Transcripts: Queer(y)ing Museums Episode 4: Special Episode on Ukraine with Andrew Kushnir
In this special episode of Queer(y)ing Museums, Tanya and Desirée chat with Andrew Kushnir (he/him) – a gay, Ukrainian Canadian playwright, actor, educator and activist living in Toronto/Tkaronto.
Throughout this conversation, we weave through a variety of topics including, what is the “war within a war” happening in Ukraine right now for LGBTQIA+ community and how is the LGBTQIA+ movement intertwined in Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty? Further, how can the museum, cultural and heritage sector support Ukraine and the LGBTQIA+ community at this critical time?
Throughout this conversation, we weave through a variety of topics including, what is the “war within a war” happening in Ukraine right now for LGBTQIA+ community and how is the LGBTQIA+ movement intertwined in Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty? Further, how can the museum, cultural and heritage sector support Ukraine and the LGBTQIA+ community at this critical time?
Andrew Kushnir: It’s good for listeners to know that there’s this robust and really thrilling queer movement in Ukraine. We have to remember, this is the contrast. This is what Russia wants to extinguish.
These are the freedoms we’re fighting for when we say, “Okay, let’s fight for Україна’s, or Ukraine’s freedoms”. It’s freedom to be an independent sovereign nation, a democratic, a robustly democratic place. This is what we’re talking about. We’re talking about LGBTQ+ folks among many other folks, but this is what we’re talking about.
So how can the museum space actually get on board with that creativity? That reality? And also lean on the brilliant Ukrainian thinkers makers? There are so many just extraordinary Ukrainians that the both museum and cultural sectors can turn to and say, “How do we do better by you and your stories?”
Tanya Pachalok: That was Andrew Kushnir – a Ukrainian Canadian playwright and guest for this special episode of Queer(y)ing Museums: A BCMA Gender and Sexuality Inclusion Podcast Series. My name is Tanya and my co-host is Desirée.
Since February 24th, we’ve seen unfolding atrocities in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including missile strikes against hospitals, residential buildings, rising civilian casualties and children. As well as Russian forces targeting Ukrainian museums, and other cultural and historical institutions, which attempt to threaten Ukraine’s rich cultural heritage, collective memory, and identity. The escalating cultural heritage losses are thought to be not only collateral damage of the war, but also part of a deliberate Russian strategy to undermine Ukrainian cultural identity and its claims to nationhood.
According to UNESCO since the invasion in February at least 71 cultural sites in Ukraine have been damaged by Russian forces, including 47 religious buildings, 28 historical buildings, 12 monuments, nine museums, three theaters, and three libraries.
As we’ve seen in countless conflicts around the world, marginalized communities like the LGBTQ plus community are especially vulnerable and at risk at this time. According to a Kyiv resident and trans activist, “it’s a war within a war truly”.
In this episode, our guest Andrew Kushnir will share more about this “war within a war”. How is it impacting LGBTQ plus communities? And how the museum cultural and heritage sector can support the situation.
AK: My name is Andrew Kushnir. My pronouns are he/him and I’m beaming in from Tkaronto, Toronto.
And, “how am I doing right now?” Yeah. It’s, you know, constant flux and I think being Ukrainian is about being many things that I feel that split inside of me. I have my own artistic practice here in Toronto but my mind and heart are pretty tethered to dear ones in Ukraine.
Yeah, I think that’s shared by a lot of the community right now. I hear and feel that also as Ukrainian Canadian myself.
TP: So we wanted to begin, if you could share a little bit about your work as an artist?
AK: Yeah, absolutely. So I am a hyphenate. I work in the theater in many capacities among them, a playwright, a performer, a director, a teacher at times.
And the gay heritage project is among the projects that I’ve co-created with others over the years. It was a piece born from residency at Buddies in Bad Times theater in Toronto. And in essence, it was me and two of my friends who were two other gay performer playwrights, struggling with this notion of whether or not there’s such a thing as gay history or queer history.
And, and we actually opted for the term heritage because I think history has some bad advertising or, when we think of history, we think of dates, we think of a school, we think of, something that’s maybe a bit hermetically sealed and we were captivated by the notion of heritage as being inherently more participatory, inherently more active.
What does it mean to practice heritage with others? Which to me walks hand in hand with the theater. What does it mean to gather communally and turn over stories, turn over relationships? And so the gay heritage project was this multi-year journey whereby we did all kinds of research in archives. We interviewed queer elders.
