Russian transcription by Olga Zelinska
Translation and editing by Sophie Pinkham
The Women’s Network is an informational-educational center. It’s a feminist-lesbian organization. We registered in 2000. We’re one of the very first feminist-lesbian organizations in Ukraine.
There are several elements to our strategy. One of them is participation in the development of government policy in relation to women, and also to lesbians. Women in general, and lesbians in particular, and LGBT. That is to say, we work on advocacy. Very strong advocacy, cooperation with the mass media, special events—for example, conferences, roundtables, press releases and so on.
We also promote the expansion of social services for LGBT and for lesbians in particular. The unequal distribution of resources, which is evident throughout the world, affects women’s access to social services…lesbians in particular are at a disadvantage. In connection with this that we have an informational-educational component, a scientific, methodological component, and, through the efforts of our [female] volunteers, we support one of the biggest, most fundamental feminist-lesbian resources, the Feminist Lesbian Point (www.feminist.org.ua). There we have free on-line consultations with a psychologist and a lawyer. We also support cultural and athletic social events, which are organized by different organizations and independent women’s initiatives. Of course we have a component to improve staff qualifications…
Since 2003 we’ve organized yearly summer camps for leaders from the regions. It’s very important, since the camp allows us to work on women’s leadership. And thanks to the camp in Ukraine we now have initiative groups, “L-groups,” in Lvov, Kharkov, Donetsk, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk and other cities. And thanks to the camp we don’t only support people who attend, but we also find out about problems and dynamics in the region. Because when you’re sitting in Kiev and you don’t have grants for monitoring trips, it’s very hard to understand what’s going on. People can do whatever they want [at the camp]—soccer, beer, barbecuing, whatever—the important thing is that a movement starts, that some of them register an organization…
I’m very proud that we’re generating this wave of activism and leadership, because people who come to our free trainings start to understand that being a lesbian doesn’t just mean having sex with a person of a certain sex. It’s a political position, a way of life, a source of pride…
We work with women who are students or who have higher education, who, as a rule, work, who are socially successful. These women are usually 25 and older. The younger people all come from Inside [a Kiev organization for young lesbians]. They have outreach programs, a community club, and so on. And we already have a target group that’s, as a rule, people in stable couples–they have children, they work, and they’re not interested in hanging around in a bar—they don’t have time. That’s our target group. We counsel researchers and students, graduate students, people who are interested in gender, human rights, women’s rights, sexuality, and this group includes lesbians.
The most pressing problem for our target group is catastrophic homophobia…We published our Blue Book, our second research project, in 2007. There were 83 respondents in focus groups and 146 through questionnaires, and, as I remember, every single one of them said that homophobia disrupted their lives. Because of the financial situation in our country, it’s very hard for young people to leave home, to look for their own place to live, it’s very expensive…it’s hard to find work that pays well enough to let you leave your parents. You leave your parents at a relatively advanced age. And homophobia, especially this day-to-day homophobia, of course it keeps people from feeling whole, from feeling normal. Internalized homophobia, which people feel in the process of “coming out,” is very strong. People don’t believe in themselves—they think that they are defective, that everything is bad, they’ll never be happy, they’ll never have a family. They’re afraid of being blackmailed at work, they’re afraid of losing their parental rights. Of course, a life that’s complete and comfortable, both psychologically and economically, is unattainable for them.
Everyone [surveyed] experienced pressure from their parents to get married. Lots of them experienced homophobia from their co-workers and only a few of them had come out [she uses the English term “coming out]. I could count on one hand the people who came out to their parents and at work. After they did that, their lives stabilized.
These are the problems people have. They can’t get adequate psychological support. When there’s a crisis, there isn’t even a hotline to call. There’s a Ukrainian hotline for questions about HIV/AIDS and drug addiction. After a gay colleague and I led a training for the psychologists [at the hotline] they understood the needs of our target group. I gave them the book Pink Psychotherapy…affirmative psychotherapy. We also gave them methodological assistance. Since then they’ve been doing counseling…gay boys work at the hotline from 8 pm till morning. People already know about the service—we advertised all over the place. We had a PR campaign…people call. And not only about HIV/AIDS, but also about sexuality. “Something’s happening with me…where can I turn? What should I do?”
