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Ukraine LGBTQ activist flees Kyiv

Insight Chair Olena Shevchenko is now in Lviv

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Olena Shevchenko (Photo via Facebook)

The head of an LGBTQ rights group in Ukraine has fled the country’s capital.

Insight Chair Olena Shevchenko on March 10 left her home in Kyiv and evacuated to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that is close to the country’s border with Poland.

Shevchenko on Tuesday told the Washington Blade that she fled Kyiv because of the “bombings, the absence of working possibilities, medicines and some food as well.” Shevchenko said she continues to work to help LGBTQ Ukrainians who remain trapped in Kyiv and in other cities that Russian forces continue to attack.

“(It’s) pretty hard,” Shevchenko told the Blade. “I think I’m almost at my limits.”

Shevchenko wrote an op-ed that the Blade published on Feb. 24, the same day that Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

“Our activists from the LGBTQI+ communities are staying and keep working, providing support to the most marginalized ones,” wrote Shevchenko. “Honestly, I don’t know how long we will be able to resist, but we will do our best for sure.”

Shevchenko in her op-ed acknowledged concerns that Russia may target LGBTQ Ukrainians and other groups if it were to gain control of the country.

Magomed Tushayev, a Chechen warlord who played a role in the anti-LGBTQ crackdown in his homeland, died on Feb. 26 during a skirmish with the Ukrainian military’s elite Alpha Group outside of Kyiv. A White House official the day earlier told the Blade that the Biden administration has “engaged directly” with LGBTQ Ukrainians and other vulnerable populations.

Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrewski and Oleksandra Kuvshynova, his Ukrainian colleague, died on Monday outside of Kyiv when their vehicle was attacked. The same incident left Fox News reporter Benjamin Hall injured.

Brent Renaud, an American journalist and filmmaker, died in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin on Sunday after Russian forces attacked his car and shot him in the head. The New York Times reported the same attack left Juan Arredondo, a photographer and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, injured.

LGBTQ groups continue to raise funds for Ukraine counterparts

Shevchenko on Tuesday told the Blade that Insight has raised $51,000 since the invasion began.

OutRight Action International on its website says the fund it launched to support LGBTQ rights groups in Ukraine has raised more than $525,000.

Pride organizations across Europe have donated $54,862.45 (€50,000) to Ukrainian advocacy organizations. Prague Pride has worked with Alturi, a group that promotes global engagement on LGBTQ issues, to raise more than $12,000 to support groups inside Ukraine and to provide assistance to LGBTQ Ukrainians who reach the Czech Republic.

“While the situation is grim we can offer hope to our LGBTI family in Ukraine,” says Alturi on its website.

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Eastern Europe

Gay Lithuania MP sharply criticizes Russia

Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius elected to Seimas in 2020

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Lithuanian MP Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius. (Photo courtesy of Lithuanian MP Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius)

A gay man who is a member of Lithuania’s Parliament last week said his country could be Russia’s next target.

“Historically after independence in the early 90s, Lithuania was very critical and fearful of its attitudes towards its neighbors,” MP Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius told the Washington Blade on April 28 during a telephone interview from Vilnius, the country’s capital, in reference to Russia. “The current events in Ukraine simply prove that we were right.”

“We have to understand very clearly that Russia is using not only military force, not only its gas and oil, but it is also using its soft powers,” added Raskevičius. “These soft powers are certain, specific world views which Russia tries to impose to its neighboring countries and those ideas are usually anti-human rights and anti-liberal democracy, so they are portraying human rights and liberal democracy as a threat, rather as a benefit to the society.”

Raskevičius further stressed that LGBTQ rights are “part of this Russia propaganda campaign.”

“They’re portraying the West as being rotten, plagued with abominations,” he said.

Lithuania borders the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, Latvia, Belarus, Poland and the Baltic Sea. The country declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, a year before it dissolved.

Raskevičius, 33, is a member of the liberal Freedom Party.

