LGBTQ communities have changed the environment in North American and Western European cities. The so-called gay villages, of which Berlin’s Schöneberg was the first in the 1920s, became centers of creative industries, human rights struggle and free spirit in cities of the West. They soon transformed into tourist centers, elite residential neighborhoods and entertainment districts which no longer had room for ordinary gay men and lesbians. Meanwhile, LGBTQ communication has gradually moved online. Fifteen years ago, the American writer Andrew Sullivan called this process «the end of gay culture.» In post-Soviet countries, in turn, (semi-)underground, threatened LGBTQ communities have never even had any safe spaces for public communication and self-expression. For them, moving online is a chance to gain at least a virtual territory where they can feel more free and equal. But here’s the other side of the coin: it’s easier for the government to ignore the interests of an invisible group.
In November 2019, Internationaler Arbeitskreis e.V. in partnership with Center for Society Research (CEDOS Think Tank) supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Germany organized educational exchanges for urban grassroots activists from Ukraine and Germany. The project was titled the Local Activists Dialogue for Cohesive Cities. As the continuation of the project, Mistosite presents the series of media publications about the (un)fairness in the contemporary urban milieu. In the following article, we explore the LGBTQ community in the city, their presence, and invisibility.
Gay village: How queer communities changed cities
Schöneberg is an area in southwest Berlin. In the 1920s, LGBTQ people started to hang out in the local nightclubs, restaurants, and cafes. They came to live nearby and founded what is today considered to be the first gay urban neighborhood in the world. Even though same-sex relationships were never fully decriminalized in the Weimar Republic, German gay people acted openly and defended their rights: the first gay demonstration in history took place in Berlin in 1922. The queer community had their own press, thematic theater productions and even associations of gay workers. In the streets near the Nollendorfstrasse Station only, there were forty gay establishments at that time. When the Nazis came to power, the flourishing days of the gay community ended, but Schöneberg was revived in the 1960s as the center of Berlin's gay culture, and it still plays the same role now.
This launched the process known as LGBTQ urbanization. Queer communities came together and settled next to each other for socialization and safety, transforming environments, developing the service and leisure sectors, as well as the creative industries. Gay neighborhoods are often associated with art life, avant-garde culture, urban experiments. LGBTQ create a favorable environment preferred by wealthy and creative members of other communities, particularly migrants. In the end, the fruits of this process are used by other people.
LGBTQ urbanization resulted in the so-called «gaytrification»: bohemian, fashionable, provocative, brightly decorated gay neighborhoods with booming nightlife and flourishing creative industries which attracted tourists. They were followed by tourist-oriented businesses, and then housing prices rose so high that the LGBTQ public could no longer afford rent. For instance, Greenwich Village, where the queer community has clustered since the 1960s, has become one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York. In his study titled There Goes The Gayborhood?, the American sociologist Amin Ghaziani demonstrates that in neighborhoods with relatively higher concentrations of LGBTQ residents, real estate prices grow at least by a dozen percent. Meanwhile, the wealth of North American and European LGBTQ is a myth: at least according to Ghaziani’s data, American LGBTQ are, on average, poorer than straight people.
This researcher and others agree about one thing: the general growth of tolerance in European and North American societies makes them relatively less dangerous, so queer communities disintegrate, as they no longer have the need to stick together to defend their rights.
«LGBTQ can now drink in straight venues with less risk of harassment, while the internet means they no longer need to cluster physically to meet. Nonetheless, displacements and closures are sending a ripple of disquiet through non-straight communities. People are starting to wonder: is gentrification destined to make so-called gay villages a thing of the past?», ponders Feargus O’Sullivan in The Guardian. Schoppenstube, the most popular gay bar in East Berlin which was a center of LGBTQ life under the socialist government of the German Democratic Republic, is now also one of the vanished centers of the queer community.
