Russian transcription by Olga Zelinska
Translation and editing by Sophie Pinkham
Natalia Nagorna: I work at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Ukraine as a manager of information programs. I used to be the deputy chair of the Women’s Network Coordinating Council. Now I work at the Alliance, and I work with the Women’s Network mostly as a member of the supervisory council. I’ve worked at the Alliance since 2003 and at the Women’s Network since 2001.
I came first to the Women’s Network. I studied at Central European University in Hungary, in Budapest–I won a Soros grant. I had a degree in sociology and a baccalaureate in sociology from Kiev-Mohyla Academy in Kiev. Then I won a grant to study and I entered the master’s program in gender studies at CEU. I finished in 2002, defending my master’s dissertation.
How I arrived at activism—at Kiev Mohyla Academy, my activism was focused on academic topics—research, student initiatives connected with research. At CEU, а friend and I founded the LGBT Rights Initiative. It was a student initiative for gay and lesbian students. Our main goal was mutual social support, the protection of rights, the study of LGBT studies and culture, and so on. To fill in the gaps—to do the things that weren’t being done enough. The protection of rights was important because, for instance, the student community came from all different countries and cultures—east and west, Europe, America, Africa, CIS, Central Asia, the Caucasus. People from Central Asia and the Caucasus had problems in their communities. Gays and lesbians were under a lot of pressure. Lots of people came out for the first time at CEU, and they needed support.
I decided to write my thesis paper on the lesbian community in Ukraine, because I had never seen any sources on that subject and I was interested. I specialized in social anthropology, so I studied social networking of lesbians in Ukraine. I had hung out with girls before, but as a rule they didn’t belong to any lesbian crowds. Everything was dispersed. In my whole four years at Kiev Mohyla, I never got into a social network…I had relationships with girls, but they didn’t identify themselves as lesbians or as bi-sexual. I didn’t, either. I just had relationships with girls. I knew there were lesbian crowds, sites, but I didn’t get into them.
At CEU I started actively participating in forums connected to the “Our World” organizations—so I have to thank Andrei Malakhin, because it was “Our World” that provided information that you could find and read easily. And Andrei put me in touch with Laima Geidar. I met with her and we started spending time together, and I finished my research. We wrote an application to the International Renaissance Foundation in 2002 to continue my research, doing focus groups in the provinces with girls. I wrote my thesis mainly on Kiev social networks. I interacted with girls, went to clubs, met them through the site. We wrote the report “Being a lesbian in Ukraine,” interacted with girls around Ukraine. I got into activism and the women’s movement.
Sophie Pinkham: Is there a big difference between regions?
NN: Yes, there’s a very big difference. In the east there’s a much greater butch-femme distinction than in the regions. The scenes are very different, judging from our focus groups. But there’s variation even within a single city. Or at least there was in 2002. But now everything has changed a lot, and cultures have become more similar. That’s what I see when I make business trips for the HIV/AIDS Alliance. I usually meet people I know in the city…everything’s changed. Young people are more open. In 2002, everything was much more closed. Everything changed a lot, it seems to me. Everything is much more free.
SP: Why do you think that is?
NN: First of all, people started socializing more. Maybe because new websites and forums appeared, women’s organizations. I think the Women’s Network played a big role. Our summer camp started and girls came from different regions, then went home. Lots of them created organizations, tried to organize group initiatives. We started receiving information from them, and we developed a portal for various LGBT organizations.
There are lots of factors. LGBT organizations and their work developed, and so did the internet and access to the internet. That’s crucially important. When I was a student, we had very limited internet access, and only because we were students. Almost no one had internet at home, and almost no one knew where to go. There was very little information. There were only psychiatry textbooks where [homosexuality] was listed as a terrible disease, so there was a very negative attitude to it…
Now everything is simpler. There are lots of organizations to go to. Now there’s another problem: the passiveness of the community. Everyone is just waiting for someone to show up. Someone will come, give lots of money, and everyone will live in prosperity and happiness [laughs]. But that doesn’t happen. You have to do things yourself. There’s also a rejection of activism. For example, my girlfriend has never been to any organization. We met at a focus group during the first phase of research. I talk to her friends and they say, why do we need all this? You’re just attracting attention! The main argument is that there could be a negative reaction.
That’s a very common point of view. There are girls who have babies, go on for years, and shudder at the word “activism.” They say—I don’t need any of that. Just leave me alone! And there’s a common opinion among people in the LGBT scene that they [activists] are “upstarts,” so they have no girlfriend…and so on. Some people just think activism is insane. I can’t say whether it’s like that everywhere, but it’s common.
