“When my son told me he was gay I threw him out”

For many young people in Ukraine, coming out means a constant fear of being bullied, threatened, discriminated against, disappointing those they love most or being thrown out of their homes. Young LGBTQI people are one of the groups that are at an elevated risk for violence and abuse. This risk has nothing to do with their sexual orientation or how they act. They’re particularly vulnerable because of the stigma and discrimination within their communities. And that can be changed. We have to change it!

Conference for parents and allies of LGBTQI youth

That was the main point in the speech that Childhood’s program director Britta Holmberg gave at a conference for parents and allies of LGBTQI individuals in the beginning of October 2019. She was there together with Susanne Drakborg, program manager for our work in Ukraine. The conference was organized by one of Childhood’s project partners that works to increase understanding and tolerance so that young LGBTQI people can live openly and without fear.  Parents, teachers, psychologists and young people were there to support each other and learn more – brave passionate pioneers who came from different parts of the country to be a part of the change to a more progressive and tolerant Ukraine.

“When my son told me he was gay, I threw him out of the house. It was several years before he came home again. And 20 years before I could really show him love again,” explained a mother who participated in the conference. She continued: “I looked for help everywhere: a psychologist, a priest, even a magician. But it wasn’t until I joined an association for parents of LGBTQ children that I could really accept him. That I, a mother, could treat my own child so terribly shows how homophobic our society is. Now I want to work so that no other child has to go through what my son did.”   

Strong safety net around young people

Together with the Swedish Rainbow Fund (Regnbågsfonden), Childhood supports two projects for LGBTQI youths in Ukraine. They strengthen the safety net around young people in different ways, and ensure that they have caring adults to turn to – at school, at home and at social services. At the conference we participated in, several parents testified that such a safety net is rarely the case, but that there are more who dare to go against the tide. Olena, who was responsible for the conference, described the moment when she started to be involved seriously. When the president at the time, Janukovitch, put forward a proposal to follow Russia’s lead and pass laws against LGBTQI people because they “corrupt the youth” with Western ideas, her son asked her and other mothers to write to the president and protest. At first she refused, because she was afraid to lose her job, her reputation – and what would the neighbors say? But shortly thereafter, when her son’s friends asked her to donate to a collection for a funeral for a friend whose family had denounced and abandoned him, she changed her mind and wrote a masterpiece. The law didn’t pass, and Olena has continued to fight for her son and other young people who want to have the right to love whom they wish.

“I’m a father who wants to be in the pride parade”

Roman Yaroslavovich holds the microphone tightly. It almost disappears into his big unruly beard. He speaks in a loud and animated manner. There is a lot he could tell us. But he does not want to talk about the years the KGB persecuted him as he fought for the Ukrainian language. He does not want to talk about prison years or labor camps in Siberia. He does not want to talk about the nationalist movements that see him as an idol. Roman Yaroslavovich wants to talk about his son. Four years ago, his son told him he was gay. Roman Yaroslavovich describes himself as a conservative. Then he laughs and says it might have helped him in this case. After all, he has studied history and knows that homosexuality has been mentioned on many occasions throughout world history. He not only accepts his son – he praises him. His voice is filled with pride as he says that his son is an activist and is fighting for human rights, just like his father. On the stage, Roman Yaroslavovich openly points to Timur, who works for Childhood’s partner organization Fulcrum and is sitting in the audience. “Timur is my son’s partner and he too is an important activist who fights for everybody’s equal rights. I am proud that Timur is part of my family.” There is a lot Roman Yaroslavovich could tell us. And this is what he had to say.

Celebrating passionate pioneers

Childhood has always looked for and celebrated passionate pioneers. Across from us sits Dina. She works as a psychologist for our partner organization Liga. She shows us some comic strips that Liga has produced. The stories are about tolerance and LGBTQI issues. Dina meets many young LGBTQI people and their families. Within the framework of Childhood’s project, she also trains school psychologists so that they can help young LGBTQI people that they come into contact with. There are many challenges: Liga fights prejudices, myths, religious resistance and occasionally hateful homophobia. Despite this, their training sessions go well – there is curiosity, and many school psychologists appreciate being able to ask questions specifically about LGBTQI youth. At one point, Dina holds her hands far apart and says: “What’s remarkable is that on the one side we have children and on the other side we have the young adults they’ve become, who have been exposed to discrimination, sexual trauma and who maybe suffer from depression. And during that time in between, we pretend that nothing has happened and that there’s nothing we can do. That’s why it’s so important to talk about LGBTQI children and young people, and to try to reach them.”

Text and photo: Susanne Drakborg and Britta Holmberg