Now all the money for gays comes through HIV/AIDS funding. It’s impossible to get a grant for advocacy. No one’s interested. No one’s interested in human rights. If it’s HIV/AIDS, then yes. Let’s give out condoms. Who are you giving condoms? People who are experiencing stigma and don’t come to our program to get these condoms, because they don’t identify with gays or bisexuals, or… “It’s not important, I’m heterosexual, but sometimes I want a certain something.”
Because of this “male” financing, you see terrible disproportion in access to resources. Now, I think, there are 14 projects for men who have sex with men, and as a rule it’s a standard package: a community center where people can come, a dermatovenerologist [STI specialist], usually social workers who do outreach, who give out condoms, chat with people, attract them to events, and a psychologist. Boys get some sort of help, unlike girls.
Sometimes very strong women’s groups form around these “male” centers. They help, they volunteer, they do something, they’re creative. And then you get the question of what to do with the girls. There’s a gap—boys have resources, and girls have nothing. No psychologist, no lawyer, no community center, no outreach program, because, you know, if I don’t have a dick how can I be at risk of infection? There’s an orange coffee-table book for women, Sexual Health, that we wrote specially for lesbians and bisexuals. This book, by the way, is enormously popular with dermatovenerologists and psychologists at the AIDS Center. When they see it they always ask for a copy. The book is distributed in women’s prisons, among psychologists and educators who have to give lectures. We ran out of copies six months after it was released.
We have no shelter for women who have experienced hate crimes. I think that homophobia is a hate crime. And there are lots of women who’ve experienced that, unfortunately. As a rule, these women are divorced from their heterosexual husbands. And these women try to leave and live with their [female] loved ones and then start to be persecuted. Their parents persecute them, beat them, their husbands blackmail them and beat them, and there were a lot of cases where women came to us and there was nothing for me to do but give them some money, feed them…I can’t bring everyone home with me. Right? Because I live there.
There are girls who run away from home and live on the street. But they interact mostly with Inside, because that’s their target group. We can’t cover them. They’re on the “hundred meter”–the place in Kiev on Khreshatyk Street, between the Khreshatyk metro stop and Bessarabskii Market. There are benches. That’s the cruising spot…We don’t work with them because we have no grants, we have no resources [for that] and we’re interested in women over 30. But in connection with the economic situation, there’s no work anywhere. Lots of people migrate to oblast centers and to the capital. They’re in various situations, of course—some are homeless, some are fine. It depends on their professional skills and social status. But there are also women who work at escort services, who are involved in prostitution. And some women use drugs.
For me to become involved in activism was a very long process. It took many years. In 1992 I went as a labor migrant to Moscow. I lived there for almost 8 years. And it was a very complicated period. I fell in love with a girl there…We had a very complicated path that took us from trading in the market to producing Austrian radio and television. I left there with a good salary, with good results. I only needed 7 years to make a career. I washed the dishes, I tended bar, I worked as a salesgirl in a tent. Sausages, cigarettes, water—everything. Then I became a journalist at some publications, I worked as a photographer. Then I met my future employer and bit by bit…
But at the same time I met women who called themselves feminists. That was really interesting for me. I started talking to them. At that time in Russia there were a few feminist camps, opposition [groups]. One was in St. Petersburg. As a result they developed the “Petersburg Center on Gender Problems.” In Moscow it was the “Informational-Educational Women’s Forum,” led by Marina Liborakina, and in Petersburg Olga Likhovskaya was in charge. They’re both very famous. I ended up with Marina Liborakina. I thought, “Well, we’re feminists, we’re doing the same thing,” and I didn’t understand these political currents, subtleties, confrontations. For me all people are sisters. I ended up suffering a lot because of that—lots of people don’t understand me.
That was in 1994. In 1995 there was the international women’s conference in Beijing, with strategic planning beforehand, meetings, agreements. At the beginning I had a poor understanding of the terminology, the language people were speaking. It’s a closed subculture with its own laws, rules, and I was a person who’d never encountered this before. I’m trained as a doctor, I write well and think and talk. But I wasn’t familiar with these specifics.