That kind of attitude is very harmful to the development of initiatives. And organizations focus on individual scenes and places. In the regions everything is different. At the same time—the seeds have been sown. There are signs of growth. Maybe we’re just in a formation period for the community.
Current legislation is not good. We are invisible, without the right to live together, marry, or have civil partnership. No one even proposes such things. If a heterosexual couple simply lives together, they have a legal status, a right to the division of property in case of divorce.
And we live together, separate without outside intervention. There’s nothing to fall back on in case of conflict. And you can’t get credit together, adopt children. Тhere are problems with inheritance, custody, medical issues… lots of people say that they’ll just deal with all these problems themselves. And it is possible to live that way. But I think we need to work to change the situation, even if it’s hard to see how to do it.
Today’s activism is of very small scale in relation to the changes that need to be made. And much smaller than all the negative things going on. The community doesn’t have much support. If you ask what organization can represent the interests of the community, people ask—which community? And how do you get the right to represent it?
This might be harsh, but we have a kind of listserv activism, where people join thematic listservs and just scribble out polemics, quarrel, yell at each other, discuss things. And when you need to actually do something…
I’ve distanced myself from all that. I have a family, and work, and I don’t have time. I decided not to do more than I can. We did our research, then worked with the Women’s Network. We had lots of events. Then there was the OSI grant, and I understood that I couldn’t cope with the Women’s Network. I couldn’t dedicate that much time to it.
I chose the Alliance. I was interested in it. I had been drawn into trainings and I had a lot of friends working there in 2003, the peak of activism in AIDS services. There were lots of interesting people. I like working here. It’s close to my heart and I get a response—initiatives, ideas. It’s possible to fill them out and see the results. I made my choice. Maybe I was influenced by the divide that appeared in the community. I just decided to limit the areas in which I expended energy, to do things productively and get results. You don’t want to waste your life. I tried ten times to say, “that’s it! I’m leaving NGOs, I’m going to work in business. I don’t want to know anything, I don’t want to hear anything.” But I didn’t go anywhere.
I came to the Alliance because I prepared a publication for them on HIV prevention and support for men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women. It was a lot of work and I have to thank all the activists who worked on it. We reprinted it several times—it went very quickly.
I try not to become involved in any discussions that seem unproductive—where people are either accusing each other or starting some kind of conflict, trying to become the most important, the leader, the smartest. The discussion becomes unproductive, because gender studies, LGBT studies, queer studies all use different approaches, and they all have a right to existence.
At the same time, they’re like different points of view. In social sciences you analyze the arguments for and against a certain idea. Every argument has the right to exist. But people like to try to invent a new, Ukrainian way, to start everything from scratch. So the discussion goes nowhere.
Sometimes gender studies and queer studies seem detached from reality. And every year they’re more deconstructed. And they get farther from practical use, but at the same time some founding principles accumulated by sociology and then used by different social sciences—they didn’t grow from barren ground. If you build on these developments and try to use them in reality, you can get results. Better than just wandering around with your eyes closed. It’s a choice for groups and for movements.
I left the Women’s Network about two years ago. I left and announced that I wasn’t working on this issue anymore. Don’t invite me to coordinating committees, or press conferences, or other public events. I was never a very public person—not because I was afraid, just because that’s not my strong point. I’m a good writer. I develop training programs, I can make publications. But as a public speaker I’m not very good. I know my limits.
I like to see results early. At the Alliance I work on communications, developing informational materials for different target groups. I would call my kind of activism “self-limiting.” I could give you a million arguments for this approach. You can’t grasp at everything—then nothing comes out well. That’s why you have to limit yourself.
In terms of the development of movements—it seems to me that “old” activists continue to be the main movers. There aren’t many new people coming in. Lots of people disappear from the movement. Others come and help out, and that’s great. But they don’t end up in the front ranks. It seems to me that it’s important that new people emerge, new leaders who can become the voice of the community, who can support the community.
Organizations need to build a community in the regions rather than dealing with listservs and legislation. They need to find people and develop not cells, but strong groups that can be relied on.
And we would understand that they’re ready to contribute their resources. In Russia and Ukraine, lots of people say that donors have to give money. “Why don’t they pay for our office, for salary, and so on?” For LGBT groups, as I understand, lots of [donors] give small sums. And it seems to me that it’s connected to the fact that in the West there’s a tradition that the community works as volunteers, or for reduced prices.
