‘We don’t talk about it’: The history of Ukrainian LGBTQ+ literature


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Social issues are a trendy topic in Ukrainian literature now. Many books are dedicated to uncomfortable and taboo themes, such as sexual orientation, gender identity, and body knowledge. Books that show the reality of queer people in Ukraine are scandalous are criticized by some, but they still have a large audience and sales are brisk.


First Ukrainian gay literature


It all started in the 1990s in independent Ukraine with the gay magazine “One of Us.” It featured early stories and poetry about gay people, gay events announcements, and news about daily life in the LGBTQ+ community. For some time, there was a special “Dating” column. Its publishers called it “a magazine of men’s aesthetics.” Now we can call this magazine the foundation of modern Ukrainian queer mass media.


Shortly thereafter, gay fiction began appearing in the post-Soviet community. The novel “Arboretum” by Maryna Kozlova was published in 1995. This was one of the first chances for Ukrainian readers to dive into a male love story written for a wide range of readers. For the majority of people, this was the first book fully dedicated to queer topics that was talked about in public spaces. “Arboretum” was translated into several languages and republished both as a stand-alone book and part of several collections.


In 2006, the Kyiv book publishing house “Nora-Druk” released a translation of the novel “Lubiewo” (Lovetown) by Polish writer Michał Witkowski. “Lubiewo” is the name of a fictional town where “fairies” (gay men) gather on a nude beach to relax and get to know each other. Translated by Ukrainian writer Andriy Bondar, it is one of the first books in Ukrainian to describe the life of LGBTQ+ people.


There was a time when queer people’s issues were not discussed in Ukrainian media. It took many years before the first huge Pride parades took place, where not just queer people gathered.

Step by step, the situation changed for the better. Ukrainian authors overcame the fear of writing about queer characters. For example, in 2008, the publishing house “Fact” released the novel “Lilu After You” by Ukrainian writer Kateryna Babkina. In that novel, the author shows us a relationship between two girls. While difficult to label, the chemistry and tension between them is undeniable. In 2013, the publishing house “Folio” released the book “Sonya” by the same author, with minor gay characters.


When we asked the author what made her put queer characters in her books, Babkina said:


To make them visible; literature is deeply connected to the whole world, not only for some chosen parts of it.


“Teplo Yogo Dolon” (The Warmth of His Hands) is a book by young Ukrainian author Yuriy Yarema. The publishing house of Anetta Antonenko, calling it the first Ukrainian novel about gays, characterized this book as “extraordinary and brave.” Some were scandalized by the launch of “Teplo Yogo Dolon” in the Kyiv bookshop “Knygarnya Ye.” Nonetheless, the fearless writer said he plans to present even more LGBTQ+ content to Ukrainian society in the future.


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This is not the only book that positioned itself as “the first gay novel” in Ukraine. In 2006, the publishing house “Krytyka” released the queer anthology “120 Pages of Sodomy.” Created by Oleksiy Barlih in collaboration with other Ukrainian authors, this anthology also competed to be recognized as the first gay book. But it was not fully Ukrainian, as it featured writers from all over Europe.


Maya, her moms, and the scandal over another scandal


In 2017, there was a huge scandal surrounding a children’s book “Maya and her Moms.” Maya is a girl who has two moms. This book generated a range of hateful comments on Facebook. Due to the controversy surrounding this book, public presentations by the author were canceled due to safety concerns.


The passage that drew the most ire is one short paragraph that reads:


“My name is Maya. And I have two moms. People are really surprised by it. But there is no reason to act like this about it. Maybe I don’t have a father — he is a secret donor — but I’ve got two lovely mothers that love each other and me.”


The writer Larysa Denysenko commented on the hate leveled against that one paragraph: “And that’s all? And what is this?”


“Maya and Her Moms” is a book about diversity in society,” said the author. “Basically, this is a short story about kids that are living in different families: some might have some siblings, some might not; some of them have a mother and father; some are being raised by their grandparents. Someone might even have two moms like Maya does.”


