In a modern-day world, the science of history serves as an instrument to give voice to the previously silenced. The problem is that in Ukraine, there haven’t been many attempts to show the history of LGBT-relations due to a certain conservative mindset that is still present in the country. But the lack of written history doesn’t cancel out the fact that this history exists, should be researched and popularized. Many people, who consider themselves a part of LGBT-community, feel the need to legitimise their identity, which is a natural human need. The lack of historiography makes it impossible for these people to have a background they could rely on. This contributes to the ostracization of the mentioned community and their invisibility which is why any research on this topic, including mine, is highly relevant. That being said, my main goal is to pay attention to the prior silenced community, which is why I decided to focus exclusively on women who love other women since they experience not only homophobia, but sexism, thus being double-silenced.
Nevertheless, the situation is not entirely that unfortunate, and there have been attempts to make the Ukrainian LGBT-history known. Especially, I would like to mention the Archive of Ukrainian Lesbian* History from the 1990s to 2000s, which I will be quoting later because it helped me a lot to conduct this research. Since lesbian* history has already been, to some extent, studied by Ukrainian scholars, I would like to contribute a new point of view to this discussion by trying to describe the ways in which the lesbian* community in Ukraine has changed or stayed the same throughout the 30 years of Ukraine’s independence. It is quite likely that the lesbian* community in the 1990s and in modern days is different, but I would like to find out to what extent. In order to do this, I conducted a series of interviews with different women who consider themselves a part of the “women love women community”. These women are from the big Ukrainian cities of Lviv, Kyiv and Kharkiv and are around 20 years old. Their experiences served as a base for comparison with the ones that can be found in the Archive of Ukrainian Lesbian* History. For this comparison to be adequate, I used the term lesbian* in the meaning that was proposed by Kateryna Farbar, author and project manager of the before mentioned archive. Therefore, lesbian with an asterisk is not only a homosexual woman, but also all non-heterosexual women in the sense of their sexual and emotional attachment to the same sex. After all, among the Ukrainian lesbian* movement, which is discussed in the text, there were many bisexual and pansexual women. Lesbians with an asterisk are both cisgender and transgender women; women who do not want to define themselves but love women; women who are 10% homosexual and also 90%; women somewhere in between the binary or two genders, who have and have not been romantically involved with men.
A concise history of lesbian* relations in Ukraine before the 1990s in the broader context
Ukrainian lesbian* women throughout the flow of history had been subjected to homophobia, sexism and the commonly accepted ideal of a heterosexual relationship. Since the times of Kyivska Rus’ same-sex intimate relations between men and women were not considered equal and latter was commonly perceived as less sinful to the point where lesbian relations were considered a form of masturbation. During the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period homosexual practices were clearly disapproved by the society and church. Hence, being rather morally unacceptable than persecuted by the state. This changed when in 1715 Peter I made the “sin of Sodom” punished by law. Up until the 20th century homosexuality was criminalized to some extent and could be mostly seen among the aristocracy. Thus, probably the most famous lesbians of that time are from the circles of nobility.
Period from the beginnings of the 20th century until the terror of Stalin in mid-1930s can be characterised as sexually liberating due to the decriminalization of homosexuality. On the waves of female emancipation, early socialist ideals, promiscuity and polyamory appear descriptions of same-sex relationships as a normal occurrence. Later on with the establishment of dictatorship in the USSR in the 1930s spreads propaganda in favour of traditional values, including the idea of heterosexual family being a core of socialist society. In this period, homosexuality made a comeback to the field of activities punished by the state. Moreover, the general uprising interest in psychology, neurology and genetics makes it a highly researched topic amongst biased scientists that proclaimed homosexuality a mental illness. A common tendency for lesbian relations at any point in Ukrainian history is their utter invisibility and unequal treatment when compared with same-sex relationships between men. For example, usually, lesbian women were not arrested for their orientation due to the fact that their relations were subconsciously considered by society less serious than male ones. This effect of patriarchy has its echo even in the present day.
