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'Not a celebration': In the midst of war, Kyiv's Pride parade held in Warsaw

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By Daniel Bellamy  with AP
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Pride Parade in Warsaw on June 25th 2022
Pride Parade in Warsaw on June 25th 2022   -   Copyright  Michal Dyjuk/The Associated Press

Ukraine's largest LGBTQ+ event KyivPride went ahead on Saturday, although not on the streets of the country's capital. 

Russia's invasion of Ukraine saw the event taking place together with Warsaw's annual Equality Parade.

About 300 people travelled from Ukraine to the Polish capital, now home to about quarter-million Ukrainians who fled the war. 

Blue-and-yellow flags fluttered among a sea of rainbow ones, while some participants chanted “Slava Ukraini," or glory to Ukraine.

“Unfortunately, we cannot march in Kyiv,” Maksym Eristavi, a Ukrainian journalist and a KyivPride board member, said, citing the dangers of bombings in Ukraine.

“However, it's important for us to still march," said Eristavi, who was draped in both the Ukrainian and European Union flags. "It's still about pride, but pride in being Ukrainian and surviving through genocide."

'We'll wait for victory to celebrate'

KyivPride’s trucks were given the honour of leading Saturday's parade -- one of many ways that Poland's people have stepped up to help their embattled Ukrainian neighbours.

“We want to stand together against war, to walk for Ukraine’s freedom, for liberation, for equality, tolerance and acceptance,” Julia Maciocha, chairperson of Warsaw’s Equality Parade, said.

KyivPride director Lenny Emson said this year's event was aimed at calling for political support for Ukraine and basic human rights.

“It is not a celebration," Emson said. "We will wait for victory to celebrate.”

People belonging to the community have been actively participating in the Ukrainian armed forces in their defence of the country from the Russian invasion.

LGBTQ+ community members have also been among the civilian victims of Moscow's troops during the war that is now in its fourth month.

Ukraine has seen a push for the country to recognise same-sex partnerships, not least because couples want to know they would have the right to bury each other if one of them is killed.

Emson said it would be a tragedy for Ukraine as a whole if the country is defeated by Russia, but LGBTQ+ people would be at risk of getting “erased completely" -- meaning killed, forced to flee or hide their identities.

His organisation runs a shelter for LGBTQ+ people who have fled Ukrainian territory occupied by the Russian forces. One LGBTQ+ rights activist in occupied Kherson has disappeared.

In a manifesto, KyivPride calls on people to realise that the geographical border between democratic Ukraine on one side and autocratic Russia and Belarus on the other “is not just a separation line between the states, but also a boundary between the territory of freedom and a zone of oppression.”

Russia passed a law in 2013 that bans the depiction of homosexuality to minors, something human rights groups view as a way to demonize LGBTQ+ people and discriminate against them. 

Dubbed the “Gay Propaganda” law, it came amid a larger crackdown on civil liberties in Russia and inspired the passage of a similar law in Hungary last year.

Warsaw welcomes KyivPride despite government stance

Poland’s conservative government's stance on LGBTQ+ rights has also made it an unlikely host for a gay rights event.

In recent years, the government has depicted the LGBTQ+ rights movement as an attack on the nation's Catholic traditions and as a force that threatens to corrupt the youth, echoing the rhetoric behind the Russian and Hungarian laws.

But Polish society as a whole has grown more accepting of LGBTQ+ people.

Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, a member of a liberal opposition party, joined Saturday's parade march as he does each year, joined by the EU Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli.

Emson said the KyivPride organisers had considered holding their event in other European capitals but decided that Warsaw's young and energetic rights movement was a better fit.

LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine still face discrimination, but they have made strides in recent years as the country has sought to tie its fate to the West. The evolution of LGBTQ+ rights is underlined by KyivPride’s own growth since it was founded 10 years ago.

In 2012, participants were so heavily outnumbered by angry counter-protesters that they did not dare to march. Parade-goers have been beaten, and a large police presence is needed to protect them. Yet the event has continued to grow.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose courageous wartime leadership has gained worldwide attention, won the respect of LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine when a man wearing a cross and spouting homophobic rhetoric heckled him at a news conference in 2019.

Zelenskyy shot back with anger: “Leave those people alone, for God’s sake."

Since then, however, his party Sluha narodu has also taken steps that LGBTQ+ rights activists view as a threat to their struggle.