Feminists of Kyiv

FemkyLive Podcast Quotes

s01e01: Edward Reese

Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

We’ve launched a podcast! Unfortunately, we cannot record it in English. But we have translated some quotes for you. The title of the podcast (FemkyLive) refers to the format of its recording. We call the guests in a private chat where other local feminists can join the conversation. Then we publish the recording of the conversation on our Patreon free for everyone!

In the first episode, Edward Reese talks about the changes in his life since we have last interviewed him, gender transition while being nonbinary, and how it is happening in Ukraine. Enjoy!

“In our interview, we talked about me preparing a theatrical project about my experience of domestic violence. However, it just so happens that I attended the first consultation on gender transition in preparation for it. For many years I have been very eager to take certain steps in this direction. I did not have such an opportunity before when I was in an abusive relationship. Now I still do not have the money for it, but I can’t wait anymore. In Ukraine, trans people are obliged to receive a psychiatric diagnosis. When I started attending Pavlov Hospital for consultations, I was so impressed by this place that I somehow forgot about the play on domestic violence. Instead, I will create a performative exhibition on transness and psychiatry.”

“When people talk about trans people, they speak primarily about operations and the practices they see in films. These movies are usually about trans women because they are more visible. Some people do not understand how an actual trans person lives, not a positively or negatively mythologized one. It is almost unknown what is transitioning like for trans men and nonbinary people. So I want to document my experience. I hope that Ukraine will implement ICD-11 next year, according to which transness is not a psychiatric illness. If this happens, trans people will need only to visit a psychotherapist and sexologist.”

“I was generally treated okay at the psychiatric hospital. Nevertheless, I got a letter from a guy who also had been attending it, and he was mocked, bullied, and questioned about his transness. I think this was because he is, first of all, significantly younger than me, and secondly, he is not an activist, nor does he work for an LGBTQ+ organization. So my experience, while being traumatic and scary, is far from the worst thing about this topic. I have an opportunity to make an exhibition and talk about transitioning to a large audience on TikTok, but it’s much harder for other people. I’m doing it partly to get people to start talking about it as there are not so many people who do that.”

“I am a nonbinary person. But for our medicine, nonbinary and queer people don’t exist at all. I’m going through FTM transition because it is the only option. I was scared that a psychiatrist would find me online, look at my pictures, find out how I identify myself. I had to wear the most masculine clothes I had. I stopped shaving my facial hair and using makeup, doing everything to be trusted at that period even though I don’t do that in real life. It was also scary when the nurse questioned me about the meaning of my tattoos and how I got the bruise on my arm (from a blood test I had taken from another nurse at the same hospital). It seemed like she might find some other disorder in me and slow down my transition.”

“I talked to a Norwegian psychotherapist who is a trans person herself, and she told me that they started implementing the ICD-11 principles a few years ago. There, too, trans people have to treat some severe disorders if they have them, but it’s not like in Ukraine, “heal the depression, and then we’ll let you do a gender transition”. In Norway, people can do it simultaneously so that at least they don’t get worse because of what society thinks about them. I was also attending training for trans activists in Stockholm, during which we visited a gender clinic. This is a special clinic that works exclusively with trans and nonbinary people. There I saw for the first time that people could make a non-binary transition, even though at the time there was no option to get papers with a third gender marker in Sweden. They have choices where you get fewer hormones, and this way, you are going through the level of transition you want. There are no standard schemes for everyone. Now I recall this clinic when I go to Pavlov Hospital, and I feel like it’s two different planets.”

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Edward Reese

On being nonbinary, TikTok and performance about abuse

Interview held on 05 February 2021, published on 18 June 2021

Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

My name is Edward, I am a nonbinary or queer person, and my pronouns are he/they. I do not fit myself into the “male” and “female” categories. Looking at me, you might think that I am a conventional woman, but I am not. I do not accept the typical signs of masculinity and femininity as taken; for me, these are all human characteristics. I also do not segregate other people into men and women, although respecting each person’s personal and political views.

I believe that the concept of non-binary gender and everything’s queerness is an essential tool in the struggle against patriarchy.

The dividing of the world into masculine and feminine is used mainly by cisgender, heterosexual white men to maintain the existing system. The very existence of nonbinary people undermines this system. I have not read any clever books on this topic, these are personal feelings and developments of intersectional feminism. I think that someday we will come to a beautiful post-gender society, where no one will care who has which genitals and chromosomes, except for doctors who specialize in this. In my opinion, this will be the next step after the victory of feminism, when equality between men and women will be achieved. We might even see it in our 60-80s.

I’m 35, I was born in the Soviet Union. My mom has a poster that I painted when I was 4 or 5 years old. It shows a rally and two girls. One of them holds a placard that reads: “End of Perestroika and Socialism.” The world has changed a lot during my life. For most of my life, I only had a landline telephone, and some did not. Everything is developing so quickly that I believe that the formation of such a society is possible. Globalization contributes significantly to this.

I often face criticism in the LGBTQ+ community. Cis people believe that since we have not achieved marriages for gay couples yet, it’s not time for trans people to defend their rights. However, I don’t understand why we need to follow the same development path as other countries when we can take their experience, consider all the mistakes, and achieve results faster? I have worked in a trans organization and can tell that even within the trans community, there is queerphobia. They still use the term “transsexuality” and divide trans people into “real” — those who made the transition, and “fake” — those who “invented all these genders.” I do not see any queer and non-binary community in Ukraine yet, except for individual people who communicate in social networks, for example, in TikTok.

In TikTok, I create educational content in Ukrainian about non-binary to form this community in Ukraine. My audience is young people, up to 25 years old, who are already growing in the paradigm that it is possible. Under some of my videos, they thank me for making them realize they’re nonbinary. People learn something new, and it helps them to understand their identity better. I also talk about LGBTQ+ organizations that exist in different cities. Young people have a great desire to volunteer and a desire to engage in activism. Still, since most of these organizations are represented only on Facebook, they do not know about their existence. In the future, I plan to make a meeting with subscribers in Kyiv and then perhaps go on a small tour around the country. I understand that teenagers and students do not always have the opportunity to travel somewhere.

“People learn something new, and it helps them to understand their identity better.”

Sometimes I get death threats on Tiktok. It is clear that the authors of these messages are unlikely ever to move away from their computers and mothers, but I complain about such comments and once contacted a human rights organization that provides activists with legal assistance. I do not feel 100% free in Ukraine, as there are various active right-wing and conservative organizations here. But the conservative movement is just a movement, some guys who may receive money for this, and some like to beat up people — kind of a sect of violence fans. Working at Kyivpride, I see that people’s attitude in general, the nation’s one, changes over time. Thanks to this, I feel freer and more comfortable.

In the fall of 2019, I went to the Postplaylab performance school, an alternative Kyiv theatre, the concept of which is close to Marina Abramovich’s works. Previously, I hadn’t come across a performance, and with a theatre in general, but at that moment, I was experiencing a break-up and thought where I could direct my emotions. What I saw there amazed me. It was a compelling process, an absolute catharsis, and therapy. At school, they taught us mainly to work with the body, and after two weeks of training, the participants had to present the final project. All performances were individual but took place simultaneously, on the street, in the city centre. Each of us ended up with a painful story from the past.

“It was a compelling process, an absolute catharsis, and therapy.”

I decided to work with my leading trauma — the trauma of partner violence. While leaving the abuser, I secretly went to a psychotherapist and discreetly was in a psychological support group on Facebook. In this group, I wrote posts about what is happening to me. I printed out these posts, read them out loud, and threw each sheet on the ground. After the performance, I still felt that something was missing; it seemed unfinished to me. In the fall of 2020, Facebook began to “remind” me of the time when I tried to leave my partner, and I decided to continue working. I started publishing texts from a closed diary. Many of those who have had a similar experience thanked me. Some people who address me are in a relationship with the abuser and do not know how to leave. The two women in the comments agreed to discuss the divorce process with the abuser and help each other on this matter. Thus, the performance has already begun.

“It’s hard to believe when you’re not there, and it’s impossible to consider when you’ve never been there.”