“Maya and Her Moms” is the voice of minorities. Here are the voices of refugees, Crimeans, orphans, kids from LGBTQ+ families, and ethnic minorities. This is really important for me to make everyone seen and heard. To make minorities not be ashamed to stand up for their own identities and rights,” explained Denysenko.


Denyseko added how she believes people are afraid of challenging their lifelong beliefs and habits. They are afraid of seeing something that makes them lose their benefit of “being normal.” Many were angered by the book’s very existence.


Denysenko calls “Maya and Her Moms” a tool that can be used for learning, discussions, and explanations. Any story that shows a form of diversity in families is a good place to start. Accordingly, she and her colleagues have other projects centering on important topics like domestic violence.


“Vydavnytstvo” with a direction


“All the time when I was thinking about founding my own publishing house, I was sure that it would be niche and with a specific aim,” says publisher, illustrator, and book designer Eliash Strongowski. In 2016, he collaborated with his business partner Liliya Omelianenko to establish their own publishing house, simply named “Vydavnytstvo” (The Publishing House). This was the publisher of “Maya and Her Moms.”


When Strongowski and Omelianenko started this publishing house, their work aimed to increase people’s awareness about certain social issues.


“Someone should talk about it; if everyone else is afraid, why should we be too? General discourse on social issues is not always on time in Ukraine. We should fight it. There never will be the right time,” he explained.


Commenting on “Maya and Her Moms,” Strongowski said that the publicity was focused more on the scandal than the actual book. Even the scandal didn’t cause sales increase.


“Vydavnytstvo” put the ebook version of “Maya and Her Moms” online. It was downloaded more than 50,000 times.


“Fortunately, a consistent policy allows us to accumulate around us all who care about the topic, and mostly we are still understood and supported,” said Strongowski. “Also, drawn stories and literature are frequently popular among very different people, so when we decided to publish comics we raised awareness about specific social issues among them as well.”


“Maya and Her Moms” was not the only publication that provoked an uproar. Other controversial books, though not about LGBTQ+ issues, raised discomfort on topics such as physicality, sexuality, and death. For example, there were comics about menstruation — “Kunskapens Frukt” (Fruit of Knowledge) by Swedish author Liv Strömquist — and “Kwaśne Jabłko” (Sour Apple) written by Jerzy Szyłak and illustrated by Joanna Karpowicz, about domestic violence. But Ukrainian readers are generally more interested in Ukrainian authors than in translated literature, said Strongowski.

“Vydavnytstvo” plans to expand “social issues” publishing.


“Not every author is okay about writing on social issues, but also not everyone that wants to do this can handle it and make a good piece of literature,” said the publisher. “You can notice it if you analyze the book market. But we still have big hopes and plans. The more good Ukrainian and foreign books will be published, the easier it will be for future authors.”


Another publishing house that specializes in publishing books on social topics is “Meduza” (Jellyfish). They published the anthology “Image, Body, Order: Gender Studies in the Interdisciplinary Spectrum.” This is an anthology of essays translated into Ukrainian that mainly focus on gender and what gender is in our daily life. Oksana Kis is a Ukrainian explorer and writer who also specializes in gender studies. She brings attention to topics such as feminism, gender roles, and the problem of sexism.


Recently Ukrainian authors received threats for books such as “Maya and Her Moms,” but now the Ukrainian book market is full of different pieces of literature of all genres. There is a lot of translated LGBTQ+ literature, but Ukrainian authors are not far behind.


Nastya Melnychenko, Ukrainian writer and activist, commented: “The water broke the dam, it cannot stop, and soon everything will be fine.”


Created in partnership with Freedom House



Illustrations: Marjana Mykytiuk

Translation: Polina Hrychanyk

Editing: Benjamin Maracek, Joy Tataryn, Terra Friedman King