We rammed our heads up against the wall, when it came to considering, the trans-historic challenges of gay history, you know. Did people, in fact, a hundred years ago really identify in a way that, that we can, I don’t want to say claim, but at least claim relationship?
And so we created this very theatrical ride through the question of whether or not as a queer community. Do we have something that we share of the past? How does that appear in the present? What do we get from holding space with it? And, we got to tour the country with it, which was an incredible experience.
TP: Congrats. That sounds like an amazing project. I love what you said about heritage being more active and it sort of counters that heteronormative or that cisnormative narrative that’s often just so present in history.
AK: Something that we found as a sort of north star is can heritage be a verb? Right? I think we really used to it as a noun. And what does it mean to actually embrace it as an activity, a communal activity at that?
I will say because you are based in BC, I created a podcast called “This is Something Else” which was a commission from the Arts Club. And that was very much taking some of those queer notions of history and heritage into, an exploration of Vancouver’s theater ecology. Again, the notion of what is it in the now, how does history live in our bodies?
You know, as opposed to something that lives in books, you know, dusty books. So it’s all to say that, that I’m a bit obsessed with this idea.
TP: I love that. Did you want to share about the work that you’ve done with Project Humanity? I have this quote here that relates to what you’ve been talking about here, it’s, “the listening, learning, rigorously reflecting and determining further action.” And so, I think that’s so cool the way that all of these projects, whether they’re theater based or museum cultural heritage based in like in a physical space, in different creative spaces, like how, how you’re using all those verbs.
AK: Yeah. I mean, PH or Project Humanity’s focus is to be a socially-engaged theater company. And for us, what that means is helping to disrupt tightly held narratives, trying to bring a multiplicity of voices into the theater, multiplicity of perspectives of stories, to embrace the theater as a space for working on our democracy and the rigor that’s required to listen to positions that you may not agree with.
And how do we coexist with difference to embrace differences and for too, as opposed to an impediment to a more compassionate, and vibrant society or democracy, all these things are like very lofty goals that we try to anchor in a form that’s called verbatim theater. So a lot of the work we do is we interview community members and then we create plays from those interviews.
And I would say, legendary verbatim theater maker that I look to so much is Anna Deavere Smith. And she talks about what does it mean in this form of theater to take a walk in another person’s words? And so that for me is the heart of the work we’re doing is, is to practice empathy in community and also to be with the limits of empathy.
I think that’s also, recognizing that and the quote that you just read made me, it reminded me that I always get excited about theater as being a call to thought and a call to feeling. I suppose I don’t imagine someone’s going to walk from a piece that I’ve written and start protesting in the streets.
I don’t know that the line between art and action are always that direct, but I certainly think the arts call us to think and feel. In a way that, our information late in culture doesn’t give us time to do doesn’t give us spaces to undertake. And so I get really excited about theater in the arts , in its capacity to, to just get us thinking about things that we skim in our day-to-day reality, not least of which the assumptions we make about others.
And I think we make a host of them as a, as meaning making machines as human beings. And I think the arts are an opportunity to, again, slow down and go, wait a second. Is this again, my narrative, am I actually making space for people to tell their own stories and what happens when we do let people tell their own stories?
DH: Mm. I love that. And it’s just something that you said reminded me too, that I feel like the arts bring us in community together. And so we’re not thinking about these things. Individually or alone in our rooms necessarily we would go home and think about it. Right. But we’re very much together.
And I think that’s so crucial. I think to action eventually, if that’s, or, I don’t know if I’m being articulate,
AK: but yeah, you are, you are. I mean, the arts help us find our people, that’s it, the arts help us find our people and the arts are again a personal practice when I’m in sitting in a dark feeder.
I know I’m undergoing my own experience of the story, but I never forget that I’m shoulder to shoulder in the dark with strangers. And I wonder, what are they thinking feeling? Are they feeling what I’m feeling? And I just think that space is, I mean, it’s no accident. We, human beings invented these spaces, the theater, other cultural contexts, there a space where in our humanity is worked on it’s , activated animated, our capacity to be compassionate citizens, all those things.
I think that’s the promise of the arts. Again, by virtue of taking things like information, which we there’s no shortage of information in this world. But moving it into and through the heart.