When it gets warmer, I plan to bring in colleagues from the theatre for help and do something like a performative mono play. The main question I hear as a domestic violence victim is, “Why didn’t you leave?”.  Lots of affected women get it. At the same time, no one asks the rapists why do they rape and beat people. With my performance, I want to show the state of a person suffering from abuse. I go to psychotherapy, and when I talk about physical and sexual abuse, I often smile at the same time. The psychotherapist asks: “What emotions do you experience?”. Then I wonder what emotions I was experiencing at that time, and I am overwhelmed with horror. It’s hard to believe when you’re not there, and it’s impossible to consider when you’ve never been there. With scenography, sounds, and text, I want to let the audience experience it themselves.

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A Short Guide

On gender-based violence in Ukraine

11 December 2020
Text: Bozhena Makovska
Photo: Michael Tulsky

According to the Ministry of Social Policy, every 5th woman in Ukraine has faced some type of violence, and 90% of all people who suffered from violence are women. Various public organizations do their own research, but there are no national statistics in Ukraine. For this reason, it is often not possible to collect information that would allow us to assess the effectiveness of the violence combat system.

According to UN Women Ukraine, the number of calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline has doubled over the entire quarantine period. However, only 40% of women who have experienced violence seek help. Only 10% of them go to the police. Victims of violence do not trust law enforcement agencies and do not believe that they can make a difference.

Frequently the policemen simply do not respond to domestic violence calls, and during the quarantine, there were cases when they refused to issue urgent restraining orders to the abusers using pandemic as an excuse. Mistrust in the Ukrainian police is explained not only by its low competence in the field of gender-based violence but also by the presence of systemic crimes against humanity committed by the security forces themselves.

The last case, which became known to the public, took place on the night of May 24, 2020, in the town of Kaharlyk, where two policemen – Serhiy Sulima and Mykola Kuziv – tortured a woman who had been summoned to the police station as a witness in the case of theft. They put a gas mask on her head, blocking access to oxygen, beat her, shot over her head with a service weapon, and raped her several times. Both police officers managed to avoid undergoing law enforcement recertification after the Revolution of Dignity. However, it is known that 93% of the dismissed police officers from the old system were reinstated by a court decision.

In contrast to another high-profile case – the rape of a woman by police in the village of Vradievka in 2013 with an attempt on her life, which led to the storming of the police station by villagers, a “march to Kyiv” almost 400 km long, mass protests throughout the country, and became one of the catalysts for the beginning of Euromaidan – the tortures in Kaharlyk did not make any changes to the system.

There are a number of obstacles to bringing rapists to justice. For example, domestic violence first comes under the Administrative Code, and in order to be qualified as a criminal offence, violence must be “systematic”. In 2019, the first conviction was passed in Kyiv under the article on domestic violence. The man was sentenced to 3 months in prison only after nine administrative procedures.

Certain categories of people are exempted from administrative responsibility (including domestic violence cases) and, accordingly, cannot be brought to criminal proceedings – these are law enforcement officers and military personnel. When a soldier commits domestic violence, the police pass on the protocol to his superiors, and they are the ones who decide what to do next. This rule especially exacerbates the situation of those living in the conflict-affected Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine. In their latest report, Amnesty International Ukraine says: “Women in these areas describe a lack or scarcity of available and accessible services, the aggravating effect of a military presence and ongoing hostilities, and harmful gender stereotypes.”

“Out of 27 cases recorded by Amnesty International, in 10 cases, the women did not report instances of violence. When women did call the police, in 3 cases, the police officer did not register a complaint, in 8 cases, women had to call repeatedly to get their complaints registered, and in 3 other cases, police officers persuaded women to withdraw their complaint after registering it.”  There are three shelters for victims of violence in the Donetsk region (with a population of about 4.1 million), and in the Luhansk region (2.1 million), there is only one shelter. There is a shortage of shelters throughout Ukraine, and since they are located in large cities or near these cities, women are often unable to reach them.

Ukraine was one of the authors of the Istanbul Convention – an international agreement dedicated to the fight against gender-based violence – and signed it back in 2011 but has not yet ratified it. In 2016, the deputies, apparently under the influence of the Rada of Churches and their conservative beliefs, did not vote for the document, arguing that it contained the concepts of “gender”, “gender identity”, and “sexual orientation”.

In May 2020, the petition to ratify the convention received the required 25,000 votes, but the bill was never submitted for consideration in the Rada. The convention would oblige the state to provide effective mechanisms to protect womxn from all forms of violence. Human rights defenders and feminists of different currents have united in demanding the government to ratify the Convention: the annual marches on March 8 are held under this slogan. One can say that the problem of violence against cis women in Ukraine is on the agenda: it is widely discussed both in the media and in government bodies.

At the same time, violence against LGBTQ+ people remains a deeply stigmatized topic due to institutional homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. Gender non-conforming people, non-heterosexual persons, LGBTQ+ and feminist activists are regularly bullied and discriminated against and are victims of attacks by members of far-right organizations. Violence perpetrated against LGBTQ+ is more often than not classified as “hate crimes” due to regulatory imperfections and police bias. Ignoring the true motives (aggravating circumstances) makes it impossible to impose more severe penalties. As a result, the rapists feel unpunished, and the real picture of the violation of the LGBTQ+ people rights and the violence committed against them is not available to the public.

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This is War

Solidarity action with Polish womxn in Kyiv: reflections of participants

16 November 2020
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Photographer: Michael Tulsky
Translator: Maryna Isaieva

On October 22, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortions for fetal abnormalities violate the country’s Constitution, effectively imposing a near-total ban as 1,074 of 1,100 abortions performed last year in Poland resulted from fetal abnormalities. Therefore the abortion will be legal only in case of a threat to a womxn’s life and health, rape or incest. However, pro-life activists have declared already that they will push for a complete ban on abortions, even in these cases. Thousands of people took to the streets of different cities to protest against the decision and the current government’s policy, the most restrictive abortion policy in Europe. The protests have taken place every day since then.

On October 26, activists of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, and Mariupol took part in actions of solidarity with Polish womxn. We have collected the reflections of Kyiv action participants in this article.

Anastasia, she/her

As soon as I read about the abortion ban in Poland, I texted my comrades in a chat: “We have to go to the action.” Although abortion has been banned in Poland since 1993, this time, it just got even more absurd. This is an ideological battle against women’s rights. That is why Polish women and gender-variant people should be provided with information and moral support, and that is what we can do. Online protesting in the pandemic present is also an option, but it rarely goes beyond the social media “bubble”. Ukrainian and international media wrote about our action in front of the embassy. Thanks to this, Polish activists noticed that we support them and that they are not alone in this struggle. When I learned that the right-wing radicals were planning to come there earlier and take place under the embassy, ​​I was very worried and angry. I already had an experience of appealing to the police to ensure the safety of activists at feminist events, so I talked to law enforcement officers all morning that day. We were offered to stand on the other side of the street, but I am glad that the action still took place. It expressed solidarity not only with Polish activists but also with womxn in Ukraine and everywhere. As the war for the female body is not over, rights are not given — they are taken.

Brie, she/her

This is not my first action related to abortion bans in Poland. In 2016, there was an action of solidarity with the “black protest” (Czarny protest) — one of the first experiences of feminist actions in Ukraine for me, not counting March 8. My motivation to participate now, as then, is that I am convinced that a woman* has the right to decide for herself what to do with her life and her body. No state apparatus should take away this right from her. All these deputies, at the behest of whom was initiated the review of the act as inappropriate, care about anything, but the health and general well-being of womxn.

I was feeling anxious while speaking into a megaphone in public. It was even more unsettling to see people who repeatedly attacked my friends. Nevertheless, as long as I stand with my comrades and speak, I am not afraid, and I will not be afraid. My theses from the speech can be briefly described as follows: I am FOR choice, FOR sexual education, FOR affordable contraception, FOR affordable and safe medicine, FOR effective social policy, FOR absence of stigmatization, and AGAINST any violence.

Our main goal was to support Polish womxn who found themselves in a situation of impossibility to control their own bodies. However, it was also important for me to speak there to remind: there are deputies, activists, religious organizations in Ukraine that are ready to ban abortions as well.