And I remember the feeling of catharsis when I understood what “human rights” meant. I read the Declaration on Human Rights and something inside me changed, clicked. All the negativity associated with the notorious phrase “human rights” in the Soviet Union. “Human rights” was like an insult in the Soviet Union. And suddenly I understood what it was about, and why it was necessary for me, personally. I wrote my first article, which was called “Human rights and the position of gays and lesbians in Russia.” It was a really funny article. If I were writing it now I’d write it entirely differently (laughs). But then I was still in a formative period for my understanding, understanding of the world, international acts. I read piles of documents. I understood how to use them. And my colleagues, these Moscow feminists, gave me the opportunity to participate in all these training and seminars. More than that, I was correspondent for an online newspaper that they were publishing. And recently, just a year ago, I found a disk of materials I wrote and I understood that it was a completely pro-lesbian newspaper (laughs)…
Suddenly I had the opportunity to appear at the Duma for open hearings and at some closed clubs. For example, I was a member of Masha Arbatova’s club. She’s a famous Russian feminist, writer, playwright. And for a long time she’s had a television show called “I myself” [feminine] where they invite women to tell their stories. She was a feminist, and her psychologist girlfriend was a traditionalist. At the same time, this show, which had a screenplay, had a very powerful effect on Russian audiences. Many millions of people watched it.
I understood that—now it sounds funny to say—but in the Soviet Union there was absolutely no information about homosexuality. Absolutely none. I’m a medic by training, and when I got this education I already knew who I was, what I was. I tried to find books, something…in the textbooks it said that it’s a complication of schizophrenia, that it’s a dysfunctional sexual behavior. But I was fine (laughs). Understand? At that moment, when I read this [declaration on] human rights, when I got access to all these translated books and articles…I don’t speak English, you didn’t need to in the Soviet Union (laughs). Suddenly I understood that I didn’t need to be a man physically to love women, to be complete. There are two elements: human rights and gender theory. And I when I understood what gender is, what gender theory is, my God, everything became so much easier for me, calm and good. Everything fell into place. The access to information that I got from my colleagues—I’ll be grateful to them for the rest of my life. Information has such an influence on everything, including a person’s psychological health.
We had several discussion clubs on the theme of leadership. Our organization also led discussion clubs, not only for lesbians. We accept everyone who comes to discuss things with us. We do this for lesbians and bisexuals. In our Poltava camp there was one camp on the theme of leadership…and we discussed that theme in a discussion club, too. And we came to the conclusion that leadership is a specific characteristic, that, obviously, is inherited.
I’m talking about myself. Because for me, on my father’s side and on my mother’s, all the women are very active. Amazons (laughs). The Amazons lived on Ukrainian territory and I consider myself a descendent of the Amazons, because women of my family are very active, they always have their own position, they never let anyone shut them up. And they always worked very actively, they had a sense of social responsibility, cultural, political things. I think that more than anything it’s inherited.
Second of all—it’s a kind of virus. You might not know that you’re a leader. Up until a certain moment you might just be an active person with a good position in life, life of the party, get everyone together for soccer, for beer, a concert, some kind of leisure activity. And then, suddenly, if you find yourself in the right circumstances, maybe someone notices you and takes you to a training, maybe you’re hanging out with a certain crowd and you start looking for some kind of information there, some events, and suddenly you’re infected with this virus and you never recover.
Now I am in a tragic situation—I can’t stop being a leader (laughs). I’m already 41. I’m tired. I can’t, you know…because activism doesn’t pay. I’m always using my own resources—my money, my time, my professional abilities, all for the moral satisfaction [of activism]. I earn almost no money for it. And that’s a burden, because activism takes up a lot of my time. And it affects my quality of life. But I can’t do anything about it.
There were a few grants in Ukraine for projects on women’s leadership. There was a three-year project, I don’t know whose money it was—either Soros or the International Women’s Fund. There were leadership courses for young girls through the Kiev Center for Work with Women and Vulnerable Groups.” That center has a great location even now, as long as the mayor doesn’t take it away. We have a great mayor, you know [sarcastically]. He thought, “You know, women don’t need such a great place. I’ll take it for myself.”
In this center they had leadership courses for upper-level schoolgirls. They had to finish school and come to these courses afterward. They learned about gender, politics, [gender-based] violence, rather useful things like that. They’re already rather grown-up and they need to have this kind of knowledge.