DH: Absolutely. I find like, so my other, I guess role in this world is I’m a singer. And I do a lot of choral music. When these really difficult things are happening in the world, it’s so easy
I think as artists for us to be like, oh, like, what is my purpose here? And should I be doing what I’m doing but I always go back to these thoughts and concepts. Like it is so crucial for community and coming together.
AK: I mean, we saw this in the pandemic. I think artists, when confronted with crisis with senselessness, I believe artists help us make meaning. And I also think artists fill our cups. I think every time I doom scroll around Ukraine right now around Ukraine I feel so hollowed out actually by some of the savage images, the brutality of war.
I get overtaken by deep anxiety from my friends in that part of the world. And it’s often art actually that grounds me, that actually helps me find my feet anew and gives me another day in the fight. So I do think artists are crucial. And again, it’s not necessarily because an artist is going to get us out into the streets and the world will be in an instant revised, but even just giving people more the capacity to keep feeling into something that really swallows us whole.
And metabolizes our feelings quickly, the arts are restorative. I mean, they help us keep going and they crack open again. I’m reminded of this work and the artist, I fear, I don’t know the artist’s name, but I remember being in Krakow and seeing an exhibit that was contemporary artists navigating the Holocaust and the notion of memory.
And there was this one piece that was constructed from shoes. And I don’t know if you know the Holocaust at Auschwitz, the Auschwitz museum, but the notion of shoes is very powerful there. They have many shoes of those who had been murdered at the camp. And this artist had dipped shoes into the dead sea.
And it allowed these shoes to becoming crusted and layer upon layer upon layer of salt. And then it created this sculpture out of these salt laden shoes. And it, I just, it cracked me open, like the notion of, again, the dead sea, the notion of Jewish lives and realities and humanity, the notion of tears, what happens when tears dry and I, after, after experiencing again, the Holocaust is this almost undigestible atrocity to have an artist just create a little window onto understanding it’s tragedy, its impact its legacy, its presence in the now, I just think again, artists are these incredible messengers.
And so again, maybe I’m preaching to the choir here, but I do think artists are critical in times of upheaval and catastrophe. And these are the times we’re in.
DH: Yeah, absolutely. I guess shifting a little bit into the kind of institutional aspect where we’re wondering if you have recommendations or do you have recommendations for institutions wanting to support similar work and create space for LGBTQ plus artists to do work like preserving queer and trans heritage histories and identities?
AK: I may not be able to speak to all the entities that resource, this work, but I suppose the big thing that comes to mind around it is that so much of our queer history is in living memory. I mean, I’m thinking of when I did, This is Something Else, this podcast out of Vancouver, the fact that I was able to reach out to the survivors of the 1980s, you know, the aids crisis and speak to them about those we lost as artists in this country and to access what feels like, I mean that history is going on 40 years. And yet we often forget that it is among us, that history and that it informs our day-to-day reality as you know, relatively young queer people often in the form of absence. And I think that’s really powerful to just think about the silences.
So I get really curious about those silences and then I go, how do we oppose the silence in loving ways? And I got to say, it’s usually about reaching out to somebody and saying, will you speak with me? Can we have a conversation? Can this inform my arts practice? Can you be on my podcast? Can we collaborate?
And I’m seeing a lot of that. I’ve seen a lot of intergenerational work happening and that recognition that. We have these incredible human beings among us who carry the queer liberation movement with them. They were agents in that movement. They continue to be the aids crisis, queer art making in this country.
I mean, these folks around us, it’s there for us to connect with.
TP: Yeah. That was really beautifully said. Those histories and those stories are out there and making space for that asking those questions being curious and allowing those voices to be heard. , we’ve been speaking with some folks like you and others who are doing really interesting, projects unearthing those and oral histories are a big component of that.
So that’s really cool and great to hear.
We’ll also segue now, to what is going on in Ukraine. We’ve been chatting with you, Andrew and invited you on to share about how the LGBTQ plus community has been especially vulnerable and at risk, for a variety of reasons with the war going on in Ukraine right now. So wondering if you can expand on this and, walk us through that.
AK: Yeah. I do like to open by acknowledging that so many queer Ukrainians right now are among the fiercest defenders of that country in that democracy.
And what bowls me over about that is that they’re fighting for a country that hasn’t entirely recognized their dignities and rights. So what you have is a group of people that are fighting for a future wherein they see themselves being fully in shrined fully respected citizens. And that, that knocks me flat some days that Yeah, but they can see a future wherein they can live as who they are, build families the way they want to build them and to, to live free of homophobia transphobia.