Marta, she/her

My sisters live in Poland, so when I found out what was going on, I felt terrified. I think that the protests will slow down these processes but will not affect the ban. Then I recalled how recently the Verkhovna Rada also had tried to push through an abortion ban bill. They failed, but I am as well not very optimistic on that matter: I think that at some time, this issue will be raised again. I was furious, felt a lot of aggression. I wanted to punish someone for these actions rather than go to some rally. Rationally, I realized that I needed to go out, but I didn’t have the strength. I’ve been looking for a job for some time already, this process has dragged a bit, and I don’t like it. I decided that I would at least help draw posters, thus support my sisters who are going to the protests in Krakow, and I will be useful for the protest in general. I drew two posters: “I will give birth to a leftist” in Polish and “Abortion is my business.” I saw the first slogan on my sister’s Instagram. I liked it because it’s a pretty desperate exclamation, like, do you want me to give birth? Then the people I give birth to will arrange a coup here.

Eventually, I came to the action, and it lifted my spirits that day. I was in a state of euphoria, after which, of course, there was exhaustion. It was the same on March 8, when I slept all day after the march. I accumulate all my strength and give it to protest, but I do not feel that I can make an impact or take it away from those who have it now. I just do it because I can’t do otherwise; I have no choice.

Yuliia, she/her

I have not taken part in any actions for a long time due to quarantine and some other conventions, including the fact that I always try to figure out what action I am going to, who is it supported by, what I stand for. So, usually, I want to delve into all the intricacies of the particular rally’s agenda. Although the situation with abortion bans in Poland seemed to me quite clear, it was so unacceptable that all the other details were not important. I wrote to my friend (Yasya) with an offer to meet to draw posters for the action, to express both solidarity and protest at the same time.

We bought two posters — red and black, firstly for aesthetic reasons, and secondly — for ideological (colours of anarchism). Going forward, I should say that I was later amused and struck by the fact that some representatives of the right-wing movement considered the message of our posters as “an insult to the red and black colour combination of Ukrainian nationalism”. Assigning such a common colour scheme to a particular movement is wildly amusing, in my opinion. Maybe Stendhal was also a Ukrainian nationalist?

We did not want to repeat the obvious populist slogans and came to the conclusion that in this situation, the principle “rights are not asked, they are taken” applies. What is the point of tiptoeing around people who deprive you of subjectivity, deprive you of basic human rights, and try to convince them on a logical, rational level? They are not worthy of it. It’s like proving to the attacker that you are also a person, and in general, violence is bad. In the process of coming up with different phrases, I said, “I don’t want to complicate things, I just want to express how I feel about it, and that fits in with the words ‘RED IS GO FUCK YOURSELF,’ and Yasya supported my idea, adding, ‘Ah.’ BLACK IS ALSO GO FUCK YOURSELF.”

Despite the obvious provocation, rudeness, and simplistic interpretation of our statement by some people, I am very pleased with what and how we said it. We have to stop begging for rights that should be already ours. It’s time to start talking to ignorant people in their language.

Yasya, she/her

Full text in Russian

At the action, there were many messages and posters in Polish, including chants that hardly anyone of those present understood. That’s good, and I see why it is so, but there is a nuance. In our own country, the Council of Churches is constantly trying to get into the womb. I went to the action not only to express my support for the striking womxn in Poland but also to show with my presence that I would defend the right to abortion in Ukraine. I went out for myself in the first place, if you will. Therefore, I would like more activists to be guided by their interests rather than principles of abstract philanthropy and empathy, which they often forget to apply to themselves.

I get quite upset when someone starts explaining to opponents of abortion the consequences of the prohibitionist abortion policy, cites statistics, appeals for sympathy. We talk to them as if we need some weighty arguments, just to live as we consider to be right, just to control our bodies. It is prohibitively impudent. I’m not going to make excuses for my body´s autonomy or arguing politely that the abortion ban will not reduce the number of abortions. I do not live to increase demography or generally to increase the efficiency of anything. I refuse to recognize myself as an instrument in the hands of a state, a deity, or a man. I refuse to waste my time convincing those who think otherwise. My rights are not arguable.

Doky, she/they

I wasn’t even questioning myself: “Is it worth going to the action of solidarity with the womxn of Poland?” It was something obvious. Solidarity with other marginalized groups is one of the fundamental ingredients of activism for me. This is not about “we have to speak out when they are the ones who the government comes for, because we can be the next.” I think we should solidarize because the freedom of each and every one is inviolable, and not because we are afraid for the future of our freedom.

Choosing a text for a poster is always a pretty difficult decision for me. Every time I think of what to write, I worry that the slogan will turn out to be too harsh, defiant, or (oh, God!) offensive. So, every time I need to remind myself that my protest should not be “convenient”, that the revolution does not work that way. The invented slogan (When the government decides to ban safe abortions, women may decide to abort the government) initially seemed to me more like a cool wordplay than a real political statement. However, after the action, my friend noted that the poster had been photographed a lot, because “it sounded like a direct threat.”

Next, after the activists speak out on the neighbouring state’s issue, there will be those who would like to assault them. Although after reaching this level of absurdity, I can no longer take our “opponents” seriously. Well, really, how can you consider the guys who went out, obviously, to play crusaders and shout “Deus vult” to be genuine activists?

Liza, she/her

After hearing the news from Poland, I was complaining to my friend for an hour: “How can this happen in the 21st century?” As a sociologist, I can give some theoretical explanations, but I am very outraged when it comes to feelings. At the times of Neuralink and the developing social theories, women* (by the general term “women”, I mean the diversity of identities and experiences) are still treated as objects, not people. For me, the issue of abortion is about power and control. In trying to control women’s bodies, the state not only reproduces and produces unequal treatment of women but also violates their rights. I feel a sense of solidarity with Polish women. We have different historical and cultural experiences, but structural gender inequalities are definitely what unites us.

When I was getting ready for the action, I noticed that I worried a lot: what to wear, who to go with, and how to protect myself. During the action itself, I felt joy: it was crucial for me to be there among people who share my values. Although apart from that, I was angry because the police guarded us (activists), and the guys on the other side were absolutely calm. Later, I wrote a post on Instagram about my impressions and received something like threats from them. It is normal to have different views and discuss them, but it is absolutely unacceptable when one group endangers the others. It is also about the unequal distribution of power and authority. This situation depicts how dangerous it is to be a woman. You have to constantly think about your own safety — on the way home or to peaceful action.

Nata, she/her

I think what happened at the action on Monday is a symptom of the situation in general and, at the same time, a miniature of it. Under the pretext of protecting children or womxn (from themselves), the conservative part of society does everything not to give us informational, cultural, physical space. Therefore, we do not hold the action where we want, which is in front of the embassy, ​​but anywhere we can — across the road, in a close circle of police and the National Guard. First, we are pushed to the wayside, then accused of marginality and finally persecuted. As a result, now we go to the subway accompanied by dozens of National Guards, we go there, even though we don’t need to because each of us knows what is the exchange rate of traditional values to the chances to be beaten in some gateway.

Although the dialogue is impossible and appealing to any arguments doesn’t have sense, the fact of helding an action counter to the “guys on the other side of the street” automatically makes us engage in dialogue. Our answer is a radical one (for what it’s worth a short video where one side of the street is screaming “abortion is a murder”, and the other — “abortion is a right”). We claim our right to public space, our bodies, our own subjectivity — all these things go hand in hand, and I see in it first of all a space for solidarity. When the state, the church, that guy in the old-fashioned coat are interested in my body, all I’m left to do is unite with others — in neighbour’s chats, womxn’s self-defence grassroots initiatives, on anonymous forums and non-anonymous social networks. And this will always be international solidarity, now with comrades in Poland.

Kateryna, she/her

Apparently, visibility is the key word to explain why it is important for me to participate in feminist projects and actions. The visibility of the problems faced by womxn and the visibility of the different positions and approaches that can solve them. Grassroots actions give me a sense of notional community, perhaps short-term and heterogeneous in many aspects, but united by a common goal and values. This event was probably the most disturbing of all those that I attended. There is a distinct impression that we came out not only to show solidarity with the Poles but also to remind the Ukrainian authorities of our right to control our bodies. The slogan of women’s protests in Poland, “To jest Wojna” (This is War), evokes very strong emotions in me. It reminds us that women, non-binary and trans people will defend the freedom to choose, not to sacrifice physical and mental health for the sake of someone’s ideas of morality.

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Christina Rupp and Kate Sapsai on their comics about abuse

Description from the comic’s authors: DO NOT BE SILENT is a comic aimed to highlight topics that society has been silent about for a very long time. In the beginning, it was conceived as a project solely about domestic violence, but later the authors realized that it was not enough. Now the comic is composed of pictures representing specific examples of problems and articles that describe these problems. The comic’s slogan is “On what is important. On what hurts. What is not worth keeping quiet about ”.