«The end of gay culture» described by Andrew Sullivan is actually the end of the culture of gay locations which had their own peculiar aesthetics and atmosphere. This atmosphere was often associated with sex life, and more specifically with meeting people for quick, often one-time sex. This still allows LGBTQ critics to manipulatively link gay culture to the spread of HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
However, same-sex couples and families are becoming a norm in western societies, and the discourse of LGBTQ rights is now less about sex and more about civil rights and the opportunity to live an ordinary life without feeling threatened or discriminated against. The symbolic protest of the queer culture extends to the rights and interests of other vulnerable groups.
Pleshka: A place of presence turned a place of absence
Gay meeting places in many Ukrainian cities were called «pleshkas.» The term was borrowed from Russians: it originates from the monument to the Heroes of Plevna in the Russian capital. In Soviet and early post-Soviet times, gay people of Moscow used to meet and hang out in the park around the monument. The place is deserted enough to recognize each other, but also open and public enough to have a chance to escape or defend yourself from attacks—which were frequent enough in the history of Moscow’s pleshka. In memoirs about Leningrad’s pleshka—Katka’s Garden in Ostrovsky Square—we read that gay gatherings were regularly attacked since the 1960s. These acts of aggression were known as «remont»(repairs).
In many cities of the former Soviet Union, pleshkas came together in similar places: parks without too many people, unpopular beaches, near public bathrooms, in underground street crossings, under bridges. So the first thing you feel in places where gay people used to meet—in Kyiv’s Shevchenko Park, in former Lenin Park in Dnipro, next to the Poltava Battle monument in Poltava, in the Soldiers-Liberators Park in Ivano-Frankivsk—is discomfort. Open space, a feeling of transience, the noise of traffic from the surrounding streets. For the people who used to come here until recently, it was important to give off an impression of random passers-by and to be able to escape if needed, to quickly vanish into the city. Soon they all vanished into the internet.
«The pleshkas of the past can now be conceptualized as spaces of memory and mourning for the fate of homosexuals in the Soviet era—as places of the absence of the Soviet gay history, subjectivity, and identity,» writes the Russian researcher Yevgeniy Fiks in Moscow Art Magazine. He emphasizes that the forced invisibility of Soviet queer communities in the public space was soon no longer forced. They did not create their own culture and aesthetics; instead, they adopted the global queer aesthetic cultivated in closed safe environments.
The search for places for safety meetings, where gay men and (less often) lesbians, as well as members of other queer communities, could interact without facing aggression, judgment or stigmatization, often brought them to strange locations. Oleh (not his real name) recalls that in the late 1990s, gay men of Dnipro sometimes met in a... church. The small building of a Roman Catholic religious community, isolated in a backyard on one of the central streets, kept its door open to everyone. The denomination mattered: the Catholic Church was much milder in its attitude to the LGBTQ community than the dominant Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
In other cities, public baths, dining rooms, cafes, and even circuses could serve as meeting points. In the Hromadske Radio program called Anticult: LGBTQ Communities in the USSR, Stanislav Naumenko, the Chairman of the Board of the Gay Alliance Ukraine, recalls how adults wouldn’t let him go to a public bath as a kid, because it was perceived as a place where homosexuals met and engaged in sexual acts. Meanwhile, Stanislav says that his acquaintances had a «dismissive» attitude towards pleshkas, thinking of them as «something dirty.» In the same program, the gay activist Sasha Faynberg said that in Soviet times, LGBTQ communities developed a special code language that allowed them to communicate safely about things related to the «topic» (a jargon term referring to same-sex relationships).
In most cases, when queer communities chose public places for their meetings, they did not transform them but, on the contrary, adapted to them. In the conditions of rejection of any external signs of same-sex love in the post-Soviet society, they had to abandon elements of culture typical for Soviet and early post-Soviet pleshkas—particularly their peculiar way of communication, which was described in an early 1990s source as «exaggerated affectation, raunchiness, pet names (often feminine), extravagant behavior.» They gave it up because they had to share spaces with other visitors—for instance, the Odesa cafe called Russian Tea was frequented by athletes together with the local gay people.
