian Federation cannot be applied in Crimea,” says Romantsova.

Mainland Ukraine has room for improvement

At the same time, on the free territory of Ukraine, progress in the protection of LGBT rights is hardly prompt. The number of registered hate crimes is increasing, and in society, according to the annual report by the Commissioner for Human Rights, prejudice remains towards LGBT people, which can be promoted even by local councils. "There were signs of incitement to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity," reads the 2018 report by Lyudmyla Denisova.  In 2018, the ombudsman’s office opened 28 LGBT discrimination cases.

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However, according to human rights activists: “In Ukraine, if you turn to the press, they will react. There are people in Ukraine who support the freedom and rights of the LGBT community. And you can get support, perhaps not from the whole society, but parts of it, for sure. In the occupied territories, people who are loyal or support LGBT people are not able to express support in public.”