Maxim Eristavi

The 4 lessons Eastern Europe teaches us about tectonic shifts at global LGBT+ frontlines

Maxim Eristavi, an openly queer journalist from Ukraine, observes how LGBTIQ* communities expand safe space locally. At the same time, with regard to all of Eastern Europe he has to state: In the age of globalization, digitalization, worldwide waves of migration and transnational hate movements the suppression of LGBTIQ* lives is becoming more and more complex. He therefore calls for a new tactic in the struggle for equal rights: wider in scope, international and intersectional.

If I had a euro every time someone would compare my frontline fight for civil rights equality with the Western successes and assure that ‘it just takes time.’
Back in 2015 I did an interview with inspirational Edgars Rinkēvičs, the Latvian foreign minister, the first and only openly gay cabinet member in the post-Soviet space. He delivered the same line, though, saying ‘the progress will probably take 20-30 years’. I remember I suddenly snapped: ‘but I don’t want to wait 30 years, I want to live my life now.’
The history proved us both wrong: things got worse and better, at the same time.

Despite unprecedented LGBT+ visibility and legacy of public figures like Rinkēvičs, Latvia has never delivered more equality and been sliding in LGBT+ rankings ever since. But back in my homeland Ukraine, public queer events broke free of violence and now attract thousands and, as the only openly queer journalist coming from the region, I see safe space for my people expanding.

“I don’t want to wait 30 years, I want to live my life now.”

We deal with the same dichotomy all around Eastern Europe.
On one hand, extreme anti-queer policies by Russian President Putin contribute to the rising violence against LGBT+ communities in the region. In the worst regional outbreak since the World War II,  the 2017-2019 ‘gay pogroms’ in Russian region of Chechnya left dozens executed in extrajudicial manner or disappeared in government secret prisons, hundreds were subjected to brutal torture. On the other hand, a number of popular uprisings against Russian-backed kleptocracy brought a civilizational U-turn towards the European Union integration and greater political will for adopting progressive legislation. For example, the region’s only anti-discrimination laws protecting queer citizens were passed by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as a conditionality for a free trade deal with the EU.
These conflicting developments of the last decade tell us a story of fundamental changes happening at all global frontlines for LGBT+ equality. Four main lessons stand out.
First, globalization has forever transformed frontline battles for civil rights equality.
I like to tell the story of the 2018 Kyiv Pride, when a sizeable group of American conservative protesters tried to prevent me and other marchers from accessing the event’s area. They revealed to me that they’ve traveled from Pittsburgh, PA to protect ‘traditional Ukrainians from Western homosexual conspiracy.’ From Ukraine to Uganda, and from Brazil to Taiwan, a frontline fighter for queer equality faces bigger set of challenges, than an activist from the global North would during early stages of LGBT+ movements. Rising power of international homophobic groups and their export of disinformation messages places enormous pressure on indigenous human rights movements around the globe.
“Transborder Hate Movements” is new, but overlooked phenomenon of internationally organized effort by vast spectrum of hate groups utilizing politics and disinformation to trump equality movements all across emerging democracies. Take World Congress of Families (WCF) – once a fringe club of the American conservatives, has now emerged as well-organized and influential global force. Through this well-funded organization, anti-equality groups from all around the world have discovered the power of organizing in the international arena. They codify their ideology into regressive laws and policies for global export. The organization is not alone in this international crusade and it is important to acknowledge that global fight against homophobia won't be winnable without fully addressing those pockets of well-organized hate groups, based in the Global North.

“A knowledge gap about queer refugees resulted in misguided or sometimes damaging asylum and migration policies.”

Second, intensifying global migration reshapes the portrait of a queer refugee and our migration policies aren’t ready for it.