18 September 2020
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Photographer: Michael Tulsky
Translator: Maryna Isaieva

Presenting themselves:

Christina: We are both lawyers and studied in the same group, that’s how we met. I am currently working in a field related to my academic degree.

Kate: I work as an interpreter for the Canadian police. We conduct courses for Ukrainian police. One of them is on combating domestic violence. That’s how I started exploring this topic. In the course, we discussed risk factors, recognising violence, and how the police should respond to it. I realized that the relationship I was in at that time was like from a textbook: there was no physical violence; however, there was a lot of psychological violence. I managed to get out of this relationship thanks to the information that had become available to me.

Christina: I had the same situation. When you are in an abusive relationship, you usually do not assess the situation from the perspective that your partner is guilty of it. You blame yourself, you think that something is wrong with you, and that’s why everything is so devastating. When we started communicating with Katya, she helped me to realise what was going on…

Kate: Now I perceive it with ease. Sometimes I even start to think that there wasn’t any violence, but then I re-read my old messages and recall my mental state at that time. It was awful. You could say that we were luckier than many other women. We were not married or financially dependent on partners, and we have no children. When we both managed to get out of the abusive relationship, we decided that it’s time to do something to help others.

On the project:

Kate: Comics is an educational project. It aims to raise awareness of domestic and other types of violence. During the last two weeks, we’ve been writing on general topics to set the stage. Further, we plan to talk about domestic violence with specific examples. For many victims, understanding and becoming aware of the situation is the first step towards salvation. I hope that our project is not only going to help some individuals but also to ensure zero tolerance in society to such issues.

Christina: Violence has many manifestations. It is an endless stream of information to be analyzed. Our project is focused primarily on people from Ukraine. The violence issue is relevant everywhere, but in the EU countries, the USA, Canada, the awareness level is much higher. There are certain violence response frameworks for law enforcement agencies and social services for victims. We don’t have any working scheme in Ukraine. There are public organizations, volunteer associations, but there is no state support. Now we are posting not only about domestic violence, as it can’t be separated from other problems and the reality in which we live, like gender inequality, for example.

On feminism:

Kate: As for me, feminism is about equality. All people should have equal rights and opportunities in society. We stand up for women’s rights, but we understand that men also have problems. In the comic, we have already highlighted the gender stereotypes issue relevant to everyone.

Christina: Calling yourself a feminist is already rather a dangerous thing. Although even within the feminist community, you can always fall into the category of “wrong feminists,” which contradicts the main idea. For me, feminism is about women feeling comfortable and living as they consider to be comfortable, doing what they like to do. Sometimes we get negative feedback from those who have a different perception of these things. Our project shows that patriarchy harms everyone.

On the future:

Kate: Perhaps our project will expand in the future, and we will begin to direct our efforts directly to helping the victims, to do some hands-on things. We realize that we are not psychologists. We can advise what to do as lawyers, but before going to the police, the victim needs some psychological preparation. Women often file a police report, and the next day they withdraw it because they are psychologically dependent on the rapist. I would like to establish partnerships with other resources and specialized organizations.

Christina: We would like to act as mediators between those who need help and organizations that can provide it. So far, we have not received requests for assistance from victims. We are only three weeks old, and it seems to me that there is still not a sufficient level of trust in us. We are thinking about creating a form for communication — some place where people can share their stories anonymously, speak out, and know that they are not alone in this world.

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Today we join the #16days international UN Women campaign and introduce #16feminists — survivors and allies — who will share their experience to overcome the stigma around gender-based violence.

25 November – 10 December 2019
Producer: Bozhena Makovska
Photographer: Michael Tulsky
Translator: Maryna Isaieva

Bozhena Makovska, founder of Feminists of Kyiv

“Two things helped me to cope with the experienced violence — feminism and time. Thanks to feminism, I learned about the consent culture. I realised that my body belongs to me, and I should not allow other people to treat me like they want to please them or stay in a relationship. I understood that I should not endure pain. The stories of women from different parts of the world united by the struggle for their life, and its better version, supported me very much. As for time, I began to forget. It’s great to lose in memory the details of what used to paralyze. I am glad to be part of a huge community and help other women in this project. I’ve never felt as strong as I am now.”

Maria Proshkowska, artist

“When I was 9-12 years old, my father used to tell me in detail what could happen if I put on a short skirt or walked alone on the street late in the evening wearing makeup. He worked in law enforcement and was quite a tough person. The whole of my life, I lived being sure that if someone attacks me or rapes me, I will be guilty, like the one who provoked it. Only a few years ago, I learned about an alternative point of view. Nevertheless, I keep observing discussions where people blame the victim of violence and take one or another position on that matter. Now it’s obvious to me that there is only one correct position regarding violence — the rapist is to blame. A lot of my close friends suffer from this, and I can do nothing but support them morally and recommend to ask for help. Unfortunately, we are used to keeping all the problems in the family, and the police do not adequately regulate the problem of violence against women.”

Ulyana Nesheva, artist

“Often, we refuse to listen to our intuition, use the common sense that protects us from danger. It is important to get away from tyranny, humiliation and violence in time. As well as find the strength to respect yourself and value your personality as the most sacred thing. Domestic violence is neither the norm nor the ‘fate’. It is a life-threatening environment from which one has to look for a way out.”

Dinara Kasymbekova, civic activist

“Three years ago I shared a story on Facebook about how I was subjected to harassment and sexual abuse by a cousin. After that, other girls from Kazakhstan followed my example and told how they had been raped by family members. In Kazakhstan, as in Russia, there is no domestic violence law. Those who managed to bring the case to court are heroines for me because apart from the violence itself, they experienced psychological pressure from the police, who tried to “reconcile” them with the rapist, as well as from the relatives of the rapist. There is no responsibility for the “stealing the bride” tradition. Young guys feel so confident now so they can kidnap any girl they like on the street and, at home, together with their parents, persuade her to marry. If they manage to keep the girl at home all night, in the morning the girl’s parents may not let her back at home. This is one of the main causes of suicide among young girls in Kazakhstan.”

Nata Lunio, feminist and eco activist

“For me, one of the most relevant issues now is the language and the way it reflects things that lead to violence. People do things that legitimize violence without thinking: they pave the way for it, make stigmatizing jokes using the discriminatory vocabulary. From time to time, I witness such jokes at work and try to draw the attention of the speaker to their fault, to explain that there is a so-called “pyramid of violence”: it all starts with a joke, then it goes into a stereotype, and eventually physical violence may happen. The problem with gender-based violence is that it takes invisible forms and is born invisible.”

Iryna Slavinska, journalist, gender coordinator of the campaign against sexism “Povaha”

“I first wrote about gender issue in 2012, and then it was unpopular and almost freakish position. In 2015 I joined “Povaha”: we had meetings with representatives of different editions, and there was no need anymore to explain what we were talking about. Nowadays, even more editions feel their commitment to gender equality topics. They wonder how many women are involved in their programs and articles, what vocabulary is chosen to speak about them. The topic of domestic violence is present more systematically in the media due to the #IAmNotAfraidToSay flashmob and #MeToo. Also, it is important to mention that two years ago, people’s deputies did not vote in favour of the Istanbul Convention ratification. This way, the topic has gone beyond the private domain. It turned out that we can talk about it not only in social but also in other dimensions: political and economical.”

Katya Taylor, founder and CEO at Port Agency

“In my life, I have experienced both psychological and physical violence. Now, as an adult, I can fight back, so it’s easy for me to talk about it. It is impossible to threaten or intimidate me. However, even with my character I fell into this trap and was there for a very long time. Also, there are women who cannot stand up for themselves. Their uptightness is caused by the way they were brought up and the structure of our society. Lately, people talk more about the fact that the victim of violence is not to blame, no matter what she was dressed in or how she behaved. Although we still blame ourselves. I would like women who did not find the strength to protect themselves to not despair, and know that there are a lot of other women and men ready to support them. If something happened, it’s important not to be silent. I see no other solution to this problem but to talk out loud about violence as much as possible.”

