Vitalina Koval is made of strong stuff. As a visible and vocal human rights activist in her home town of Uzhgorod, she has to be. The country has a large percentage of conservative and homophobic politicians in government, while Russia, with its gay propaganda law, and the rise of the far right in neighbouring Poland and Hungary exert strong influences.
For most LGBT+ people, their decision to ‘come out’ is usually accompanied by trepidation – a fear of not being accepted. Tie that with a genuine fear for your own safety, indeed your own life, and you can imagine what a brave decision it was to live openly in Uzhgorod. Vitalina says, “When I was 25, I decided to come out to my family. For me, it was a powerful decision because I’d been struggling to do it since I was a teenager. I had tried to do it a few times but there was a very homophobic response and I had a lot of emotional problems after that.
“I want to be open, honest, who I am. It awakened my human rights activism. I started organising queer parties in my town. Of course, they were hidden parties. From this background, I knew almost all active LGBT+ people in our town. A year after, in 2016, one of the biggest LGBT+ organisations in Ukraine came to our town to discuss if we were interested in opening a community centre. We decided I could be a good coordinator.”
As Vitalina had already explained the threatening atmosphere towards LGBT+ people in Ukraine, when she began to speak about opening an LGBT+ community centre, I felt in tandem how it must have been an incredibly positive moment for the queer community while at the same time I feared the worst for its safety. Vitalina responded to my first emotion with the joke – “Well, when the centre started, I was the only open lesbian in my town.” There are now, of course, more. The group also decided not to announce exactly who the centre catered towards for fear of attacks from far-right groups.
Spurred by the success of the centre, Vitalina then began to volunteer with Amnesty International and made plans to highlight International Women’s Day on March 8 with a Women’s Pride action on Uzhgorod’s streets.
This would prove to be the beginning of a continuing battle with far-right groups.
Vitalina explains, “It was a small action, there were about 15 girls as it’s a small town, conservative. Suddenly 20 to 30 guys surrounded us, started to push us, put our placards in the bin. The police only came after about half an hour.” A half hour of being pushed and threatened. It must have felt endless. The leader of the group told Vitalina “You won’t do anything in this town without my permission”. She replied, “Let’s see”.
When the police finally arrived, the women went to a nearby shop and bought more paper and pens and made fresh placards reading “Women against violence”. But even though they were only a couple of metres from the police, members of the far right group came and tore up her placard. The police did not intervene.
“We went to the police station to ask them to investigate. In 2018, after a year, nothing had happened. The guys went unpunished. Even more, in the summer, in the centre of the town, they smashed up one small anti-fascist bar. We have videos. People blocking doors from the inside and the metal doors starting to bend. They were shouting ‘We will kill you’. The police came but did nothing. The owners of the place were told by police not to do anything. We understand the group have some connection to the police because sometimes they do their dirty work.”
As time went on, Vitalina’s group received public and private threats on social media threatening that if they did another Women’s Day action, the group would “smash us”. The women decided not to have another march because of the threats. Showing incredible fortitude, Vitalina still struggled to continue the action, especially as a month before the date, she was the only person involved. “But if I didn’t, we would have no rights. I wrote a small message and sent it to everyone I knew who was an activist. An activist friend helped me to have a conversation with the local police, who assured us they would try to protect us.”
Following this, Vitalina was able to gather a group of 30 people, with ten police officers on hand to protect them. So this time at the Women’s Day action, the far-right group tried a different strategy – while the men hung back, some female members came up front, pretending to be supporters. At the last moment, the female members took out containers of red paint and threw them on the activists, along with flyers that read “Nationalism will protect you from perverts”.
“I got the paint in my eyes and got chemical burns,” Vitalina continued, “I thought I was blind. People took me to a bar and they threw water on my eyes in the kitchen.”
Vitalina was brought to the hospital and received medical attention for her eyes. Immediately afterwards, along with some of the other activists, she went to the police station. Their trouble hadn’t ended yet though.
“When we arrived at the police station there were already 30 guys from the far-right group. The registration desk was only about one metre from where the guys were standing. The police officer loudly asked for my address and full name. I tried to whisper but the group heard. Basically, the police had given them my details. We were there for three hours, and still nobody had written a report.”
But the activists refused to give up. “Police told us they wouldn’t open an investigation at the moment. We spent almost ten hours there. We said it was a hate crime and we wanted an investigation opened because if it didn’t happen now it never would. We stayed there in the same clothes, without water, without food, they wouldn’t give us anything. Half an hour before midnight we told the main police officer, ‘if you want us to die here, we’ll die here’. We’ll stand here and it will be your responsibility. After 15 minutes they opened the investigation.
“The director of Amnesty International Ukraine where I was volunteering called and asked, ‘Do you need a lawyer, help, support?’ I said we needed lawyers and started working with Amnesty.”
The first court date was in October last year. Vitalina explained the local police had not only not done anything to investigate the case as a hate crime, they had changed the charge to one of far less seriousness. “The judge in the case understood they were carrying out incorrect procedure around the case and she refused the result and ordered a reinvestigation. They are trying to drop it again but we are fighting it.”
Upon further research, the activists discovered Ukraine had a terrible track record for investigating possible hate crimes. “From around 200 attacks each year on LGBT+ and women’s rights activists, we have zero decisions in court. The police won’t recognise when something is a hate crime, even when the far right are screaming in your face saying ‘I hate you because you are gay’.”
It was painfully clear the government needed to do more to ensure that hate crimes were not just investigated, but prevented. What stood in the activist’s favour was the government’s desire to present Ukraine in a good light to the rest of Europe. In fact, when I originally asked what the atmosphere was like for LGBT+ people in Ukraine, Vitalina had joked that it was very warm. During Eurovision. When other countries were paying attention.
The activists decided to use the help of Amnesty and the power of the public worldwide to bring attention to their beleaguered community. Their action is gathering momentum. The Ministry of the Interior agreed to a meeting Amnesty International “because they could not avoid it,” said Vitalina, “but they would not have a meeting with me. So I understood that they were afraid. During this campaign, we did a lot of lobbying. We worked with foreign ministries of countries which are very supportive of human rights. They helped us by sharing experiences, they helped us by asking the uncomfortable questions to our government. I really feel with this support we have the possibility to not just talk about it but really have valuable changes.”
While those wishing to help can check the Amnesty International website for petitions, share the story on social media and raise awareness, the real way to make an impact is to, like Vitalina, show resilience. “The government is trying to wait until things calm down and when no one is watching, they will try to break their promises. So in a few months send a letter to the Minister of the Interior asking for updates on their decision on hate crimes. They need to respond to each official letter, it’s the procedure. It will show them ‘we are watching you’ it won’t be so easy to skip.”
Despite certain aspects, Vitalina obviously loves her country. She concluded, “Because of economics, the war with Russia, homophobic politics, we have a huge wave of migration and a lot of LGBT+ people have already left. But some of us are staying, and we are trying to do something. I want my country to be a better place with rights for all. I don’t want to go anywhere else, I want to live in my country. It’s our civil right to have our rights.”
This story originally appeared on GCN’s May 2019 issue. Read the full issue here.
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