This article appeared as an op-ed on June 25, 2019 at the Kyiv Post.
Our Tradition Is Freedom! Kyiv Pride 2019. Equality March, June 23.
Here in Toronto it’s seven hours earlier than in Ukraine. Throughout the day of Kyiv Pride’s Equality March on Sunday, June 23, it gave me a sense of quiet joy to peruse the media reports and the photo updates of my many LGBTQ friends in Ukraine as these passed in steady succession through my Facebook news feed.
My readers will recall that I had appealed both to President Zelensky (here) and to Metropolitan Epiphanius (here and here) to join political and spiritual forces—in ways that maintain the separation of church and state necessary to a 21st-century Western democracy—to forge a new Ukraine where all citizens feel free and safe to thrive according to their own lights, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
This made it all the more gratifying to read of Zelensky’s remarks in support of Kyiv Pride, the robust police protection at the March, the relative absence of confrontations compared to prior years, the largest turnout in Kyiv Pride’s history, the participation of several celebrities and government officials from Ukraine and abroad (including Canadian ambassador, Roman Waschuk), and—perhaps most astonishing of all—the presence of over thirty LGBTQ members of the Ukrainian armed forces.
The contrast with Ukraine’s neighbour to the northeast could not be more stark. The Atlantic reported in 2012 that gay parades were banned in Moscow for a hundred years (!). 2019 marks the fourteenth consecutive year that Moscow’s city administration has disallowed the Pride parade from taking place.
As a second-generation American of Ukrainian descent and long-time resident of Canada, I’m proud of the land of my ancestors. Gradually, Ukraine is coming into its own as a modern Western democracy and a model for other post-Soviet countries struggling to extricate themselves from Russia’s imperialist hegemony.
Yet we cannot allow our warm feelings surrounding Kyiv Pride to obscure the fact that it represents only a first step in making Ukraine safe for its LGBTQ citizens and visitors. One individual interviewed by the Kyiv Post commented that, while Pride gives LGBTQ Ukrainians a chance to breathe, they need to breathe the rest of the year, too.
8000 Pride-goers in a country of some 45 million must represent the tip of the iceberg of Zelensky’s LGBTQ constituency. He needs to take their united voice seriously—Our Tradition Is Freedom!—by backing up his symbolic gestures of support with concrete legislative progress in LGBTQ rights.
There is no reason that these should not include the right to civil marriage in a 21st-century Western democracy. Canada legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2005 and—lo and behold!—the world as Canadians know it has not collapsed, and religious communities have not been pressured to solemnize same-sex marriage in violation of their teachings. Some of Canada’s Christian denominations perform same-sex weddings, others do not, while yet others continue to struggle to reach internal consensus on the matter.
Here in Toronto I know of at least one Orthodox Christian, one Roman Catholic, one Jewish, and one Muslim congregation that welcome LGBTQ members, some openly and others more under the radar.
The unevenly multi-religious mosaic that typifies Ukrainian society must be allowed the same freedom that churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have in Canada to decide on same-sex marriage. At the same time, non-religious LGBTQ Ukrainians must have equal access to all the legal benefits and obligations of civil marriage.
If the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), the Russian Orthodox Church of Ukraine-Moscow Patriarchate (ROCU-MP), the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCC), and the other communities represented by the All Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) cannot support these legal measures proactively, they must at the very least not oppose them. In a modern democracy it benefits no one—least of all, faith communities themselves—to obstruct the civil rights of citizens who do not subscribe to their religious beliefs. I have noted previously on these pages that the OCU’s Metropolitan Epiphanius has an opportunity to show bold leadership in this regard.
Elsewhere on these pages, I have also appealed to Epiphanius and the OCU to start building bridges to Ukraine’s Orthodox believers who identify as LGBTQ. I suspect that there are a great many of them in the closet based on the contacts that some of them have had with me. Only in a generous outpouring of maternal love can the Church discover what she can offer to her LGBTQ children—and no less important, what her LGBTQ children can offer to the Church.
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Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian of Ukrainian and Lemko descent on his mother’s side, PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and contributor of religious commentary at the Kyiv Post. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College, both in Toronto, and is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Earlier in life, he completed the course work for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and was a priest from 1988 to 2002. His MA thesis, “A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love,” can be downloaded here.