He worked for what is now called the Brooklyn Community Pride Center in New York and the Lithuanian Gay League, among other NGOs, before his election to the Vilnius City Council in 2019. Raskevičius in 2020 won a seat in the Lithuanian Parliament, which is known as the Seimas.

Raskevičius noted he is the second openly gay person elected to the Seimas, but the “first one” with a “pro-LGBT human rights agenda.” Raskevičius currently chairs the Seimas’ Human Rights Committee.

Russian, Belarusian LGBTQ groups relocate to Lithuania

Raskevičius said more than 50,000 Ukrainians have sought refuge in Lithuania since Russia invaded their country in February.

He told the Blade he knows of “isolated incidents” of LGBTQ Ukrainians in the country, noting that “LGBT people went to more open or progressive places than Lithuania.” Raskevičius said LGBTQ organizations are among the NGOs from Russia and Belarus that have relocated to Lithuania after their governments cracked down on them.

“Our local community demonstrates quite a high level of solidarity,” he said. “This is what the struggle for freedom is all about. It’s not only about physical security, but also security from Russian propaganda or soft power.”

Raskevičius also called for continued military cooperation and more economic sanctions against Russia.

“What is really important is not to get used to the war,” he said. “It has already been more than 60 days and you know people are getting used to seeing the terrible things on their TV and it becomes routine … we should be very mindful that we push harder because if Ukraine doesn’t win, we become the next one in the line.”

Raskevičius added Lithuania places “a lot of trust in our security partners, including the United States and NATO.”

“I wouldn’t say there is panic or any kind of that stuff, but it’s very close,” he said. “(Ukraine is) less than 1,000 km (621 miles) away and we have quite a nasty history with the Soviet Union and Russia, so we know what it’s all about it.”

Raskevičius sponsor of civil partnerships bill

Lithuania bans discrimination based on sexual orientation

The country on Sunday officially lifted restrictions for male blood donors who have sex with men, but opposition to LGBTQ rights remains strong. Raskevičius noted Lithuania is one of only six European Union member states that do not legally recognize same-sex couples.

He has introduced a bill that would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships.

LGBTQ rights opponents who Raskevičius said have “documented ties” to Russia in 2021 launched a petition to remove him as chair of the Seimas’ Human Rights Committee “because apparently a person who is gay cannot chair the committee who is in charge of all human rights.” Recall supporters claimed more than 300,000 people signed the petition, but Raskevičius noted journalists discovered the vast majority of them were fake.

Raskevičius told the Blade that opposition to the civil partnership bill was the “pretext” behind the petition. He acknowledged the ongoing debate over whether lawmakers should consider the measure “with war in our neighborhood,” but he stressed “it’s the best time to do so.”  

“We have to choose whether we want to belong to the sphere of influence coming from the East, or we want to move into the West,” said Raskevičius.

Raskevičius’ son is 2 1/2. He told the Blade that fatherhood has shaped his work in support of LGBTQ rights and human rights.

“For a very long time LGBT people were not visible in Lithuania,” said Raskevičius. “LGBT parents was another level of invisibility. These people exist, but they don’t publicly share their experiences because they are concerned about the well-being of their kids.”

“Me and other parents involved in my child’s upbringing made the conscious decision to talk about our experiences publicly,” he added. “We want to encourage people they are not alone.”

The European Court of Human Rights last month heard a challenge to Lithuania’s so-called “gay propaganda law” that specifically bans the distribution of information to minors that “expresses contempt for family values, encourages the concept of entry into a marriage and creation of a family other than stipulated in the Constitution of the republic of Lithuania and the Civil Code of the republic of Lithuania.”

Author Neringa Dangvydė Macatė in 2019 filed a lawsuit against the law after Lithuanian authorities censured her children’s book that featured two same-sex couples. Bob Gilchrist, the openly gay U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, is among those who have publicly criticized the statute.

“Our law is also framed in terms of protecting minors from the detrimental kinds of public information and defines information about LGBT relationships as potentially detrimental,” noted Raskevičius. “Based on that legislation, public authorities could censor public information.”