So you have queer people that are in the armed forces. You have queer people who are in the territorial defense. As soon as I got ahold of my dear activist friends who were based in somebody Zaporizhzhia my friend Rostyk said, I’m an activist, so I have to stay active. And so he had moved all of the energy that he had put into the last 10 or 11 years of, the LGBTQ plus dignity movement in Ukraine that he had moved that into the humanitarian aid effort.
And he recognized that yes, queer Ukrainians are particularly vulnerable right now. I can be really specific about that, that they are with fewer networks, fewer support networks by and large, a lot of queer people. I can’t speak for all of them, but we can imagine that there are families that aren’t necessarily accepting of their identities.
So you, you can’t quite escape to the village in the same way that many straight Ukrainians have been able to in, to, into the safer villages, particularly in Western Ukraine even shelters that have been set up, , it’s incumbent on the humanitarian aid effort and Ukraine to have LGBTQ plus safe environments environments where a same-sex couple and their kid is not worried about homophobia or transphobia.
And as much as there has been, great progress in Україна you know, over the last decade and society is shifting. There is a sensitization process that has happened. Queer people are not being pathologized in quite the same way. Journalists are not writing about queer people in the same way that they did.
10 years ago, the police are, are dealing with queer people differently. There’s so much movement. And yet it cannot be presumed that a queer person will be safe in a general shelter that just cannot be presumed. So these NGOs that I’m deeply connected with are working to set up shelters for those folks working to get medication to those that need it.
I mean, if you’re a trans person undergoing hormone replacement therapy, or if you’re living with HIV and you need to enter your antiretroviral meds, these NGOs are, are helping those folks get those specific medications. I often say humanitarian aid is not one size fits all. If you’re a diabetic. You need insulin, right?
If you’re a mom and your kid has autism, and these bomb siren bomb sirens are going off on a daily basis that young person’s going to need different care just by virtue of their positionality in this world. And so I keep trying to underline for anyone who will listen that, that LGBTQ plus folks need specific aid.
Legally. You know, trans women, particularly in the early stages of this invasion, were having such difficulty navigating internal checkpoints and getting to borders and across borders because many of these trans women have an “M” gender marker in their passports. And so that means that they’re having difficulty navigating martial law in Україна in Ukraine which restricts the movement of 18 to 16 year old, a 60 year olds, 18 to 60 year olds.
And so these NGOs are helping trans women in particular navigate the law and then basic basic needs the things that every Ukrainian who is either trapped or internally displaced needs, food, hygiene products access to telecommunications. These are things that are much more dangerous to acquire as a queer person.
I, I will say sadly, that just because we are in war times in Україна doesn’t mean there aren’t hate crimes. And even the activist Olena Shevchenko who runs insight this really remarkable NGO that has set up a shelter in Lviv of she was pepper sprayed point blank by another Ukrainian, a right-winger likely a hooligan.
I don’t know that there’s been some sort of conclusion to that investigation, but here’s an activist who was well known who was making a big impact and helping her community members and point blank she’s pepper sprayed. So it’s to say that it’s, it is a treacherous context and war brings out the best in some, and of course it activates the worst in others, and we’re seeing a lot of that.
And so, I’ve taken it upon myself from my much more comfortable position here in Canada to go, how can we help? And specifically resource the NGOs who are deeply connected to their community members, they know where the help is needed. So, my big vote is we’ve got to designate funds to those NGOs and help them out.
TP: Yeah. Thanks for sharing all of those things. Can you share about the ways that you’ve been helping to fund those NGOs, and if anyone wants to help support that fund that you’ve set up.
AK: Yeah, so I’ve set up, the, we support LGBTQ Ukraine fund and I’ve set this up with the Veritas foundation, which is a Canadian based, registered with the CRA they are the trustee of this fund.
So they receive donations from Canadians. I’ve had the blessing of matching donors so far. So very generous Canadians who are matching donations to dollar for dollar. I think last time I checked we’re up to $43,000 and the fund has been open for only two weeks. So Canadians are opening their pockets and they see the need, they understand the need and they’re stepping up and, you just have to go to the Veritas charity services website, and you’ll see the fund there.
