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Friday, 20 November 2015

The case of Maxim Eristavi

Maxim Eristavi is a Ukranian journalist I've been following for about two years. When the EuroMaidan (what is now known as the 'Revolution of Dignity') broke out in Kyiv he was a strong English speaking presence reporting what was happening.

The first time I saw him was in a series of interviews around Ukraine he did with a German hipster where his ability to ask the right questions came shining through (see their report from March 2014 'What happened on the Maidan in Kiev?' after the jump). His writing last year for publications like New Republic pulled no punches, such as 'The New Ukrainian Government Is Poised to Abandon the LGBT Activists Who Were on the Front Lines'.

Now he is regularly interviewing Very Important People on the Hromadske channel he helped found, whose Sunday Show in English, which he co-hosts, has become a go-to source for Ukraine watchers.

He was recently made a Poynter fellow and spoke at the Yale Law School saying:
My mission today will be to highlight the 5 most popular myths about Ukraine and the Ukrainian-Russian war, to debunk them and by doing so to show how Ukraine is not, as it may appear, a far away localized conflict but instead a good case study for many global developments in international law, six main theories of international relations, social deconstructive studies, global fight for civil rights equality and development theories.
Eristavi on the Maidan
Eristavi is also openly gay, a rare thing in Ukraine, and features in a series by the artist Carlos Motta called "Patriots, Citizens, Lovers..." which was at the gallery owned by the oligarch Victor Pinchuk (who recently brought Elton John to Kyiv to tell Ukraine's elite to support LGBT rights). Motta developed the show in conversation with Ukrainian journalist Maxim Ivanukha and it is "composed of ten urgent interviews with Ukrainian LGBTI and queer activists who discuss the critical and dire situation of lesbian, gay, trans and intersex lives in Ukraine in times of war."

Here's what Eristavi had to say (you can watch him after the jump along with a Hromadske report about the show):
My name is Maxim Eristavi. I am an independent journalist and the co-founder of Hromadske International. I work on media coverage of Ukraine: Mostly on LGBT issues and media rights. I am also one of the few openly gay journalists in Ukraine. As a journalist I have always thought that if you know a topic really well or if your background helps you to cover a specific topic well, then you must do it. I decided that I can cover LGBT news better than non-LGBT journalists or those who do not quite understand the daily realities of LGBT people’s lives in Ukraine.

After I came back to Ukraine at the end of 2013, after a long absence, and the revolution had begun, I understood that this was an opportunity for the implementation of civil rights in Ukraine. The Maidan revolution was and is a unique opportunity for the majority of people in Ukraine to realize the importance of equality. Equality as a wide concept that concerns everyone and that has to do with the civil rights that all people should have since they are born. The revolution presented a unique opportunity to define this and to help the progress of attaining equality.

I used to live in Russia, which is often compared to Ukraine in terms of the scope of its homophobia. But when I returned to Ukraine I noticed how much society had changed. I started thinking that in Ukraine, in contrast to Russia, equality and the empowerment of the civil rights of the LGBT community were a potential victory. Achieving these goals here would be much easier than in other countries of the region and if we were to achieve them we could make progress for the whole region, not only for Ukraine.

From the gallery show
Recent polls show that more than 70% of Ukrainians think gay people are sick. This discussion is still stuck in the past. One can surely understand people who say that in times of conflict the time is not right to discuss important yet controversial issues, such as trying to change the course of history or stereotypes about minorities. Not only about the LGBT community but also about gender rights, religious expression or the concerns of other minority groups. But when they tell me: “Why don’t you wait 20-30 years until the big problems are solved and then we can get back to your problems?” I always answer that the war in Ukraine is not only military and economic, but also civil and cultural. Building a society that is dramatically different from Russia and from the post-Soviet values that we are still trying to get rid of would be a very important victory in this war. A victory for everyone, not only for the minorities, but also for the whole country. This won’t be achieved by solving only military and economic problems. Ultimately, strong and protected minorities are not a threat to a healthy and successful country.

But one year after the revolution and in the midst of the war the situation in the country has worsened. The problem is not only a change in the social attitude towards LGBT issues because you can often see a completely different trend. People want to know more, they understand the necessity to protect minorities... Yet from another perspective, I see the current situation as an attempt to highjack the conversation about LGBT issues, to instil fear in people and to manipulate them through this fear.

I wouldn’t only blame the nationalists or other marginal groups for this. Our own community is also to blame. In a country of 45 million people there are practically no LGBT people who are out. There are only a handful of them and they are mostly involved in the field of activism. Ordinary Ukrainian citizens don’t know what LGBT means and they don’t know any LGBT people. In a country that keeps its LGBT life in the closet, the community itself should be the first to address this issue.

 When it comes to gay rights, gay Ukrainians don’t differ from other Ukrainians who want to have more rights. This goes back to a culture of fear common to Soviet times. Constant paranoia and fear of being punished for having a different opinion created a culture of fear that still persists. When you speak with LGBT people of an older generation, generally they don't participate in any events or speak openly about their sexuality, even with their families, which might be more important than coming out publicly.

My whole life could be described as an escape: An escape that started at school when I was trying to avoid being bullied and to get away from people who tried to humiliate me. Later on, the escape becomes larger as you want to escape your city since you don’t feel safe and you are trying to find a new and more tolerant society. Later you want to leave the country. I went to places where I thought I would feel more comfortable but I realized that this fear stays inside you everywhere you go. It is impossible to escape until you turn back, stop, and start hitting back. Where you live is not so important, you first have to solve the problem of self-respect. Hating something inside you, something you can’t overcome, something passed on to to you at birth, is toxic and destructive.

Honesty is one the things that attracted me to journalism. It was important for me not only professionally, but personally as well. If I had become honest with myself and with those people whom I tell my story, I realized that I could do things differently in my job. I have idealistic and romantic journalistic standards and I realized that it is impossible to tell people stories without talking about my personal background… If I tell a story about LGBT people, I have to say that I am also gay.

If there are so many LGBT people in the Ukrainian media, why is the media’s coverage of LGBT issues so unprofessional? I wouldn’t only blame journalists for this but also LGBT activists themselves. Due to the activists’ previous negative experiences with the media they prefer to take some distance and agree only to minimal cooperation. Both sides need a fresh start; we need to work together in order to understand why the coverage is so unprofessional and often homophobic.

I don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel. But we have to pay attention to history and to the experience of other countries where this issue has resolved successfully. We need to try to learn something elsewhere and to test it here to see whether it works. We need to constantly search for new ways to achieve progress. Ultimately, despite history and everyone’s different backgrounds it comes down to one simple task: Accepting the choices of another human being.

When I recall my childhood and the problems I faced then: being humiliated at school by other boys who wanted to disgrace me by locking me up in the public toilet, I understand that I am more successful now than they are and that I feel better than they do. I don’t need special rights, additional rights or special privileges. I just need just equality, a right that is given at birth and is guaranteed not only by law but simply by the right to life. Equality shouldn’t require any additional expenses or the efforts of lawmakers. One shouldn’t have to vote or organize elections in favor of equality. Equality is something you have at birth. It is a right to be proud of who you are and not to be afraid to say it to others. It is something given to all humans at birth. This is the idea with which absolutely all Ukrainians can agree on after the Maidan revolution.

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