From the 1930s to 1980s the term lesbian appeared only in related medical texts and the topic of homosexual relations in general was not being discussed. This resulted in the fact that the heterosexual majority was not even familiar with the existence of homosexual people or considered them as some sort of legend or a mythical creature non-existing in the real world. For example, the first president of independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, once said: “Until recently, I simply did not believe that this kind of thing [homosexuality] could happen in real life. I thought it was just some kind of artistic fantasy that people made up. But when already in adulthood I saw all these films – fiction and documentaries – I simply did not find the words to explain this phenomenon”. But with the liberalization of life that came in the 1980s and the first cases of AIDS in the USSR in 1987 the Soviet society became more and more aware of the existence of homosexual people. But this slight awareness, undoubtedly being a positive thing, still did not mean acceptance and cooperation of the heterosexual majority with the homosexual marginalized minority.
Lesbian* life in Ukraine in 1990s and 2000s
The fall of the USSR in 1991 surely was one of the biggest events that happened near the end of the 20th century and marked the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of many nations. The collapse of such a huge country, besides indirectly impacting a great part of the world, caused a feeling of uncertainty in newly emerged independent states and Ukraine, as a former Soviet republic, was no exception. Thus, in post-soviet countries began the time of instability that touched economic, political and ideological aspects. People of Ukraine wanted to be more open to the world, but some ideas to this day have not been largely accepted by society, such as the destigmatization of sexual minorities. Nonetheless, the collapse of a manipulative, corrupted and totalitarian country such as the USSR gave Ukrainian lesbians* the power to fight against stigmatization and isolation in order to be acknowledged and feel less ostracized.
When trying to depict the life of any sexual minority, one of the most important things is to describe its social life and ways to encounter people of romantic interest. Probably the most significant event regarding the LGBT-community in this time period was the appearance of AIDS-info in 1989 – a magazine which focused on sex education and had a rubric dedicated to the search for potential partners. Overall, lesbians* at that time would publish announcements similar to “A woman looking for another woman, city and phone/mailbox number” not only in AIDS-info, but in other magazines.
Another way to find love for women who love women in the 1990s and 2000s was to wait until it found them. Marta (name changed) says: “There were a couple of people in the city who hung out together, they were actively looking for someone else to communicate with, they wanted to attract “theirs”. They just saw someone in the city, got to know each other, said “hello, let’s hang out”, etc. Sometimes they were wrong”. The biggest problem in these described cases of acquaintanceship was the fear and uncertainty when opening up about your sexual identity since you have doubts about whether it is safe to share such information with certain people. Also, it is important to note that there always was a typical scenario where women were acquainted from childhood and later became lovers.
It was already mentioned that lesbians* in Ukraine were and still are a double-silenced social group, since they are not only non-heterosexual, but also females. This even affected their night life, which depended on the night life that the homosexual men had organized for themselves. Since women earned less money, they had less resources to organize a space, where they could spend some time and meet new people. Over some time in different cities of Ukraine formed a net of bars or coffee shops that were LGBT accepting and low-priced, where lesbian* women could feel safe. Another option for them were women days in gay clubs. These days were usually very inconvenient and rare. Regarding this Kseniya says: “ <…> gays were always in charge in such institutions. I was always thrown off track by this discrimination of the discriminated”.
General societal homophobia and the inability of sexual minorities to have or rent places for time-spending resulted in another interesting phenomenon called “plieshky”. Kateryna Farbar describes it as a public space, not always secret, where mainly gay men, gathered to find sexual partners (usually parks or just nooks on the streets, where you could simply sit or have intercourse in a more or less hidden place). In case of lesbians* these places mostly did not have a direct sexual function, but served more as intimate places where they could be alone and act like a couple.
In 1996 in Mykolaiv appeared the first association of gays, lesbians and bisexuals, “Liga,” and in three years appeared the center for gays and lesbians “Nash Svit”. These events marked the beginning of LGBT-activism in Ukraine, which positively contributed to the socialization of the people they represent, especially in the middle of the 2000s. At that time, events, planned by LGBT-organizations, helped lesbian* women to actually feel like they are not alone and have a community they belong to. Moreover, it was an additional way to find a romantic interest. Anna Sharyhina described her first visit to such an event: “That was the first time I saw so many lesbians in one place talking to each other. It’s just a completely different feeling when you are surrounded by people with whom you are similar, and everyone knows this about each other”. Special attention deserve summer camps for lesbians* in the middle of the 2000s that were mainly organized by lesbian* activists and LGBT-organizations “Zhinocha merezha”, “Insight”, “NRG”, “Liga”. Given this information, we can assume that activism during the 1990s and 2000s was a key factor in the social life of the lesbian* community.
