When Andrew Kushnir first came out as gay, he says he “felt like a unicorn.” Now, years later, he has the honour of marching for the countless LGBTQ Ukrainians unable to take to the streets as war rages in their country.
It’s a moment he never thought possible when he was growing up. The feeling at the time, he says, was that there was no such thing as a “queer Ukrainian.”
“And I kind of internalized that. I thought, OK, I guess I have to choose …. Either I’m going to be gay or I’m going to be Ukrainian, and that those things don’t mix.”
That perception changed when he had the chance to visit Ukraine for the first time, meeting so many like himself.
“They made me realize that I don’t have to choose between the two. I can be both. That’s their gift to me,” Kushnir said.
‘My turn to step up for them’
That’s why when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Kushnir knew he had to do something to repay that gift.
“Lots of queer people in Ukraine were erasing their phones, dating apps, they were clearing their phones of any friends’ messages. They wanted to scrub out anything that would give away their queer identity,” he said.
“It was my turn to step up for them.”
An artist and activist, Kushnir is also the founder of the LGBTQ Ukraine Fund, an organization that raises money for advocacy and humanitarian groups in that country. When his group announced it would be marching in the Pride parade on Sunday, he says he got the chance to do just that.
Homophobia, transphobia on the rise, says advocate
Kyiv Pride’s Lenny Emson reached out and asked if Kushnir would march on behalf of Ukraine’s LGBTQ community.
“We appealed to Prides around the world stand up for us,” Emson told CBC News.
“We are not only kind of the victims of Russian aggression as Ukrainians. We are kind of under more precise threat as LGBTQ people,” Emson said.
“On the other hand, we see hate crimes in Ukraine right now on the rise because of homophobes and transphobes that are around right now using this situation … to hunt down the most visible members of the community.”
As part of the effort to help, Kushnir’s organization is selling a T-shirt he says is designed by an all-LGBTQ Ukrainian team, with a traditional vyshvanka pattern on the front and a special message on the back: “Freedom is our tradition.”
And as for how he’ll feel marching as an LBGTQ Ukrainian in support of so many like him, Kushnir says, “I think I’m going to be very, very emotional.”
“I think my heart is going to explode, to be honest.”