What is the difficulty with ensuring security during peaceful gatherings of the LGBTQ+ community? What is the attitude of local governments toward the work of regional LGBTQ+ NGOs? How did changed attitude of the local journalists? Maksym Petrov, head of UHHRU projects on the protection of the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and activists, answers these questions in an exclusive interview.
Over the past year you have been the coordinator of a team of experts from UHHRU, UMDPL, Human Rights Initiative and Insight, as well as the organizer of a pilot study “Security during LGBTQ+ peaceful gatherings: the issues of communication between the organizers, police and local authorities”. You also coordinated monitoring activities to assess the effectiveness of communication efforts of LGBTQI+ organizations in various regions of Ukraine. Why was communication chosen as the research subject?
Police, human rights activists, local authorities, the media and even the general public that don’t deal with LGBTQ+ issues directly are well aware that here in Ukraine we have problems with ensuring security during related peaceful gatherings. However, none of the experts see the whole picture as to why this is happening. Each time some specific reason is cited: non-compliance with security protocols when preparing and conducting these events, unsatisfactory performance by law enforcement, impunity among radical right-wing groups, prevalence of the so-called “traditional” values in society, lack of attention toward LGBTQI+ issues among the authorities and so on.
We tried to look at this problem from a different point of view and realized that all those things I’ve just listed are side effects caused by poor communication (ie interaction) between the community and the public. So our team decided to explore this in more detail.
What are the key takeaways of the monitoring?
There’s much to talk about here. I will, however, say this: the task of addressing security issues during LGBTQ+ peaceful gatherings requires the efforts of everyone involved in this process: the community, the police and the authorities (in a broad sense). I know what you’re thinking, “What else is new!”. But the issue is deeper than it seems. It is, I think, a simple formula: the more members of the community go out into the public space, the more they speak out, not even about their rights, but that they are also part of society, just like everybody else – the faster the stigma will disappear, along with the perception that LGBTQ+ is something strange, wrong and harmful.
That’s where other stakeholders come in. Imagine if, like I said, members of the community start getting into public space more often. What it means is they would start announcing that they are part of the LGBTQ+ community and declaring their right and desire to be actively involved in the socio-political and economic life of society. A large part of society will have an expected reaction — a rejection of “unusual” phenomena”, manifested in bullying, discrimination, assaults or even infliction of bodily harm (possibly qualified as a hate crime). Familiar picture, isn’t it?
Law enforcement should register and investigate such incidents, and the courts should be giving out convictions or acquittals. But what if police officers, prosecutors, local government employees or judges happen to belong to the part of society that harbors those same stereotypes and prejudices, making discriminatory and unjust decisions that violate human rights? We must be aware that, as unfair as it is, decisions are made not by positions, but by people in those positions, each one with his or her own set of judgments.
Thus, the LGBTQ+ community should do more awareness-raising activities. Not just about human rights, but also about other areas of their activities, their everyday life, their problems, accomplishments, etc. However, unless they become more “visible”, not just showcasing their human rights efforts, the situation will be changing no faster than it is now.
In the pilot study, along with the issue of interaction with the National Police of Ukraine, much thought is given to communication of civil society activists with local governments and regional media. In your opinion, to what extent do shortcomings in these areas affect security during LGBTQ+ peaceful gatherings?
In regards to the media, they certainly make a large impact. I’d even say, they play a decisive role. If, for some reason, LGBTQ+ organizations or individual activists in a local community don’t pay enough attention to working with the media, then the locals are likely to remember mostly negative or, at best, neutral information about an equality march, an attack or some other event, which only serves to reinforces existing stereotypes and rejection. However, when communication is at a high level, ie community members frequently and proactively interact with the media, not just agreeing to interviews when approached by journalists, when they help shape public discourse, then, given time, LGBTQ+ events won’t be causing negative reactions, and attempts to disrupt them will be finding no support among the local population.
Communication with local authorities is also a factor. Employees of local self-government bodies often extricate themselves from the preparation and holding of peaceful gatherings (and not just those dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues). Cleaning up the street where the gathering will be taking place, having ambulances on standby, discussing routes and traffic redirection, providing chemical toilets and so on — local governments are responsible for all these issues. However, if there’s no feedback, these issues have to be solved in some other way, and the pressure on, say, the National Police increases.
Right now we know next to nothing about the attitude of local governments toward the work of regional LGBTQ+ organizations. The quotes we see in the media are mostly from human rights activists and representatives of the National Police. What did the monitoring results show in this area?
Representatives of local governments managed to extricate themselves here as well. We sent invitations to take part in an anonymous survey to the city councils of all cities covered by our study. Yet we heard back only from 8 members of the Mariupol City Council, for which they have our gratitude. However, it’s not enough to draw any conclusions.
Are there any differences in the attitude of local authorities toward LGBTQI+ organizations in different regions of Ukraine?
There definitely are. It depends on a number of factors: how religious the population is, how close the city is to the capital, the type of local political culture, the ethnic or age composition of the population, etc. We shouldn’t also forget about the level of engagement of the LGBTQ+ community in society. However, as I said, the lack of data prevented us from assessing and comparing the attitude of local governments toward LGBTQI+ organizations.
Coverage of social issues concerning vulnerable groups in Ukraine in general has always been a delicate subject for journalists. In your opinion, is this situation changing today? Were you able to discuss this with journalists in person?
The situation is improving, albeit slowly. This process is proportional to the increase in the “visibility” of communities. Social journalism has been getting increasingly popular in Ukraine. And yes, I’ve spoken with journalists from different regions. Many admit they don’t know how to properly cover these issues, what terms to use, what subjects are not considered taboo. However, they do want to tell people’s stories, to show that members of vulnerable communities are people just like everybody else. Unfortunately, as many journalists admit, non-sensational articles don’t arouse much interest among viewers and readers. Still, in my opinion, it’s just a matter of cultivating an interest for this subject.
This is not the first year that UHHRU has been covering issues related to the protection of civil society activists, representatives of vulnerable groups and LGBTQ+ activists in particular. How can the database of hate symbols created by UHHRU help resolve existing problems?
We hope it’ll help us improve the situation with the identification and investigation of hate crimes. According to our plans, this information would be helpful, first and foremost, to victims, lawyers and law enforcement officers that deal with vulnerable groups in their work. Of course, the database by itself will not be enough. We’re aware of the need to clarify the meaning of certain hate symbols, of the reasons for their use and the motives of criminals, as well as to keep expanding and adjusting the database. Furthermore, investigating crimes as hate crimes will require a number of legislative changes, educational activities and a lot of other factors. The database is but one of such factors.
What do you think are the prospects for resolving the newly identified issues?
The prospects for resolving new issues are very good. Our team of experts essentially unearthed and delineated what has been going on for a long time. These problems are not something that can be resolved in the near future. Also, in addition to shifting focus and ensuring better engagement of the LGBTQ+ community, these efforts will also require a more involved participation on the part of human rights defenders, police, local governments, central authorities, international partners and donor organizations.
Prepared with the support of Freedom House Ukraine
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