No matter where you are in the world escaping the closet isn’t easy. Try it in Ukraine.
Upon arriving in Ukraine nearly two months ago, many of my stories published by LGBTQ Nation have been about achievement; tales of heroic exploits and rapid progress. And it was beautiful to cover them. Pride and strength emanated from each person featured.
This is not one of those stories.
I’ve been connecting with the vast fraternity of gay Ukrainian men that stretches across the entirety of the country and the other day I got a message from an unknown sender. Without an introduction, they wrote that they had seen me reaching out to others on Grindr for interviews and were wondering how my response had been.
After some brief back and forth, he told me his name. A name I can’t repeat.
The person who began the correspondence was petrified, is petrified, of being gay. And even more than the internal fear over his sexuality, was what society would think.
As his story unfolded, a familiar tale tumbled out.
Parents. Friends. Work.
An internally displaced person, originally from Kyiv, now living in a western city near the Polish border, he wrote that “leaving Kyiv really didn’t matter” when it came to his sexuality since the totality of his sexual encounters came in near anonymity through hook up apps.
At 31, a white-collar professional, his disconnect from Ukrainian gay culture almost made me wonder if he was a time-wasting troll. He wasn’t.
With a strong enough command of English that he used the language daily in his job, we struck up a multi-day conversation.
His curiosity was such that we discussed the different experiences people from Ukraine had shared in past LGBTQ Nation columns and how it seemed his country was a beacon for tolerance if not a place where one man loving another was fully embraced.
“It’s just hard to believe no one would really care,” he said. “I know how people really feel.”
Our communication bordered on jarring, as his sense of self-loathing and fear permeated his words.
“Attacks happen! They happen even in the capital,” he said, referencing the possibility of hate crimes in Kyiv.
On and on it went.
“My colleagues won’t be fond of my life.”
“How could I tell my parents that I’ll never be a father.”
Eventually, it occurred to me that in my role as a researcher and journalist, one from a foreign nation, my assurances were too little, my own experiences too obtuse to make a difference to the subject on the other end of the line.
He too was becoming frustrated, despite having made the initial outreach.
“You just don’t understand, it’s not so easy as you say.”
Before hanging up, I asked if I could write his story, in full. He declined.
“I won’t let you tell the world about me, so use what I’ve said but not my name or anything else.”
In the hours after our last conversation, experiences, and the emotions that accompany them, ones that seemed so far away, returned with vengeance.
Upon the rekindling of that long-ago pain, came a lesson, and with it a vital understanding.
Strides made throughout cumulative lifetimes of struggle have turned the idea of LGBTQ “pride,” into a tangible feeling welling within the greater queer community.
No matter our paths, the pain we carry as a family, pain intertwined in the collective understanding of gender and sexuality, is not something those in our world can ever truly move past even if we stop suffering as individuals. Carrying letters of the alphabet as part of our identities also means helping carry those still in pain forward with us.
This must be our gift to those around us until we can all know what it means to have pride in being the humans we were born to be.