With the horrifying situation in Ukraine, it feels only right that our final interview for Lesbian Visibility Week is given over to one of our colleagues at the front line of the fight against Putin’s illegal invasion. Anna Sharyhina (she/her) is one of the leaders of Sphere Women’s Association and Kharkiv Pride. She remains in Kharkiv, providing support to members of the LGBTI+ community.
Before the invasion of Ukraine, what was the situation for lesbians in Kharkiv, and in Ukraine generally?
Before the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, NGO WA Sphere worked to counter hate crimes. We saw the number of attacks against LGBT+ people, our community centre for LGBT+ people in Kharkiv was also repeatedly vandalised. We carried out events, actions, performances, and educational activities about human rights. Just before the war, we were working on an information campaign together with our partners. The campaign was meant to be a book about different vulnerable groups of people and the discrimination they endure. Apart from that, our community centre in Kharkiv was working. Thanks to its work, we gathered hundreds and hundreds of LGBT+ people there. We held events for the community and volunteers there. And just before the war, we received some funding to improve the security of our premises.
What were the key issues and topics that you were campaigning on?
The key issues that we were campaigning on we had crystallised before our first Kharkiv Pride, three years ago. Since then, the situation with the LGBT+ community in Ukraine did not become perfect neither improved significantly, so we kept on fighting for our rights in the following areas: countering hate crimes and hate speech towards LGBT+ people and other vulnerable groups, prevention and counteraction of bullying in education institutions, and equal access to state institutions, and in particular, the marriage rights and other public services.
Kharkiv Pride had grown rapidly in three years. Why do you think it was such a success?
Our organisation has been working hard and tirelessly to mobilise the LGBT+ community in Kharkiv to fight for their rights. The people in eastern regions of Ukraine are still quite timid and scared so only a few came out over the years. That motivated us to create a safe space where people could just be themselves; we understood how important it was and that it was worth our struggle.
We had experience. Our team worked on KyivPride before: I was a Programme Director and Vira Chernygina was Volunteers’ Coordinator for Kyiv Pride March for two years in a row. We used this experience and transformed it to correspond to the realities of our city. Apart from that, Kharkiv Pride was not the first action of support of LGBT+ people in our city, we had been doing that for three years. Three years of everyday fighting with right-wing radicals. Three years of pressuring the local authorities and negotiations with the police to ensure safety during peaceful public rallies.
We gathered all the international support from our partners that we could. And we let our partners know that we will not abandon the idea of holding Kharkiv Pride under any circumstances, but we need help. And our partners actively supported us.
Sphere Women’s Association has been at the front of the community response to Putin’s illegal invasion. What have you been doing?
Before the invasion, we organised a performance “Gifts for Putin” next to the General Consulate of Russian Federation in Kharkiv. Our volunteers brought various items that symbolised our attitude to Putin’s activities against Ukraine. There was a textbook on the history of Ukraine, because Putin claimed that the state of Ukraine does not exist. There was also a laptop so he could just play a war game there instead of waging a real one and killing people. There was a condom that could have prevented his birth and some glitter to remind that parties are fun, not wars.
We participated in different actions of public resistance that took place in Kharkiv. After the war began, we continued to unite partners and volunteers to help civilians. In addition, I held 2 performances in Kharkiv: on the Day of Lesbian Visibility, my partner and I walked through the city centre in Ukrainian and lesbian flags.
The LGBTI+ community across Europe has been keen to help and support. How can they help you right now?
- Follow the news about Ukraine on official channels and share the real facts about Russian war against Ukraine within your communities and beyond.
- Let us know if you would like to provide shelter for LGBT+ refugees. At the moment, the movement around Ukraine is difficult and getting from the eastern regions to the borders with the EU remains very hard. In any case, we will keep gathering the information about transport and shelter and share in our community as soon as possible.
- Organise fundraisers, public actions, performances and exhibitions to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian queer community. In these weeks, we have been contacted by different artists offering us their platform or fundraising money for the community. Such initiatives are extremely important and help keep the focus on Ukraine and our struggles!
- Organise or participate in marches, protests and public rallies in your country/city, write to your local representatives. Let them know that Ukraine is important to you and you won’t back down until Ukraine wins!
- Donate to cover the needs of the LGBT+ community. Currently, our financial aid programme is running to cover first aid neccessities (food, water, hygiene products), medicine, phone bills, psychological counselling and transport for the community. In over a month of the programme, we have already helped over 400 members of the community! We accept donations to two bank accounts of our organisation (EUR and USD) and provide transparent reporting on the funds spent.
We believe that a joined effort is the only way to overcome this threat to our democracy and human rights in Europe and the entire world.
Once the war is over, what are your hopes for the future of LGBTI+ people in Ukraine?
We want LGBT+ people to have full access to all the rights that Ukraine guarantees to its citizens. We expect people to be more open and friendly with each other, regardless of someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. We want all people in Ukraine to respect freedom, human rights, democracy and security. And we will continue to work to achieve this goal.
You can donate to Kharkiv Pride and Kyiv Pride through our fundraiser. 100% of funds raised are transferred to these organisations and EPOA does not take a fee.