And now the Ukrainian Women’s Fund has a program, I’m not sure with what money. The program is called “Women in politics.” They have some educational courses for women who want to start political careers. I find it a bit funny. It’s right what they’re doing. Women need that kind of knowledge. They can apply it not only in politics, where they won’t be accepted—I know that because our Parliament is just a money trough—everything’s for sale. You can’t become a deputy unless you pay or unless you’re so useful that they just take you. There are almost no women in the political parties. Women are only 0.17% of Parliament. They simply aren’t there. It’s a men’s place. White men from the middle class who become deputies, get rich, make capital, factories, real estate—whatever hasn’t been stolen already. All questions are resolved in a man’s way—at the sauna, with prostitutes and vodka. Can you imagine yourself in such company? (Laughs). Yes, that’s the issue with leadership.
[In response to a question about resistance to the idea of “feminism” in Ukraine:] It’s propaganda. It’s a stereotype that dates back to the Soviet Union. Without exception, people reject feminism, homosexuality—it’s a question of language. Everyone has their own ideas about language. They say that feminists want to steal all the power and destroy the natural order of things. They want to rule the world, to dominate men. Total insanity. At the same time, there isn’t a single informational-educational campaign saying that feminism gives humanity.
And it’s been only in the last five or six years that they’ve started teaching gender studies and feminist studies in Ukraine. As a rule, you know, philologists analyze texts, gender analysis of texts, and so on. In principle, you can approach this problem from many sides. You can make a cultural revolution, as they did in Holland, Sweden, Denmark…You have to have a good program on gender, human rights and so on. On sexuality. There’s never anything about sexuality. We don’t have sex, and sexology is studied only in a fragmented way.
We have no sisterhood like you do [in America]. Brotherhood happens of its own accord. Men gather for beer, play hockey, soccer, men have this and that. Women don’t have that. Although everyone knows that girls are better students, whether in school or university. But then they have to get married. Understand? (Laughs).
The most recent research in Ukraine shows that more women are waiting to get married until they’re between 30 and 35. After university you make a career, you achieve some self-realization, and only after all that, maybe, I can just have a baby, which is preferable, or, if I want to, I can get married. There are more and more of these women. And another good thing is that our young girls go to study abroad. That’s a big triumph. Now these programs—the Eastern European University of Human Rights, Soros, in Budapest. There are programs in European universities. There’s some chance…there’s Fulbright. Lots of people study on Fulbrights. There are some training programs where you’re placed for six months, two years in a different country with a different mentality, you do research, you defend this scientific work and get an MA or a PhD, depending on the person. But lots of my colleagues studied abroad, really lots. And these women know what they need from life. They don’t have the attitude that “my husband will solve any social problems for me.” And what will you do? Have children. Wonderful! The children grow up. What will you do? Your husband left you for a younger woman. What are you going to do?
It’s very well described in Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” An American family, women in golden cages with two cars, two children, a fabulous house and lots of vacuum cleaners and other appliances. These fantasies of wealth…I think that women in every country of the world have had dreams like that, that a man will solve my problems, if I marry a millionaire…
These patriarchal constructions are still extremely strong. Of course, in big cities it’s easier, women have more gender roles, they’re more flexible, they’re allowed to do more, but if a woman lives in a village she has to be a mother, she has to correspond to all the standards for a “real” woman, she has to be married and if she isn’t married she has to have children, otherwise she’s not complete.
There are problems coming out in small towns—people just persecute you. People need to leave, migrate somewhere, because they’re so persecuted.
[Lesbians are often married to men because] it’s safer that way. I don’t know. Women of my age are just hidden. They’re nowhere. If they appear it’s either in the company of very close friends or at some special event—a performance or a party, Halloween, for example. They’re all married, as a rule. Because that’s safer. And they either torture themselves with this marriage for their entire lives, or they marry a gay or bisexual man. The younger ones have an awful period, when at 18 or 20 years old they start to hang out and everything depends on where they end up. If you end up on this “hundred meter,” there’s nothing interesting besides alcohol, drugs and sex. You can get robbed, beaten up and so on. Women do it. And when you look at them and think, “My God! Me? A lesbian? If this is what lesbians are like then I’m not a lesbian.”
