A peculiar row has broken out in Kyiv over the role of one of Zelensky’s best-known advisers. Oleksiy Arestovych is a familiar figure in Ukraine and has developed a profile abroad, described as a ‘sex symbol’ by no less a source than the Economist. But when it comes to sex, he has some clear views. ‘LGBT people are deviant,’ he said on 19 June. ‘I sympathise with them, but I am against propaganda’.
Cue outrage, with KyivPride demanding Zelensky fire Arestovych for homophobic statements, ‘Such rhetoric from Ukrainian authorities is unacceptable if we want to be in the EU’. A reference to action that Brussels is taking against Hungary for its stance on LGBT rights. But KyivPride has another argument: that the war has demonstrated that gay Ukrainians deserve equality. ‘You have no moral right to say that as long as hundreds of LGBT+ people, along with everyone else, defend Ukraine’, they added.
On his Facebook page, Oleksiy Arestovych answered with a joke, ‘The LGBT community is outraged and talking about my resignation. But look at this photo and you’ll understand who should be truly outraged. I think I’m being persecuted, no? I demand tolerance’. He offered the below photo of him in drag during his career as an actor.
The debate on LGBT rights hits a fault line in Ukrainian society – as it does in many post-Soviet countries. A poll in May showed just 24 per cent of Ukrainians support same-sex marriage, up from 4 per cent six years ago. This is one of the arguments against EU membership: that it would enforce social norms not accepted by the majority. Putin has sought to exploit this over the years, offering himself as a champion of conservative values.
The Ukrainian parliament this week passed the Istanbul Convention, intended to combat violence against women and domestic violence. This has triggered much debate on Ukrainian social media with some seeing it as a back door for gay marriage. The Ukrainian Orthodox Сhurch said liberals are acting ‘under the guise of combating domestic violence to introduce into Ukrainian legislation the ideological and medical concepts of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as legal terms to replace biological sex (women and men) in the legislation with gender’.
Before the February invasion, this was a tricky issue for Zelensky, who had personally positioned himself as a liberal. But some MPs from his Servant of the People party have sought to pass a law outlawing ‘homosexual and transgenderism propaganda’. By signing the Istanbul Convention, Zelensky deliberately took the risk of being criticised by the conservative masses, knowing that they see the Istanbul Convention as a Trojan horse for same-sex marriage.
In Ukraine, many same-sex couples live in stable long-term relationships. But, as in Britain 30 years ago, they have no rights. They cannot get married or inherit their partner’s property, they have no right to alimony, cannot visit each other in medical institutions, and they can’t adopt and raise children together. Marriage is described in the Family Code of Ukraine as ‘union of a woman and a man’ – this wording leaves people of the same sex with no ability to get married and deprives them of many of the rights that heterosexual couples have.
The situation is not going to change in the near future but debates about same-sex couples’ rights will continue after the end of the war. Even Zelensky’s signing of the Istanbul Convention came with restrictions, in a bid to see off more conservative opposition. The document says, ‘Ukraine does not consider any of the provisions of the Convention to oblige it to amend the Constitution of Ukraine and the Family Code of Ukraine, other laws of Ukraine on the institutions of marriage, family and adoption, or to interfere with parents’ right to raise their children accordingly’.
As for Oleksiy Arestovych, he is fast losing the popularity he won at the beginning of the Russian invasion (which he predicted in 2019 with striking accuracy). His later promises that the war would be over in a fortnight have seen admiration turn to mockery. Even in wartime, there is an active discussion of just how liberal – and how European a – a postwar Ukraine would be. It’s a reminder Zelensky faces battles on many fronts.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.