On Saturday night I was in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, performing at an Aids awareness concert. Some people might have preferred me not to come. Why? Because Ukraine, which waited so long for its own freedom, now threatens the freedom of gay people to express themselves in the most basic of ways – by taking part in a gay-pride parade or even speaking openly about homosexuality.
Draft law number 8711, due to be debated by the Ukrainian parliament this week, would make it an offence to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues in the media. Even HIV advice to gay men could be banned. Some of the local activists I spoke to believe it would become illegal even to use the word “gay” in public. And the penalties are harsh – heavy fines or up to five years in prison. According to the UN, the law would amount to state-promoted discrimination and would violate a large number of rights protected under treaties signed by Ukraine.
The threat to the LGBT population is not just theoretical; it is very real. Just over a month ago a gay pride march to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia had to be called off less than an hour before it was due to begin because of a counter-demonstration. The police said they couldn’t guarantee the safety of the marchers. One of the organisers, Svyatoslav Sheremet, was savagely beaten by thugs hiding behind surgical masks shortly afterwards and suffered eye injuries and multiple cuts and bruises to his face and body. I met this brave man backstage on Saturday night.
The wave of anti-gay violence and official harassment is not confined to Ukraine. Laws banning so-called gay propaganda were first passed in parts of Russia, including St Petersburg. Under the pretext of protecting minors, they make it illegal to hold any kind of parade, exhibition or even film festival that promotes equality for LGBT people. Just ask yourself how likely it is that a young person would be corrupted by a poster for a gay movie and you can see how absurd the laws are. They are a direct and intentional attack on the human rights of LGBT people.
How tragic that Ukraine, which suffered under Russian domination for so long, should now be following suit. In 1991, Ukraine became the first former Soviet republic to decriminalise homosexuality. Twenty years later, it is among the first to threaten to imprison gay people again.
If that wasn’t bad enough, HIV charities – including my own Elton John Aids Foundation – are convinced the new law would make it harder to get safe-sex advice to the young people who need it most. The UN says the failure to protect LGBT rights is one reason why the HIV epidemic is advancing in Ukraine.
In Britain we know all about laws against the “promotion” of homosexuality. Section 28 was a piece of legalised prejudice that took years to remove from the statute books. These new laws in eastern Europe go much further.
I was joined backstage in Kiev by Lance Price, the executive director of the British LGBT rights organisation, the Kaleidoscope Trust. I am a strong supporter of the charity, whose message is simple: LGBT rights are human rights and human rights are LGBT rights. We are not asking for any special privileges, just the same protections under the law as everybody else.
This week, in the runup to World Pride in London on Saturday, Kaleidoscope is launching a campaign – “What if it were illegal for you to be you?” Imagine if it were illegal to have blue eyes, or be under 5ft 10ins, and if breaking this law meant you could go to prison, or face attack or even death.
In Ukraine and elsewhere, gay people don’t have to imagine it. They already face the very real prospect of being criminalised for their sexuality. In no fewer that 78 countries around the world homosexual acts are still illegal. In five of them the maximum penalty is death.
Until equality is respected everywhere and there is universal acceptance of human rights for all regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, I will continue to speak my mind. I have the freedom to do so and nobody can take it away from me. Every other gay person in the world deserves the same.
Elton John is a flamboyant entertainer, outspoken humanitarian, and enduringly successful singer/songwriter.