This article first appeared in Gay Times Magazine (April 2017). The trip was organised by the British Council and British Embassy in Kyiv, with support from the GREAT Britain campaign.
The month of May is just around the corner, and that can mean only one thing: the Eurovision Song Contest!
With experienced Melodifestivalen producer Christer Björkman at the helm and script-writing dream team of Alex Worrall and Tim Telling (editor of the Daily Mash) in tow, it looks like we’re on for a clever and spectacular show of Scandi-proportions… but not everyone will be watching the show on TV.
Some of us fans devotedly follow the competition around Europe. So, how’s the party going to go down when thousands of beglittered British boys and girls turn up to one of Europe’s most conservative countries? Because Sweden this ain’t. What should gay Eurovision tourists heading to Kyiv expect?
I spent a few days in Kyiv trying to find out…
It’s late March and we’re speeding along a Soviet-era motorway in a people carrier with no seat-belts and a cracked windscreen. Below us is the river Dnieper, still carrying sizeable ice sheets that haven’t quite managed to thaw, and in front of us are many chunky, gigantic, brutalist tower blocks. We’re heading East towards Kyiv’s answer to the ExCeL centre – home of the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest.
I arrive at the International Exhibition Centre to meet our venue guide Pavlo Shylko (he co-hosted the contest back in 2005, the last time it was in Ukraine).
“It’s an incredible opportunity for us to show the world what Kyiv can offer. Everyone wants to be a part of it” he tells me.
Everyone? I wondered, given Justin Timberlake used Stockholm 2016 as a platform for Can’t Stop The Feeling! whether Britney could expect a call? I mean, that’s the dream, right?
“Ha! She’d need to pay us” – he laughs – “But we have a few surprises up our sleeve. The fact is that Eurovision is a global showcase with an audience of hundreds of millions, and people are waking up to this. Justin Timberlake realised last year. So, Britney this year? Watch this space,” Pavlo continues to laugh.
Timberlake and Shylko aren’t the only ones well aware of the positive impact Eurovision can have. Later in the week I was invited to meet the Mayor of Kyiv, former world champion heavy-weight boxer Vitali Klitschko. I was interested to hear his take on the influx of tourism for the competition.
“Our goal as hosts is to give a good feeling for everyone who comes to Kyiv. Everyone will see how friendly people are in Kyiv, how peaceful and beautiful the city is.”
Klitschko continued: “We’re happy we have a chance to host the Eurovision, we’re happy to have thousands of people from around the world – it’s a big chance for us to promote Ukraine and promote our city, and we want to use our chance very much.”
He lists the opportunities that Kyiv has coming up – an impressive itinerary that includes the 2018 Champions League Final: “It’s my goal to bring music, sport events, exhibitions and to this city – we have a great dynamic here.”
His passion and enthusiasm for the city was evident, but British Eurovision fans have been wondering since Jamala’s victory last May: will LGBTQ+ travellers be welcome and safe in Kyiv?
The Mayor hesitated slightly. “Many nations, many skin colours, many religions, there are many people in Kyiv. Everyone is welcome in Kyiv.”
Vitali Klitschko, a 6 foot 7, world famous sportsman with the nickname “Dr Ironfist” seemed supportive of diversity, but hesitant to explicitly use the terms ‘gay’ or ‘LGBT’. I put this observation to Kyiv Pride organiser Zoryan Kis later that day.
“It is difficult, because they have been raised in the Soviet Union, where this topic was a taboo,” Kis told me.
“But three years ago the city administration were calling on us to cancel our [Pride march] and to ‘stop provoking’, while last year they called for no violence ‘on any side’ [from either Pride organisers or the far right groups opposing the march].”
The situation is clearly fragile, but progress is being made. Last year’s Kyiv Pride was a huge success, attracting 2,000 participants and safety support from the city. The organisers hope to attract 5,000 marchers this year.
And so, I asked Kis, a gay man living in the capital, the same question as I asked Vitali: How do you think travelling LGBTQ+ fans will be received in Kyiv?
“The people in Kyiv and Ukraine in general are very hospitable, open-minded, and – especially now – they care a lot about what people in other countries think about them.
“We at Kyiv Pride are preparing a safety guide for LGBTQ+ tourists, and a map with friendly places – dozens of them already agreed to be on the map and to have a rainbow flag sticker on their door. While this may not seem like a big deal in the UK or the US, this is a huge development for Ukraine.”
“Eurovision is a perfect time to talk about human rights, and especially gay rights. The international media attention to the country is going to be huge. I really hope that some of the contestants will have a very clear message to the Ukrainian society that gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights!”
It seems that all Kyivites are grabbing the opportunities this contest presents. None more so than the gay community.
The balance being struck by LGBTQ+ activists and city officials is not so different from where the United Kingdom was less than three decades ago. To an outsider, the city’s administration may look like it’s taking baby steps, but they are moving forward – and the sudden influx of LGBTQ+ tourists that only Eurovision can provide will help change public perceptions.
This is Kyiv’s chance to shine. It is a beautiful city, steeped in living history, and if it were able to prove itself as an open and welcoming city for everybody, it could easily find itself as a destination of choice.
There are wonderful parks, gardens and boulevards, fabulously kitsch giant Soviet-era monuments and insanely beautiful cathedrals and churches. Plus, for those interested, mini bus tours of Chernobyl.
There’s also a flourishing café culture and creative hubs like Izolyatsia, an arts centre relocated from occupied Donetsk to a shipyard in the old town.
I am itching to go back and explore further. Kyiv has a lot to offer tourists, but this isn’t five nights in Sweden or Denmark, so whilst I felt safe as a gay man, I wouldn’t necessarily want to let go in the same way I did after Conchita’s win in Copenhagen (so pissed I woke up at 4am beneath the Little Mermaid statue across town).
Everyone I met repeated the line “Kyiv is the new Berlin”, and there’s some truth in that. But to attain what Berlin had in the early noughties – everybody needs to feel welcome.
Eurovision will be a test of Kyiv’s tolerance and progression.
Rob Holley visited Kyiv in March 2017 – you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHolley. The trip was organised by the British Council and British Embassy in Kyiv, with support from the GREAT Britain campaign.