Lesbian* life in Ukraine in the late 2010s and 2020s
To describe this time period, I will mostly use the materials from 5 interviews I conducted for this research. The most noticeable difference in lesbian* lifestyles is the role of LGBT-activism and its effect on the day-to-day lives of my interviewees. Nowadays, LGBT-activism, when compared to its previous leading role in the 2000s, stopped being a major socializing factor. All my interviewees do not feel like Kyivpride or Kharkivpridei impact their lives that much. In most cases, they even had negative thoughts on this topic, which regarded exclusively Kyivpride.
Dana (name changed), Kyiv, 18 y/o: “As of now, there does not exist an LGBT-organization that would represent my worldview and not make questionable statements. I do not doubt that Kyivpride is actually doing useful things. But, nonetheless, I have been too many times in situations where I had to explain or even justify their mistakes”.
Zhenia, Kharkiv, 19 y/o: “Kyivpride has this image of elitarian society”.
Kvita (name changed), Kyiv, 18 y/o: “I don’t feel the cooperation with LGBT–community from Kyivpride”.
Moreover, my interviewees do not feel the need to attend events, organized by these activist organizations, while, as it was established earlier in the text, these events used to play a bigger role in lesbian* socialization.
Any organization that represents a certain community has its internal and external goals. In the case of LGBT-activism an external goal would be the equality of rights, that would not be based on sexual orientation, and the internal goal would be a construction of an active and unified community. While in the 1990s, the described external goal seemed unreachable, LGBT-oriented organizations focused more on the internal one, but nowadays, we can trace a slight change of priorities in favour of outside activism. On one hand, raising awareness about the non-heterosexual community in Ukrainian society is utterly beneficial and essential. On the other hand, this focus on the external audience resulted in LGBT-activism becoming more involved in politics and affairs of the state, as a means to achieve their external goal, which discorded the LGBT-community from the inside and made my interviewees feel the way they do about LGBT-organizations in Ukraine.
Not only the role of activism is changing, but the ways to encounter a partner. Naturally, ways in which lesbians* look for a potential love interest have developed with the digitalization of the world. Women’s days in predominately gay clubs and nightlife, in general, had lost their popularity because now the general tendency to meet new people in clubs, coffee shops etc. is declining. The announcements about the search of other lesbians* in the aids-related press had been replaced with profiles on Tinder or other dating apps. The only thing that remained stable is an organic relationship, where women were friends and later became lovers. For some of my interviewees this was the most common scenario, since naturally their surrounding consists of people who support non-heterosexual relations or are a part of LGBT-community.
Uliana (name changed), Kyiv, 20 y/o: “I found both my partners in the circle of my friends/acquaintances”.
Kvita (name changed), Kyiv, 18 y/o: “When I felt the need to start a new relationship I tried to do it through my friends/acquaintances. It usually happens this way. Tinder seems more of a thing to use when you look for something not serious”.
At the same time for others it is easier to communicate through social media and meet people online.
Zhenia, Kharkiv, 19 y/o: “My circle of communication is mostly online”.
Ustia, Lviv, 19 y/o: “In my life I only encountered romantic interests through social media. Not always dating apps, but Instagram, Tiktok, etc. We text, find out more about each other, become friends and later start a relationship” .
It is important to accentuate on the diversity of experiences amongst these women to show that it is impossible to determine certain ways in which only lesbian* women find partners since their love is not different from other non-heterosexual or the heterosexual one. That is why in terms of social life lesbian* relations in Ukraine cannot be studied in a vacuum that ignores other types of relations. After all, in modern-day Ukraine lesbian* women can allow themselves to look for a partner in the way that would fit their personal preferences, which are not defined by them being lesbian*.
Homophobia and lesbophobia in modern Ukraine.