Memories about LGBTQ places in Minsk, in addition to meeting people, establishing contacts and exchanging information, mention another function of these hangouts—therapy. Here, people who lived in a homophobic environment, experienced their identity with pain, were victims of myths about LGBTQ themselves, could feel that they were not alone and realize that they were entitled to a better life.
When same-sex relationships were no longer a criminal offense, many cities developed establishments that provided space for LGBTQ to meet and talk (and sometimes also to have sex—which, after all, was not a rare thing at pleshkas, too). Their owners were mostly wary of openly presenting them as gay bars or gay clubs. The relative safety for LGBTQ patrons was provided by bouncers, remote locations and lack of advertising: information about gay establishments was spread by word of mouth. However, the number of these places is barely adequate for the assumed number of queer people in cities: for instance, Kyiv, a city with a population of several million, only has three or four such places; Odesa, home to a million people, has only one.
According to Yegor (not his real name) from Kyiv, the public that hung out at «real» gay clubs became too hermetic; in turn, the establishments open to the outside public, on the contrary, now had more straight people attracted by the LGBTQ aesthetic. Both factors affected Yegor’s decision to stop going to clubs. Now he prefers to meet in private and online.
Are gay places possible in a city where you’re afraid to hold hands?
Oleh recalls that the crisis in his first relationship came when, during a night walk in the city, he realized that even in a deserted street he could not take his partner’s hand. In the twenty years that have passed since then, the situation hasn’t changed much: most Ukrainian LGBTQ prefer to hide their relationships due to a justified fear of aggression or judgment. An experiment conducted in 2015 by BirdInFlight in the central street of Kyiv ended dramatically: the two guys hugging on a bench were beaten up. The participants of the experiment themselves, activists Tymur Levchuk and Zorian Kis, emphasized that most passersby showed no aggression or interest in their public displays of affection. However, annual events around the March for Equality in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities show that the danger is high. It is not just about aggressive reactions to demonstrations. In particular, two years ago, radical activists in Lviv attacked the participants of the Festival of Equality despite the fact that it was held in a closed venue. In 2019, Our World Human Rights Center registered 279 attacks on LGBTQ community members and cases of infringement on their rights, particularly 67 cases of physical violence.
So a comparison between the situation of Western European and North American LGBTQ communities at the beginning of LGBTQ urbanization and the current situation of the Ukrainian queer community brings us to a sad conclusion. German, French, American gay people fled intolerant provincial villages and towns to go to multicultural metropolises where they got the opportunity to create communities, to develop business, community and art initiatives, to shape the urban environment. Their lives did not become entirely safe: even now, according to an FBI report, LGBTQ identities still provoke hate crimes more often than any other identities. However, in countries with the rule of law, queer communities at least could expect law enforcement agencies to protect them.
Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, law enforcement officers were themselves probably the biggest danger factor for the LGBTQ community, while in post-Soviet independent Ukraine, they have not guaranteed proper protection from aggression or discrimination. Despite the apparent progress (in particular, the March for Equality 2019 in Kyiv had no victims of violence or arrests), invisibility remains the key guarantee of security for LGBTQ Ukrainians, especially the ones who aren’t activists and who don’t reveal their identity publicly.
In addition, as noted by Nadia Chushak, a queer activist and researcher of LGBTQ visibility in Ukraine and Serbia, even those limited forms of visibility (or more exactly, demonstrations of identity) that are possible in a post-Soviet society do not account for the interests and needs of all groups. «It’s advantageous to show LGBTQ as homogenous: Orthodox or patriotic, heteronormative, without multicolored hair, without drag and so on, but this is not true. There are diverse people in every community, and the LGBTQ community is no exception. There are patriots here, there are atheists, there are religious people, there are supporters of anarchist theories, there are even nationalists, and so on,» said the activist Oleksandr Zavertany in his interview in Dyvys.info. The LGBTQ community constantly has to deal with informational aggression, debunk myths and explain again and again that rights of the representatives of the vulnerable groups are a normal thing and they cannot just be ignored. However, in daily life, at the everyday level, the majority find it easier to keep silent about their identity or to give simplified explanations.