In 2017-18 I was part of the global awareness outreach bringing the stories of Chechen gay pogrom victims (predominantly of Muslim minority, too) to light and briefed a number of foreign governments and diplomats, including members of the U.S. Congress. I faced a surprising knowledge gap among some key officials when it comes to everyday life of queer communities from Global South. Specifically, some found it puzzling that LGBT+ victims from more community-oriented Muslim cultures find it impossible to sever ties with their families and are entangled in opposite-sex marriages serving more complex role than similar forced marriages of LGBT+ individuals in the Global North. Dealing with hundreds of cases of Muslim dissidents, including queer refugees, I keep hearing the same story of how they get rejected asylum because of a failure on behalf of Western authorities to understand what is like to be a queer person in a Muslim-dominated or non-Western communities. As a result, this knowledge gap resulted in misguided or sometimes damaging asylum and migration policies — most victims running from gay pogroms in Muslim-dominated Southern Russia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan in 2017-19 have been denied asylum or visa requests by Western governments at least once.
Third, repressive regimes exploit international policing law for more effective anti-queer oppression.
I’ve been documenting dozens of cases in the recent year telling the same story: from Turkey to Russia, authoritarian states got much better at abusing international anti-terrorism laws in the hunt for those running from the terror. Take for example the Chechen authorities in Southern Russia who logged more Interpol ‘red notices’ than Americans and Chinese combined. Most of those accuse the suspects of terrorism and ISIS links, including the victims of the 2017 gay pogroms. If you are a Russian, Turkish or Azeri dissident or oppressed minority person seeking refuge in the West, you know that the international policing system has been rigged for years.
Forth, we can’t ignore the role of disinformation weaponizing identity politics anymore.

“The concept that sexual or gender diversity is an ‘alien Western concept’ is now a strengthening ideology.”

As we learn more about growing wave of disinformation campaigns, including those designed and deployed by the Kremlin, one thing stands out – the anti-equality message is a core part of it. The concept that sexual or gender diversity is an ‘alien Western concept’ is now a strengthening ideology binding millions from Russia to the US and from Brazil to Uganda. The Russian disinformation campaigns pioneered it in late 2000s with the ‘Gayrope’ concept portraying homosexuality as a Western conspiracy to undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin as a self-proclaimed defender of conservative moral values. The narrative is designed to help Putin to justify neocolonial expansion into neighboring countries and preserving regional kleptocracies under the façade of protecting ‘a civilizational block.’
There’s no coincidence that the societies where institutions of journalism are weakened or suppressed are among the most affected by organized disinformation campaigns. As the latter has become instrumental in launching discrimination efforts against queer communities — learning more about how disinformation works and supporting independent journalism are now officially part of the newly-emerged intersectional toolbox for addressing LGBT+ discrimination.
I want to end in Ukraine, which grabbed recent headlines with fascinating presidential elections bringing landslide victory for anti-establishment comedian. Despite being a ‘liberal’ ticket and a darling among young voters, President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky have utilized homophobic and misogynist tropes in his comedy before and avoided backing LGBT+ equality in his campaign.

“Global proliferation of identity politics brought more visibility for minorities, but it has also polarized public debates.”

We can’t blame politicians only: for example, just 1% of Ukrainians would accept a queer person to their families, according to a recent poll. However, lack of political leadership and weaponized identity politics make it much worse. In this nutshell, Ukraine is a good illustration of the stasis that plagued most emerging democracies: global proliferation of identity politics brought more visibility for minorities, but it has also polarized public debates and locked pro-equality legislation in a logjam. While the Kyiv Pride in Ukraine emerges as the biggest pride event in Eastern Europe and the visibility of local queer community is at historic high, legislative process for any LGBT+ protection has been dead for years. Many queer Ukrainians seek dignity and fulfilment of their basic rights abroad (as I did myself marrying my partner, also a Ukrainian, in Denmark last year), which only fuels an ongoing brain drain of colossal proportions.
Nowadays, state policies are just not enough to make the pivot towards LGBT+ equality sustainable.  Reimagining our frontline tactics, making it them intersectional, seeking broader groups of allies – including abroad and among transborder businesses – a combination of all it is something I believe will break the mold.
The first step, though, is to let go an outdated notion that LGBT+ progress ‘just takes time.’