Kyiv is undoubtedly the queer capital of Ukraine but other major cities have bigger and more active LGBTQ+ communities than one might expect.
Southern Odesa, western Lviv and eastern Kharkiv offer opportunities and events for queer people to express themselves and stand up for their rights.
The Kyiv Post spoke to three people to find out what it’s like to be queer in these three cities.
Occupation: DJ, party promoter
Due to its strong religious ties, Lviv is considered a relatively conservative Ukrainian city.
But its resident Danylo Kachmarskyy, known under his DJ stage name Danny Dier, doesn’t think it’s that different from other Ukrainian cities.
Born and raised in this western provincial capital of 717,000 inhabitants, Kachmarskyy loves his hometown. “It’s wonderful and not fully appreciated,” he told the Kyiv Post.
He admits that although there are queer people in the city, there is no coherent community like in Kyiv or Kharkiv.
Kachmarskyy believes it’s important to have spaces for free discourse and experimentation, which he finds available at events such as the Kyiv queer rave Veselka.
When he attended his first Veselka, he saw different types of people dancing and being united.
“Before Veselka I didn’t know how many existed among us,” he says. Kachmarskyy identifies as pansexual, attracted to anyone with whom he can connect on an emotional level.
Although he doesn’t feel completely safe in Lviv or anywhere in Ukraine, he says he has no inner issues with his orientation and accepts himself.
The DJ doesn’t want to live in fear and end up feeling that he “wasted his life.”
When his close friend Stepan German suggested they launch a party, Kachmarskyy co-created an event that could provide for Lviv’s community what Veselka did for Kyiv – a mixture of equality and sexuality. Kachmarskyy wanted to translate that over to his city.
“And we did,” he says.
The two came up with the first queer rave in Lviv, called Neutral, during quarantine.
After months of planning, the first Neutral took place in the summer of 2020 with 250 people attending.
“It’s hard to describe, but it was really a movement,” Kachmarskyy reminisces. “There was a lot of emotion, lots of warm words said.”
Since then there have been six Neutral raves, with over 400 people in attendance at once.
Having been a DJ for two years, Kachmarskyy now travels between Lviv and Kyiv and even performs his own sets at Veselka.
He hopes that Lviv’s LGBTQ+ community will grow into a happy supporting family.
And Kachmarskyy plans to keep on participating. “We need to continue to work onward,” he says.
Profession: Artist, DJ
Olena Dzhurina wasn’t shocked when she realized she was queer during her pre-teen years.
Thanks to the access to literature and the internet, she quickly did helpful research. Her deep love for punk music also helped.
“The idea of punkness, anarchy, veganism, vegetarianism, LGBTQ, human rights are all very similar,” Dzhurina told the Kyiv Post. “They all are about tolerance.”
She moved to the eastern provincial capital of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-most populous city, from the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in 2013. She soon found herself immersed in the underground scene that provided tolerant spaces for queer people like the club Zhivot.
“What the punk scene introduced me to, the rave scene solidified in me,” she says.
Dzhurina is still exploring her own identity and sexuality as time goes on. But she says her bisexual orientation has never wavered.
“I fall in love with a person, their sex has no meaning to me,” Dzhurina explains. She says she values the person’s qualities and her connection with them rather than their physical attributes.
Although attacks on the LGBTQ+ in Kharkiv aren’t rare, just like in the rest of Ukraine, the city also has one of the strongest activist communities.
“I think that Kharkiv is becoming more tolerant with each year,” Dzhurina says. “And not because it’s a natural progression but due to the years of activists’ work.”
Kharkiv has a queer community center called Pride Hub, which helps organize Kharkiv Pride and other events.
Kharkiv is also the home to two queer choirs, who perform during Kharkiv Pride. Dzhurina appreciates Kharkiv for the opportunities it provides for her to meet open-minded people and express herself at the increasingly creative events that bring visibility to the queer community.
“It’s cool that we have the opportunity to take part in these bright sparks and represent ourselves,” she says.
City: Odesa Age: 25
Orientation: Non-binary lesbian
Occupation: English tutor, business consultant
Born and raised in Odesa, non-binary person Ellen James finds comfort in their active queer community in the city.
“I wouldn’t say politically active because it’s not a thing for Odesa,” James told the Kyiv Post. “Active as in visible, represented, and not being too scared or ashamed to hide. You see lesbians everywhere and it’s cute.”
Many cafes around the city are considered gay-friendly, according to James. They personally like hanging out at cafes such as Daily and Tishina.
Odesa does have a Pride march, although smaller in comparison to Kyiv and Kharkiv. It’s not nearly as fun as western European prides that James attended, such as Berlin Pride, because people need to be boxed in within police escorts for protection.
“The more rights you have in the country, the more fun you have at Pride,” James says. James first identified as an ally, a person who supports LGBTQ+ rights, supporting gay marriage since their teenage years.
“I was very supportive, I was such an ally,” they say.
Only two years later, James realized that they too felt a part of the community. James doesn’t feel entirely safe in Ukraine. They go by a chosen name citing concerns for their family’s safety.
James recalls how once they were approached by a group of six men after kissing a woman in public. The heated situation de-escalated because James pretended to be a foreigner.
“They explained to me, ‘We don’t do these things in Ukraine. You can do whatever you want in your country, but in Ukraine, we don’t do this,’” James says.
James has known they were lesbian for years but only recently they realized they were non-binary, meaning they identify as neither a woman nor a man.
James explains that the process of exploring their identity never ends for queer people. And no matter how complicated it might be, they say they wouldn’t want it to be any other way.
“I was thinking, ‘if I could choose to be heterosexual, would I?’” James asks, “I would say no because I love this process so much.”