Can open centers of LGBTQ life—gay villages or at least their more compact counterparts—stimulate tolerance and provide Ukrainian queer communities with a more comfortable environment? In his book The Sex Effect, the American journalist Ross Benes proposes exactly this for Detroit, a city with low tolerance and an acute need for revitalization. The queer community centers that existed in Detroit before the start of economic decline and social crisis in the city have long dissipated. In Benes’s opinion, even the artificial establishment of gay neighborhoods can stimulate the development of the urban environment and breathe life into the declining neighborhoods of this once-prosperous city.
But even in the western cities that are doing well, gay neighborhoods can only be called relatively safe at best. For instance, in Montreal, Canada, the city government invests a lot of extra effort to make sure that the residents, workers, and guests of its gay neighborhood are not attacked. Lively streets, lighting, surveillance cameras, and police patrols have lowered the danger in recent years but not eliminated it. Leslie Moran and Beverley Skeggs, the authors of the Sexuality and the Politics of Violence and Safety study, cite the results of a survey of gay men in Manchester, UK: those among them who live in other places and only visit the gay neighborhood perceive it as a safer place than the actual residents of the gay neighborhood. In Manchester, the number of homophobic crimes has grown by two thirds in the past six years (in the UK in general, the statistic is even worse), and self-defense classes have been launched for the queer community.
The biggest mass murder of gay people—the 2016 shooting in the Pulse club in Orlando, Florida, which took the lives of 49 people—happened in a territory that its patrons believed to be safe. Brandon Tensley, the editor of Pacific Standard, directly links the increased visibility of queer communities in western society with the increased frequency of crimes against them. «As we enjoy expanded visibility, we ought to keep in mind the importance of building up, wherever possible, the sort of queer spaces in which this change can flourish,» he writes.
In Ukraine, where homophobic crimes are widespread and often go unpunished, restoration, reestablishment or creation of public centers of LGBTQ life is impossible without assistance from local governments and special security measures. Acts of aggression, given the homophobic sentiments in the society, are inevitable. However, they can be opposed not only by law enforcement officers but by the LGBTQ community itself, as well as by citizens who care about human rights. In particular, they can demand from the government to be more active in protecting vulnerable groups of people. After all, the format of a territory of resistance, which defends the rights and freedoms of a vulnerable group, faces attacks and fights back against them, attracting the world’s attention and winning the society’s support in the process, is very familiar to Ukrainians: it’s the so-called Maidan.
Moving online versus chances of visibility
«Nobody cares what LGBTQ do at home in their beds, they just shouldn’t show it in public.» This is how the pseudo-tolerant attitude to queer people is formulated by Dmytro, a gay man from Lviv and the hero of the article in Ukrainska Pravda. Life. The rhetoric of gay prides, and Marches for Equality, in particular, is focused to a significant extent on debunking this ideology (also known as «I’m not homophobic, but...») as one that actually discriminates against LGBTQ people. In particular, visibility was chosen as the topic of Kyiv Pride 2018.
Meanwhile, when communication in queer communities moves online, to the safe format of private conversations, this actually does not promote either visibility or successful struggle for their rights. Outside of the annual March for Equality, which turns into a mutual challenge of the queer community and radical political and religious activists, LGBTQ actually follow the requirement to «sit at home and never show up in public.» This means even greater invisibility than even in the time when the underground queer community met in parks near public bathrooms.
Media and social attention to the problems of LGBTQ and violations of their rights are also seasonal, surfacing around the Marches for Equality. In addition, the media usually focus on the few openly gay men and lesbians who are activists and/or employees of human rights organizations. This creates the illusion that the queer community is not numerous (the same faces over and over), and in the end, the audience has no idea about the problems of rank-and-file LGBTQ people who prefer to hide their identities or just aren’t activists.