Everyone’s issued a charitable tax receipt for anything they give and, and no donation is too small. And in essence, this is being directly allocated to six NGOs in Ukraine. Cohort, which specializes, on trans issues and has a vast trans network in Ukraine. Gender Zed, which is based in Zaporizhzhia these are my friends of 11 years. Incredible, incredible activity. Helping folks with essential needs and coordinating evacuations and safe shelter. Insight, which I mentioned that’s Olena Shevchenko’s organization. Kyiv Pride, which has really been incredible on social media. Absolutely follow Kyiv Pride
if you want to get a window onto the realities of queer people in Ukraine, they’ve been doing such a good job in the information war. Kharkiv Pride. So, this is a group of women, actually a feminist focused queer NGO. It’s called Sphere and they are the leads on Kharkiv Pride, but all do all sorts of other kinds of work supporting both queer people and women, through this war time.
And then Fulcrum . Fulcrum is the sixth. Fulcrum has set up shelters, which have been safe havens for LGBTQ plus folks.
TP: Amazing. Yeah. Sounds like so many amazing initiatives and organizations to support. So congratulations.
AK: It’s good for listeners to know that there’s this robust and really thrilling queer movement in Ukraine. You know, this is, we have to remember, this is the contrast. This is what Russia wants to extinguish.
These are the freedoms we’re fighting for when we say, okay, let’s fight for Україна’s or Ukraine’s freedoms. It’s freedom to be an independent sovereign nation, a democratic, a robustly democratic place. This is what we’re talking about. We’re talking about LGBTQ folks among many other folks, but this is what we’re talking about.
Which is so fascinating to me because at least from the media that I’ve been consuming, I do not hear about LGBTQ plus folks in media and other marginalised communities, you know, in terms of the war.
It’s hard to come by, the ink has not been abundant. There’ve been some really great journalists, I will say. I could point to a good number of them that have reached out to me and have done a lot of good reporting, but, you’re right.
It doesn’t get a lot of headlines. I do think it’s worth noting that there is a conservatism in the diaspora, Ukrainian, Canadian, diaspora, other Ukrainian diasporas. I understand it. I grew up in a very staunchly Ukrainian environment. A religious one at that. And so I understand that there are these friction points, but I’m hoping that this is a moment where we can transcend those friction points and realize what we really are fighting for here is for
the people of Ukraine to be the authors of their existence and their society. That’s what we’re asking for. That they have independence that they get to write their own story and so that’s got to include queer Ukrainians.
Absolutely. Yeah. And that reminded me of, the Chevron initiative and about visibility of queer and trans Ukrainians and folks fighting in the war.
Yeah. I mean, this blew my mind because you know, this is an initiative that my understanding is it was launched by Viktor Pylypenko and, he is an openly gay, soldier in the armed forces and what he invited other openly queer, folks in the army and in the territorial defense to do along with their allies is to wear a Chevron on their sleeve.
And the Chevron is a unicorn and it’s not a cute unicorn. It’s like a really fierce unicorn. And then the tourism, the Trident. And I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. I mean, there’s just something so brazen about it and creative about it and daring, you know, it’s a real act of saying I know that you may not accept me, but I’m putting myself into this fight and I may teach you something by doing that.
And I got to say the unicorn resonates for me in particular because I always thought, you know, when I came out, I was the only gay Ukrainian I knew of. I mean, my parents have been amazing around this. I have to say but my mother in and around when I came out sort of half jokingly said, “I just don’t think gay Ukrainians exist.
Like I just don’t think that’s a thing”. And, so I felt like a unicorn, you know, and, and there was a long while there where I thought I had to choose, am I going to be Ukrainian? Or am I going to be gay? What’s it going to be? And it wasn’t until I went to Ukraine for the first time, met these gay Ukrainians that turned to me and said, you don’t have to choose.
It’s not a binary. I got to say that if anybody pays attention, whether it be language in Ukraine, whether it be cultural creativity and Ukraine, they are so gifted at challenging the binaries and kind of inventing new hybridized sort of ideas or identities. And they changed my life. These activists, they, they basically reframed my thinking and I went, yeah, I get to be both.
Why do I have to choose? And suddenly, you know, I felt like I was, I went from unicorn to kind of being in a herd of unicorns. And and so when I saw these chevrons, I thought, I mean, it was just kind of my dreams weirdly manifesting. It was just it’s, it’s very moving to me. And my understanding is that a lot of those who are openly LGBTQ serving be it soldiers or those in the territorial defense, they are getting the respect of their peers, you know, and that’s maybe, I was hearing this from a number of queer activists in Ukraine. There are these moments of unity that are so sudden just by virtue of this unified threat, you know, this invader has really pulled a lot of people together across their differences.