Olga Diachuk, HeForShe Ukraine coordinator

“HeForShe is a solidarity movement, and our main tool is communication. By means of online and offline projects for everybody and not only for people in the know, we want to increase the number of supporters of gender equality. We have often heard that this problem exists, but it is somewhere far away. This is a misleading idea because, at first, violence is difficult to recognize, and second, it often goes unreported. Not only the consequences but also the causes of violence must be addressed. Theses about “buying pepper spray for all the girls” or “send them all on self-defence classes” are very popular in our discussions, frequently expressed by men who thus take care of their wives, sisters, daughters and girlfriends. It is extremely important for us to explain to them the need to change men’s behaviour and the way boys are brought up.”

Darya Svetlova, art director

“I was raised by a single mother, and together with her, I had to be stronger. That’s why I guess I developed a deep resentment towards traditional gender roles. The difficulties that I had to cope with as a child encouraged me a lot in my life — I managed to get out of an abusive relationship with a guy I was in for a year. Just at some point, I analyzed my current life and never wanted to come back to this. But I was lucky, I supported myself. If a woman is financially dependent, she has nowhere to go. Then, obviously, it is very difficult. It is important to remember that you are you, and you are a person.”

Photo: Roksolana Potsyurko

Hrystyna Kit, head of Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association “JurFem”

“We have to work as efficiently as possible to prevent violence against women and to take measures to protect victims. That’s what legal mechanisms are for. Istanbul convention still hasn’t been ratified, but the standards of the Convention were partially introduced into new Ukrainian legislation. We just have to start working on and applying them. Our organisation develops methodological recommendations on identifying gender discrimination as well as the algorithm of legal assistance to women. On the basis of “Legal Feminism: Activism, Lawyering, and Legal Theory” work on feminist jurisprudence, we’ll be implementing the “Gender equality and women’s rights” course in law schools. It’s important for us that the legal community provides gender-sensitive legal services and understands which challenges and issues men and women have to face in access to justice.”

Darina Dmitriievskaya, M.D., lecturer

“Two years ago I attended the training of NGO Insight for doctors and started to work with transgender people. Thanks to the reform, patients in Ukraine can now choose any doctor they want: word of mouth has worked, and now among my patients, there are about 100 trans people from all over the country. The medical community is still very conservative and paternalistic. So, I joined the team of trainers who instruct doctors from other regions and cities. When I myself experienced psychological violence, LGBTQ community supported me a lot. Other people’s stories and articles on gaslighting were also very helpful. I realize that I have a whole set of social privileges that make people listen to me: I am a white cis woman, a mother, and a doctor. I try to use my privileges in the right way.”

Edward Reese, non-binary, queer activist, blogger, performer at PostPlay Theater

“I was in a toxic relationship for 12 and a half years. This was a relationship between two transgender people, and I had suffered from all possible kinds of violence: physical, sexual, psychological and financial. Even though most rapists are men, it can also be done by women, non-binary and trans people. My partner regularly acted out different roles; one of his favourites was Joker. That’s why romanticizing abusers in pop-culture is a serious issue we should fight with. Mysterious manipulators who force you to obey them are neither romantic nor beautiful. I wish young boys and girls wouldn’t fall for it. Psychotherapy, videos about abuse, and support groups on Facebook helped me realise what was going on. I managed to run off to another city, and now this story is left in the past. However, I think we should talk about violence as much as we can, and for me personally, it’s important to mention that it happens in LGBT couples too.”

Olena Shevchenko, head of Insight LGBTQ NGO

“It is considered that if you are a lesbian, something is wrong with you and you just ‘haven’t met the right guy’. You can often hear stories from African countries about parents who hire men to rape their daughters in hopes of turning them ‘straight’. In Ukraine the situation is somewhat different, young women mostly from religious families are pressured into marriage with a man. I know the situations when parents set up their gay daughters with men counting on physical contact between them which will cause pregnancy and therefore lead to marriage. Lots of girls may not describe it as an act of violence. Our organisation provides all possible assistance to women survivors of violence and primarily a psychological one.”

Dzvenyslava Shcherba, volunteer, Amnesty International Ukraine activist

“I come from the western part of Ukraine, and my family is highly conservative: they have imposed their religious beliefs on me since childhood. I watched how they were fighting, and my dad threatened my mom to leave her. I tried to protect her, but obviously, I couldn’t do that as I was a kid. When the war started, my classmates and I were volunteering in a military hospital, and one of the officers harassed me. I didn’t know what to do, attempted to take off his hand, which he almost had put in my underwear. It was horrible. Everybody, including other officers and hospital workers, saw that but did nothing. When I told my parents about it, they blamed me. As I became a feminist and LGBT activist, I was accused of going against traditions and family. Nevertheless, I keep attending and organising actions because it is very important for me.”

Tetyana Kuzmenko, activist, Cannabis Freedom March speaker

“Dad’s friend was molesting me. I was around 6 or 8 years old and it was going on for a while. When my daughter got to that age, I decided to tell everything to my mum. The thing I heard from her just killed me. She said that everybody had difficulties in their lives. The women of her age are used to feel and hide their pain, find violence acceptable. I educate my daughter in a manner that the next generation will have the ability to empathize. I ask her what she wants and can I hug or kiss her; prohibit other people to tell her what to do and break her personal boundaries. I myself often experience violence and the only thing that saves me is my inner strength. I love life, so I have to fight for it and for a smile on my face.”

Marta Huda, volunteer and activist

“People who don’t perceive violation as a crime normalize it. Like when they’re saying: ‘I don’t do anything wrong’, ‘I didn’t mean that’ or ‘it’s all your imagination’. When you clearly say what you want, and someone disregards it, invades your privacy — that is violence. At moments like these, it’s so great to find support in somebody. Back in the day, I didn’t realise what harassment is and was afraid to talk about it. I was scared that someone would blame me and ask something like, “Why have you drank?.” Now there are people who are ready to listen to me. I talk through my traumatic experiences with them, write and talk about it publicly, so that way, I can ease the suffering.”

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Marina Herz

On Pride, queer, and freedom to be yourself

15 November 2019
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

Queer for me is a rejection of the need to define myself, my sexuality, and names. The theory of sexuality does not stand up to criticism regarding the non-binary nature of sex, it does not include intersex people. For example, I was married to a man, had a relationship with a lesbian, with a trans woman, and a trans man, non-binary and agender people. Who am I? What is my orientation?

I became an LGBTQ activist in 2011 when I fell in love with a girl. At that time, I was married to a man, and I saw that my relationship with my husband and my relationship with a girl were perceived differently by society. I googled if there were LGBT people in Russia, and found an organization in my city. At first, I was a volunteer, then an activist, and later — the coordinator of the community centre. At some point, my feminist position was formed, and I created the Gerbera initiative. We were the first to organize a rally on March 8 in Tyumen, conduct seminars on violence and women’s rights, and also participated in the “Eve’s Ribs” festival for several years in a row. After I moved to Kyiv, other Gerbera participants continued to work, the initiative still exists.

Even before the law on “LGBT propaganda” was adopted in Russia, I was a living book at the festival, and some man filed a petition against me to the prosecutor’s office. I had to visit it and give evidence, even though there was not even a relevant law. For feminist activism and street actions, a file was brought against me at the Center for Combating Extremism. It was difficult to continue working in Russia. Then I was offered a place in Gay Alliance Ukraine, everything worked out successfully, and I moved. In Kyiv I felt more freedom. It’s here where my activism began to flow. However, people did not know who I was, and I needed to collect social capital again.

In 2016, I first went to Pride and felt the opportunity to be myself  — in Russia, this is basically impossible. For LGBTQ people in Tyumen, there are only two places where you can go: a club where parties are held and a community centre for events and psychological support groups. Some people go to both places, some separate. People who come to the club hide all week who they are, and only there they can relax, dance under the influence of alcohol, love each other, and be free for several hours. I was very sad to look at them and be aware of this.

Marina Herz

“It has always been difficult for me to define myself, especially as a teenager.”

I reflect a lot on masculinity and femininity. My friends pay attention that I often choose masculine patterns of behaviour, and I agree  — this is how I feel more confident. It has always been difficult for me to define myself, especially as a teenager. I remember the first grade of school when I sat at a concert in the front row, legs wide apart. It fell into the photographs, all high school students laughed at me, and my mother scolded me. To the phrase “You are a girl!” I always answered: “I am not a girl. I am Marina. Leave me alone.”