Meanwhile, the limits of pseudo-tolerance can arbitrarily become narrower. A telling example happened at the Publishers Forum in Lviv in 2017, when the organizers were forced to cancel a presentation of Larysa Denysenko’s book Maya and Her Mothers because of threats from radical activists. The basic demand not to demonstrate your sexuality in public can be supplemented with any additional conditions, up to forbidding any mentions of the existence of LGBTQ people, prohibiting people from revealing their identities, and so on.
The example of the Maya and Her Mothers presentation is also telling because of the fact that the radicals who threatened the organizers actually just amplified the publicity and drew attention to the book that promotes tolerance. The publisher uploaded the electronic version of the book to be accessed openly, so in the end, the communication effect significantly exceeded the expectations from the presentation. It feels like the organizations that attack LGBTQ people mostly care about pushing them out of physical space—making their meetings, open events and demonstrations impossible. At the same time, they don’t really care about the queer community’s online presence.
The respondents of the survey conducted by the researcher Tamara Martseniuk in 2014, while agreeing with the need to be more visible in the society, linked higher visibility, first of all, with revealing their identity (coming out), and second, with more active work on the part of LGBTQ organizations: public actions, protests, better-coordinated information policies. At the same time, many observers and insiders say that openly LGBTQ, activists who become faces of the movement for the rights of the representatives of the vulnerable groups, are the ones who end up in most danger. Many of them are thinking about emigration to have a safer life and to make their relationships official.
Emigration from Ukraine to more tolerant countries is, in this case, similar to the migration of LGBTQ from rural areas and small towns to big cities, which has been taking place in North American and Western European countries in the past few decades, producing a strong association of gay culture with the big city environment. In Western (and other) countries, although migration of this kind did make the migrants’ lives easier and produced new subcultures, it also had a negative dimension, described by the Canadian researcher Natalie Oswin in her paper titled World, City, Queer. Roughly speaking, this migration allows governments to create «zones of tolerance» within big cosmopolitan cities, where gay neighborhoods serve as a kind of showcases to demonstrate achievements in human rights and freedoms. Meanwhile, the governments don’t do enough to change the situation of queer communities outside big cities and the circumstances of individual LGBTQ people in remote regions.
In Ukraine, the Eurovision contest of 2017 served as a showcase of this kind. Its slogan was «Celebrate diversity.» The organizers, aware of the contest’s significance for the LGBTQ community and expecting the arrival of many tourists from the community to Ukraine, highlighted the contest’s—and Ukraine’s—openness to the vulnerable groups. However, a Gay Alliance Ukraine representative’s warning for the guests was very telling. She cautioned that guests of the city must be careful not only in the meeting places of the LGBTQ community but also while using dating apps, because «there is a risk that these are fake accounts created by radical groups who persecute homosexuals.» That is, venturing outside the «zone of tolerance» created around Eurovision meant exposing oneself to danger.
The strategy of invisibility—the readiness of ordinary LGBTQ people (not activists) to conceal their identity and relationships, being content with communication online and in isolated communities, as well as with official (formal) non-discrimination in some areas of life (such as work)—risks, in the long-term, to make this invisibility the norm both for the queer community itself and for the neutral part of the society, who could, under different circumstances, be gradually persuaded to become tolerant.
The Ukrainian government traditionally tries to balance its declared liberal democratic values and principles with its attempts to please conservative voters, ignoring the problems of LGBTQ or declaring them «untimely» or «divisive.» Pressure from western countries and plans to join the European Union serve as a safeguard against homophobic, discriminatory legislative decisions, but they do not provide sufficient incentive to make decisions in favor of LGBTQ and to defend their interests more actively. Establishing limited «zones of tolerance,» such as the heavily guarded Marches for Equality or isolated clubs in a few big cities, and further ignoring the rights and needs of LGBTQ as a marginal problem is a perfect option for politicians who do not see the support of LGBTQ voters as important for their electoral prospects because there are supposedly too few of them. Restoring or creating places of presence of the LGBTQ community entails great risks for its members, but can become an important argument for engaging the wider society in supporting the rights of LGBTQ and affirming the position that rights of the vulnerable groups must be important to everyone.