At the same time, girls who found us adapted really well. “Oh, lesbians are cool! They’re researchers. Translators. Journalists. They work in banks. They live well. They have minds. I want to be a lesbian.” You accept your identity…Those who fall into a bad crowd, they get interrupted in this process, or it takes longer.
It took me 12 years to accept who I was. Twelve years! It was very complicated. It was torture. Some people have internalized homophobia that keeps them from coming out—“I can’t tell my mother. It will kill her.” How do you know it will kill her? Maybe it will make her stronger. They’re afraid of losing their comfortable existence. Then: “Soon I’ll stop being a lesbian, because I want to have a baby. And for that I have to get married, then I’ll get divorced, and then…” Why do you have to do all that? You find a normal man. You take his sperm. You get inseminated artificially and that’s it. And this man helps you financially, if you want. I don’t know, there are people who have children with gay men or with heterosexual friends—they make an agreement and no one pretends it’s personal. But at the same time there’s a child everyone takes care of, everyone loves, he has a father and a mother. In my case I’d prefer that there were two mothers and two fathers (laughs), and four grandmothers and four grandfathers.
The difference [between the situations in Western and Eastern Ukraine] is that Western Ukraine is very strongly influenced by religion. You know, we have several faiths in Ukraine and this is what saves us. Otherwise we’d be like Russia, with one party, one God, one for everyone. In Western Ukraine—the International HIV/AIDS Alliance did research with drug addicts when I worked there. The situation in Western Ukraine is that a drug user does everything he can so that others don’t see him. If he picks up a prostitute he has sex with her in such a way that no one can see him. In Eastern Ukraine people shoot up in groups and take turns with one prostitute.
I recently came back from Lvov. I was at a presentation of the first Ukrainian queer anthology, “120 Pages of Sodom.” It’s a very provocative title, but it expresses all the stereotypes that society feels towards gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Extremists and nationalists threw tomatoes, poured mayonnaise and water at the press conference. And I was at the press conference itself, it was a theater, a very small, round hall, 200 people, and five people stormed in. One managed to break through. But the police grabbed him, a guy in civilian clothes. And there was a boy, about 18. He ran at the poet who was reading his poems in Russian—Dimitri Krylov, from Moscow. He ran at him, but didn’t get to him. And Dima took a big, heavy glass, like for whiskey, and threw it at his head, can you imagine? “Yes!” I thought. Then he stomped on his foot…I thought, “Finally!”
And Dima says, “It is my deepest conviction that until we learn to defend ourselves, until we learn to give a fitting rebuff, we will never be left in peace. My personal conviction is that these idiots need to be beaten half to death in order for them to understand that this time will be the last and it would be better to sit at home than to go out and beat up fags.” And they were fined. They paid a fine. And now their nationalist organization published a press release saying that all of these Western guys who are dragging Ukraine into Europe, they’re an occupying power, they’re throwing sand in our eyes with feminism and gender equality, a tolerant attitude to ‘fags,’ and real Ukrainians believe in God and in fighting the Sodomites.
Lvov has a very powerful [LGBT] community. We had a training there, paid for with our own money, we went there and did a training and some research. There’s a crowd there of about 100 women. The only difference from Kiev is that for some reason they all wear denim vests (laughs)…And they have long hair that covers their eyes.
Now we’re trying to create a council of LGBT organizations in Ukraine. I’ve been trying to create it since 2003 and it’s always been unsuccessful, because every fairy wants to be a queen. Here’s the crown and here’s the mantle. And for me it’s just uncivilized, probably because I think differently than a gay man does. And sometimes it’s very difficult with them. They see their resources, their interests. “Goodbye, girls! Go and create your own association.” Oh yeah? And what do you have in mind? You have all the resources, all the money, you get salaries. I do everything for free. I understand that you have different needs. You have constant needs, we don’t. We need a family, we need children. We need other things. But politically we’re the same. And they show this sexism towards lesbians—it’s just awful. It’s so humiliating. And they don’t understand that homophobia is the same as sexism. They’re convinced that they’re model people.
I understood that it’s like that everywhere. I was at a conference in Europe, I travelled a lot in Europe. They took us to different organizations, and everywhere it was the same.