TP: Yeah. That’s a really good point sometimes in those, moments of tension can really create such a resilience and a moment of great uprising. So. Yeah, that’s beautiful. And I will say, I will join your herd of unicorns, of queers in the Ukrainian community. So…
TP: I also didn’t know anyone really growing up in a Ukrainian Canadian community, very religious, Ukrainian Orthodox church, I didn’t know anybody. And the more like now that I’m older, like more people are coming out and some I find are still closeted.
And I recently have just noticed there’s so many more of us than you would think.
AK: I am finding that the younger generation is moving the needle. Yeah, you know? I do feel the change.
Yes. I definitely think so. Yeah.
It always takes a few starters. And there are queer Ukrainians older than me who, who I would consider sort of, now that, now that I’ve, you know, it’s amazing when we were doing the gay heritage project in the play, I go on this journey searching for a gay Ukrainian.
That’s kind of my trek. And it was amazing after the show, more than once somebody coming up to me going, I’m one too, you know, they’d look at me, I’m one too. And I thought, yeah, we just have to speak our truths and suddenly we find one another. Yeah. I love that.
DH: I just love that conversation. We’re wondering, what has been, or is the role of the museum or arts cultural heritage sector at this time
AK: Yeah, I think it’s a space. I mean, I always think of museums and again, , this is not my sector, but I think of its capacity to preserve its capacity to platform. To amplify. It’s also a place of authority in some ways. And I know we have to sort of trouble that idea that museums are the authority on something, but they do have a real imperative, I guess, to adjust history, our tightly held narratives.
And, you know, I think a lot about artists who have just been, be it reflexively, or I would say it’s, it’s much more effortfully, refied, you know, Ukrainian artists that over the years have been claimed by the empire. And I just think museums are a space where there can be a correction and adjustment at the very least a conversation.
You know, I’m thinking of specifically Bulgakov, writer of The Master and Margarita. I think it’s The Master and Margarita.
He was born in Kyiv. He’s schooled in Kyiv, he developed a very, very deep love for Kyiv but then ultimately was a writer out of Moscow.
And this is, into the Soviet era. And, he’s claimed as a Russian writer, you know? And so I’m not ready to say, we have to just claim him as Ukrainian but let’s have the conversation. Let’s have the conversation about his origins and how he would have been influenced by his earliest context.
I think a lot about, Alan Turing, for instance, who, we know to have been queer. We often talk about his genius as a Codebreaker, how instrumental he was in the Second World War. And many historians have left out his queerness. They just say, well, that was his sexual preference. Like that doesn’t need to factor into his genius. And I want to say, “How do we know it didn’t? How do we know that his queerness, his capacity to be an outlier, to have a heart that operates differently than a heteronormative heart? How do we not know that that was some key into him breaking the codes?”
I just, I don’t want to ever minimize queerness. I just think it has to be part of the conversation. I’m not ready to say it’s all, it’s not the, the totality of a person, but it’s an ingredient and it cannot be demoted. That’s my feeling.
And so I guess I would invite museum spaces to not demote things like an artist’s relationship to Ukraine, if indeed they were in some way related to that part of the world. I think it’s incumbent on these spaces to just embrace the complexity of that part of the world, the overlapping identities.
We’ve talked about that, right? It’s a part of the world that defies binaries, you know, so how can the museum space actually get on board with that, creativity, that reality and also lean on the brilliant Ukrainian thinkers makers. There are so many just extraordinary Ukrainians that, that both museum and cultural sectors can turn to and say, how do we do better by you and your stories?
What would you like to see happen? And I think it’s always incumbent to include, you know, if we’re talking about shifting a group from the margins, well, we gotta be in relationship with the margins, you know? And so I think that’s the invitation and we know this, this is beyond Ukraine.
I’m talking about what does it mean to actually let go of a single story, let go of a dominant culture, let go of a white heteronormative middle-class gaze. Like how do we let go of those things? And actually embrace the multiplicity of our world, much more effectively authentically all that, all of that.
DH: Yeah, that’s all really excellent advice, I think. And pretty actionable, I think
AK: it’s reach out, talk to people, and there’ve been a number of cultural institutions that have reached out to me for advice that have asked if they could be connected to two folks in Ukraine, journalists that have come to me and said, I really want to make sure that I, privilege the Ukrainian perspective here.
