Until four days ago, I had only celebrated the Pride in Belgium. Dancing, making new friends and celebrating diversity. It has been a party for me every time. Three days ago I was supposed to take part in the Equality Festival in Chernivtsi, Ukraine. Until far-right radicals and the police decided otherwise. Even before it began, we were already walking down the stairs with our mouths and noses covered because a bomb had been reported in the building. The radicals had also sprayed gas inside. We saw them standing behind the rows of police. A few seconds later we had to face them and we would be evacuated out of the city.
It started five days ago. During IDAHOT, we would keep a peaceful demonstration in the city centre of Chernivtsi. I am staying here for three months with my girlfriend and we are both LGBT+ activists. We, who were going to demonstrate, needed protection from the police. After they first tried to manipulate us and tried to convince us not to do anything, an official statement of the LGBT+ organisation and hours of talking, they finally promised us to give us decent protection. But they did let the coordinator know that it would be her responsibility if anything would happen to us. The fact that we would literally stand there with just a sign in our hands and the radicals would be the ones who would try to hurt us, are a mere detail. But this time we were lucky. The extremists didn’t count on that much police protection : we were with about 8 activists and more than a hundred police people. Besides showing anti-LGBT+ stickers, there was not much they could do. But then you hear the police behind us saying: “such pretty girls, what a pity.” Anyways, our mission had succeeded. The frustration of the radicals had only grown.
Three days ago it went a different way. The Equality Festival was supposed to happen from 12 until 8pm in a congress room in the city centre. A parade is a beautiful dream but definitely not a reality yet. We had already received threats. According to the radicals nobody would enter or leave the building. The Church Council also made an official statement against the festival. They stated that it was organised by Amnesty International. This little example of misinformation clearly shows that they have no idea what there are talking about. When we were on our way in the morning, we received a phone call to tell us that the lock of the congress room had been tampered with. It was impossible to get inside with a key. After an hour and a half, they managed to open the door. We still had an hour to get everything ready. When the clock was ticking closer towards 12, we could see unsatisfied people coming towards the building. We were already being shouted at. Then I saw a row of women standing in front of the entrance. At the end of the row a child was standing. A child that would hear the worst insults, a child that would witness violence, a child that would experience top-shelf homophobia and think that it is all okay.
Men hiding their faces in masks were coming as well. I could even spot two priests with a bible and cross in their hands. One of the guys who was responsible for the police force was talking to the agitated crowd. My logic mind would told me that he was trying to convince them to leave but nothing was less true. He let everyone enter the building. “There is no reason to not let them in.” (and with everyone, I mean the radicals and religious people, because guests were not allowed to enter). I ran inside and told my girlfriend that they were coming up. Not even 20 of us were inside yet because the festival hadn’t started. The tension in the room got a bit higher. They were chanting very loud that everyone is allowed to enter but the police stopped them at the door. My heart started beating a bit more slowly. The things that scared me, was the hate and the ignorance in their eyes. They looked like unbridled robots who got brainwashed. What scared me the most was not knowing if this would ever change. How long will the world have to deal with these kinds of groups and organisations? How long will people have to live in fear, fear of being themselves?
One of our activists was constantly livestreaming the entrance. When she turned her back to the situation for a minute to discuss what we should do next, the police let two priests and a member of the Sisterhood of Saint Olga (an organisation which protects the ‘traditional’ family) enter. The priests started to preach. They said that we didn’t only had to leave the building but also the city, else it would explode. Then one of them put a book on one of our activists’ shoulder. He said that this was the only way he could touch her.
Right after they told us that the police received a bomb threat. Probably a dim trick of the radicals to get us out of the building. The police told us to leave the room immediately. With a few of the activist we went to the back of the congress room. We tried to refuse to leave the room until the police, quite aggressively, pushed us towards the exit. One of us tried to make a last attempt: “Now you won’t even let me die the way I want to?” No use. Once we entered the hall, we started to cough. The radicals, who were already gone, left a little gift. Gas. Most of us tied, whatever we had, in front of our mouths and noses. The police told us that we had to go outside, they would search the building with dogs and we would be allowed to enter again if everything was safe. Again, nothing was less true.
We were standing in the entrance hall and saw the crowd, folded in maskers and hate. Each moment now the police would escort us outside. We never saw the residents of the building we were in. We put on glasses so our eyes would be protected from whatever they would throw or spray at us. Three to four rows of police were forming a wall between us and the crowd. They forced us to go out and in a flash the police forced the crowd to the left and a few of them took us to the right. It immediately became clear to us that we were being removed from the scene. Some radicals caught up with us. They named us things nobody wants to hear. A hammer just missed us. We turned into a street and started running. They told us to go into a van and the police driver raced away.
Cramped in the van, we drove a while until we stopped behind a gas station. Here we had to split up and get into other cars. First they wanted to evacuate us to another city but eventually they decided to go back to Chernivtsi. On our way back, they told us that they were tracking the car. We had to hide on a parking lot for a while. We waited until they said it was safe. We went to a safe space. Once we were in there, you could feel the tension lowering. We had the feeling we were safe. Two other members of our LGBT+ organisation brought us food and drinks. We waited here together until it was safe enough to go outside again. Until they gave up their search hunt.
On social media we saw that the press secretary of the far-right organisation National Corps posted a live stream of the festival on her Facebook where she claimed that we showed pornographic movies (18+) at the festival and that we allowed everyone to come and watch, even children. She motivated everyone to come and support them. We almost couldn’t believe it. The scary part of this is that they are an actual political party who have influence. Besides them, at least four more far-right organisations were present at the protest.
But after that we saw a video that shows another activist who wasn’t able to enter. She just grabbed her guitar and right next to the radicals she started singing Zombie form The Cranberries. Even though everyone was staring at her, making gestures and started singing religious songs, she kept going. Something like this gives you more hope.
After a bit less than an hour, we decided that it had been enough. We wouldn’t hide any longer and we went our separate ways. The purpose of the boycott was to make us disappear and keep silent but we will only fight back twice as hard. If the police actually would cooperate, it would be a big step in the right direction. Unfortunately they put on a mask as well this time.