Antonina Yankovaya realized that her son was gay when he was 19 years old
She says she felt shocked, scared and unhappy at the time. But now, almost 13 years later, she is an activist who fights for equal rights for Ukraine’s LGBT community.
“We are so close now,” she says of her son, tenderly, with tears in her eyes. “I don’t want to be scared that he might go somewhere and get beaten up, which can easily happen in Ukraine.”
Yankovaya, 63, is now a member of Tergo, the first and only registered organization in Ukraine that helps the parents of LGBT people, as well as LGBT Ukrainians who are rejected by their families.
Yankovaya’s path from homophobia to LGBT activism was long and difficult.
“When he started bringing his boyfriend to our home, and he stayed overnight, I went wild,” she says. “I started behaving not very nicely. I was raised homophobic. I thought they were trying to be fashionable, or trying to seem older. I didn’t like it. I insulted him.”
What would people say?
Yankovaya’s husband died not long after she realized their son was gay, and she was left alone with her fears.
“I already understood what was going on there between them. I was afraid of what people would say,” she sighs. “It was such a shock. You don’t know what to do, you can’t share with anyone, you become angry -- you think it’s your fault.”
After years of sleepless nights and depression, Yankovaya agreed to a request from her son to visit Tergo. She says her first three-day-long counseling session at the organization changed her life.
“I thought it was perversion,” Yankovaya says. “But they explained everything to us. How it starts, that it’s all about genes, that it’s not awful.”
She has been a member of Tergo for almost three years. Yankovaya says she’s now not afraid anymore of what people might say about her son being gay.
“I see that my son is much better than many heterosexual men I know. He has a job, he is civilized, well-mannered, educated, smart, and full of initiative. There’s nothing to complain about,” Yankovaya says, smiling.
Maryna Didenko, a psychologist who works with Tergo, says Yankovaya’s case is typical.
She said most parents imagine their children’s future, and the image of their future lives includes their children being heterosexual.
“When a child comes out as gay, parents realize that the illusion they had is falling apart,” Didenko says. “And then the fear appears. The fear that there will be no grandchildren. The fear of what people might say.”
Usually, parents also start feeling guilty, as they think there was something they could have done, or not done, that would have prevented their children being gay, Didenko says.
“When they come to our training sessions, they understand that these are all misconceptions that have nothing to do with reality,” she says.
Rejected by families
More than 100 parents have taken part in Tergo events and training sessions, and more than 60 of them are now active members of the organization.
The idea of creating the movement appeared three years ago, says Anna Medko, one of Tergo’s co-founders. That was when her daughter, who worked as a psychologist in the non-government organization Gay-Alliance, invited Medko to a meeting of lesbians.
“During the coffee-break, I was horrified when I saw a girl with her wrists bandaged after a suicide attempt,” she says. “Her parents had rejected her. They told her it would have been better if she’d died.”
Medko was shocked and outraged. She had lost her first child, and doctors said she would never be able to have children again.
“I wanted to have kids so badly. When Nastya was born, I was so happy, I would never have cared (if she was gay),” Medko says.
Her daughter is straight, but Medko has also taken a gay young man into her family, who is like son to her now. Medko says his parents had rejected him when they found out about his homosexuality, and her daughter had brought him home during these difficult times. They have now been a family for seven years.
“So I started thinking, how can I help children and parents in this situation, how can I build a safe environment, where people can find support if their parents do not support them, and where parents who can’t accept their children can find help,” Medko says.
She said it was not only mothers, but also fathers, grandparents and siblings who have come to Tergo for help.
“Tergo is the only such organization in the post-Soviet countries. People from the whole of Ukraine and also from Belarus and Kazakhstan come to us,” she says.
During the training sessions at Tergo parents can find answers to the questions they have, and can talk to each other, as well as to psychologists.
It’s very important for them to see they are not alone, says Didenko.
“It was more difficult for our first mothers; it took them more time to accept their children. Now it’s easier for them, as they see there is positive support around them. They share experiences. They laugh. They share secrets. They’re not alone anymore,” she says.
According to Didenko, Ukrainian society is still conservative, but there have been noticeable changes for the better. In early March, Tergo, with the help of the Education Ministry, organized training sessions for teachers and methodologists in biology and health, as well as for school psychologists.
“And they were ready to accept the information,” Didenko says. “People are afraid of things they don’t know anything about. People were not used to talking about this before.”
Yankovaya says she is proud she is now the part of Tergo. She takes part in its lectures, conferences, and helps with planning. She also organizes events in her hometown Zaporizhia, a city 500 kilometers southwest from Kyiv.
“This is my life now. I don’t know how it would have ended if there had been no Tergo,” she says.
Editor’s Note: This article is a part of the “Journalism of Tolerance” project by the Kyiv Post and its affiliated non-profit organization, the Media Development Foundation. The project covers challenges faced by sexual, ethnic and other minorities in Ukraine, as well as people with physical disabilities and those living in poverty. This project is made possible by the support of the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development and Internews. Content is independent of the donors.
Kyiv Post staff writer Alyona Zhuk can be reached at [email protected]
Photo by Anastasia Vlasova