If you ask, these avenues are at the ready and I would just encourage institutions to not get scared to not be daunted, to ask for help to, to resource those that are helping them, you know, and and collectively we can make really radical revisions, really exciting revisions.
TP: Yeah, that’s such an important component of it. And just to go back to that example that you shared of this fellow who was of the Soviet union times, it’s understanding the complexity of what a Ukrainian cultural identity means. I mean, Ukraine has existed for a really long time and historically understanding the roots of what that means.
Quite a discussed topic, I think right now. And it’s been really important to combat disinformation of culturally erasure and even the erasure of Ukraine as an entity. So thank you for bringing in that piece.
I’m interested in how all these pieces of identity tie in to what makes us who we are and particularly that queer part to sexuality, the gender identity, that cultural identity. So thanks for those really interesting insights
AK: I did want to surface, in speaking to Ukrainian Canadians, queer Ukrainian Canadians, their allies, sometimes their partners you know, I’ve happened upon this artist.
His name is Yura Rafaliuk. He’s an icon artist. So he really works in this very traditional Ukrainian vernacular, albeit he tilts it and he’s super queer in his work. Almost in some of his icons, there’s sort of hidden fallacies and fallacies. Is that the plural of a phallus?
DH: I don’t know. No, cause I always think about logical fallacies you know
AK: exactly. I know.
DH: I like that though.
AK: Phalluses yeah. Phalluses that’s right. It’s the idea of I use the word hybridizing, or, even just the notion of just making jazz between the present in the past.
And , this ingenuity and creativity and capacity I see in Ukraine for. Multiple truths at once. That an icon can be both evocative of, be it the Orthodox or Ukrainian Catholic church. It’s evocative of those spaces. You can almost like smell the incense when you look at this work, but then it’s also kind of sexy and campy there’s a is it a smirk in it?
You know, this like gorgeous smirk and that excites me so much. I just think like that’s the new future is our capacity to blend these things, to not issue the past and say, let’s just get rid of all that old stuff. I don’t believe in that. But nor is it about hanging on to that and saying that
that’s all we have always has to have primacy. I’m so excited by artists and queer people do this all the time because we have to reconcile, our multiple identities. We figure out ways of creating that blend. You know, create a third way.
TP: I love that. Third space. Third way. Queering bending. Challenging assumptions, breaking those binaries, all of those things. That sounds really juicy. I’m trying to imagine this iconography in this work, I’m excited to have a look after.
Yeah. So where did we want to, where do we want to go to next?
DH: Wondering like, if you did want to speak to how queer and trans history is particularly at risk?
AK: I suppose the only thought I would offer on that is that it is nascent in Ukraine. It’s not that queer people haven’t existed for decades and decades, but I’m reminded of, again, my dear friends in Zaporizhzhia. They held their first pride, in Zaporizhzhia two summers ago.
And they called it a Hundred Meters of Pride because that’s what they could safely manage. The authorities had asked them, would they consider doing this sort of in the outskirts a little, off the radar. And my activist friends said, “No, we have to do this in the city center.
It’s about being visible. It’s about being present and seen”. And so they marched a hundred meters. And to see images of it, it’s astonishing. I think there were about 90 participants, 90 queer people and their allies in this march. And there’s this huge, huge circle of police officers around them, easily double if not triple the number of police than participants and what they were doing were holding back counter protesters and hooligans that were trying to undermine this Hundred Meters of Pride. So that’s only a couple of years ago, right? And we know that even in Kyiv, which it’s pride has been really growing over the last few years, there are still counter protests. There’s still hooliganism, there’s still a right wing contingent that doesn’t want to see the rights and dignities of queer people being in full force.
And so it’s just to say that when we talk about erasure, I get so anxious because it’s so young, like the movement is relatively young. And that makes me think of two things. One is it’s vulnerable to the impacts of this war, but then the other part of me goes, these activists are full of energy and they have, created such change in such a relatively short amount of time that it gives me utmost faith that they’re going to keep.
This emotion, through this war on the other side of this war, the Ukraine that is born from this time is going to be fueled with their energy. Like they’re going to be a part of it. And so, that’s what comes to mind when you talk about erasure, I go, “Oh, I get, so I get so worried about progress lost”.