Even here, gays and lesbians aren’t homeless people, without money, without education, like drug users are. They’re not people who can’t buy a newspaper because they need the money for drugs. These are very different communities. Even in terms of prevention they’re very different vulnerable groups, because in gay communities you can see that people have higher education, they work.
What I’m getting at is that the community can allow itself certain things, it can chip in. We have girls who run the festival “Dark Nights,” all kinds of events. They don’t have money from donors—they chip in. Why can’t we run programs like that? The community wants to do something good, so they collect money for something very concrete. At a club, something like that.
If there were specific groups that trusted each other, and used these funds on the local level…Donors don’t give much and they never give as much as you need. Here we need other tools—social connections and so on. We need to develop the community so that people understand what’s happening and where it’s going. Otherwise nothing will be achieved.
I did monitoring visits in several cities—people there aren’t up to date at all about what’s going on. They have very little information. They have interesting ideas about “active-passive,” those kinds of harsh divisions, social roles. The strict division of male and female. Labels. They have little information and don’t know much about organizations. And that’s surprising, when there are lots of organizations.
The deeper you get into the regions, oblasts, little towns—everything is bad. In Kiev everything looks great, right? Maybe in Donetsk, in big cities, where there’s a well-developed scene. But even in cities with less than a million people, there are problems. We have to work on the regions, and then everything else will follow. Because if there’s support for events or initiatives, it’s more likely that people will organize them. Even if you talk about pride—it doesn’t necessarily have support. The most active people come out, and everyone else just sits home laughing at how they got beaten up. Why?
If we had the support of the regions, people would come from everywhere where there were connections and support, the same way it happened with HIV/AIDS. It’s a real revolution in the country. The Global Fund grant was just sitting there. The money wasn’t spent, people didn’t get treatment, people died. I remember doctors coming in in a crazed state, because children had died. There was nothing to treat them with. Nothing at all.
And there’s the Global Fund grant that couldn’t be used, for various reasons, for support. And there’s been a lot of progress in HIV services, there are lots of services accessible now, the community is being taken care of. HIV-positive people, drug dependent people, activists who found a path forward and united as the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV. HIV-positive people got treatment because they united, and united the regions. Now lots of regions have representatives and active organizations of HIV-positive people. That’s what you have to do. Because [HIV-positive people] are just as marginalized, they’re very stigmatized. It seems to me that everything that’s happened with HIV services is a good way to create a community—from the bottom rather than from an elite group of activists. They nurture activists and the activists move forward.
You choose a path—you develop a specific set of services that you can realistically provide. Because to start with rights, legislation—it’s quite abstract. For example, with HIV/AIDS it’s simpler to give out syringes, condoms, consultations. Concrete services for concrete people.
SP: Let’s talk about feminism…
NN: I support the feminist worldview, and I consider myself a feminist. I just don’t accept radical feminism. For example–the ideas of Sheila Jeffries. She’s associated with radical feminism, she has fairly interesting articles and an interesting understanding of the oppression of lesbians as women and as lesbians. That’s what’s positive in her work. But when she talks about how all men are bad—I can’t agree, because I have lots of male friends, gay men, friends from school.
I feel closer to liberal feminism. I think you have to approach things rationally and develop strategies to implement activities related to greater equity and greater access for women. And you have to consider the cultural context and setting. That is to say, there are positive and negative aspects of inequality.
It’s important to be tolerant. Tolerant even to people who say that feminism is shit…and to people who aren’t welcoming of the idea. You have to explain what it means and what it’s for. And understand that there are different points of view.
I also don’t fully support the ideology of the Women’s Network. Though again, with reservations: this is just my perspective on the process. I respect everyone’s world view. If someone likes being a housewife, wearing pink dresses, carrying a Chihuahua and living with a sugar daddy, that’s her business. You choose something, you lose something, you get something.
SP: Do you think that the overall situation [with feminism] is changing now in Ukraine?
NN: I think there was a period when it was changing. From 2003 to 2005, it was possible to really develop this theme. But the opportunity was lost, we didn’t make any progress in terms of uniting women’s initiatives. The UN program didn’t use its full potential to unite the community. Everything went towards motherhood, mothers and children, working women. Everything worked on a very traditional model—nothing revolutionary.
There were educational centers for gender studies, literature appeared, there was access to primary sources, but, unfortunately, these got little use. If I didn’t search for this information and then take it directly to people, there was nothing. There’s nothing—that’s what people say. When people talk about gender, feminism, it’s always about women. You have to promote everything feminine. And what’s feminine? Children, family, values. I even read about centers for victims of [domestic] violence that try to keep families together. It’s nonsense! And I think a lot of centers work that way. Because everything is based on traditional, Soviet psychology, and on traditional models. It’s hard to study something new. We often don’t speak English, and that’s a problem.
