Activists: Anti-gay sentiment rising in Ukraine

By Maria Danilova

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Homophobic sentiment and violence against Ukraine's gay community are on the rise despite increasing efforts to promote tolerance in the conservative ex-Communist nation, advocacy groups said Wednesday.

The community was forced to cancel its first ever gay pride parade in the capital, Kiev, in May due to concerns activists would be physically attacked by radical groups. After the cancellation, two gay leaders were violently beaten.

Oleksandr Zinchenkov, head of the Our World gay rights advocacy group, told a news conference Wednesday that Ukrainians have been increasingly hostile toward gays and lesbians in recent months.

This year homophobia in Ukraine "has entered the stage of physical violence," he said.

Ukraine's parliament began debating a bill in June that would ban the "propaganda of homosexuality" among minors by imposing fines and criminal responsibility on those seen to deliberately disseminate positive information about gays. The bill caused outrage among Western rights groups and politicians who said if introduced it would make being openly gay effectively illegal _ a flashback to Soviet times, when homosexuality was considered a criminal offense for many years. No date has been set for any vote on the bill.

Singer Elton John interrupted a charity concert in the center of Kiev last month and asked Ukrainians to end the violence.

"We all deserve a chance," John _ the first person in Britain to take part in a gay marriage _ told tens of thousands of cheering spectators on Kiev's main square. "I plead with you Ukraine: stop the violence against gay people."

Svyatoslav Sheremet, who leads Ukraine's Gay Forum, said the community had decided to hold Ukraine's first gay pride event believing that gays and lesbians were finally ready to be greeted by society. For every one gay Ukrainian who is out, he said, another 80 are forced to hide their sexuality.

But despite strong support from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev and other Western groups, they were forced to cancel the May 20 event on learning that hundreds of anti-gay activists had arrived in Kiev looking for confrontation.

Shortly after the parade was cancelled, Sheremet was first doused with pepper spray, and then kicked in the head, legs and arms by a group of youths wearing surgical mask. They then stomped on his back. A month later, Taras Karasiychuk, another gay parade organizer, sustained a concussion and a fractured jaw when he was attacked by men shouting homophobic insults outside his home.

"The message was clear: 'don't come out onto the streets with your gay rights, stay at home or in your clubs,'" Sheremet said.

Sheremet expressed hope Wednesday that violence and hostility would eventually give way to more tolerance and acceptance, saying that he saw this as a "necessary crisis period," after which social integration would follow.

"Eventually, society comes to realize that one can only live peacefully when one is tolerant," he said.

Minutes after the news conference was over, however, he was doused in buttermilk by an anti-gay activist.

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