When I started to engage in LGBT+ activism, I learned about the term “agender.” For a while, I called myself an agender and non-binary person. At that time, I had severe dysphoria. I took hormonal drugs as I wanted to make the transition and undergo a mastectomy. Although the pills greatly worsened my health, and I abandoned this idea. In 2015, I learned about queer theory: I read books and went to seminars with a partner, a transgender man who suffered from his own transphobia. We began to understand the theory together. It helped him to accept himself and greatly changed my worldview. Even though now I am positioning myself as a queer person, it is important for me to voice that I am a political lesbian. I speak of myself in the feminine gender, advocate for the rights of lesbians, and the rights of women, when necessary.

I was not happy with the representation of queer and trans people at Kyiv Pride, and in 2017 I decided to go to the organizing committee to change the situation from the inside. Later, I started working at Kyiv Pride projects, first as a trainer, then as a program coordinator. This year I was responsible for the conceptual content of the Pride program. Six people stably lead the projects, but there is another vital part of the team: the volunteers, without whom there would be no Pride. During Pride Week (a series of educational events), they help us undergo first aid training and monitor safety on the march.

Now we are trying to strengthen our institutional capacity, organize a system of work. The organisation’s main goal that we elaborated on strategic planning is to increase the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community in Ukraine. Kyiv Pride is one of the first public and largest LGBTQ+ events in the country. Therefore, one of our activity directions is the development of regional initiatives, in the framework of which we allocate grants and support activists, teach them how to write applications, conduct a dialogue with the police, and how to mobilize the community.

“To organize a Pride march is insanely hard. We encounter great resistance from the state and even in the LGBTQ+ community itself.”

We have to balance all the time. For example, the community criticizes us for censoring posters, while restrictions were put by the police as a prerequisite for the march. Between us, we call July “the month of the corpse” because, at that time, we are on the verge of our physical abilities and emotional resources. I myself came to Kyiv Pride because of criticism, but now I began to treat it differently: it is easy to criticize from the outside, not knowing what difficulties we are facing and what resources we have (or do not have at all).

This year, we made a paid entrance to the party for the first time because we could not pay for its organization. Donors do not support such events, but we think that parties are important for the community. It’s about freedom and self-expression. A stream of criticism fell upon us. People demanded financial reports, wrote angry posts on social networks. It was hard for me to cope with this, but I try not to lose contact with myself, my feelings, and my needs. I always ask: “How would you do it differently?”

“Queer theory is important, but this concept is not yet available to people.”

LGBTQ organizations have both sexism and misogyny. It can be challenging to agree because everyone has different agendas and a vision of work. There is no single community, even in Ukraine, and common values within it. At least I don’t believe that. Working with donors is also not easy. There are criteria, indicators, and they must be met. Sometimes I have to be more flexible than I would like, but without their support, we would not be able to cope. We live in a capitalist society where you have to pay for everything, and activists also need to eat something.

In media campaigns, the “born this way” rhetoric predominates because it’s easier to explain with it. I do not know if this is bad — I’m at a crossroads so far. When I myself became an activist and did not understand the queer theory, it was also easier for me to accept this position, and for a while, I supported it. People need stereotypes, this is how our brain works. Now Pride has become popular because it has become clear.

This year I taught the Ukrainian police, and we examined a real case — an attack on a lesbian. The attackers decided that she was a guy, began to scold her and beat her, and the police refused to accept the statement. At the training, many said: “So let her sit at home!” and “Let her find a man!” I had to explain such things that men and women are equal, that LGBTQ people exist. Queer theory is important, but this concept is not yet available to people. I don’t know what to do with it. What message can be formulated so that it does not contradict our beliefs but is understandable to people? So far, I am in search of an answer, how to be understood, and at the same time not to lose myself.

The representation of queer and trans people is still insufficient, but the situation is changing. This year, for the first time, a full-fledged trans day was held on Pride Week, the opening of the exhibition, and events dedicated to the problems of trans people. Now we are thinking about projects that can increase the visibility of LGBTQ+ people who experience cross-discrimination. For the LGBTQ military, this is, for example, the safety of a coming out. LGBTQ people with disabilities face ableism and xenophobia both within the community and society as a whole. We also had a positive experience of holding an event about Roma LGBT. I believe that visibility is one of the tools to overcome homophobia and transphobia, and it really matters to me.

“I do not want to hide who I am to reduce my expression. I want to be myself — in the urban, information space — just to be.”

Earlier, activism seemed to be an endless swamp in which I flounder but see no results. Now everything is different. I began to see changes over the past year: attitudes toward the Pride have changed, interest has grown, more and more support is coming from people and other institutions. Pride’s positioning has also changed. Our last year’s slogan, “The Land of the Free— Be Yourself”, is very close to me personally. I do not want to hide who I am to reduce my expression. I want to be myself — in the urban, information space — just to be. I plan to spend the next two years in Ukraine and continue to work at the Pride, and after two years, I do not think. I have chronic depression. Now I am undergoing treatment and taking care of myself. Not responding to work messages after eight in the evening can be difficult due to the irregular schedule, but I try to balance it. I like to walk, read books, play ukulele, and sing in my free time. Such banal advice as a full sleep and walks in nature, for me, really works.

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Olesia Onykiienko (NFNR)

On women’s electronic music scene and exploration of the sound

30 October 2019
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

For someone I’m not radical enough to be a feminist, others consider me to be a feminist as I’m promoting women’s interests. I’m not a civic activist; my key area is music. I’m not sure I do enough to call myself like that.

I wish for a long time to create some female musical initiative, so Sasha Dolgiy invited me to lead the project Womens Sound in the Institute of Sound. This is a cultural and educational public organization created to support musicians. Institute has an interest in developing modern electronic music, opening new schools where beginners could study and practice for free.

Together with Sasha, Karina Lazaruk and other musicians, we arrange performances in different Ukraine cities, organize parties and give lectures. Sometimes we are looking for local female performers and invite them to play with us. The duration of sets varies the same as the experience of participants. If the concert is at night, we make the free donation entry fee, but mostly it’s free. One of the main goals of such events is to find each other and form a community. Women musicians in Ukraine are quite isolated, and some are afraid to begin. For example, after the lecture in Severodonetsk, few girls came to us. They told us they would like to play electronic music and develop in this area. They hadn’t seen any sense in it before, as the music scene is male-dominated. As a result, we are not only exchanging information but also providing psychological support. It’s an important part of my guidance.

Womens Sound is the exploration for ourselves and work in progress.

Some people demand from us to take a clearer position, be more radical although I don’t think we should. For me, Womens Sound is the exploration for ourselves and work in progress including the search of the language and definition of the problems which cause a small presence of women in line-ups. At the moment we are quite idealistic and open-minded, our goal is to increase the presence of women, not to separate them from men. Surely there is an issue of providing a safe space, we are ready to work with guys but we are striving to avoid psychological violence and dominance from their side. Others say: “By calling yourselves Womens Sound you humiliate and disvalue female musicians”, however Womens Sound is the sound created by women. Even if we call it female music, I don’t see any humiliation. Why everything female is perceived as less valuable?

I was born in Kyiv but went to Lviv to become a conductor. After the Orange Revolution, I had so much energy, and I hoped to immerse myself there in the culture environment. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t find associates, and there were no places to perform with sets in Lviv. I realised I didn’t want to stay there and wanted to come back home. Being in Kyiv, I decided to enter the National University of culture and arts, but at the last moment, the exam was relocated to another building for unknown reasons. A few other applicants and I got late while searching for the right building. Finally, the examiner let in only three boys who came with all the girls, and we were left outside.

Music education in Ukraine is quite conservative. In Lviv, we were taught to write by ear and afterwards were corrected. No one teaches avant-garde music of the XXth century, and nobody understands it at all; everything ends with Rakhmaninov and Debussy. However, students have a great request for that: together with the Institute of sound, we gave lectures in the pedagogical school and gathered a full hall. Despite all the difficulties, I continued playing music mostly because of my idealism, stubbornness, and naivety. Also, I felt that in music, I can express and understand much more than people in my surroundings. This feeling held me tight.

It was interesting  to process and create our own imaginative worlds.

I composed before the University, but my first job as a composer I got in the theatre when someone recommended me. After that, the theatre director moved to another one where there was no recording studio, so I’ve learnt how to record it by myself. I was very encouraged by the possibility to process and explore the sound myself; many opportunities opened up, I felt very relieved. As a child, I did not have access to music. I do not come from an intellectual family. Then there was no Internet for a long time, and I listened to avant-garde records on disks. I have an academic background, so I was not acknowledged with electronic music until I started recording it.

