Soldiers join biggest gay pride march in Ukraine

Kiev (AFP) –


Troops in military uniform joined more than 8,000 people marching in Kiev's Gay Pride parade amid tight security on Sunday, the biggest ever annual celebration of diversity in ex-Soviet Ukraine.

The participants, waving rainbow and Ukrainian flags and sporting colourful costumes, marched through the centre of the capital as far-right and Orthodox activists sought to disrupt the event.

The marchers were joined by politicians and foreign ambassadors as thousands of police and National Guard troops stood by to ensure order.

For the first time, several dozen Ukrainian troops and veterans of war with Russia-backed separatists in the east walked in a separate column - some in military dress.

"Freedom is our religion" and "We all look the same from space", read some of the banners held up by the march participants.

Some 1,000 far-right and Orthodox activists, who were kept away from the marchers, held up anti-gay banners and shouted "Shame!" as the procession began.

The event was the first "March of Equality" to take place since Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian without previous political experience, took over as president in May.

Turnout was higher than last year, when around 5,000 people took part.

- 'Lots of homophobes' -

Zelensky's office urged law enforcement agencies to ensure order.

"Every citizen should feel safe and should not be subjected to violence," it said in a post on Facebook early Sunday.

Activists at the parade said that things have been gradually improving for gay people in Ukraine.

But homophobia is still commonplace, even though Kiev authorities have allowed gay pride marches to be held, unlike in neighbouring Russia.

Viktor Pylypenko, who led the column of troops and veterans, said: "There are more than 30 of us here."

He said more gay soldiers wanted to join the event but could not leave the frontline in eastern Ukraine, adding that life for gay soldiers was tough.

"There are lots of homophobes and because of these homophobes and their homophobic commanders these people cannot come out," he said in televised remarks.

- 'Big step forward' -

Ruslana Panukhnyk, head of KyivPride, which organises the parade, said the marchers felt safe despite the presence of the anti-gay protesters.

"We go out to show that there are a lot of us and we have a lot of support," she told AFP.

Vitaliy, who declined to give his last name, said he was attacked with glass bottles after the parade in 2015.

The 27-year-old said that "it was scary" to participate in the event the next year but things have since improved.

"Ukraine has made a big step forward," he said.

Police said they had detained nine activists ahead of the march on Saturday, over planned "provocations".

There were no major incidents on Sunday even though some protesters scuffled with police.

Some of the anti-gay protesters said a country at war should not be holding such events.

"This is unacceptable during war. We have traditional society and such things demoralise the army," said Sergiy.

"Me and many of my brothers would not want our children to be gay or lesbian," added 21-year-old Semen Sokha.

Foreign diplomats and politicians praised the event.

"Thank you to the police and other law enforcement agencies for protecting today's Pride event," British ambassador to Ukraine Judith Gough tweeted.

Ukraine, which ousted a pro-Kremlin regime in a pro-Western uprising in 2014, hopes to become a member of the European Union as it seeks to overcome widespread poverty and corruption.

But attacks and harassment against gays and other minorities are fairly common in Ukraine and global rights groups have previously slammed "an atmosphere of total impunity" in the Western-backed nation.