The problem of discrimination that is based on a person’s sexual orientation can be considered on two levels, which in some ways are co-dependent: the attitude of the state and of the society in general. On the level of the state, the first step was made by the government of Ukraine, when it decriminalized same-sex relatios immediately after gaining independence with Ukraine becoming the first post-soviet country to do so. But decriminalization does not mean legalization and the establishment of equal possibilities for everyone. The turning point in this matter was the Revolution of Dignity, which took place in 2014 and switched Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation from the East (mostly Russia) to the West. This is one of the most influential events in the fight against homophobia due to the before mentioned orientational switch from mostly homophobic Russia to more accepting and tolerant Western countries. Nonetheless, no changes were made on a legislative level and same-sex couples did not receive the rights they needed. So, the Revolution of Dignity was an ideological success that changed Ukrainian mental map of geopolitical friends and enemies and the politics of the country in general, but any factual changes on a legislative level for LGBT-community were not made.
The second turning point in the way that the state treats the LGBT-community was the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. The fact that the lives of Ukrainian people are at a greater risk raised the question of legalizing civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage from a jurisdictional point of view. The implementation of this legal status is among all it’s benefits to Ukrainian society is also useful to non-heterosexual people since they could be granted the possibility to have a legal partner that could represent them in case of any unpredictable event. When asking my interviewees what actions they expect from the government regarding LGBT-community I always got the same response about the implementation of civil partnerships.
Dana (name changed), Kyiv, 18 y/o: “Obviously, the situation with LGBT-rights is not that dreamy especially when we are talking about gender transitioning. But it could be worse and I think it is getting better because discrimination based on sexuality or gender is forbidden by law and same-sex marriages are not criminalized. At the same time I understand why there is a problem with the legalization of these types of marriages since we cannot change the constitution while there is an ongoing war. So, if our government would implement civil partnerships, I will be thankful”.
Uliana (name changed), Kyiv, 20 y/o: “We do not have that much of a problem with LGBT-rights because as of now the government is doing the best they could do given the present circumstances. I am more troubled with our power structures or what is called police lawlessness”.
Ustia, Lviv, 19 y/o: “I am not completely satisfied with the state’s politics regarding LGBT-community and do not consider civil partnerships a huge win because it is a basic human right, that should have been implemented a while ago. But still, it is great that there are some positive changes ahead”.
Kvita (name changed), Kyiv, 18 y/o: “It is important to talk about how civil partnerships are not only for non-heterosexual people. Let us, for example, imagine a situation where two roommates live together and have mutual belongings. For them this status of legal partners would also be useful. Hence. it is wrong to approach this topic from only from LGBT-rights perspective”.
Zhenia, Kharkiv, 19 y/o: “Of course I would like same-sex marriages to be legal and surely every person from LGBT-community would like that. But still, the implementation of civil partnerships would mean that we are moving in the right direction”.
When on the state level, there are attempts to do everything that is possible as of now and the situation is rather positive, the societal attitude towards LGBT-people is not that great. I would characterize it as very sporadical and inhomogeneous. On one hand, recent events that made Ukraine more united with the West and the fact that Ukrainians have to fight together in spite of all the differences, including sexual identity, had made the society’s attitude more positive and open to the dialogue with the LGBT-community. On the other hand, when the country is at the state of revolution and war afterwards, for many people the lack of rights and tolerance for the LGBT-community do not seem that big of an issue that has to be discussed.
Along with this duality of opinions there is a lack of adequate representation of LGBT-community. In modern-day Ukraine the problem of homophobia is being replaced with lack of acknowledgement and education. Only 1 out of 5 interviewees had experienced homophobia that was based on pure hatred and she wasn’t physically injured just because “<…> at the end he told me that if I was a guy, he would totally beat me up”. In this case we also see how the problem of being a woman in a modern-day Ukraine intertwines with homophobia. The other 4 interwiewees have experienced misunderstanding out of lack of education on this topic. When society is not aware of the existence of someone, it cannot behave adequately when encountering these people and not inherently because of bad intentions, but because of lack of knowledge. This explains all the uncomfortable questions LGBT-people get after sharing their sexuality.
Dana (name changed), Kyiv, 18 y/o: “If a person is freely expressing their sexuality it doed not mean that they invite you into their personal life and give you pemission to ask anything you want”.
The situation is even worse if we narrow the topic down from LGBT-people in general to only lesbian* women. They get almost no recognition in Ukrainian popular culture and become almost invisible. Moreover, their relationships are often not taken seriously (because in any scenario women are less likely to be taken seriously than men) and suffer from fetishization.