I started performing in 2014 in Ether. It was there where I found a community that I had lacked in Lviv. My friends and I started doing experimental hearings at the Mala Gallery. We recorded the sounds of different areas of the city, Podil, the Botanical Garden, I recorded the noise of trams, and Maxim Werner  — the current in the wires. It was interesting to process and create our own imaginative worlds. The events were in great demand. Later, in the Plivka art space, we continued the experiment: we recorded different water states, the noise of polyethylene, glass, and tearing of fabrics. Our goal was to attract “non-musicians” to experiment, record sounds, perform as they can. I’d like to return to this practice. I am interested in exploring society’s involvement in musical activity, interacting with sound, listening, overcoming the concept of “music for professional musicians.” My relatives told me: “You are not Chopin,” and I would like more people to stop so dictatorially restricting others and themselves.

Working with artists, especially regarding social issues, helps me better understand my cultural process role.

I played with different musicians. Not everyone comes out to feel each other, let their inner artists open up, and play another way. With Ira Novikova (insomnia taxxi) we get something completely different from the fact that we play separately. This is probably best described as avant-garde techno. With Ira, we also play with the Swedes Skallahavet and Birds ov Paradise.

In 2018, together with Katya Berlova, we participated in the residency of the 86 film festival in Slavutich. It was a project-intervention in the urban environment: we went down to the sewer and arranged a rave underground. Most of the time, we spent negotiating with public utilities to get permission. We did not announce the performance itself, and festival visitors simply followed the hatches’ sound and light. Similar invasion of city space Katya and I and our project Deus ex machina carried out in Dnipro: we explored the subway, which few people use. We decided to place the rave at the factory passage. I played industrial techno at 7 in the morning, and at the same time, we filmed young people on the subway who were coming back home. The works were presented in the Art Svit gallery in Dnipro.

The last collaboration, the one very memorable for me, took place last year at a residence near Berlin. We worked with a step dancer: she danced on different surfaces, for example, a cornfield with leftover cut stalks. I was looking for locations and recorded sound. In addition, we presented a video project and made a joint presentation. Working with artists, especially regarding social issues, helps me better understand my cultural process role. Musicians are an outlet for society, a portal to an interesting world. Like science fiction writers, we form an alternative reality and a different worldview: non-conformal and very freedom-loving. This skill should be trained with every performance, in every composition, in any creative act.

I see absolutely groundless doubts among original, powerful musicians, insecurity, torment, intense tension caused by psychological barriers and lack of a familiar environment. Probably, my experience of an absolute lack of support from relatives, and almost all my friends, when it was essential, the state of despair because of this, helps me to understand these girls better. I also face difficulties in the professional field as a theatre composer and musician. For example, it is especially tough with sound engineers: often, I need to take a stand, prove professionalism, or simply seek technical personnel to fulfil my decisions if they are men. I feel sick of an indulgent attitude everywhere, especially in state institutions and among doctors. For me, this is a self-identification problem that I want to work on. Back in the day, the comparison of my creative achievements with men’s ones was flattering me. Sadly, it pleased me then.

I feel sick of an indulgent attitude everywhere.

My piano teacher at the school did a great job on my self-confidence, self-presentation and complexes. I also was teaching music to children for a long time, and I know that you need to be a psychologist too. Practical things, such as technical assistance in the first performance, really help, but, in general, attention to your creativity is significant: response, request for performances, recordings, even social media coverage. I also often believe that female musicians do not trust their inner intuition or cannot find something of their own. They copy what other musicians do and can create a high-quality product but completely deprived of personality. I would advise those who are just starting to work with sound to focus on their experience and state, personal aesthetics, try to look for their language. Technical skills can always be developed.

Self-organization is almost the only opportunity to speak actively.

Even in big cities, musicians have to do it themselves: organize performances, parties, and their own communities. We work on this problem at the Sound Institute and Womens Sound. We seek funding to develop musical communities in the regions, educational events, and communications with electronic festivals in other cities. We publish Womens Sound live on Mixcloud. People can also send us tracks — you can find contacts on our Facebook. Shortly, we plan to launch a podcast and talk about female artists, invite them to the studio and discuss the challenges women face in the music sphere. At the end of October, we will present the project in Berlin, in Das Kapital. Together with Nastya Noisynth, we will perform in Prague with the Synth Library Prague – ZVUK community on November 27th. To some joint events we are invited, like in Berlin, we are still investing our money to visit friends there. There are many proposals, but now we need support from cultural institutions; the amount of work is gigantic. We want to continue working with Konstmusiksystrar and with other women’s communities. If we can get funding, we will make a festival — an educational forum with electronic music workshops, collaborations, and a residence.

When we first started doing the project, I did not think of how my life would change. Over the past year, I have made a lot of acquaintances. I’ve got more opportunities to perform, to do interesting events. And the existence of a stable active community only strengthens this, as does the demand for electronics, avant-garde music, experiments with sound. All of that makes me very encouraged as an artist.

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Valeriya Zubatenko

On gender studies, radical attacks, and relationship with her body

Trigger Warning: the article mentions violation, self-harm and eating disorders.

31 August 2019
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

The fact of gender inequality in society I started to notice as a child, but I did not know what to call it. At school, in physical education classes, boys always went to play football, and girls were sent to “stretch out.” Once I joined the game and accidentally hit a guy in the stomach with a ball, he burst into tears and insulted me. Since then, I have been embarrassed to join them again. I was afraid of doing something wrong, spoiling everything, failing the team, so everyone would think it happened because I’m a girl and not because I’m a human being who can make mistakes.

I grew up in Zaporizhzhia, and for a long time, I had no friends, or at least I thought so. I spent a lot of time at home and entertained myself. For example, I opened a home hairdresser: made hairstyles for myself, dressed up in mother’s clothes, jumped from the closet with an umbrella because I wanted to fly. I was unhappy with my body, and people in my environment exacerbated this feeling. One of these days, I took duct tape and started wrapping it tightly around my belly to see how I would look like if I were skinny. Then my hands went numb. I could not breathe and hastily tried to find scissors. It was horrifying. I always mention this story in conversations about body-positive; that’s what beauty standards and cellulite jokes can do to a child.

As a teenager, I realized that I’m bisexual, and someday I can fall in love with a girl. I went to university and started working as a journalist in a local editorial. There I met girls who did not hide their relationship: we listened to “Night Snipers” and hung out together. Once at a concert by Diana Arbenina (lead singer of the group Night Snipers), a volunteer of the LGBT fund “Gender Z” approached us and invited us to visit them. Gender Z organized various events and games, and they also had psychological support groups for LGBTQ+ people. When I first came to them, my expectations did not coincide with reality: I thought it would be some sapphic poetry club! However, I liked the people who worked there and the way they created a safe space. I realized that I also want to do social work, help people as a volunteer, or have a permanent job in this area. There I became interested in feminism.

In Gender Z, I met my future girlfriend. We went on a date, and soon after that she went to Italy for a long time, her parents lived there. Then we started chatting all day. I was immersed in texting and, surely, my mother noticed this as we shared one PC. At that time, my mother tried to arrange my personal life and was setting me up with various men. It annoyed me a lot. The last time she did it, I could not stand it and confessed that I was chatting not simply with my friend but with the girl I love. It shocked her. I tried to explain that she was not guilty of anything that I was happy, and that was the most important thing. Mom could not accept me for a long time, and when Lena arrived, she met her coldly, with resentment. However, over time, everything worked out: mom loved Lena for her personality, she practically lived with us. After coming-out, one of my friends was kicked out of the house, so I think I’m lucky.

Valeriya Zubatenko

When I entered the Faculty of Philosophy at National Pedagogical Dragomanov University in Kyiv, I already knew that I wanted to study gender studies through philosophy. There was nothing about gender in the curriculum, so I started studying on my own and searched for information on the Internet. The first year I was not involved in activism because I did not know where to start. Together with my girlfriend, we moved to Kyiv and lived in my friend’s apartment while looking for a place. It was the time after the Maidan, quite tense period in Zaporizhzhia. People were waiting for the troops to enter the city. All our neighbours were making bomb shelters in the basements and stocking up on food. We weren’t sure whether mom could keep sending me money. Then my friend’s parents said that we didn’t need to look for anything and could live all together. Fortunately, the size of the apartment allowed it.

