Fulcrum: The LGBT Organization Asking Ukraine for Acceptance
For 14 years now, Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation has been committed to its mission to strengthen regional cooperation, civil society, and democratic foundations in the countries of the Black Sea region. As part of the Fast response COVID-19 program, BST funded NGO Fulcrum for its complex response to the labor market crisis as an outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ukraine, through providing job search, counselling on labor rights and psychological counselling to the Ukrainian LGBT+ community—one of the most discriminated and vulnerable groups in the country. For organizations working in the areas of interest for BST, please check Calls for Applications | The German Marshall Fund of the United States (gmfus.org)
Tymur has spent much of his life swimming against the current. He knew he was gay at an early age. Growing up in Ukraine, it is sometimes easier to stay hidden, not risk hate and discrimination from those you trust most. The LGBT community is still very much discriminated against. Although violent attacks have decreased, hate crimes are still commonplace and LGBT people are neither afforded legal rights and protections nor widespread societal acceptance. According to a Pew survey from 2019, only 14 percent of Ukrainians agree homosexuality should be accepted by society. But Tymur had always been involved in his community, supporting teachers in his school, heading student groups advocating for human rights and gender equality. He was known for standing up for others, so maybe others would stand up for him, too. “It was strange for people, and they asked me a lot of questions,” Tymur says of when he came out to his school. “Of course I had some problems with homophobic guys, but I tried to just be honest and not cry or be aggressive, just talk. And it was not difficult…well, now I think it was not difficult,” Tymur laughs.
After he came out, three other people at his school came out to him, as well. That’s when Tymur knew he wanted to not only be out, but be proud and be bold, and to give others the courage to be their true selves, too, even when it meant being different. He started wearing colorful clothing and rainbow bowties. “Being LGBT and expressing myself was just a normal part of my life by the time I went off to university,” Tymur says. “And when I came on the first day of my study at university, I of course had my rainbow tie, and I wore my colorful clothing.” Tymur puts his palms on either side of his face and smiles at the memory.
But in a sea of dark and plain clothes, Tymur stood out. Teachers let him know they disapproved, and other students taunted and verbally attacked him. Yet, Tymur wasn’t discouraged. He answered questions, made friends. Soon, when Tymur walked across campus he started to see a change around him. Other people were daring to be colorful, too—literally. Tymur was no longer unusual for wearing his rainbow bow tie and bright colored clothing. “So I realized you can really change standards. We just need one person in a group of people to start to do something different, and people start to change their opinion,” Tymur says.
This is one of the philosophies of Fulcrum, the Ukrainian LGBT NGO of which Tymur is the executive director. Fulcrum is one of the largest national LGBT organizations in Ukraine. It began in 2009 as an organization called Support Point, which primarily dealt with the problems of bisexual and homosexual men in Ukraine. In 2016, the organization united nine regional branches and expanded their activities to form Fulcrum. The rebirthed organization advocates for the rights of the LGBT community, dispelling myths and prejudices about LGBT people and overcoming prejudices and discrimination in society and LGBT health issues.
Anton is the organization’s project manager. He graduated from an economic university and had more than 15 years of experience in international relations before he found Fulcrum in 2014, then called Support Point. “During all my professional life I worked in the business environment where you don’t have to show that you belong to the LGBT community,” Anton says. But something clicked when he realized he wanted to be a part of an NGO like Fulcrum. “The intention was to feel more free, and do something really useful for others.”
Now, alongside Tymur, Anton manages Fulcrum’s wide array of projects. The NGO does everything from connecting people with LGBT-friendly doctors for HIV testing, helping businesses become more inclusive, and providing employment and psychological consultations to the LGBT community during the coronavirus. It also organizes support for Ukraine’s LGBT military and veteran population and advocates for the establishment of civil partnerships in Ukraine. In a recent project, the NGO gave the opportunity to priests and religious figures from different religions to have an open dialogue with activists about LGBT rights and gender equality.
A critical focus for Fulcrum is creating a movement of people who support equal rights for all. “We really try to work with allies,” Tymur says. “We try to provide education events for doctors, business, journalist, lawyers, politicians. We try to explain why and how they can support the LGBT community in Ukraine, try to build some bridges between LGBT people and non-LGBT people.” Anton politely cuts in with a sly smile. “And I would add that we not only try,” he says. “We do this. Successfully.”
Tetiana is a straight ally and communications manager at Fulcrum. She explains how she used to be an editor at a magazine that featured interviews and articles on Fulcrum. “The people inspired me,” she says. “I saw this injustice and it bothered me. I wanted not only to write about this, but to do something to change it.” Now at Fulcrum, Tetiana works every day to strengthen Ukraine’s community of LGBT allies. “I don’t face the problems that the LGBT community faces, but I face the discrimination and sexual harassment and gender-based violence women face,” she says. Fulcrum advocates for a Ukraine that is safe not only for LGBT specifically, but for all people. Tetiana gets out a bright pink hat with the organization’s “Allies in Action” project logo and puts it on. Just days ago, Allies in Action had participated in a women’s march, handing out the hats for free. “We saw our allies wearing our hats in this march of thousands of people,” Tetiana says proudly.
Fulcrum is smart and careful about its approach to advancing LGBT issues in Ukraine. Its goal is to reach outside activist bubbles and make long-term progress by dismantling people’s aversion to LGBT+ issues, slowly and politely. Tymur and his colleagues are thoughtful and dialogue-centric, and aim to create an environment where those in the LGBT community are treated as ordinary people who care about the same issues as their neighbors. “We try to make sure to be visible not only in pride parades and LGBT events but in other aspects of our community to show solidarity and our common values. We want to show that LGBT people are actually part of society,” Tymur says.
Tymur uses this approach in his outreach to the political world as well. Many members of parliament are afraid to talk about LGBT issues openly, he says, but are willing to talk in private. Fulcrum works hard to be available for dialogue with people of all levels of acceptance, including politicians. “When we publish our education materials for political parties, we put information that any political party with any ideology can support LGBT in different ways,” Tymur says. “If you are right-wing, for example, we don’t expect you to support gay marriage, but you can condemn hate-crimes. Fulcrum is a place where everyone can be an ally.”
Fulcrum is hopeful for the future of the LGBT community in Ukraine. Tymur explains, like most Ukrainians, he has a profound pride for his country, and because of the history and strength of Ukrainians, they don’t want to be seen as victims. “But Ukrainians have this empathy,” Tetiana adds. “Once they get to know just one story, about one transgender person, one person struggling with HIV, one LGBT child who wants acceptance, they might watch their words, their thoughts. I believe in the power of storytelling. Telling stories about real people.”
Tymur nods and shrugs. “Some people don’t like LGBT because they think everybody doesn’t like LGBT,” he says. Then he smiles. “But if one person steps out and has a different position, it could change things.”