In June 2013, at the venerable old age of almost 58, I graduated from York University in Toronto with an Honours BA in Sexuality Studies. During my subsequent MA in Theology program at Regis College, University of Toronto, I was permitted to take for credit the graduate seminar at University College’s Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. To my theological studies in sexuality and gender I bring a foundation in the insights of medicine, psychology, philosophy, and the social sciences as they have evolved over the past century and a half. I also bring the never finished task of a lifetime of working through these questions on a deeply personal level.
From the outset of any sexuality studies program one is introduced to the inextricable link in the literature between sexuality and nationality, or more clearly, sexuality and citizenship. I greeted this notion with initial skepticism, but also with a determination to keep an open mind; and of course, the connection between the two quickly became so obvious to me that I wonder how I ever doubted it.
In this light, and as the grandson of a Ukrainian priest and ardent nationalist (in the good sense of nationalism), I found the above graphic instantly fascinating—and terribly disheartening—when it passed through my Facebook news feed on March 30. On multiple subliminal levels it conveys a forceful, unmistakable message: Sexual minorities have no place in 21st-century Ukrainian nationhood and culture.
I offer the following deconstruction of this graphic:
- Almost the entire graphic is the colour of the Ukrainian flag, blue and gold. The blue represents the sky, and the gold, the wheat-covered steppes of “the breadbasket of Europe.”
- Against the backdrop of the national flag, the central figures—their very bodies and clothes drawn in the national colours—represent an ideal of Ukrainian masculinity and Ukrainian femininity. The embroidered costumes, the position of the bodies, the woman’s hair portray a distinctly Ukrainian couple engaged in a distinctly Ukrainian performance of gender, i.e., a traditional Ukrainian dance for two.
- Excluded from Ukrainian citizenship—not only by the international prohibition sign but also by the use of black and grey instead of blue and gold—and excluded from any recognized place in Ukrainian culture by their reduction to universal washroom door figures, two same-sex couples and two bisexual threesomes are banished to the margins of the picture…and the margins of Ukrainian society.
- The artist projects no possible moral distinction between a same-sex couple and a threesome.
- Although the picture contains no religious symbology, Ukraine is a majoritarian Orthodox country with a higher percentage of actual churchgoers than its much larger Orthodox neighbour to the northeast.
On May 15 Orthodoxy in Dialogue published Amnesty International’s “Ukraine: Attack on LGBTI Event Highlights Police Failure to Confront Far-Right Violence.” Those of us who find ourselves on the receiving end of some form of discursive or physical violence can vouch for the line that often runs straight from the former to the latter. This is to say that, while our graphic does not constitute an actual incitement to physical violence, the connection is no less clear to the perpetrators of violence than it is to their victims.
The Orthodox Church in the West has an opportunity to witness to our brothers and sisters in historically Orthodox societies concerning not only human rights but also basic Christian love and decency towards all persons created in the image of God. Will we rise to the occasion?
Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.
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