I did not like the way they teach at the university and did not communicate with other students. I continued to attend classes, and the rest of the time, I could not force myself to get up from the couch. All year I suffered from severe insomnia, depression and eating disorders.

No matter how much I exercised, it was not enough for me. My efforts appeared to be incommensurable with the result.

Back to Zaporizhzhia, followed by the desire to lose weight and change my life, I started to attend a ballet studio. I continued practicing it in Kyiv almost every day and achieved significant success. No matter how much I exercised, it was not enough for me. My efforts appeared to be incommensurable with the result. I was worried about what and how I eat. It seemed like I need to eat even less. For a while, I stopped drinking water. I was aware that all of this was abnormal and wrong. If I knew that someone else was doing this … I don’t know what I would do. Although I myself could not stop. Analyzing those events now, I conclude that this way, I tried to get out of codependent relationships and take control of my body. We broke up with a girlfriend, fell out with my friend, and I had to move on. Soon there was nothing to pay for a new apartment. At that time, I already had a dog, but there was neither food nor money. I was deeply depressed all over again. One of my old friends helped me a lot: he walked a dog, called me to dinner, and finally moved to me. Gradually, I began to feel better, and I got back to things I always wanted to do.

Valeriya Zubatenko

There were many sexist moments in our university, and I felt that I had to do something about it. I started talking with classmates, and one of them brought me to the LGBTQ organization, “Insight.” There I learned more about LGBT activism in Kyiv. Soon, I began engaging in activism: I wrote articles, went to events, and planned some of them at the university, including feminist readings for International Women’s Day. That’s how a student initiative, “Borsch”, was created. Initially, the title was chosen just for fun, but over time it turned into our main idea: we wanted to show well-known things from the other side, thus destroying gender stereotypes. In the Ukrainian context, borsch is associated with the image of a “women-keeper,” but in reality, it’s just a dish that everyone can cook. As part of the initiative, we provided lectures and discussions at Dragomanov University and in Zaporizhzhia, feminist readings and a cinema club. We also planned to maintain pages on social networks, but it turned out to be too resource-intensive. For the same reason, the initiative fell apart.

It was important for me that the club could function in a safe and, at the same time, open space.

After that, a teacher from the faculty of religious studies, who was aware of my activities, contacted me. She offered to create a gender discussion club, and we began to work on its concept together. It was important for me that the club could function in a safe and, at the same time, open space. This way, students and people who could not get higher education would be welcomed there. That’s why we chose the free art space “Sklo” at the university. The first club meeting already attended ultra-right group representatives. They did not hide their intention to disrupt the event and insisted on entering since we were “open.” I listened to their requirements and spoke out the internal rules of conduct in the club. When they refused to abide by them, I closed the door. That day the meeting was successful.

The next time these guys brought in elder colleagues — leaders of ultra-right organizations. They prevented us from opening and filmed everything on camera; it was already impossible to besiege them. I didn’t know if I could call the police. Students called a representative of the administration, but instead of forcing them to leave, she invited us to discuss the conflict. For an hour and a half, we listened to their demands all over again, and when it became unbearable, I declared the meeting closed. As it turned out later, someone called the police,  one of the right-wing radicals brandished a knife on the street, and then helped his friend to remove the EU flag from the university building and trample it. The patrol arrived a few hours later and did nothing.

Valeriya Zubatenko

“I hoped that the publicity would prevent them from hushing up the case, but in the end, no one was punished.”

We held the third meeting of the gender club at another university, and everything went calmly. The fourth session was transferred back to Sklo. It was the end of December 2017, few people came on New Year’s Eve; and at first, I was upset. The next moment three men in balaclavas burst into the room. I recognized two of them: the guy with a knife and his friend who tore the flag. They began to pepper-spray everybody, and several people were injured. The university security guard passively observed and allowed them to leave. I understood that I had to find out who had been that third guy so that the police could identify him. In the heat of passion, I ran after him and tried to tear off his mask, but it didn’t work out: they splattered my face, hit me with the door, and ran away. I quickly recovered and called an ambulance. A friend of the teacher took us to the police station, where we talked for a long time about everything that had happened. The police recorded this and even showed me photographs of the people I spoke about in the database. For a long time, they refused to give the case number. I had to ask friends to send media inquiries, and one of them was responded. They told me that no proof of corpus delicti had been found since I (the victim) had refused to undergo a forensic medical examination. But no one even offered me to go through it.

After that, the head of the student council publicly accused me of what had happened. They blamed me for realising that it would be so and that I had endangered the club members as I hadn’t hired private security, accused me of PR. The university administration began to put pressure on teachers and forbade us to gather. Then I threw all my energy into creating a resonance: I wrote to the Ministry articles for the media, asked human rights organizations and others to send letters to the rector. I hoped that the publicity would prevent them from hushing up the case, but in the end, no one was punished. The attackers continued to attend classes. Everyone at the university knew that they had done it, but no one condemned their actions. This was my last course, and I finished it to get a diploma.

Valeriya Zubatenko

A little later than in a year, Alyona Mamay wrote to me with an offer to become a co-curator of the exhibition “Vykhovni  Acty” (“Education acts”). I was delighted with this opportunity because, at that moment, I was exhausted by the struggle and disappointed with its results. This way, I could show the university administration that I was not giving up. The exhibition was devoted to censorship and various forms of violence in society, including right-wing radical violence. It was important for Alyona to do it in “Sklo.” The curator of the space supported this idea for some reason. We obtained the endorsement and set to work. At first, we invested personal funds in creating works by artists, and when the money ran out, we asked for help.

I negotiated with the police, and they provided security for us. We were ready for attacks, although right-wing radicals didn’t appear at the event. Instead of it, they intimidated the curator of the art space. The university administration also put pressure on her, and in the end, they decided to close the exhibition. We asked for time to dismantle the works, as parts of them were large-scale, and announced a protest rally demanding the administration to voice its position. This time we had much more support, some reporters arrived, but they were not allowed inside. Alyona and I could get to Sklo and decided to stay there until our requirements would be met. In the evening, the vice-rector responsible for placement arrived there — he insulted us, attacked the journalist of Hromadske TV, but in the end, agreed to speak at a press conference. After a while, someone took all our works to the police station, where they are still being held for unknown reasons. Despite the great resonance in the media, the press conference did not happen. Everybody at the university acted as nothing had happened.

This trip was the last straw for me.

At the end of May, “Insight” invited Alyona and me to the “Equality Festival” in Chernivtsi, with a lecture on political art, where we could talk about our exhibition. We arrived and smoothly got to the festival. Still, protesters began to gather under the building: members of religious organizations, representatives of the clergy, right-wing radicals, whose faces we already knew, and people in military uniforms. We were informed about the mines, after which the protesters entered the building. The evacuation began, during which the priest fanned us with a censer and read a prayer. He pushed me into a cloud of gas, which the ultra-right sprayed below, with the words: “Ladies — go ahead.” Police cordoned off the entrance. The private security that the festival hired opened the umbrellas, and under them, wrapped in scarves, we went outside. Opponents tried to break through the cordon, shouting to the police: “You are not real men if you protect them. Give them to us. We know what to do with them!” Someone threw a hammer in our direction, but, fortunately, no one was hurt. This trip was the last straw for me. I returned to Kyiv and ended up in the hospital with nervous exhaustion.

For a long time, I could not do anything. I tried to recover and started doing something else. That summer, the sewing cooperative “ReSew” announced the project “Dream clothes that do not exist” — a series of workshops for people from the LGBTQ+ community who find it difficult to find clothes in the mass market. I passed the selection and sewed a wedding dress. In Ukraine, I could not wear it for my own wedding — we have banned same-sex marriage, but I specially made the dress comfortable for me to walk in it every day. I also planned to embroider the inside of the hem with quotes from Hole songs, verses by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, but I ran out of time. The whole process turned out to be much more complicated than I imagined. I had to dissolve the dress and alter it again many times. We worked for hours, I completely focused on sewing, and this became therapy for me. When I put on a dress I sewed myself, I experienced joy — now it is one of my favourites. With activism, everything is more complicated. I know that I will not see the result of my efforts, but the thought that I am approaching helps me not give up.

Valeriya Zubatenko
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