I get so worried about particularly in the territories that are currently being occupied by Russian forces the extent to which queer rights are, I mean, they’re impossible. And yet once this is resolved, once Ukraine is victorious, this incredible opportunity for all of these wonderful activists to help reshape and rebuild their society, and they have the energy for it.
I can vouch for that. They’re incredible.
TP: Wow. Yeah. It’s so inspiring and it’s truly amazing. Is there anything else that you wanted to share that you think that museums or cultural and heritage institutions might help do within their own community or as an institution?
AK: We are over 60 days of war.
I think today is day 65. It’s easy to get numb in our part of the world. We’re not as directly impacted unless we choose to be. And people are choosing to be, you know, I met with a lesbian couple in Toronto yesterday that came from Kyiv a number of weeks ago. The family that is providing them safe haven right now in Toronto, they’re choosing to be in relationship with Ukraine right now in a very tangible way, but not everybody can sustain that.
It is a hard thing to hold for a long time. I said at the outset of this, “This is not going to be a sprint. This is a marathon”. And so I always implore cultural institutions to keep getting your audiences to engage, to connect, to feel around this to feel into this, because it’s not going away anytime soon.
And it’s easy to dissociate. It’s easy to get a bit calloused, to feel like, oh, this is never going to change. They’re doomed. You know, this notion of Ukraine is doomed has to be combated and the arts are an incredible way of undermining that sense of despair.
It can revitalize us. I got to say, when I see institutions that don’t necessarily have clear relationships to the Ukrainian community or Ukrainian people, when they make an effort, it puts such wind in my sails as somebody who’s trying to help those who are in harm’s way right now, it moves people in Ukraine.
I cannot highlight that enough. The extent to which to be remembered in Ukraine is a deep honour. I dunno if we think of things in those terms here in Canada in the same way. But even when I went to the village where my maternal grandfather came from, there were strangers that walked up to me and said, “Thank you for remembering me”.
And I thought, that’s so deeply unusual. I’ve never met you. I didn’t know you, but for them, it’s the notion of being seen and how that validates your humanity, it validates your personhood. It pulls you into a global story as opposed to just the hyper-local story. And so I feel like museums, cultural institutions, it’s incumbent on us to keep seeing Ukraine and Ukrainians. It’s good for us, but it’s good for them. It’s good for all of us. And then I suppose if people wanted to get a bit more political, you know, at this point, our government hasn’t designated funds to LGBTQ NGOs. I would, I would love for people if they feel called to it, to reach out to their representatives and say, this is a group that we want to have seen.
We want to see these people. We want to acknowledge them. If you were giving and you are assuming that those on the margins have been included, challenge your assumptions and verify that those in the margins are being considered.
DH: Yeah. That’s all really excellent advice. And I think really draws on the strength of the arts, you know? And so, I guess, to wrap up, we wanted to ask you, what is your vision for queer and trans futures?
AK: What comes to mind is a future that defies the binary, the binaries, and among those I think is this notion that we have to all be the same in our queerness, that there’s some kind of LGBTQ plus uniform that we all have to don. And I love the idea that. We can both be a global community. We can be connected, but we can also really respect the local nature of queerness.
You know, one of my discoveries when I met my first gay Ukrainian was, “Oh, you’re not who I thought you would be”. You know, I had this idea of what that intersection may look like and I discovered that if I really made space for somebody to communicate themselves to me, they had such a different matrix that, there were things that I could relate to and then other things that I went, “Oh, wow, that’s so unique to where you come from and the forces that you have to reconcile in this part of the world”. And I don’t think that should be ironed out. I don’t think we have to – it doesn’t have to be a homogeneous community. In fact, I think we lose something if we don’t keep it varied and dynamic and full of contrasting and textured possibilities.
So when I dream about a queer future, it’s one where there’s connection, but there is diversity. There is difference. There is exciting conflict of ideas, visions, of imaginations. And that that conflict is generative and loving.
And when I think of parts of the world that are crushed by war, there is the current heartbreak of cities being levelled and communities being fractured. But I do sometimes cast my mind to the rebuild, and that possibility of building something that was better than what was there before was more inclusive, was more diverse and exciting and, and human and humane, you know?
And so I love the idea of a queer future, a queer future for Ukraine. And I, and I do think one is possible, as I said before, when we’re talking about freedom, I think this is what we’re talking about. So, may it be so.