We also had a big argument—standards were developed for aid and social services for drug addicts, sex workers, and gays were included with sex workers. The gays were outraged. How can it be? Why? They wanted separate standards for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders, but it didn’t happen. This subject didn’t come up. No one wants to hear about it.
We did have one big victory—last year there was a project–the Coalition of HIV Service Organizations got money from the Alliance and hired LGBT leaders so that we’d organize events: roundtables, two press conferences. A seminar with officials from the Ministry of Health, Social Policy and Work, from the Ministry of Families and Youth. It was a very productive project. But to tell the truth, they [the Alliance] didn’t know what they should do. Thank God they had the idea to hire us. People for whom the problem is personal. It was a great event. There was an older man there—I think his name was Vasil’ Petrenko. He’s the director of the Department of Especially Dangerous Social Diseases. He’s responsible for AIDS, tuberculosis and so on. We prepared a special presentation on the needs of target groups. MSM (men who have sex with men)–what’s happening with them, sexual practices, how they live, what health problems they have. HIV-positive MSM: what they need, MSM and HIV-positive MSM, including stigma and discrimination within that community, double stigma. The needs of lesbians—that was my presentation. We talked about medical needs. Then the needs of transgendered people. In Ukraine it’s already 5 years since there was a commission to provide expertise and sex change operations. It doesn’t work at all. It’s not possible to change your documents. There are 375 people waiting. And they get nothing.
We had a good discussion. And this older guy, he listened so attentively, and then he said, “Wow, this is a completely new issue. I never thought about these kinds of needs.” Access to medical services. We start with what’s simplest. Access to medical services. Just like with drug addicts and sex workers. I’ve been working in that field since 2000. I was PR manager of the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV…I made a PR campaign for them, advertising materials, a website, presentations—everything…I remember how it all began. I did some good things and now I have good experience. I can use it for LGBT. But with LGBT it’s very complicated because Ukraine changed when it started receiving money from the Global Fund. Oh, we love drug users! Because there are millions of dollars [for programs for drug users]. And we love prostitutes, too, we love them, mwah! And we don’t love gays, because no one gives us money for them and because they violate God’s commandments. (Laughs).
My mother became a Baptist. In the beginning she tried to make me read the Bible. She lives in Russia, I live in Ukraine. She’s in Siberia, I’m here. “You should read the Bible. You should do this, do that.” And I’ve stopped arguing with her. And she came to visit, and I was watching “Queer as Folk.” I say, “Sit with me, watch.” Every episode is structured as a psychological consultation, not only for LGBT but for parents, for loved ones. They show how to get out of a crisis situation. “Sit, watch.” “I can’t. It’s a sin.” I say: “Why is it a sin? They’re telling you about people. And I’m like them. Why don’t you want to?” “No, I can’t. It’s a sin.” Fine.
She comes and says: “It’s a sin. You should fight against this sin.” I get the Bible and say, “Show me where there’s even one word about lesbians.” “I’ll find it!” I say, “Find it.” She searched for three days. And didn’t find anything. She went to a [Baptist] church in Kiev and went to the pastor. And they all searched together. And found nothing. “Well, it’s a sin! It’s this, it’s that.” I say: “Wait. There’s nothing in there about lesbians, about it being a sin. And that means I’m living correctly. It says there, “don’t lie with a man as with a woman” and I don’t.” In general, I say: “Mama, the Bible reflects the social, political, economic position of Jewish women in the society of the time. Women were nowhere. It was a patriarchy. Men were everywhere. And that’s reflected in your wonderful Bible. But if you talk about homosexuality like that you’re the one who’s sinning, because God is the one who made us this way. I can’t go against his will.” And that started us on discussions, disputes.
She hopes that it will pass, but when she understood that I write books, that I speak on talk shows, that I make political statements in public, that I’m part of the LGBT movement, that we send letters to the government, demands with 110 points…We made that document really well, we analyzed all the spheres of social life and the demands for improvement. She understood that it’s not going away. I am that way and I will remain that way. And of course she still wants to make sure that I understand that it’s a big trauma for her, when people ask her, “How’s your daughter? Married? Does she have children?” She looks at them enigmatically and says, “My daughter says that for her, freedom is of the greatest importance.” I think, God, Mama, on the contrary, I wish that I had the right to be married legally with all the rights and responsibilities, including children and social benefits…