Next week, Ukraine’s much harassed LGBT community will hold its first ever ‘Gay Pride’ event in Kyiv and as one might expect in this part of the world it has stirred a lot of controversy. The gay-bashers have threatened to turn up with sticks and beat people and church Nuns have been handing out leaflets denouncing the parade.
The event has the potential to unmask a very ugly side of Ukrainian society, but if handled correctly it is also an opportunity for the government to show that free expression still exists in Ukraine. Ahead of the football championships next month, it is also a chance to show they are able to police potentially troublesome events in a professional manner.
However, all of that takes place in the future. This weekend was all about another unloved Ukrainian community – the cyclists.
Despite Ukrainian’s love of the outdoors, cycling in Ukraine is almost exclusively seen as a leisure activity and in a society that so-often puts style before substance, cycling as a means of transport considered deeply uncool.
This, combined with the deep and corrupt self-interest of city authorities, means that very little exists in the way of cycle paths or bike racks. In fact, I have never seen either of these in Ukraine and with the exception of my eccentric American colleague, I don’t know anyone who cycles to work.
Step forward Ira Bondarenko
I first heard of Ira last year while I was working for the European Business Association (EBA) in 2010 when she was organising a competition to encourage employers and businesses in Kyiv to install bike-racks and showers at work, to persuade employees to get out of their cars and onto their saddles.
Of course, this makes good environmental sense, it keeps employees healthy/happy and it encourages a responsible attitude towards staff – all of which makes good business sense.
Sadly however, the EBA executive Anna Derevyanko didn’t see it that way and snubbed my attempt to promote the competition to EBA member companies. I put this down to the usual small-minded business ethos that plagues Ukraine and the fact that, despite its name, the ‘European’ Business Association is deeply Ukrainian by nature.
Anyway, I remember Ira and I was happy to see her Facebook invite asking me to join this year’s ‘velo parade’.
In a similar vein to the 2010 competition, Velo (bike) parade (parade) 2012 was organised by Ira to promote cycling as a means of transport not just a a leisure activity and to reinforce this message, the guests were invited to turn-up on their bikes in normal everyday clothes.
The parade started at Golden Gate square, and in the +28C sunshine, and along with a few hundred other cyclists, I set off on a mini downhill tour of the city. This was both a great relief and slightly annoying because I had just cycled all the way up-hill to join the fun.
Our two-wheeled protest set off slowly along Yaroslava Val, passed my old house on Artema street and then down passed my new house in Podil. Along the way we terrorised some buses, confused many pedestrians and irritated a long line of SUV‘s before we arrived at our first stop – Kontractova Ploscha (Contract Square).
Here we had a group photo, I had a coffee, and I assume the Ukrainians talked about bike-type-stuff.
After lots of picture-taking and bike-comparing we jumped back on our bikes and cycled to Truhaniv Island.
There, the bikes were dumped in the sand, many of the Ukrainians dumped their clothes, and my friend Sergiy started lecturing me about the need to ‘stop being so English’ because I had refused to strip down to my y-fronts and go swimming.
Of course, I stood my ground and ‘kept my shirt on’ both metaphorically and physically, I am British after all, but I was brave enough to stand in the river. I am quite sure this means my legs will fall off within the next 3 weeks, but it was refreshingly cool and I’m quite proud of this small achievement.
Last winter I stood on the frozen Dnipro and now I have been in it.
As I was standing there, cooling-off, a girl walked up and asked ‘are you Belgian?’.
‘No’ I said, ‘but I’ll take it as a compliment’
‘Why?’ she asked.
Back on the beach the conversation had rolled-on to a discussion about the ‘critical mass’ of something, which made me strangely hungry as well as confused.
As we left in search of food, I said goodbye to some of the bike guys and, as is usual, I went for the customary handshake (Ukrainian guys handshake like nobody else) but, the hand-recipient ‘threw a spanner in the works’ and presented me a fist, which I awkwardly shook. We both looked uncomfortable as we did this strange hand-fist-shake and said goodbye.
I noticed Sergiy handled things much better, punching each guys fist with his fist, making the whole thing look natural and cool.
‘Is that a special biker sub-culture thing?’ I asked.
‘No’ Sergiy replied. ‘In Ukraine, only gay people shake hands with gloves on.’ he continued, before adding ‘Its a stupid superstition’.
Then he reassured me that my social faux pas was not a big deal. ‘if you shake hands with gloves on, you’re either gay, foreign or cool enough to not care’. he said.
So, I cycled home happy to be a cool foreigner and convinced that Ukraine’s bikers really should attend the gay pride event next week.
Many more pictures etc here