It is rare that you can say the Eurovision Song Contest serves a wider political purpose. Yet in countries where there is still resistance to LGBT equality, the effect of hosting Eurovision (with its strong LGBT fan base) can be to start a discussion on a topic that many would prefer not to recognise. Sometimes we in the UK forget how important it is, in countries that are in transition, to see positive examples of LGBT acceptance. And a large televised multinational event that proclaims diversity in the way that Eurovision does can really help to educate its viewers.
According to Simon Williams, head of the British Council in Kyiv, who spoke to us about the British support of Eurovision in Ukraine:
"Ukraine is going through an amazing transformation following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, part of which is manifested in a strong desire on the part of general society, especially young people, to be part of Europe. But it is also manifested in a greater sense, and more public discussion, of people's right to be who they are, including being different from the majority. This encompasses people with different first languages, different ethnicities, different faiths - as well as different sexualities."
The UK ambassador to Ukraine, Judith Gough, is an out lesbian who lives in Kyiv with her civil partner and two children. She has spoken to news outlets in Ukraine on the need for Ukrainian role models to lead the way in ongoing education and advocacy. In a country where LGBT support is not strong, many LGBT leaders are still in the closet. The stance of foreign role models is still important.
There are many countries in the world where homophobia is rife at the highest levels of government. Ukraine is struggling with a number of major issues at the moment (Crimea, its economy, ongoing Russian tension in the east) but the government in Kyiv is determined to show its embrace of 'Western' values as it tries to remove itself from Russia's sphere of influence.
Ukraine has made some progress in LGBT rights; notably in 2015 discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment was outlawed and in the Global Open Data rating Ukraine rose to 24th place this year (from 54th last year) on a par with Austria. Yet same-sex partnerships are still not legal and gay couples cannot adopt. But whereas historically pride marches have been banned or overshadowed by violence, the pride march in 2016 passed off without violence and with the support of the Kyiv police.
According to Andriy Maymulakhin, co-ordinator of Nash Mir (the Ukrainian LGBT rights centre), the progress is good, and Eurovision is going to help:
"Our country is currently going through the process of a deep modernisation in every sphere of life. Only three years ago did real reforms start towards becoming a modern European society. Such events as Eurovision bring a picture of modern Western society to the mass consciousness of Ukrainian people. We anticipate that Eurovision's LGBTI audience will be a very positive part of this widely-watched celebration. The Ukrainian LGBTI community's main problem is that it is still mostly neglected by society as a whole. People in Ukraine often perceive that our identity and lifestyle are "non-traditional" for Ukraine; even the very term "homosexual" is often replaced with euphemisms like "non-traditional" (regarding orientation, the family etc.). So, we wish, please, that in conversations with Ukrainians you ask them what they know and experience about the daily life of their Ukrainian LGBTI compatriots - because we are here, we are queer, and this is our common country and our common world."
An event like Eurovision in Ukraine encourages and allows the authorities to discuss LGBT issues and challenge national attitudes as part of its duty to ensure the safety and security of visitors. For example, many of the embassies in Kyiv are working with the government to ensure suitable security is in place, and to promote details of safe spaces and helplines, not least because of the particular demographic of many Eurovision fans. The organisers of Kyiv Pride have joined with the organisers of Eurovision to offer a guide to gay-friendly bars, cafes and shops in Kyiv.
It is not just a one-off event, even one as unique as Eurovision, that can provide ongoing support for LGBT activists on the ground. Every year, Stonewall hosts a training event in London for LGBT activists from several former Soviet Union countries (Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan). I attended the summary session last summer and it was Ukraine where the activists felt the most progress had been made.
There are some countries where we cannot directly change attitudes about homophobia. But in countries where we see movement, we should be exploring ways to continue discussions, advocacy and education. Government pressure from the FCO, empowering local activists and yes, even supporting gay-friendly events like Eurovision can all help. As Eurovision approaches, we wish everyone travelling a safe and exciting trip.
Our woman in Kyiv, the ambassador has been tweeting regularly about the excitement of Eurovision (you can follow her at @judithgoughFCO). I will leave the last word to Simon Williams (a die-hard Eurovision fan), on how he is coping with the run-up to the contest:
"I imagine I will be trying to keep my professional cool for most of this week, along with all of us in the British Embassy and British Council who will be working with both the host organisers and the visiting national delegations, while being utterly and dizzily excited at the chance to attend the events and see the stars! I have not yet chosen my outfit..."