Raskevičius during the interview also praised the U.S. Embassy and Gilchrist himself for their support of LGBTQ rights in Lithuania.

“The current ambassador demonstrates not only the embassy’s leadership, but he’s demonstrating personal leadership,” said Raskevičius. “He’s very open about who he is and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.”

Raskevičius noted Gilchrist attends public events and speaks about LGBTQ rights on Lithuanian television.

“It’s a very powerful message because we see the United States as a strategic ally,” said Raskevičius. “They would not only defend our territory, but also defend the same values and regarding that, anti homophobic sentiments should have no place.”

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Eastern Europe

Ukraine LGBTQ group chair attacked

Man approached Olena Shevchenko in Lviv on Thursday

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A man on April 14, 2022, attacked Olena Shevchenko, chair of Insight, a Ukrainian LGBTQ rights group, with pepper spray in Lviv, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Olena Shevchenko)

A man on Thursday attacked the chair of an LGBTQ rights group in Ukraine with pepper spray.

Insight Chair Olena Shevchenko in a Facebook post said the man attacked her in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that is close to the country’s border with Poland, after she and her colleagues had loaded “humanitarian aid for women and children” onto a bus.

Shevchenko said “a guy in dark clothes” approached her on the street while she was talking on her cell phone and asked her a question. Shevchenko wrote the man attacked her with a balloon full of tear gas when she turned around to speak with him.

“I called (the) police and emergency (services),” wrote Shevchenko. “I have chemical injuries to my face and eyes, hands.”

Shevchenko posted pictures to her Facebook page that show her washing the tear gas out of her eyes. Shevchenko also wrote hospital personnel “gave me all the assistance I needed in this case.”

Shevchenko told the Washington Blade the man who attacked her “recognized me.” Shevchenko also said he was Ukrainian.

“I think it was planned,” said Shevchenko.

Shevchenko in her Facebook page wrote she hopes “the police identify him.”

“I am angry and very disappointed,” Shevchenko told the Blade.

Shevchenko on March 10 left her home in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and evacuated to Lviv where she and her colleagues continue to support LGBTQ Ukrainians and others whose Russia’s invasion of the country has displaced.

A Russian airstrike on March 1 killed Elvira Schemur, an activist who volunteered with Kharkiv Pride and Kyiv Pride, in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city that is less than 30 miles from the Russian border in the eastern part of the country. A group of “bandits” on the same day broke into the Kyiv offices of Nash Mir, an LGBTQ rights group, and attacked four activists who were inside.

Helen Globa, co-founder of Tergo, a support group for parents and friends of LGBTQ Ukrainians, on March 2 used her bicycle to flee the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Her son, Bogdan Globa, and his husband, Harmilee Cousin, brought her to New York a few days later.

The U.S. is among the countries that have condemned Russia over the atrocities its soldiers committed in Bucha while they occupied it. President Biden this week described the war as genocide.

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Eastern Europe

Anti-LGBTQ Hungarian prime minister declares victory in country’s elections

Referendum on LGBTQ issues also took place on Sunday

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addressing supporters (Screenshot/BBC)

Declaring himself the winner with 91 percent of the votes counted in the national parliamentary elections Sunday evening, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán addressed supporters and members of his Fidesz Party telling the enthusiastic crowd it was a “huge victory.”

“We won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels,” Orbán said referring to his ongoing battles with the European Union.

Orbán’s Fidesz party has a good chance of being re-elected.

“The whole world has seen tonight in Budapest that Christian democratic politics, conservative civic politics and patriotic politics have won. We are telling Europe that this is not the past, this is the future,” he added.

Once the results are confirmed and Orbán settles in for his fourth consecutive term as prime minster, it is almost certain that recent tensions between him and the leadership of the European Union, especially over the question of LGBTQ civil rights, will continue to escalate.

Further adding tension has been Orbán’s longtime close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The prime minister has insisted that Hungary remain neutral in the Russian leader’s war on neighboring Ukraine, although Hungary has maintained close economic ties with Moscow, including continuing to import Russian gas and oil on favorable terms.