Ustia, Lviv, 19 y/o: “The act of two women hugging, kissing, etc. in front of a man will be seen as sexy, while it is less likely for two men doing intimate activities to be seen in the same light. Men sexualized lesbian* relation to the point where latter are perceived merely as a frivolous sexual act and not a serious relationship”.
The conducted research tried to trace the changes that occurred in Ukrainian lesbian* community during the years of independence. This social group had clearly changed if analyze its social life. But all these changes did not happen merely because of the fact that these women love other women. We can notice the same dynamic in other types of relations because the ways in which you look for a partner, do not derive from your sexual identification, but are mainly dependent on your personality overall.
At the same time, LGBT-activism is losing its popularity amongst lesbian* women as they become more autonomous and self-sufficient. Thisalso also happens because these activist organizations do not effectively communicate with the people they represent due to the change in their priorities and main goals.
Based on the material gathered to conduct this research, it can be said that homophobia that includes physical violence or is based on hatred, while clearly being existent, is not that widespread. More common are situations of misunderstanding that derive mainly from the lack of representation of LGBT-people or from them being inadequately represented. We can fight this only by educating society on the nature of non-heterosexual relations by implementing sex education in schools and making research on the topic widely accessible. When talking of the lesbian* community, we additionally have to destigmatize womanhood in general because lesbian* women are oppressed and misunderstood based not on one, but on two criterias. The only solution is to keep discussing this subject, so that women who love women get the acknowledgement they deserve.
 Brief Ukrainian lesbian history of 1990–2000 – https://genderindetail.org.ua/library/istoriya-i-pamyat/stysla-ukrainska-lesbiyska-istoriya-1990-2000-rokiv.html?fbclid=IwAR10XdodRXxmt_5XyS2JUKY5kOSo9goQ-NONSwQKNFS2LhwQPafkVeW_cYo
 Кон, І. С. Світанкове місячне сяйво: лики та маски одностатевого кохання / І. С. Кон. — Львів: НВФ «Українські технології», 2011. — 560 с.
 Артикул Воинский, 1715 р.
 Кон, І. С. Світанкове місячне сяйво: лики та маски одностатевого кохання ….
 An overview of lesbian history in Ukraine until the early 1990s – https://lesarchive.politkrytyka.org/2021/03/23/ohlad/
 Політика i культура, № 12, 1999, с. 43-44.
 How lesbians* met when there was no Internet – https://lesarchive.politkrytyka.org/2021/04/21/%D1%8F%D0%BA-%D0%B7%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BE%D0%BC%D0%B8%D0%BB%D0%B8%D1%81%D1%8F/
 How lesbians* met when there was no Internet –https://lesarchive.politkrytyka.org/2021/04/21/%D1%8F%D0%BA-%D0%B7%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BE%D0%BC%D0%B8%D0%BB%D0%B8%D1%81%D1%8F/
 LGBT-friendly bars in Kyiv: where lesbians* had fun in the 90s and 2000s – https://lesarchive.politkrytyka.org/2021/05/17/%D0%BB%D0%B3%D0%B1%D1%82-%D1%84%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%B4%D0%BB%D1%96-%D0%B1%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%B8-%D0%BA%D0%B8%D1%94%D0%B2%D0%B0-%D0%B4%D0%B5-%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%B7%D0%B2%D0%B0%D0%B6%D0%B0%D0%BB%D0%B8%D1%81/
 Plieshki: where lesbians met in cities* – https://lesarchive.politkrytyka.org/2021/05/05/%d0%bf%d0%bb%d1%94%d1%88%d0%ba%d0%b8-%d0%b4%d0%b5-%d1%83-%d0%bc%d1%96%d1%81%d1%82%d0%b0%d1%85-%d0%b7%d1%83%d1%81%d1%82%d1%80%d1%96%d1%87%d0%b0%d0%bb%d0%b8%d1%81%d1%8f-%d0%bb%d0%b5%d1%81%d0%b1%d1%96/
 How lesbians* met when there was no Internet –https://lesarchive.politkrytyka.org/2021/04/21/%D1%8F%D0%BA-%D0%B7%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BE%D0%BC%D0%B8%D0%BB%D0%B8%D1%81%D1%8F/
 All the recordings are stored in the personal archive of the interviewer and are not intended to be widely published, except for some of the quotes in this research.