When the organizers of the second European Lesbian* Conference chose Kyiv as the host city, they weighed the importance of visibility and solidarity against the inevitable security risks. I boarded the plane for Kyiv with some trepidation, aware that stone-throwing protestors had already broken windows and written homophobic statements at the hotel conference venue. But this also increased my determination to be there and stand together against such hate attacks.
Conference board member Biljana Ginova explained that Kyiv was chosen because it was convenient for activists from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and to demonstrate solidarity with activists in Ukraine, who are understandably feeling unsafe. Last May, radical nationalist groups disrupted an LGBTI event in Kyiv as police stood by. Radical nationalist groups including Tradytsii i Poriadok (Tradition and Order) and Katehon protested the conference, as did religious groups.
Once when two friends and I tried to reenter the hotel where the conference was, we were blocked by around 50 protestors. Feeling vulnerable, we eventually accessed the venue through a side door, the protestors just meters away.
Shortly after, protestors broke through the human barricade of private security personnel and released pepper spray in the hotel lobby. Insight, a Ukrainian LGBTQ organization, reported ten people affected by pepper spray received treatment at the hotel.
One memorable moment lowered the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ when a protestor acted as a Ukrainian interpreter for a journalist interviewing Aylime Aslı Demir, the editor of the Kaos GL, a gay and lesbian magazine from Turkey. The journalist turned to the protestor for help with interpretation and got more than she bargained for when Demir and the protestor gave her a joint interview.
But such moments were rare. The intention of the protestors was to disrupt events and they were successful. The conference venue was evacuated on the last day due to a bomb threat, and a planned public event was cancelled due to security risks.
Yet the conference achieved the goal of visibility: “Despite all threats and efforts to silence them, more than 300 lesbians are here and fearless,” Biljana Ginova observed during a break. While conference organizers issued a statement in support of peaceful protest, there is no excuse for the violent attempts to spread hate and intolerance against lesbians and deny their rights.