On the 19th – 20th of March in Lviv there was to be held the Equality Festival, and more than 200 artists, social activists, human rights defenders and other people registered to participate in this event. The Equality Festival is held since 2014 as a response to many cases of discrimination and violation of the rights of people belonging to various sensitive social groups: ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, LGBTQI, persons without citizenship and permanent residence, migrants, both external and, what’s especially on agenda during last two years, domestic – displaced persons from the conflict zone in the East and the Crimea.

The Equality Festival is held under the auspices of the Coalition against discrimination in Ukraine with the support of the Ombudsman`s Office of Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. In two years the Equality Festival became a cultural platform, free from discrimination and prejudice and a space for artistic understanding of social processes. This year we have planned to hold the Equality Festival not only in Kiev, but also in regions – Lviv, Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk. During the Festival, together with human rights defenders, activists and artists we hold debates and discussions, a series of film screenings and photo exhibitions, literary evenings and concerts, inviting people, who support the idea of ​​equality. And we planned exactly events like these in Lviv last weekend. Thus, in particular, the finalist of the “X-factor” and the participant of the show “Voice of the country” Maria Katseva agreed to participate in a concert.

However, unfortunately, the Festival in Lviv was disrupted by an aggressive group of extremists. In the process of the organization of the Festival we appealed to the Lviv’s City Council and personally to the mayor Andriy Sadoviy with the request to support the Equality Festival, but we haven’t received any response. During the week before the Festival we have received numerous threats from different groups of people and individuals. In the press we have seen statements from the clergy and members of the regional and city councils, where they were calling “to fight back” the Equality Festival in Lviv. All the locations which we have agreed with for holding events denied us because of threats. All the private security companies refused in service, reasoning that they can not confront the “Svoboda” Party. We also did not receive any response from the police, whom we referred to in writing.

On 18th of March we, as the organizers of the Festival came to Lviv into a hotel “Lviv” to the rooms, which have been pre-booked and already paid for 4 days before. An hour before the settlement, we’ve got a call from the hotel administration, which denied our settlement, saying that they were warned by the City Administration not to host us. Nevertheless we arrived to the hotel to find out the circumstances. There we’ve got rude answers, that “there is no place for perverts in their hotel” and their “boiler room is resting, and you can disappear in it”.

We started immediately looking for another hotel and a conference room and found empty seats at the hotel “Dniester”. At the same day we received a call from the Galitskiy court, which invited us to a hearing on the ban of public events in Lviv. The court hearing was scheduled for 18:00 of the same day. Of course, it was unreal to find a lawyer in an hour before the hearing, so Elena Shevchenko, a Head of NGO “Insight” went to the court by herself, with the support of three people from the community, who were not afraid to be present in the court. The court hearing continued for 6 hours with breaks. In two hours after the start of the hearings we were surrounded by 30 quite radical aggressive people in sportswear. Miraculously, Olena Shevchenko and our friends went back to the hotel unharmed.

On the next day we started the program of the Festival at 12 p.m. in the conference hall of the “Dniester” hotel. In a half an hour radical young people in masks and balaclavas began to gather near the hotel. There was no Police though we called it. There were only five security guards, whom we brought from Kiev. Two hours after the start of the Festival there were already about 200 people in black clothes and many of them in masks. We started to call in Kiev, trying to get in touch with the national police leadership. Only after 4 hours Special Forces  began to arrive to the hotel “Dniester”. The Lviv’s police leadership, in particular Mr. Zagariya, repeatedly approached to us and told that we are provocateurs, and people near the hotel just came to meet their friends there.

Over time the police informed us that they have received a message about the explosives in the hotel and that they have to evacuate people immediately.  At this time people outside the hotel were already armed with stones and iron bars. “We were evacuated in two buses under a hail of stones and petards. Two police cars were broken. People in black masks were chasing our buses about 500 meters after leaving the hotel,” – says the head of the “Insight” NGO Olena Shevchenko. “Nobody was arrested. Then we were taken to the police base and an hour later police directed us to go, wherever we want. Policemen also said that armed people in Lviv are hunting on us, but no actions were taken. After that I decided to leave the city. Without clothes and belongings, that we left in the hotel, me and two other people left to the nearest town, where we were hidden by almost strangers. They have supported and fed us. At night we went out of the region”.

In preparation for the Equality Festival in the regions, we relied on our experience in Kiev. Two previous festivals in the capital were successful, and the public reaction was positive. Of course, there were several incidents, motivated by homophobia and transphobia at the opening of the Festival, but the police have worked professionally and we were able to hold the Festival for the next three days, as we planned. Last year Lvov was chosen as the first city of the regional tour not by accident. Firstly, we have the initiative group of citizens in this city, which is working with the community of LGBT people for already 2 years and have an experience in organizing of cultural events and discussions. Together we organized a presentation of Campaign against discrimination in Lviv. We presented social videos on discrimination of people with disabilities and LGBTQI-community, film screenings about the women rights and people without citizenship, also presented a research of the situation of transgender people in Ukraine. Last year we held a discussion about migrants. Accordingly, the Equality Festival – is not the first event that we held in Lviv. Secondly, one of the main topics of the Festival – internally displaced person`s rights, and there are many IDP`s from the East and the Crimea in Lviv. Our organization has a Shelter program – we had rented an apartment in Kiev for LGBTQI persons from the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, and we have plans to open a similar temporary shelter in Lviv. Thirdly, Lviv is considered as the cultural capital of our country, there are a lot of intellectuals – it is logical that in such city we can hope for a constructive dialogue. And we see the confirmation of this. For example, the recent scandal at one of the restaurants in the city, where the rights of people with disabilities have been violated, has caused a public dialogue among the city’s residents. Lviv’s residents advocated for the protection of the discriminated person. Concerning all this we can confidently say that the aggression against us in Lviv on 19th of March is not the position of the Lviv city, but planned actions of extremist organizations. And we appeal to the Security Service of Ukraine to investigate the events of 18th – 19th of March in Lviv.

After the Festival, we continue to receive threats and accusations in collaboration with the provocateurs. All conspiracy theories, in which we are accused, is a known strategy for blaming the victim, that she provoked her aggressor’s actions. We consider unacceptable such statements and accusations. We will still defend the freedoms and equality for all people – without exceptions and limitations. Thanks to all, who were with us and supported us these days. Especially we are grateful to our activists, who were not afraid to come to the Festival, despite numerous threats.

Equality Festival`s Organizing Committee

Insight`s team