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December 18, 2017

Insight: making self-defence just one piece of the puzzle

In the smoking area at the back of an otherwise unremarkable building in Kiev, you’ll find the beating heart of the LGBTI movement in Ukraine: Olena Shevchenko, co-founder and director of Insight, an organisation dedicated to the rights and well-being of LGBTQI people in Ukraine . While she rolls a cigarette, she answers calls from within Ukraine and abroad, has her photo taken for a publication by the UN and puts people in touch with each other.

Almost ten years ago Olena founded Insight together with two friends. Thanks to the efforts of a small team of colleagues and a large group of volunteers, this initiative has grown into a national network that for many LGBTQI people in Ukraine is something between a family and a life raft. "Under the influence of Russian anti-gay propaganda, the climate has not become more friendly in recent years," says Olena. "Most of us can not be open about our sexuality without the risk of bullying, being fired, or violence." Moreover, the war in the east of the country is used as an excuse for not doing anything about anti-LGBTQI violence. “'Your human rights are just not a priority', they say," explains Olena.


Within Insight there is an emphasis on space and attention for trans and intersex people. The lobbying for transgender rights is led by Ina, herself a transwoman. She’s partially behind the recent victory that people who want to have their gender adjusted in their official documents no longer need to be sterilized. Without pride, but more as a fact, Olena states: "This was a milestone for our community".


At first glance, Olena is such a badass that you’d almost think she knows no fear, but it’s actually a bit more nuanced: "Of course there is danger, but I will not let my life be determined by it. With the self-defence training I give to young lesbian and bisexual girls, I also want them to learn strategies to deal with the possibility of danger in your daily life.” Olena helps the girls practice escape techniques every Wednesday evening, but gives attention to the mental side of self-defence too.


Olena and her colleagues are working hard to ensure that Insight is an inclusive place where everyone can feel safe and welcome. There are all kinds of service and activities, from one-on-one conversations with a psychologist and legal advice to film screenings in the canteen. And although the Insight office is located in Kiev, events are intentionally organised in other Ukrainian cities too – since it’s often even harder to connect with the LGBQTI community if you don’t live in the capital. 

That inclusivity and solidarity seem to be central to the success of Insight. Solidarity between transgender and cisgender people, between the Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking, between a lesbian student from Kiev and an older gay man who fled from the Donbass region. That solidarity goes hand in hand with courage. The courage to face many forms of anti-LGBTQI violence every day. Piece by piece, loneliness, invisibility and isolation are broken down, by bringing people into contact with each other, offering a listening ear, and storming the barricades together with all those who want to and can.

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