We totally believe we will win this war – Edward Reese (Kyiv Pride, Ukraine)

Interview with Edward Reese, transgender and nonbinary activist, communications coordinator and project assistant in Kyiv Pride

Wojciech Wojtasiewicz: Who are you? What are the current and previous activities of Kyiv Pride?

Edward Reese: I am transgender, nonbinary queer person. I work for Kyiv Pride as a communication officer. As a Kyiv Pride as a whole, right now we are organising many different projects. Definitely we had to switch the things, that we do, after the Russian invasion. So now the main project that we have is the shelter for LGBT people, who need accomodation and help in Kyiv. There are many people, who live in a shelter from two weeks to whole month. They receive place to live, psychological consultations, sometimes food and clothes. We are trying to give them everything what they need. This shelter is for people, who need temporary place to live in Kyiv. If they need to be in Kyiv for some reason, like for example going through consultations for transition or until they will find work.

Where do those LGBT people come from – Eastern Ukraine, occupied territories?

They are from very different places, including occupied territories like Donetsk or Kherson, which is now free.

Why did they decide to come to Kyiv? Did they loose their accomodation or were expelled by their families, who did not accept them?

There is both actually. We do not have any restrictions for any kind of LGBTQ people. If they need an accomodation, because their families disowned them for being queer, we also take them. There is no difference. As I know right now we have some people from Kherson, some people from Kharkiv region, so very different stories. Like continue this help, that we can provide for them, there is a project, which is called resocialization. It is a project, which gives an opportunity to have a new job. It is mostly practical jobs like for example massagist. Now we are finishing first course of massage. So people can get very practical skill. They can earn money for. We have also several courses of social media management and content writing. We are planing to teach people, together with the friendly cafe chain, to be waiters, cooks and baristas. It is also very popular things in the big cities.

We talk to a lot of different international media and organisations to help fight with disinformation about Ukraine and Ukrainian LGBT people and organisations. We have organized Ukrainian groups to support KyivPride at around 200 different Pride events this summer. Personally with other people from Kyiv Pride we were on the different events. And also our volunteers, who are refugees in the other countries right now, they also took part in the Prides creating Ukrainian groups and showing support for Ukraine, like being very visible. Personally I was at the Pride events in Sweden, Hungary, Denmark and there were very big, visible and bright Ukrainian groups. We also had joint Pride with Warsaw this year. It was the biggest one, that we had.

We still continue community events, which are very important right now for people in Ukraine, especially in Kyiv. LGBT people who were forced to leave their cities and appartments, becauce of war and bombing, need community. So we have community events almost every week, sometimes even often, in our community center in Kyiv like movies screaning, tea parties, clothing swaps and many other things, which people need to make friendships and be together. We are also planning to continue the resocialisation project and shelter for several next months.

Have you helped LGBT people with the evacuation from Ukraine to other contries?

I would say that this is not our specialty, so there are many other organisations, which work with that. We have one of the things, that can be kind of with this situation, we have free help from the lawyers. If the person faces discrimination anywhere for being trans, queer or gay, we connect him or her with the lawyer, who helps. There was a lot of organisation in Ukraine, which helped LGBT people to leave the country. But we are focusing on those, who stay in Ukraine. Whole team of Kyiv Pride have stayed in Ukraine for the whole time of an invasion. I was the only one, who left our contry for some time, because I had to do my top surgery. There was no opportunity to do it in Ukraine, when invasion started, because many doctors left Ukraine. I spent seven months in Denmark and returned last month and now the whole team is here, so we are working with those, who stayed.

How do you manage to continue your activities in such harsh conditions, which are now in Kyiv – partial lack of electricity, water, central heating and Internet?

It is hard definitely, but we are lucky to have our community center and the shelter in the places, which do not face many blackouts. Not every region of Kyiv has the same problems with blackouts. We have all things, which are required for blackout: generators, supplies of food and water, so we are prepared for anything, what may happened. We thought about it. We continue to work on making our places as prepared as they can be. But this is war. We can not do anything with that, just to being adjusted to those conditions, which exist. We are activisits, we are organisation. We have to be an example for our community. The community sees that, we are active, we are here, we are working with them and we welcome them in our places. Being in our offices people have an opportunity to charge their phones or laptops. So we have an electricity and we share it.

For sure as an LGBT organisation you fight for some changes in local law regarding rights of your community, for example civil unions or same-sex marriages. How do you see perspective of passing such law in the future? What is your opinion about Ukrainian authorities’ atitude towards LGBT people? At the beginning of war it was possible to see on official governmental accounts in social media some posts showing that LGBT people are fighting on the frontline against Russian invaders.

I would say that before the invasion our government was not negative towards LGBTQ people. They were kind of neutral. There was a case, when Volodymyr Zelensky had a press conference. Christian-conservative guy was present and asked him what will he do with the queer people. And Zelensky replied: leave them alone, let them be, do not be agressive. So he did not have any negativity towards queer people before. Now, when the invasion started, there are LGBT soldiers, who are fighting on the frontline and definitely have been changing the attitude of Ukrainian society towards our community, not only of those, who are in power. They see, that there are soldiers, volunteers and activists, who help Ukraine to win.

As for legislation, the activists and lawyers are working on the project of the bill for civil unions and we are following these people. They are our partners and friends. And when the bill will be in the parliament, we will be lobbing for adopting this project. We are doing it already. We are active in media regarding this issue. I think that the big thing, which is very important, is Ukraine, which is coming to the European Union. So we are already the candidate. And what we have to do to become the member of the EU is human rights. So I think that Ukrainian government will pass the bill, when it will be ready, because we have to have this law thinking about future membership. We have signed the Istanbul convention. And for several years Ukrainian activists and feminists have been fighting for adopting that convention by Kyiv. And we have been rallying a lot to convince president to sign this document. But he did not for many years. But when we received candidate country status from Brussels Zelensky finally signed the Istanbul convention. So it was unusual thing for us. He did not do this for many years, despite the fact that we had two petitions signed by 25 thousands people. I think that the same thing we will see regarding civil unions law and anti-hate crime law, which we also advocated for several years already. I would say that this path to the European Union that we have, will definitely have an impact.

So you are quite optimistic regarding the future.

I would say that the whole world looks at the Ukraine right now and we are definitely optimistic, because we have this hope, that the world is waiting for Ukraine to be kind of an example of change. Now, we are fighting with the most awful country in the world. We totally belive that we will win this war. When we will have a great victory, we can not go back. We will just have to go further. When we will defeat Russians, there will be no other way than to change all the bad things that we have in Ukraine.

Have you already thought about next year’s edition of KyivPride?

By this moment we do not think about pride march, because if there was no war, we would definitely do it in Kyiv and start thinking about it in January. But right now we do not know what will happen, because Russians are unpredictable. We would be very happy if we can have the march for equality in Kyiv summer next year. And we will invite everyone from all European countries that we visited this year, to join the Pride. And I know that many people would come, like people who I personally invited on the Pride events, which I visited in Europe.