We lost a lot of time. Since 2004, it seems to me that conservative views have gathered strength—the church, nationalists—groups associated with more traditional models. Unfortunately, they have more and more support. It’s terrible. I think it’s taking the country backwards. Lots of women’s organizations have collapsed simply for lack of funding.
It’s a dead end…Everything is developed at the university level, literary evenings…it’s connected more to an intellectual elite than to real life. If you pick up a telephone book and search for a hotline for victims of [domestic] violence, you don’t find anything. There are programs, but they have a problem with visibility and people don’t know much about them.
Another issue is the growth of religious programs for women. Their telephone numbers are everywhere. And as a result, a person can end up in a cult. Cults are very poorly regulated. They open hotlines, centers whose purpose is unclear. They claim to be able to cure everything—alcoholism, diarrhea, whatever. But there are very few professionals among them.
Unfortunately, many women’s programs have closed. I recently checked an internet database of women’s organizations. Of the more than 200 women’s organizations in the database, only 30 were still active.
And these organizations include organizations for working mothers, very traditional, that believe that a woman is above all a woman. There are very powerful labels. And it’s a problem because when you come with new ideas, they don’t accept you.
Maybe something will change. But not now. If you think about the popularity of traditions connected with Ukrainian culture, spirituality, morality, traditions connected to the Orthodox Church. Stereotypes are supported on the government level, so there are no alternatives available. You can do whatever you want in your gender schools, but nothing comes out of them. I can read 10,000 books without applying them. I’m not a pessimist, more of a realist. But I still hope that women’s initiatives will appear that aren’t so traditional.
SP: Can you tell me about yourself? Where were you born?
NN: I was born in Kiev. All my relatives are from Kiev. I studied here, worked here, got married not here [laughs]. My girlfriend is from Dnepropetrovsk. We’ve been together for a long time. We have a long-distance relationship, because we’re attached to our work, our careers, our homes.
[In childhood] I never felt like I was [a lesbian], because that wasn’t a part of my behavior or identity. And it was probably only at CEU that I accepted who I was. I am very comfortable with myself—probably because I was never held back by anything, especially in childhood. I was raised in a very liberal way…as a result, I was limited, and I was very comfortable.
Even when I didn’t identify as a lesbian I had relationships with women, I didn’t feel that there was anything abnormal in that. Even when I read that it wasn’t normal, I didn’t let myself be held back by that.
At CEU, when I found out more, it was a pivotal moment. I searched for information, read, studied. It was interesting. I found out that there were lots of people like me in the world. It was cool [laughs]. While I was there, I spent time with various women’s organizations and started to feel even more comfortable.
Now, I can’t say that I’m in a bad way, or that I feel crippled. Those sorts of feelings come from the way you organize your life. Openness creates possibility. People shape their own surroundings. And that’s good.
I don’t tell everyone they should come out—I think it’s a choice you have to think a lot about. The key moment is accepting your identity, ridding yourself of fear. We often fear things when we don’t know how they’ll end. When you say—my best heterosexual friend won’t accept me…but it’s not certain that your friends won’t accept you! Nothing will happen if you don’t try. Self-limitation and fear create more discomfort and fear.
The most important thing is not to lose yourself. I think I’ve been successful in that. Lots of people tell me that I don’t look like a lesbian, and I ask them, so what? I’m comfortable the way I am. When you create your own comfort, you protect yourself.
I am a Christian. I haven’t separated myself from religion—I’ve remained in the church. I’ll admit—yes, it rejects [homosexuality], but I spoke with the priest about this. And nothing bad happened. No one excommunicated me. The priest said that he didn’t have the right to judge, but he didn’t support it. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a demon from hell. It’s OK.
In effect, I kept my community, my frame of reference. I’m very lucky. I don’t reject religion. Maybe it’s traditional, but I don’t want to throw away certain cultural things. Why, if I’m comfortable with them?
Some of my distant relatives were Jews, and I know that in the Torah it says that one of the greatest sins is to harm oneself. So I try not to do things that I know will be harmful. It’s very important.
We internalize homophobia. Why do we have to do that? We live well, I can say that I’m happy with the way I live. It’s very important that at a certain point I separated the societal from the personal. You have to protect yourself, your personality. You can give up activism, but you can’t deny that you’re important to yourself.