Orbán, although he had previously condemned the Russian invasion, has refused to participate in assisting Ukraine or allowing EU and NATO members to ship much needed supplies, including weapons, across Hungarian borders to Ukraine.

At his final campaign rally Friday, the Associated Press reported that Orbán claimed that supplying Ukraine with weapons — something that Hungary, alone among Ukraine’s EU neighbors, has refused to do — would make the country a military target, and that sanctioning Russian energy imports would cripple Hungary’s own economy.

“This isn’t our war, we have to stay out of it,” Orbán said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told western media representatives on Saturday that Orbán is out of touch with the rest of Europe, which has united to support sanctions against Russia and sent aid including weapons assisting Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression.

“He is virtually the only one in Europe to openly support Mr. Putin,” Zelenskyy said.

Peter Marki-Zay, the man who challenged Orbán in national elections on April 3 on behalf of a united opposition, warned of worsening isolation under Orban’s “illiberal” model and likened him to a “traitor” putting Hungarians at risk. Marki-Zay in an interview with RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service said; “Let’s for once be on the right side of history, for once on the winning side.” 

Critics have charged that there will be further erosion of civil rights and democratic norms, especially for Hungary’s LGBTQ community which has been under relentless attack from the Orbán government and the Fidesz Party over the past nearly three years.

“We have heard a lot of nonsense recently about whether there is democracy in Hungary,” Orbán’s State Secretary Zoltán Kovács told reporters in recent interviews. “Hungarian democracy in the last 12 years has not weakened, but been strengthened.”

Lawmakers in December 2020 approved proposals that would effectively ban same-sex couples from adopting children and define marriage as between a man and a woman. That same year parliamentarians from the the Fidesz Party approved a bill that would prevent transgender and intersex people in the country from legally changing their gender.

A law that bans the promotion of homosexuality and sex-reassignment surgery to minors in Hungary took effect in 2021.

“The homophobic and transphobic amendments to the law, which came into force on July 8, 2021, stigmatize LGBTQI people, deprive LGBTQI youth of information that is vital to them, and illegally restrict freedom of speech and the right to education,” said the Háttér Society, a Hungarian LGBTQ rights group.

On Aug. 6, Orban’s government issued a decree that restricts the sale of children’s books with LGBTQ-specific themes.

Orban has garnered the admiration of right-wing nationalists across Europe and North America including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson who traveled to Budapest. Carlson at the opening of his show described Orbán as “an elected leader who publicly identifies as a Western-style conservative.”

Carlson referred to transgender athletes and critics of President Biden’s policies as he introduced his interview with Orbán. The Hungarian prime minister, for his part, defended his record.

“The Western liberals cannot accept that inside the Western civilization there’s a conservative national alternative, which is more successful at everyday life and the level of it than the liberal ones,” he added. “That’s the reason why they criticize us. They are fighting for themselves, not against us. But we are an example that somebody, or a country which is based on traditional values, on national identity, based on a tradition of Christianity, could be successful or sometimes even more successful than a leftist liberal government.”

The European Commission last year announced it would take legal action against Hungary after a law that bans the promotion of homosexuality and sex-reassignment surgery to minors took effect.

“I’m treated like the black sheep of the European Union,” Orbán told Carlson.

Along with the election to parliament, a referendum on LGBTQ issues was being held Sunday. The questions pertained to sex education programs in schools and the availability to children of information about sex reassignment.

“Orbán’s policy in the last 12 years has always been to pick a target and then start to shoot,” Anna Szlavi, co-founder of the Qlit network, an organization and website for gay women in Hungary, told The Daily Beast in a March 29, 2022 interview.

“In 2021 the so-called ‘pedophile law’ was introduced, which basically kind of conflated the LGBT+ [community] with pedophiles,” Szlavi says. “Orbán repeatedly upholds this idea that [being] LGBT is an abnormal thing and it’s OK to equate them with pedophiles.”

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