East vs. West? Russia, Ukraine, and the Anti-Gay Wedge

About Cole Parke

L. Cole Parke is PRA's LGBTQ & Gender Justice Researcher, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for the past ten years. Raised in a military family and a conservative Christian world, Cole studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and traveled throughout the country advocating for LGBTQ justice at conservative religious schools and institutions as a part of the 2008 and 2012 Soulforce Equality Rides.
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Pro-European Union activists gather next to Ukrainian riot police guarding the Ukrainian Government buildings in Kiev, Ukraine, Dec. 9, 2013. Hundreds of police in full riot gear flooded into the center of Kiev on Monday as mass anti-government protests gripped the Ukrainian capital for yet another week, raising fears of an imminent crackdown. (Sergei Grits/AP Photo)

Pro-European Union activists gather next to Ukrainian riot police guarding the Ukrainian Government buildings in Kiev, Ukraine, Dec. 9, 2013. Hundreds of police in full riot gear flooded into the center of Kiev on Monday as mass anti-government protests gripped the Ukrainian capital for yet another week, raising fears of an imminent crackdown. (Sergei Grits/AP Photo)

Braving freezing temperatures and violent police brutality, protesters continue to stand their ground at Independence Square in Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev. Demonstrations have been growing in size and intensity over the last month, after Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU), indicating a shift in favor of Russia’s own integrationist project, the Eurasian Union.

In the debates leading up to this current political moment, the LGBTQ community became a useful scapegoat for pro-Russia factions. Ukraine was the first post-Soviet country to decriminalize homosexuality following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but violence and intolerance have grown steadily, mirroring the rising wave of homophobia in neighboring Russia.

Seeking to capitalize on the stigmatization of Ukraine’s LGBTQ community (a 2012 Gorshenin Institute study showed 72 percent of those polled had negative attitudes toward sexual minorities), Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy businessman, former parliamentarian, and close friend to Vladimir Putin, launched his own propaganda campaign.

Medvedchuk is the founder and major financial backer of Ukrainian Choice, an organization dedicated to lobbying against forming ties between Ukraine and the EU (despite advocating the opposite in 2002). One of their primary strategies for mobilizing pro-Russia support has been a targeted campaign against LGBTQ people, that equates association with the EU to same-sex marriage. Russia, on the other hand, is presented as the bastion of traditional morality.

The issue, however, has less to do with any sort of alleged risk presented by LGBTQ equality, and more to do with the political and financial aspirations of Medvedchuk. In August, the EU news website Euractiv reported on a leaked Russian document that said the Kremlin would do everything in its power to assure the defeat of President Yanukovych in the 2015 election and install Medvedchuk in his place.

Scapegoating the LGBTQ community is far easier than confronting political scandal and economic crisis, so in October 2012, Ukraine’s parliament approved a law that would punish anyone convicted of importing, producing, or spreading “works that promote homosexuality” with jail terms of up to five years. (The proposed law was similar to laws passed in several Russian cities earlier that year, as well as Russia’s federal “anti-gay propaganda” law that went into effect this past August.) Ukraine’s law was subsequently shelved after much outcry from EU officials, but it was reintroduced this past July by a pro-Russia parliamentarian, Vadim Kolesnichenko, who explained to Buzzfeed’s J. Lester Feder, “This is an issue of protecting our society from corruption and from an attack on the foundations of our society’s spirituality and an issue for health–our country’s population is dying out.”

Kolesnichenko’s sentiment is eerily similar to the expressed concerns of the World Congress of Families (WCF), which–not surprisingly–sent a delegation to Kiev last October for a meeting organized by Alexandar Skvortsov, co-chairman of the All Ukrainian Parents’ Committee.

The WCF functions as an umbrella organization for groups and individuals who fight against LGBTQ equality and women’s bodily autonomy in defense of what they call the “natural family.” According to a WCF press release following the Kiev meeting, “The Ukrainian leaders expressed concern about the pressure brought to bear on their nation to accede to the homosexual agenda (including ‘gay marriage’) as a condition for membership in the European Union.”

Echoing this fear in a statement on his organization’s website last month, Skovortsov said, “We oppose the signing of the association agreement with the EU, because it will lead to the inevitable homosexualizing of Ukraine,”

To be clear, the relationship proposed between Ukraine and the EU would not require Ukraine to legalize same-sex marriage. The EU’s only explicit requirement is an eventual ban on employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Unfortunately, exploiting LGBTQ people for political gain under the guise of religious morality is a well-practiced strategy, perfected here in the U.S. and exported all around the world. Just as we’ve seen in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, and elsewhere, the fingerprints of right-wing evangelicals from the U.S. are all over the current crisis for LGBTQ people in Ukraine. Here’s a small sampling:

  • The Trinity Broadcasting Network has been in the region since 1999.
  • The Christian Broadcasting Network launched a Ukrainian version of The 700 Club in 2010.
  • In 2004, Peter Wagner, one of the leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation, assembled a gathering of evangelical leaders in Kiev where he prayed for the day when “the government of the Church and the political governments will enter into a harmony.”
  • In 2008, former Exodus International board member, Don Schmierer, conducted a seminar in Donetsk, Ukraine, promoting his anti-LGBTQ, ex-gay theories.
  • Earlier that same year, Kay Warren, Rick Warren’s wife and co-pastor of Saddleback Church, visited Kiev, Ukraine to preach at a women’s conference.
  • Mike Bickle of the International House of Prayer spoke to an evangelical revival in Kiev in 2010.
  • And the infamous Scott Lively traveled through Ukraine just last October.

Despite being charged with “crimes against humanity” for his role in promoting violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people in Uganda, Scott Lively continues to do damage all around the world. May those in Springfield, Massachusetts who seek to bring him to justice be emboldened by the protesters in Kiev who refuse to be silenced.